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Are You Beyond Hope?

Sunday, November 27, 2022

“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6.63-64)

This is the earliest hint we receive, in any of the Gospels, that Jesus already knew which of his disciples would turn against him.  It’s not the first acknowledgment of Judas’ future, of course—the other three Gospels all make that point very clear from the time Judas is introduced, saying things like,

“…and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”  (Luke 6.15-16)

Several of the Apostles need extra details to identify them, because names like Simon, James, and Judas were so common among the Jews.  So, the second James is “the son of Alphaeus,” the second Simon is “the Zealot,” and the second Judas is “the traitor.”  Yet, that’s not quite what Luke said, is it?  As John told us, Jesus “knew from the beginning…who would betray him,” and yet Luke points out, Judas wasn’t a traitor from the beginning—he became one.  Perhaps this should have been obvious, since a traitor must first have an attachment or allegiance, in order to betray it.  There were many others seeking to arrest and kill Jesus, and while they were his enemies, none of them was a traitor.  Judas was, because he had been a trusted member of the group.  His consistent placement at the very end of the list suggests that he was among the last to join up, but he wasn’t a late addition to this number.

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles… (Luke 6.12-13)

Judas was one of the many who followed Jesus around in Galilee, before he was chosen and named an Apostle.  Even though Jesus knew from the start that Judas would eventually betray him, he selected him from the crowd, and treated him exactly the same as the others for nearly three years, even entrusting the group’s treasury to him.  When Jesus told his assembled apostles at their final Passover that one of them would betray him, no one thought, I bet I know who it is—Judas has always been a little shaky.  Rather, they “began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’” (Mt 26.22). 

Let’s leave aside Judas, and compare the last Apostle on the list, to the first: Peter.  Peter wasn’t the first of the disciples to begin following Jesus; he was beaten to that honor by his brother Andrew, and another, who remains unnamed but may very well be John (Jn 1.35-42).  Nevertheless, he is consistently the first on the list of Apostles, and his aggressive personality meant that he generally took the initiative, got the ball rolling, and said what needed to be said—or, in some cases, what he mistakenly thought needed to be said.  His outspokenness included a strident devotion to Jesus, and one which the others were happy to imitate.  Shortly after Judas had left to do his evil deed, Jesus took the remaining eleven out of the city, to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. (Matthew 26.31-35)

Peter was certainly vocal in his insistence!  He wasn’t shy about throwing his brother and the rest under the bus—even if all of them fall away, you can rely on me!  But, just like with Judas, Jesus knew what Peter was going to do, and the rest, as well.  Was a triple denial less of a sin than Judas’ betrayal?  Judas’ action was more severe, and had more severe immediate consequences; but Jesus had said, not long after calling Peter, “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10.33).  They both failed spectacularly.

But that is where the similarities end.  It’s tough for us to imagine events playing out in any other way than they actually did, with Judas betraying and Peter denying, then a contrite Peter reconciling to Christ and a remorseful Judas fleeing responsibility (and running headlong into judgment).  It seems as if it had to take place just like this; and certainly it was prophesied just so.  But the prophecies are not constraints—they don’t compel anyone to fulfill them.  Jesus’ foreknowledge of Peter’s denial and repentance didn’t force him to fail the test, or to come back.  His foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal and abandonment didn’t force him to commit those sins.  Judas chose his own course; and Peter, likewise, chose his.

Jesus accepted Peter back after a horrible betrayal, of sorts.  Would he have rejected Judas, if he had similarly repented and sought forgiveness?  We have only to look at the Apostle Paul’s conversion.  Paul was on the same mission as the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees who killed Jesus, and yet Jesus brought him into the fold and used him to accomplish great things for his kingdom.  So, what have you done, that’s so unforgivable?  We’ve all done horrible things, things that deserve eternal punishment.  Jesus’ blood is equal to the task of cleansing you, even so.  Turn to him, seek forgiveness, put away the sin, and be redeemed for honorable purposes, instead.

Jeremy Nettles

What Does It Mean, to Know God?

Saturday, November 19, 2022

“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17.24-26)

These are the closing words to the long and moving prayer Jesus spoke prior to leaving Jerusalem for Gethsemane.  He was about to be betrayed by a friend, handed over to liars and murderers, to be tortured and killed unjustly; and yet what was foremost in his thoughts at this moment?  The good of his apostles.  That is remarkable on its own, but there’s even more to contemplate in these words.  Typical of John’s Gospel, this passage is a series of perfectly coherent sentences that often leave the reader wondering what he has just read.  If we’ll slow down and dissect it carefully, we’ll find an important lesson for us, buried among the tangles.

“with me where I am”

They’re already together in the same place, but that’s not what Jesus means—he’s looking forward to the near future.  He’s about to be tortured and killed, of course, and in a way, he does want his disciples to follow him into this; but really he’s thinking of the next step—he wants them to join him in God’s perfect rest, where he’s soon to go and prepare them a place (14.2).

“to see my glory”

Glory is typically defined as praise, honor, adulation, renown—that sort of thing.  How, exactly, does one see these?  It’s an abstract concept, most easily expressed in the form of spoken words.  You can see the sunrise, but seeing love, or victory, or justice, or malice is quite another task.  We can see indicators of such things, and surely that’s involved—Jesus wants his friends to see what he suffers and accomplishes, and conclude that he deserves great praise.  But from the way Jesus says this, we get the feeling he means something more direct.  There’s a hint in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2.9).  This suggests the appearance of light, in the dark night.  Paul suggests the same thing in his description of Moses: “the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory” (2 Co 3.7).  When he came down from the mountain, “his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Ex 34.29).  This is the source of the halo seen in medieval paintings, surrounding the faces of Jesus and the saints; but we all know there’s more to it than a physical phenomenon of light inexplicably radiating from a person’s face.  It’s not just about physical perception; it’s about the spiritual.

“I know you”

This is what Jesus means—he sees his Father’s glory.  He knows him.  Do the apostles?  Not fully.  Earlier, he told them, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14.7).  There’s something lacking, but it’s in the process of being remedied.  They don’t yet fully know, and they don’t yet fully see; but what do they know?  As Jesus said in his prayer, “these know that you have sent me” (Jn 17.25).

“I made known to them your name”

Jesus has shown his Father to them, as much as their meager abilities will allow up to this point.  They can see God in Jesus, because Jesus does the works and embodies the character of God.  It’s not just that Jesus has shared with them the super-secret name by which God calls himself.  God had long since proclaimed his name—in fact, several of his many names—to the patriarchs, to Moses, and to Israel.  It wasn’t a great revelation to them that God called himself, “I am who I am,” or “YHWH” (e.g. Ex 3.14-15).  They all carefully avoided uttering that name, and replaced it in their speech with “the Lord,” for fear of offending God by putting his holy name in their profane mouths.  No, it wasn’t about learning the proper combination of syllables to use when addressing God.  Teaching his disciples God’s name was more like what God did, when he “proclaimed the name of the Lord” (Ex 34.5) to Moses:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. (Exodus 34.6-8)

God described this process as passing his glory by Moses and allowing him to see it from behind, since neither he nor anyone else alive could handle the full picture (Ex 33.22).  Notice that his name is more than just a label, a tag associated with this particular person, yet ultimately unimportant.  Instead, it’s a testament to his character—his essence.  That’s what Jesus has been teaching to his disciples and, by extension, to us—if we’re willing to pay attention.  And what will the result be?  Moses shows us the proper response—to fall down and worship.  And Jesus tells us where it leads—“that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17.26).  The goal is to bring us into the family, to sit at the table with God, forever.  So, what about you?  Do you know God?

Jeremy Nettles

Never Good Enough

Sunday, November 13, 2022

And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” (Numbers 21.5-6)

When you know where to look, there’s a lot of comedy to be found in the Bible.  The children of Israel, often so-called, are putting their childishness on display in this episode!  In a single sentence they have complained that they have no food, and also that they don’t like their food.  Their overwrought criticism is typical of a dissatisfied, entitled child, and we might translate their grievance thus: you’ve given us food, but that’s not good enough!  We may laugh at the Israelites’ folly, but as always, they’re not the only ones to behave like this; we’re all difficult to please, and never seem to be fully satisfied.

Since elections to offices local, state, and federal were just held all across the country, political circumstances are more sharply in focus than usual.  Try to fashion a concise political philosophy that will address all of society’s ills.  If you were in charge, how would you fix all of the problems?  Much needs to change, right?  Because what we have now isn’t good enough.  Of course, you’re not the supreme ruler of the world, but if you were, and you enacted your own policies, it still wouldn’t be enough.  We’re never satisfied—and neither were the Israelites!  God fashioned for them a system of governance set forth and bound by the Law he himself gave them from on high; within those relatively lax boundaries, he appointed prophets and judges to speak on his behalf, pronounce judgments, and lead the people in war and peace.  How many people have died in the quest for a degree of that liberty?  And yet the Israelites said it wasn’t good enough.  They wanted a king!  God warned them through Samuel the prophet that this was a bad idea, and that they would come to regret it when their kings got it into their heads to reign.

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8.19-20)

We can see the same refusal to be satisfied with God’s blessings, in the personal sphere.  What would it take, in the physical world, to make you happy and satisfied?  When you get it, is it ever enough?  We’re no different from Eve, who was given everything she would ever need, in God’s own lush garden.  Satan tempted her with more.  She was happy, until she realized something was being withheld.  When she tasted the forbidden fruit, did it bring lasting happiness or satisfaction?  Similarly, after David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of his faithful servant Uriah, and then had him killed to alleviate the awkward situation it produced, the prophet Nathan told him,

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? (2 Samuel 12.7-9)

The message is clear: I gave you everything you could want!  Was it not good enough?  Like Eve, and like David, no matter how richly God blesses us, we manage to find fault with it, and go traipsing off in pursuit of the next idol we imagine will satisfy our longings.

When we scrutinize this behavior in others, it’s easy to pass judgment; when we see it in ourselves, we’re more inclined to make excuses.  Let’s find the middle ground, and simply seek to understand.  Why do we all do this?  As often happens with our behaviors in the physical world, it’s a reflection of something far more important in the spiritual realm.  Even if we don’t admit it or use the same words to describe it, each one of us is seeking perfection—and each one of us knows he has not achieved it.  In the moral realm, whether we’re justifying our own actions or spiritually flogging ourselves for our shortcomings, it’s clear that we all know, just as we judge that it is never good enough, in the same way we are never good enough.

God knows this, of course, and has had it in mind since the very beginning.  We can see an illustration of the point in—once again—the Israelites.  Moses recounted their forty years of following God’s cloud of Presence in the wilderness:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8.3)

He deliberately withholds some things, in order to teach us that we’re insufficient, and that we must trust and serve him.  This also encourages us to look forward to the perfect rest with him, which we’ll never find on earth.  Jesus embodies the perfection we’re all seeking.  Do you want a king, like the Israelites?  Jesus is your man.  Want liberty?  King Jesus guarantees it.  He’s also the friend and brother who both showers innumerable and priceless blessings on you, and also tells you the uncomfortable truth, and demands that you give yourself over entirely to him.  That brings us back to where we started: nothing is ever good enough in our judgment, and we’re never good enough, in God’s.  But Jesus is good enough.  If we will lean completely on him, trusting his promises and his commandments, he will forgive our imperfections, and give us lasting peace in this life, and the next.

Jeremy Nettles

"Satan Demanded to Have You"

Sunday, November 06, 2022

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22.31-34)

There are several points of confusion in this passage, and it’s a shame, because it should be a cause of introspection and renewed humility for each of us, as well as a source of encouragement.  Let’s dive into the details.

“You”

The 2nd-person pronoun is such a small word, and yet in this passage it looms large.  Jesus has just addressed the Apostle Peter in the clearest terms possible, saying not once but twice, “Simon, Simon” to identify his primary audience and get his full attention.  Reading the text in English, we naturally associate the “you” in this verse with the one addressed just a moment ago, “Simon.”  In modern English we have different forms for singular and plural in our 1st and 3rd person pronouns (I/we; he/they), but for the 2nd person we have just one catch-all: “you.”  Not so in Greek!  In this verse, Jesus directly addresses Peter, but Satan has demanded to have all of them!  In principle this is no surprise—of course Satan wants to test each and every person to failure, and at every turn.  But when we’re used to reading this passage with a view toward Peter in particular, we miss out on Jesus’ inclusion of the rest of the group, and that colors what follows.

“Sift”

While each one of us participates in consuming the fruits of the agriculture industry, the vast majority of us are rather insulated from every remaining step in the process.  We probably all know what sifting is, in the abstract, but why would someone sift wheat, and—more importantly—why would Satan want to sift Jesus’ Apostles?  There’s a similar use of the word in the Old Testament, but with God doing the sifting:

“For behold, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Disaster shall not overtake or meet us.’” (Amos 9.9)

God is distinguishing the wheat—his people—from the chaff—the nations.  Furthermore, he is ensuring that nothing of a similar size and weight to the grains of wheat, such a pebble, or a sinner among God’s people, would manage to hide and evade scrutiny.  Clearly, Satan’s goals are different in desiring to sift the Apostles, but the violent shaking and the scrutiny remain.  The process of sifting wheat would involve passing the entire crop through a series of loosely woven baskets—sieves—with the mesh becoming finer and finer, to sort with an ever-increasing and unrelenting scrutiny.  To use one of our own expressions, Satan had demanded leave to pick them apart.  He wanted to cast accusations for every weakness and failure, and there was much for him to find!  Peter, the most outspoken and resolute (not to say, impetuous and bull-headed) of the Apostles, would, within that very night, publicly deny even knowing Jesus.

“Strengthen”

But of course, Peter is not alone in this.  Shortly after our text in Luke 22, after they’d left the upper room for the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, Jesus brought up the topic again and told them,

“You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26.31)

So, it was predicted by the prophets (Zechariah 13.7, to be precise), Jesus stated it clearly soon after the scene that has occupied our primary attention, and further, Jesus hints at it even within that very scene, when he predicts Peter will repent and return, after which he will need to “strengthen [his] brothers,” meaning the rest of the Apostles (Lk 22.32).  First of all, this is a great encouragement to us—Jesus knows Peter is going to fail, in an awful, soul-endangering fashion (cf. Mt 10.33, 2Ti 2.12); and yet, even before Peter commits the sin, Jesus openly appeals to him to repent, and indicates he will not only be accepted, but immediately put back to work in Jesus’ service!

It’s a mistake, but it’s almost understandable why some have idealized and mythologized Peter, assigning him an even greater role in the kingdom of heaven than Jesus gave him—as if it weren’t enough!  His initiative and willingness to speak and act while others hesitate, are great assets, talents entrusted to him, which he put to work and returned an immense profit to his Master; but they don’t make him the chief Apostle; that’s Jesus’ job (cf. He 3.1).  Nevertheless, we all ought to respect and even imitate the good example Peter provides.  Not that we ought to fail, or certainly to deny Christ; but when we do, we should keep in mind that, however worthless and contemptible we may judge ourselves to be, Jesus is advocating on our behalf, standing between his Father and Satan our accuser, and urging us to come back.  Peter’s reconciliation with Jesus is recorded in John 21.15-22; it’s certainly awkward, but—importantly—not humiliating.  Jesus wasn’t looking to hold his sin over his head and gloat about his own correct prediction; rather, he simply told Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21.17).  It’s the same thing Jesus had told him beforehand, and it’s the same thing he wants us to do: “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22.32).

Jeremy Nettles

You Must Be Perfect

Sunday, October 30, 2022

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.20)

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is deservedly one of the most beloved passages in the entire Bible, and it could easily serve as the go-to resource for answering most ethical dilemmas.  It often provides a clear and direct answer from Jesus about the specific problem or temptation we face, and even when this is lacking, the broad principles Jesus teaches in it indirectly cover most of our remaining troubles.  He starts by telling his audience of their responsibility to exemplify the righteousness of God, while highlighting the widespread failure to live up to God’s standard in dealing with anger, lust, marriage, oaths, injuries, and enemies.  He’ll soon move on from our daily interaction with the people around us, to consider our relationship with our heavenly Father; but before making that transition, he summarizes everything he’s said up to this point by saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48).

As with everything Jesus said, there are nearly the same number of different interpretations as there are different interpreters.  In this case, as often, there are two extremes: on the one hand, those who insist on absolute moral perfection in themselves, and especially in others; and on the other hand, those who insist that “perfect” obviously doesn’t mean, “perfect.”  In fairness, there are many true and important points supporting most of these arguments, like the fact that the Greek word rendered “perfect” (τέλειος-teleios) doesn’t generally mean “flawless,” but rather “complete,” without a view toward what we might call imperfections.  It’s also important to note that this difficult saying from Jesus is reflected in 1 Peter 1.15, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”—a passage which is itself a reference to God’s words in Leviticus 11.44, “be holy, for I am holy.”  Jesus’ words are also echoed in what may be a parallel account in Luke, where he instead says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  All of those seem far more attainable than perfection, at least in the way we generally use the term.  Does Jesus mean a less exalted standard, then?  Well, consider that in each of these comparisons, the perfection, holiness, or mercy we’re told to emulate is God’s own.  There is no more exalted standard!  Even though flawlessness isn’t Jesus’ focus in telling us to be perfect, when he tells us our perfection must match God’s perfection, flawlessness is implied! 

That brings us to the other extreme, put forth by those who acknowledge that Jesus means sinless.  Is there a problem with this interpretation?  No; but there is a problem with the assumptions that often come along with it.  First, it’s assumed that Jesus means, you must be sinless, or you’ll spend eternity in hell.  Is this true?  Well, yes.  God doesn’t allow what is unholy in his presence—a point he demonstrated repeatedly to Israel, killing Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah when they transgressed boundaries around his earthly throne (Le 10.1-3 & 2Sa 6.5-7), as well as terrorizing and afflicting the Philistines who stole the ark and displayed it in their own pagan temple, until they sent it back to Israel (1Sa 5-6).  We must be sinless in order to enter his kingdom.  The next assumption is that it’s possible to be sinless.  Is it?  Yes.  No one can force you to sin, and Jesus demonstrated in his life in the flesh that it is possible to live a sinless life, despite being “in every respect…tempted as we are” (He 4.15). 

The stricter interpretation is holding up pretty well.  Now we come to the next assumption: that some of us achieve the standard and are, indeed, perfect.  Is this true?  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1Jn 1.8).  “For we all stumble in many ways” (Ja 3.2).  “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ec 7.20).  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Ro 3.10-12, citing Ps 14.1-3 & 53.1-3).  Jesus says we must be perfect, and shows us it’s possible; yet his Spirit testifies over and over that we’re simply not.  It’s not due to some accident of fate, either.  We have all chosen our own will, over God’s.  Probably not at every opportunity, but just once is enough to shatter a perfect record.  One flaw is all that’s necessary to render us imperfect, and most of us have quite a few more flaws than that!

Is Jesus gloating over our destruction, then?  Certainly not.  Is he stringing us along, giving us hope for salvation, only to pull it away at the last moment?  No.  He means to help us see that we’re not good enough.  What help is that, if it leads to eternal condemnation?  Jesus willingly went to the cross to die as a sinner—even though he wasn’t one!  We are the ones who deserved his fate, and worse.  “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1Pe 2.24).  In order to be saved from judgment, you must be perfect.  But you’re not.  Jesus, on the other hand, is!  By replacing your will with his, and putting your trust completely in him, so you’d do whatever he says, no matter how silly, crazy, or pointless it may appear, you relinquish the reins of your own destiny and become conformed to the image of the perfect Christ, and are therefore granted entrance into the kingdom of heaven.  You’re not perfect.  But you don’t have to remain plain, old, you.  Bury your old self, and put on Christ, instead.

Jeremy Nettles

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