Wednesday, November 21, 2007

John 6:10-15

10Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 11Jesus 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. 12When they had all had enough to eat, He said to His disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted." 13So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14After 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." 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself.

First notice that Jesus puts up with the disciples pessimism by issuing a command: “Have the people sit down.” The disciples, likely without any clue of what Jesus had in mind with this command, simply obey. And the crowd seems to obey the disciples without question. The lesson for us is that obedience when we lack understanding is of utmost importance in our walk with God. That’s oftentimes what faith entails. 2 Corinthians 5:7 “We live by faith, not by sight.” Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” God never disappoints.

Matthew and Mark purposefully remind us here of the similarities of this image with Psalm 23 and the Lord as our Shepherd. John’s emphasis is not found here, but we can point out that he might be alluding to that image when he says that there was plenty of grass in that place. It reminds me of John 3:23, that John was baptizing in a certain place, “because there was plenty of water there.” It seems that the mention of “plenty” is noteworthy, if only in passing.

Perhaps a more noteworthy element here in John’s account is the prayer of thanksgiving prior to eating. Calvin takes this sentiment very seriously, saying, “They who swallow [food] without thinking of God, are guilty of sacrilege, and of profaning the gifts of God. And this instruction is the more worthy of attention, because we daily see a great part of the world feeding themselves like brute beasts. When Christ determined that the bread given to the disciples should grow among their hands, we are taught by it that God blesses our labor when we are serviceable to each other.” What do you think?

In this event, we see the compassion of Jesus and the lengths to which He is willing to go to take care of us. We learn that such a small thing as a meal was important to Jesus. The audience would have by no means starved to death on their way home from hearing Jesus teach (they hadn’t even complained like the Israelites in the wilderness during the Exodus), but His desire to provide for them out of kindness and love is remarkable. He is the dispenser of God’s blessings – grace upon grace as we saw from John 1:16.

Jesus could have just brought bread and fish into existence. But instead, just as He did at Cana of Galilee when they had filled the water pots with water, so here, He takes a little boy’s lunch and multiplies it to feed the multitude. Why? Why didn’t He just create it out of nothing? When you’re trying to teach your children something, you can do it one of two ways. You can snatch it from the child and say, “Give me that and let me show you how to do it.” And you do it and hand it back. Or you can take their little hands and gently do it so that it appears they are doing it themselves. Perhaps there’s something of that here. Jesus is saying, “Whatever you’ve got, it may be small, but let Me take it and use it in a way that will astound you.” Do you see the principle here? We might ask, “What can I do for Jesus? What can I do for the kingdom? I’ve got so very little.” But in the hands of Jesus Christ, that “little” can become something enormously significant. God can use it to multiply His Kingdom, because He does it again and again. That’s why He blesses the food; because it helped these disciples to see that the first thing we need to do, with what little we’ve got, is to give acknowledgement that it all comes from Him.

And finally, notice that Jesus tells the disciples to gather the leftovers. And there are twelve baskets left, a symbol of the 12 tribes and 12 disciples – as Matthew and Mark would have us see. Jesus says, “Let nothing be wasted.” The lesson for us is that when God gives us an increase, we must be wise with it. Wasting the overflow of God’s gifts is a terrible thing. We are to be stewards of God’s provision, and we will one day give an account for our use of His abundant blessings. In addition to giving a first fruits tithe, we should faithfully use God’s surplus in our lives for good purposes – approved by God to benefit the Kingdom of God.

The reaction to this miracle seems at first glance to be commendable – the people immediately recognize Jesus as both the Prophet Moses spoke about (as He was) and the King whom God promised to raise up in the line of David (as He was as well). However, even in this positive recognition, they display their false understanding: They intend to make Him king by force, and in so doing, reveal both a complete ignorance of His role as a substitutionary sacrifice, which He is demonstrating in this miracle, and their carnal natures, which are drawn to Him simply for the physical benefits He provides. Though they acknowledge His goodness, they refuse to look to the greater spiritual benefits signified by the physical goods. Thus they try to force Him into taking on the role of King. They have an earthly kingdom planned for Him, which is utterly inconsistent with His Person. We may learn that it is a dangerous thing to – apart from Scripture – make our own opinion and presume it is united with God’s will. Calvin says, “There is nothing which the foolish subtlety of our understanding does not corrupt. And what avails the pretense of zeal, when by our disorderly worship we offer a greater insult to God than if [one was] expressly and deliberately to make an attack on His glory?”

Consider that 5000 men wanted to make Jesus their King against His will! They wanted to take Him by force and seat Him on a throne that was not theirs to give. And the evidence that their plans were nothing but folly is that Jesus withdraws. He sneaks away from the crowd, and He gets away from the disciples as well. He needed to be alone with the Father for prayer. Do you think there may have been some temptation here? Wouldn’t the Man Jesus have liked an earthly kingdom to avoid the terror of crucifixion that He knew otherwise lay ahead? But retreating to the Father in quietness, Jesus maintains His course, shunning worldly gain, to – for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2) – endure the cross. Furthermore, as Jesus’ discourse (to be studied next time) will reveal, the crowd still saw Jesus as a mere man, the son of two human parents, and not the God of creation, as He claimed to be. In fact, as we’ll see, none can come to Christ as He truly is unless the Father who sent Him draws them.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

John 6:1-9

1Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2and a great crowd of people followed Him because they saw the miraculous signs He had performed on the sick. 3Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with His disciples. 4The Jewish Passover Feast was near. 5When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward Him, He said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" 6He asked this only to test him, for He already had in mind what He was going to do. 7Philip answered Him, "Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" 8Another of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up, 9"Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?"

Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle, apart from the resurrection, recorded in all four Gospels. In our tour of the tabernacle, we’re looking at the table of the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:23-30). This table, especially in light of the name that God had given to it, would immediately call to mind the invitation to enjoy fellowship with God, in the manner of a great and joyous feast, thanks to the sacrifice provided. It was bread for feasting in blessed fellowship with Him. Although believers have spiritual life, we still need this bread for the sustenance of spiritual life, just as we need physical bread to sustain our physical life. And just as Jesus has fulfilled the previous elements of the tabernacle imagery, He also fulfills this symbol of the table of the Bread of the Presence. He is the Bread of Life.

John sets a new context for us as we move into chapter 6. Jesus crosses the sea (to Bethsaida) to escape Herod after the death of John the Baptist and to rest and spend some quiet time with His disciples before the Passover Feast – as the other three gospels declare. And we can say that this is rightly Jesus’ desire in His humanity. But God’s will was to display His glory here and now, and so a great crowd of people – probably between 8,000 and 20,000 people – tracked Jesus down. They wanted to see more of His miraculous deeds. The other gospels also explain that Jesus, no doubt exhausted in every sense of the word, submitted to God’s will and had compassion on them; He taught and healed among the crowd for most of the day. Notice that they were eager for Jesus. They came to a distant place and left their concerns for other things at home to hear and see Jesus. We are ashamedly not that way; the slightest inconveniences often keep us from coming to Jesus. We must strive to reach the point where nothing of this world’s concerns could possibly keep us from meeting with the Lord. But to their shame, the crowd was only there for the miracles; they weren’t looking for physical or spiritual food, but Jesus was about to give them both. For us, we can grasp that Jesus often (but not always) meets our needs before we realize we have them when we are seeking first His Kingdom, when we leave this world behind and draw near to Him. Matthew 6:33 “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

According to the other accounts of this event, it was getting late, and the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd home. How does that fit with John’s record of Jesus’ actions in v5? What other similarities and differences do you notice between this account and the other three gospel accounts? See Matthew 14:13-36; Mark 6:30-56; Luke 9:10-17.

We also read here that Jesus asked Philip where to get bread for the people, while in the other accounts, Jesus tells the entire group of disciples to feed them. But we gather from the fact that Andrew responded to the question that Jesus had indeed spoken, though directly to Philip to test him, to the group as a whole. Philip’s test was essentially a question of Jesus’ ability. Is Jesus big enough for this problem? Philip didn’t pass the test. He thought it would be impossible; eight months pay wouldn’t cover the tab! But as we know, nothing is impossible with Jesus. Just as Jesus tested Philip, He can test us as well.

Following Philip’s depressing response, Andrew spoke up. He had found a boy with five barley loaves and a couple fish. A barley loaf was poor man’s bread. And the fish were blue gill types. Andrew offers a bittersweet sentiment – “Here’s a kid with a little food! But it won’t even get a handful of people a bite…” These are guys who saw Jesus’ miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. They should have known that Jesus could provide. There is no problem that Jesus cannot overcome. And we ought to live as if we believe that (Coram Deo). Liberals love to point at this miracle and say that Jesus teaches the crowd how to share their lunch. But that’s not at all what this is about. It’s about Jesus, who “already had in mind what He was going to do” (v6). We see here that Jesus knows the future not by foresight but by foreordination. In other words, He didn’t just look down the corridor of time and see what would transpire; rather, He determined to bring the future into the present by His sovereign will and for His good pleasure (Ephesians 1:11).

Monday, November 19, 2007

John 5:41-47

41"I do not accept praise from men, 42but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. 43I have come in My Father's name, and you do not accept Me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? 45"But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. 46If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. 47But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?"

Jesus continues to admonish the Jews. When Jesus says, “I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts,” He is giving additional reason for the Jews’ refusal to accept the testimony about Him. He is also accusing them of failing to keep the command of Moses to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). No one can love God without admiring and submitting to His authority. On the other hand, when the love of God does not act within a person, there can be no desire on their part to obey Him. For an audience who is persecuting Jesus to the point of seeking His death, this reprimand is enraging. They believed that their love for God was such that they were upholding the glory of His name by silencing folks like Jesus. But they failed to appraise Jesus correctly. And Jesus was separating the sheep from the goats. This was His purpose in telling parables. He came to divide the insiders and the outsiders, and then to unite the insiders as one body.

When Jesus says that He came in His Father’s name, He is testifying both that He is the Son of God and also that He is completing perfectly the work that the Father has given Him. This teaches us that we ought to reject all teachers who exalt themselves, and claim authority over souls in their own name – consider Catholicism, which claims the authority to forgive sin and transfer souls from purgatory to heaven through prayer. Jesus continues, saying that the Jews do not accept the One who comes in the name of the Lord, but that they do accept false teachers and prophets who come in their own names. This is proof that the love of God is not in their hearts. Moses himself explained this test to the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 13:3 “You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love Him with all your heart and with all your soul”). And we must watch for this as well. How often have the commands of God fallen on our deaf ears while the temptations of Satan sink right in? Hearts that love and fear God are inclined to produce obedience.

V44 begins with Jesus’ question to the Jews, “How can you believe?” Calvin comments rightly:

As it might be thought harsh to say that those who were from their childhood the trained disciples of the Law and the Prophets, should be charged with such gross ignorance and declared to be enemies of the truth, and as this might even be thought to be incredible, Christ shows what it is that hinders them from believing. It is because ambition has deprived them of sound judgment; for He speaks, in a peculiar manner, to the priests and scribes, who, swelled with pride, could not obey God. This is a remarkable passage, which teaches that the gate of faith is shut against all whose hearts are preoccupied by a vain desire of earthly glory. For he who wishes to be somebody in the world must become wandering and unsteady, so that he will have no inclination towards God. Never is a man prepared to obey the heavenly doctrine, until he is convinced that his principal object, throughout his whole life, ought to be, that he may be approved by God. But it may be thought that the wicked confidence, by which hypocrites exalt themselves in the presence of God, is a greater obstacle than worldly ambition; and we know that this was also a disease with which the scribes were deeply infected. Christ intended to tear from them the false mask of sanctity, by which they deceived the ignorant multitude. He therefore points, as with the finger, to the grosser vice, by which it may be made manifest to all that nothing is farther from their true character than what they wished to be reckoned. Besides, though hypocrisy exalts itself against God, still, in the world and before men, it is always ambitious; nay, more, it is this vanity alone that swells us with false presumption, when we rely more on our own judgment, and that of others, than on the judgment of God. He who in reality presents himself before God as his Judge, must, of necessity, fall down humbled and dismayed, and finding nothing in himself on which he can place reliance. There is no other way in which men can be prepared for receiving the Gospel than by withdrawing all their senses from the world and turning them to God alone. We need not wonder why, then, that the Gospel in the present day finds so few persons willing to be taught, since all are carried away by ambition.

To summarize, the Jews, contrary to Jesus (v41), are enslaved by a desire to receive the praise of men. They delight in receiving glory from men, who admire their sharp precision in understanding the law. They are not even averse to giving glory to other men who are equally discerning. But they refuse to accept God’s own testimony about Christ, and hence will not believe in Him. Even the scholars who had studied the Scriptures all their lives, when they were confronted with the One who fulfilled the Scriptures, did not believe, but “stumbled over the stumbling Stone” (Isaiah 8:14; 1 Peter 2:6-8).

We would do well to learn from this example: if even the Pharisees, who devoted their lives to studying the Scriptures, were condemned for their blindness in failing to see Jesus at the center of those Scriptures; then how much greater will our condemnation be, when we have the whole New Testament in which the disciples preached Christ from the Old Testament, having been taught by Christ Himself (Luke 24:44-48), and inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16) – if we are in so may ways better off than they, how much more indicting will Christ’s accusation be against us, if we fail to see Christ at the center of all the Old Testament Scriptures?

Despite the Jews’ failure to come to Him, despite their sinful desires and corrupted wills, Jesus will not condemn them. Instead He says that Moses does. Scripture does. Scripture condemns them. It points to Jesus, and they deny it. Jesus does not have to condemn them – Moses has already condemned them, for they had read what Moses wrote of Christ, and still did not believe. And it is quite natural that, if they did not listen to Moses, who wrote of Christ, then neither would they listen to Christ himself, who spoke the same things as Moses, only more clearly and authoritatively. Jesus did not have to condemn the Jews. He just exposed their true, evil natures, and showed that they were condemned already. Their hopes were set on Moses in the sense that he was their hero. But Christ needs to be the hero. He is the King of kings and Lord or lords. And He reminds them of the Day of Judgment. This is the way in which we ought to deal with obstinate and hardened persons, when they learn nothing by instruction and friendly warnings. They must be summoned to the judgment-seat of God. Yet notice the pain-laden question at the end. How sure are you of your stance, knowing that judgment is around the corner? Will you stand on your own righteousness before God? Or will you rest on Christ’s?

They did not believe because they could not believe. Sin had so enslaved them, so brought their hearts and their wills to bondage, that they weren’t at liberty to believe. That’s how serious sin is. That’s how serious a thing it is to be an unbeliever. To be an unbeliever means that you cannot believe, unless God in His sovereign grace and mercy does something extraordinarily powerful to change our hearts and minds and wills to enable us to believe and respond. And if you didn’t see that here in chapter 5, you’ll see it with more force in chapter 6, and again in chapter 8, and again in chapter 10. The sign of a good teacher – the apostle John recording the Words of Jesus by the Spirit’s inspiration – is repetition. And we’ll get this message repeated so we can understand that true saving faith comes only by the grace of God to the elect. It’s a hard message, but a message that brings us to our knees before the God of salvation. “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” The great question in this chapter is, “Who is Jesus?” He is the one at whose feet you bow with Thomas and exclaim, “My Lord and My God.” That, John in saying, is the only real issue.