As some Greeks approach Jesus, he breaks into a soliloquy about his mission and goals. "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified"(John 12:23). Perhaps he is thinking particularly about how his crucifixion will be the ultimate outreach to foreign people (John 12:32). The specifics aren’t clear, but Jesus focuses on the fact that his hour has come (John 12:23). It is time to die.
He expresses his thoughts by a series of paradoxes. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”(John 12:24-25). Wheat dies to live. Loving your life means you lose it. Hating your life means you find it. Death means judgment for the world, but not for Jesus (John 12:31). For Jesus, death means success (John 12:32).
All of this seems obscure and frightening. The point is that there are higher purposes than just staying alive. If we become convinced that our survival is the most important thing, we’ll sacrifice truth, justice, love, and service for our own survival. Then we begin to add other things—I want to survive comfortably, happily, peacefully, etc. while God's priorities fall further into the background.
But when we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our God (“hates his life,” John 12:25), we can then truly live. It is then that we achieve his purposes and find meaning whether we live or die. This is Jesus’ perspective.
All of this has application to the current global concern about the coronavirus pandemic. There are more important things than our physical survival. How we treat others, honor God, control ourselves, do good in the world, place hope and faith in Jesus, and model Christian perspectives on life matters more than whether we survive a few more years. Jesus knows he is facing death and approaches it unafraid. He will behave the same way whether he lives or dies. Disciples know that--unless Jesus returns first--they will die. With that constant awareness, we should focus attention on how we are living rather than simply on prolonging our lives. None of this means that we should be reckless with our lives or cold to those who are suffering. Rather, we serve, help, and mourn without fear--like Jesus.
Jesus wants us to think through the implications of leadership. If I am going to lead you, you assume some things about me: that I know where I’m going and that my understanding surpasses yours and will help you. You assume I can see. “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?”(Luke 6:39).
The troubling part of the blind leading the blind is not the blind follower. It’s natural that a blind man understands his need for help and seeks to be led. The tragic mistake is that in his blindness he has enlisted the help of someone no better off than himself. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher”(v. 40). We will not rise above our teacher; we will only become like him. Implicit in Jesus’ words is the fact that we must choose those to whom we listen. There is danger in following others who are just as blind as we are.
In our time, there are so many voices vying for our attention and allegiance. Scientists, political figures, and religious thinkers are seeking adherents. These are in addition to the arrogance of the “ordinary” man who assures himself and others that he has things figured out. But how can the blind lead the blind?
What about Jesus? Jesus gives divine wisdom and testifies of things beyond this world which he has experienced (and we have not). More, he is exactly who we would like to be. We will not do better than our teacher, but what if we could become like Jesus? Isn’t that the worthiest goal for our lives?
“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven”(Matt 23:9).
Jesus is blasting the Pharisees here for their shallow, status-driven religion. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”(Matt 23:5). He explains that part of what they love is “being called rabbi by others”(Matt 23:7). Instructing his disciples, he tells them “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant”(Matt 23:8-11). What is Jesus teaching here and what does it mean for modern disciples?
First, he is clearly not being literal. Jesus cannot possibly be teaching us not to call anyone a rabbi, a father, or an instructor. We have physical fathers (Heb 12:9) and many of us are fathers. Paul even uses the term father in a spiritual sense: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel”(1 Cor 4:15). Some people are teachers, instructors, and fathers—and Jesus is not teaching us that we can’t call them that.
Jesus is critiquing a system of earthly honor that feeds our desires for pride. These Pharisees are using their knowledge about God and his law to gain respect and privileges for others. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples involved in this. In two of these statements, he tells us not to be called rabbi or instructor (Matt 23:8, 10), meaning that we are seeking to be known as someone important. Such distinctions raise us up above others; Jesus reminds us that “you are all brothers”(Matt 23:8). Such distinctions make us greater than others; Jesus reminds us that “the greatest among you shall be your servant”(Matt 23:11).
Jesus forbids us from pledging allegiance to men. We should not be called rabbi because “you have one teacher” or instructors because “you have one instructor.” We don’t call men fathers because “you have one Father.” These words imply more than an acknowledgement of someone’s job or role. They speak to an allegiance—that such men are my teacher or my father. We have already given this allegiance to God.
Jesus’ words here are far deeper than simply which titles we should not give to men. They stress our need to limit our view of ourselves—and others—and expand our view of God. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”(Matt 23:12).
This is an excerpt from chapter 16 of The School of Christ, "Kneel at the Cross":
The expectation of the cross is a constant burden on Jesus. He vividly describes his inner turmoil: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”(Luke 12:49-50). As the time approaches, he muses aloud: “Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name”(John 12:27-28). Jesus is troubled, yet determined.
The night he is arrested, he takes Peter, James, and John with him, and “began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death’”(Mark 14:33-34). The cross is so daunting to Jesus that he must pray—and pray with his closest friends. “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’”(Mark 14:36). Jesus wrestles in prayer, longing for a way to escape this fate. He knows what God can do and asks him to find another way to accomplish his will. Yet ultimately Jesus submits himself to his Father, and says bluntly to Peter, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”(John 19:11). Hard as it is, Jesus perseveres and is ready to suffer for the Father’s will.
As we kneel at the cross, we watch Jesus suffer so much. We watch him—bleeding everywhere, stripped of clothing, humiliated and shamed by all. We know that he is innocent. We know that he holds the power to end this charade forever. We know that he is suffering for the very people who thoughtlessly mock him. We cannot help but sit in wonder at such fierce determination to finish the great work God has planned from the foundation of the world.
But the turn from the cross to my own life is disheartening. I do not see such determination in myself about anything—except perhaps my desire to do what I want. I am notorious for unfinished projects, well-meaning conversations, and good ideas that come to nothing. Jesus teaches me that there are a few things worth doing very, very well—with all of my being. He shows me that I need reliance on God and his will to accomplish them. He shows me that I must learn the discipline and patience I need in every area of my life—in my family, my stewardship, my Bible study, my speech. But most of all, I must follow the example of the cross in following Christ through hardship and pain.
The Hebrew writer gives a clue as to how Jesus achieves such determination. “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God”(Heb 12:2). By keeping his mind on the “joy that was set before him,” Jesus finds strength to endure the cross. If we want the prize bad enough, we summon the necessary determination to win it. But notice that Jesus’ focus is consistently on the glory he will bring to God, not the suffering he is currently enduring. Likewise I must maintain focus on the blessings of determination: spiritual growth, healthy relationships, integrity, and ultimately eternal life with my God. This is the “joy that is set before me” that emboldens me to endure my minor obstacles in hope of future glory. As I kneel at the cross, I grow more determined.
“Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver”(Matt 26:14-15).
Judas wants to betray Jesus and approaches the chief priests. What will you give me? Judas names his price and sells out his faith for thirty pieces of silver.
This is just the tragic final act of a long slide Judas has been in. Judas has a money problem. He “was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it”(John 12:6). Despite all Jesus’ teaching about the dangers of money, Judas’ problem seems to only get worse. So when this critical moment comes, his weakness becomes his downfall.
But this story creates some self-reflection. What would it take for me to sell out my faith? What is my price? Is it some sexual pleasure, too appealing to resist? Is it the praise and respect of my fellow-man, a small piece of fame? Is it the intoxicating freedom of money—so much that I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore? Is it my desire to be connected to my family that I just couldn’t turn away from, even for Jesus? Is it a sensual pleasure—the release alcohol brings, the pursuit of fun, the joy of the rowdy lifestyle?
This kind of thinking is not just an exercise in pessimism. If we answer honestly, we can find the battle plan Satan will use—probably is using—to trip us up. What is my thirty pieces of silver?
“Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you”(Mark 5:19).
An amazing thing has happened to this man. He has been so demon-infested that he lived away from people in the tombs, breaking the chains used to restrain him, and cutting himself on stones. Yet Jesus has come, ordered the demons out of him (and into a herd of pigs), and left the man sitting clothed and in his right mind. The man wants to come with Jesus, but Jesus refuses. “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you”(Mark 5:19). There is a story to tell and the people who need to hear it most are the people who know him well.
Many of the people who surround Jesus have a story to tell. He casts seven demons out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2). He tells the woman at the well “all that I ever did”(John 4:29) and changes her life in one interaction. Nathanael is convinced when a chance encounter with Jesus reveals that Jesus knows both his character (“no deceit”) and what he has been doing (“under the fig tree”, John 1:47-50). Some leave their jobs to follow Jesus. Some weep over him when he declares their sins forgiven. Their lives are forever changed. Every disciple of Jesus has a story to tell.
Certainly all disciples have some elements in our stories that are the same. We all put our faith in Jesus and are baptized into Christ (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 2:36-41, Gal 3:26-27). But we all come to faith differently. Each of us has his or her own story. And Jesus’ words to the freed demoniac—“tell them how much the Lord has done for you”—shows the power of that story in bringing others to pay attention to God and the work he is doing.
So what’s your story? In what unique ways has the gospel affected you? What has led you to follow Jesus? What events in your life—what parts of your story—show just “how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you”? To be sure, these stories must be supplemented by clear teaching from Scripture about Jesus and God’s purposes. But speaking plainly about what led us to him helps make the Scripture come to life for others.
My story is the story of a young man who grew up in a Christian home and longed to please those around him. I wanted approval and respect—and saw Jesus’ teachings as a way to gain them. Meanwhile the parts of my life that were sinful—my pride, my lust, my greed—had to be hidden lest I lose accolades. Jesus put up with this pattern for a long time—my two selves—until he saw fit to break me. This came through special people who had the guts to call me on my sins and hold my feet to the fire. Through their intervention, he has forgiven me of my wickedness and dishonesty—though deeply ingrained—and has led me toward healing and transformation. Not one area of my life—from my thoughts to my preaching to my marriage to my anger and lust—has been unaffected. I have been redeemed. I see with clarity and know the joy and peace of his forgiveness. Now I love to tell other people about him. He has reached me—and he can do the same for you! There is good news for all of us!
What’s your story?
John the Baptist was a believer in Jesus before it was cool. His preaching had focused on “he who comes after me”(John 1:27) who would be greater. After Jesus approaches him to be baptized, John acknowledges that Jesus is the one he spoke of—the “Lamb of God”—and directs his disciples to become Jesus’ disciples (John 1:29-37).
This is why it is so surprising to find John doubting Jesus. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”(Matt 11:2-3). I have heard some Christians argue that John is not really doubting, but is asking on behalf of his disciples. Yet there is nothing in the text to indicate that. It appears to be a legitimate expression of John’s doubt: ”Are you the one who is to come?”. This situation is not playing out in the way John expected.
What do we do when we are in John’s position? How do we respond when our certainty turns to doubt?
Retreat to what you know. Jesus does not give John statements of reassurance. He tells John’s disciples to report “what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”(Matt 11:4-5). John knows the prophecies of the Messiah—particularly in Isaiah—that speak of this kind of empowerment to heal and bless the needy. When we begin to doubt, there is comfort in returning to the bedrock of our faith and knowing that some things are certain.
Acknowledge your circumstances. In hard moments, our faith can be challenged. John is in prison because he has confronted Herod about taking his brother’s wife. It is extremely difficult to do the right thing and then suffer for it. Circumstances like these can lead us to wonder if we’ve gotten something wrong. It is important that we see the impact this has on our faith.
Reconsider your expectations. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”(Matt 11:3). If you are the Messiah, why am I in prison? When are we going to get this “kingdom of God” thing going? Are you the guy or not? Jesus is precisely fulfilling God’s expectations, but not John’s. This happens to us when we become frustrated that God won’t prove himself, speak to us directly, or solve all the world’s problems. Is it a problem with God—or with our expectations?
Just hang on. Jesus’ final word to John is “blessed is the one who is not offended by me”(Matt 11:6). I see this last statement as directed at John. Throughout the gospels, people regularly find reasons to be offended by Jesus and his teaching. They walk away. Yet there is a blessing here for those who refuse to leave Jesus in their moments of doubt. What we don’t understand—or are unsure of--now may look different when we have more information, different circumstances, or a little more time under our belt.
Sometimes certainty turns to doubt. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, “some doubted”(Matt 28:17). Yet when we move forward anyway, we often find deeper blessing.
When Jesus empowers James and John with miraculous powers, it is inevitable that they will try to use them in wrong ways. Like a child with a power tool, they must be taught to wield these abilities properly. Frustrated at a group of Samaritans for not receiving Jesus, they ask him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”(Luke 9:54). Jesus literally turns and rebukes them (Luke 9:55). He has not come to earth to kill everyone who makes him angry.
James and John represent a way of dealing with relationships. When others offend or upset us, there is no talking it out. There is no hope for coming to terms. There is no getting over it. Instead, there is only anger (that feels justified!) and insistence that others be punished. These people become our enemies and we work to undermine and hurt them back. This is the nuclear option—let’s blow the whole thing up.
It is possible for us to march through life with the spirit of James and John. We give someone the benefit of the doubt until they upset us in some way. Then we cross them off our list. We grow bitter about what they have done. We tell others about it. We wear it as a chip on our shoulder. We refuse to spend time with them or acknowledge them. In time, more and more people find their way to getting crossed off our list—and we assume it’s always their fault. We grow increasingly isolated from people, but we cannot even see that this is by our own choice.
Jesus, meanwhile, pictures relationships as needing maintenance and forgiveness (Matt 5:23-24, Matt 18:15, 21-35). While there are definitely evil people who are only trying to hurt us (see Matt 7:6), even the best relationships will involve occasional pain, disappointment, and frustration. Yet if we are willing to be patient with people, we often discover that our initial impressions about them were incorrect. Sometimes people change. Occasionally they reconsider the behavior that hurt us. We may just get over it. Sometimes we can look back on it and laugh.
It might also help us to remember that on many occasions, we have disappointed and angered others. What kind of reaction would we hope for from them (Matt 7:12)?
Jesus rebukes the nuclear option and the anger that prompts it. Are there relationships in your life that need more patience?
“And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’”(Mark 4:24-25).
Throughout this context, Jesus is focused on how we listen. The parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-8, 14-20) is about how we listen to God’s word and respond to it. At times Jesus interrupts his teaching to simply say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”(Mark 4:9) or “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear”(Mark 4:23). Pay attention! Listen up!
But Jesus says something more—and deeper—in the passage above. If we listen well—if we pay attention to the message, absorb it, obey it, and teach it to others—God will give us more. Good listening is rewarded but poor listening means losing even what we have.
There are so many voices vying for our attention and allegiance. People want to be heard. They promise to make us better. They want to set us straight. They offer truth or expertise or novelty. Yet much of what they say is unimportant; we can ignore it without missing anything. The danger is that we begin to treat Jesus and his words like we treat our fellow-man. We start to think that he has some good advice, a momentary perspective shift, or a novel claim. But then we scroll on down our Facebook or Twitter feed, seeking the next hit of interesting information.
The Son of God is speaking. Pay attention to what you hear. If you listen well, he will give you more. Think it through. Meditate on it. Test it out. Work it into your life. Challenge previously held notions. Contrast it with culture. Contrast it with your own history and thinking. Get rid of the cares and concerns and alerts that would distract you from giving it your full attention. There is something deep and profound in the words of Jesus. Take them seriously.
And when you do, you will discover that there are far deeper riches here than you previously imagined. You will discover that there is no bottom to their wisdom. You will see that even the harshest critics seem to love Jesus (even if they hate his people). You will find areas of your life that need to be reworked and possibly even abandoned. You will find real wisdom to help people as you see the world through Jesus’ eyes. You will begin to work to slowly bring your life—then your family life—then your broader relationships—then your local church—into line with Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”(Matt 6:10). You will see how many golden opportunities you have each day to “love your neighbor as yourself”(Matt 22:39). New connections and understandings will emerge as you peruse familiar passages with novel insight. “For to the one who has, more will be given.”
If we listen well to Jesus, God will give us more to hear. How are you listening?
I’ve been reading lately in Luke 21 and noticing some parallels to our own time. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and says that there will be “in various places famines and pestilences”(Luke 21:11). There will be “distress of nations in perplexity”(Luke 21:25) and “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world”(Luke 21:26). I am not saying that the coronavirus is the end of the world; I am saying that biblical thoughts remain relevant. Jesus gives his disciples some silver linings for dark times.
We can still bear witness. He warns that prior to Jerusalem’s destruction, Christians would be specifically targeted for persecution. “This will be your opportunity to bear witness”(Luke 21:13). Disciples have a different view of hardship. It is an opportunity. Dark times get people’s attention. If they persecute us, we can speak. If everyone is afraid, we can show confidence. If everyone is realizing their helplessness, we can show the power of prayer. If everyone is taking care of self, we can take care of others. Dark times are tragic and sad, but they are also opportunities.
There is a difference in death and perishing. Jesus clearly tells his disciples that “some of you they will put to death”(Luke 21:16). But in the next breath, he says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives”(Luke 21:18-19). Jesus never guarantees that our physical lives will continue indefinitely. We may die. But when we die in a relationship with God, we “gain our lives.” The grim fact is that—if Jesus does not return first—we will die of something. Disciples remember this. Death is still tragic and awful, but far worse is dying without assurance of eternal life from him.
Dark times remind us of what matters. “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap”(Luke 21:34). Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to allow their lives to be so cluttered with the concerns of this life that they forget their spiritual lives. That is easier said than done! Sometimes it is sin (“dissipation and drunkenness”) that pulls at us; sometimes it is just busyness (“cares of this life”). In dark times, we pull back to see what is important—loving others, doing right, taking care of the essentials, and leaning on God. Don’t let dark times pass without doing some pruning of the things in your life that “weigh down the heart.”
I know that the parallel to our time is not exact. Yet Jesus teaches his disciples that dark times don’t change who we are and where we’re headed. Let’s live like it.