Monday, September 24, 2012

True Worship (John 4:19-26)

Worship is a popular subject today for Christians. This semester, I’m teaching a class on worship in our Association’s Seminary Extension program. The number of books and resources on worship is astounding. There are an increasing number of worship conferences and seminars and workshops. We have created a lucrative industry of “worship music,” and churches are divided, killed, and born on the basis of worship styles. We’ve become accustomed to talking about “worship wars.” Yet, for all of the heated discussion on issues of worship in our day, it still seems that we are largely missing the point. Most of the time, when we talk about worship, we are focused on things like music, style, and setting. Those things are largely issues of personal preference. Too much emphasis on these matters makes worship about us rather than God. It makes worship about what we receive rather than what we give; about what we observe rather than what we offer.

A. W. Tozer, writing around the middle of the twentieth century, addresses almost prophetically a reality that exists in our day perhaps more than in any other era of Christian history. He says, “Worship acceptable to God is the missing crown jewel in evangelical Christianity. … It certainly is true that hardly anything is missing from our churches these days—except the most important thing. We are missing the genuine and sacred offering of ourselves and our worship to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1] You see, worship is ultimately not a matter of style but of substance, not so much what we do as how, why, and for Whom we do what we do. As one modern writer has said, “Worship matters. It matters to God because He is the one ultimately worthy of all worship. It matters to us because worshiping God is the reason for which we were created.”[2]

In our text today, the Lord Jesus is having a conversation with a Samaritan woman beside of Jacob’s well. As we observed last week, the conversation began with a discussion about water and quickly turned to spiritual matters as Jesus offered her living water that would satisfy her thirst for God forever. In verses 16-18, Jesus surprised and startled her with His complete knowledge of her sinful past. Seeing that she has private audience with One whom she perceives to be a prophet, and perhaps to divert the focus away from her sins, she changes the subject to issues regarding worship. And it is in the course of this conversation that Jesus indicates that there is such a thing as true worship, and therefore such a thing as false worship. There is the worship of false gods. There is the worship of the true God in false ways. But true worship is the worship of the one true God in the way that He accepts and seeks after. As Jesus reveals the heart of true worship, we find that the Father is not seeking after the things that we tend to obsess about in worship. In this profound revelation of true worship, there is no mention of music, media, lighting, furnishings, or rituals. It is not that those things are altogether unimportant, only that they are not ultimately important. They are not what the Father is seeking. If we want to know what true worship is, what it is that the Father is seeking, we need to do as the Samaritan woman has done, and bring our question to Jesus and allow Him to define and shape our worship. So, what are the marks of true worship? Let’s discover them here in the text.

I. True worship is not traditional, but relational.

Why are you a Christian, worshiping today in a Southern Baptist Church? For some of you, it is all you have ever known. You were raised this way, taught to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ from an early age, and brought up on Baptist convictions and practices. Others, like myself and many others of you, you were not raised this way. You and I came to a point in life when our traditional beliefs were challenged and we made a decision to trust in the Lord Jesus, and perhaps at that time or some time later, for any number of reasons (some good, some not so good), we found our way into in Baptist life. It is only natural for us to form some of our beliefs and practices by way of “inheritance.” And it is also to be expected that those beliefs and practices will be challenged in life. When our inherited beliefs are challenged, we have a choice to make. We will either cling to our traditions, reject them outright, or modify them in some way to assimilate the new information we have received. That is a universal reality for all human beings.

The Samaritan woman in our text recognized and experienced the reality of this. She says to Jesus, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain.” That mountain was Mount Gerazim in Samaria. The fathers to whom she refers are her Samaritan ancestors. As the biracial offspring of Assyrians and Jews following the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century BC, the Samaritans were despised by those who considered themselves to be “purebred” Jews. Not only were there ethnic differences between the two, there were religious ones as well. The Samaritans believed in the authority of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch or Books of Moses, but they did not accept the authority of the remainder of the Hebrew Bible. Based on their reverence of the Pentateuch, they believed that Mount Gerazim was the most holy place, owing to the fact that just below it, in Shechem, Abraham had constructed his first altar after entering the land of promise. In the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, Mount Gerazim had been specified by name in Moses as the place where they were to worship, though that information is not found in the original Hebrew Pentateuch.[3] During the fifth century before Christ, a Samaritan temple had been erected on Mount Gerazim. Though it had been destroyed by Jews around 129 BC, the ruins of it may have been visible even from the very spot where the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was taking place.

If you were to ask her, “Why do you worship on Mount Gerazim?” she would likely answer, “Because that is where my father worshiped, and his father before him, and his father before him,” and so on. That is how she had put it to Jesus: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain.” But perhaps the thought had never occurred to her, or maybe it is this thought that prompted her statement to Jesus: “What if the fathers were wrong?” It is not uncommon to hear someone say in a church, “We’ve always done it this way,” or “We’ve never done it that way before.” But the question that we all need to ask is not what do the forefathers say about this or that, because the forefathers might have been wrong! Don’t hear me saying that tradition is bad. We’ve learned some things from our fathers that are right and true, and those things should be preserved. There is a difference between tradition and traditionalism. Traditions can be good or bad, right or wrong, and it takes biblical and spiritual discernment to know the difference. Traditionalism says that this is how we do it because it is how our fathers did it, and nothing can ever change that. Traditions may be good or bad, but traditionalism is unhealthy because it blinds us to truth that may exist beyond our inherited traditions. There is a more important issue than our forefathers, and Jesus raises that issue here. He says that true worship is not based on the practices the fathers, but is based instead on the will of His Father.

Because our culture has been so strongly influenced over passing centuries by Christianity and the Bible, it is not alarming to us to hear or speak of God as a Father. This was the customary way that Jesus spoke of God, but prior to His coming, hardly anyone ever spoke of God as a Father. In fact, in many belief systems still in existence today, it would be considered blasphemous to speak of God in such a familiar way. But Jesus, as the only begotten Son, could speak of God as His Father in a way that no other person could. Not only that, He also instructed His followers to speak of God as their Father. When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, Jesus said to them, “Pray in this way, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name ….” Jesus has made a way for human beings who have been separated from God because of their sins to be reconciled to Him and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. John 1:12 says that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Because of His work of redemption through His life, death, and resurrection, it is now possible for mankind to have a personal relationship with God. He is the Father of those who come to Him through faith in Jesus, and we are His sons and daughters through the grace of adoption. True worship, therefore, is not based on tradition, but on relationship. Those who know Him as Father have access to Him in worship, while the worship of all those who are yet separated from Him in their sins is misguided worship at best; utterly false worship at worst. We are able to worship Him truly because we have this personal relationship, established by Jesus Christ, and are not bound by the traditions of our fathers. We must take all that we have received by tradition back to the Word of God and ask, “Is the way of our fathers consistent with the will and Word of the Father?” If it is, then we can, we should, and we must preserve those traditions with all diligence. But if our earthly fathers’ traditions are contrary to the will and Word of our Heavenly Father, then they must be discarded. Where the Word of the Father does not address our traditions at all, then we must use wisdom and caution in knowing what to preserve and what to discard. There have been many churches over the centuries which have preserved their traditions in exchange for their children. Some things can be changed. Some things must be changed. And still other things must never change. How do we know the difference? We constantly keep the traditions we have received subject to the supreme authority of the will and Word of our Heavenly Father, and render to Him the true worship that He is seeking. True worship is not traditional but relational. We do not worship our fathers, but our Father in heaven.

II. True worship is not geographical, but spiritual.

Have you ever been in a place where you felt like you could not worship the Almighty God? Maybe you’ve been in a place where you felt like you could worship Him in a way you never had. Over the years of my ministry, I’ve had people tell me, “I couldn’t attend another church, because this is the only place where I can worship!” I’ve had others tell me that they were going to leave the church and attend another because they say, “I just can’t worship God here like I can there.” Maybe it is the music, the seating arrangement, the temperature of the sanctuary, the color of the carpet, the presence or absence of stained glass windows or multimedia projectors. Maybe it is the presence of some other person, or the style of preaching, or whatever. But often when we hear things like that, there is a deeper reality at play. It is not so much the place, or the trappings of the style or setting of worship in that place. More often, it is the condition of our hearts and our view of God that is at issue. If the location, or the music, or the preaching, or any other external thing is hindering our worship, perhaps it is because we have elevated our personal tastes and preferences to a place of dangerous idolatry in our hearts, and we feel as if the things we like are necessary to incite us to worship. But, if we truly believe that God is who He says He is in His word, then we have to conclude that He is worthy of our worship at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances! There is no place where He is not, and there is no time or circumstance when He is anything other than ultimately worthy of genuine praise and worship from His people. You can and should worship Him wherever you are, because He is everywhere, and He is always worthy of worship.

The Samaritan woman has presented Jesus with an implied question. The Samaritans say that Mount Gerazim is the place where worship should take place. The Jews say worship should take place in Jerusalem. On Mount Gerazim, worship took place in unbridled enthusiasm; in Jerusalem, worship was characterized more by methodical reserve. She wants Jesus to tell her, “Which one is right?” If I really want to connect with God, to which place should I go? Jesus’ answer is essentially, “None of the above.” Though it was possible to worship God on Mount Gerazim just as well as in Jerusalem, being on Mount Gerazim was no indicator that true worship was taking place. In fact, much of the worship that took place on Mount Gerazim was patently false worship, directed toward a false god, or toward the true God in a false way. And though there was a temple to the one true God in Jerusalem, He never intended that worship could only take place in Jerusalem. In fact, the prophets of Israel, and even the Lord Jesus, had pronounced condemnation upon much of what took place in the name of worship in Jerusalem. You could worship God in Jerusalem, but being in Jerusalem, even being in the Temple courts, was no sure sign that true worship was taking place.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that true worship is not geographical but spiritual. He says in verse 21, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” He says, in contrast, in verses 23-24, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” In contrast to the location of worship, Jesus speaks of the nature and focus of worship. True worship is directed, not toward the location where it takes place, but toward God the Father as the object and recipient of our worship. He is Spirit, and thus we interact with Him on the spiritual, rather than the temporal or geographical plane. He is not bound by location. On Mars Hill in Athens, the Apostle Paul proclaimed, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” He does live in Jerusalem any more than He lives on Mount Gerazim. He does not live at 2432 High Point Road, any more than He lives in Center City Park, or at your house, or in Vermont or in Nepal. He is not confined by space. So, while I truly understand the sentiment behind referring to the church building as “God’s house,” there is a subtle falsehood at work in that statement. Underlying it is the notion that He lives here in a qualitatively different way than He lives at my house or your house or anywhere else, and that is simply not true. Some people refer to the church building as God’s house, as if to suggest that we ought to act in a higher and holier way here than anywhere else. I don’t want to belittle the propriety of Christian conduct in the church building. What I intend to do is to elevate our awareness of His presence at all other places. I don’t mean that you should be less reverent here. I mean that you should conduct yourself more reverently everywhere else. I don’t mean that you should not come here to worship Him. Scripture commands believers to gather together for corporate, public worship. But, this is not the only place where you can or should worship. You should worship Him wherever you are, at all times, and in all circumstances, because He is supremely worthy of that!

Because God is Spirit, true worship is conducted “in spirit,” Jesus says. It is a spiritual transaction that does not take place through the motions and exercises of our outer man. It is not carried out by our coming to a place, or going through certain motions of standing, sitting, kneeling, raising our hands, or any other physical posture. It is possible to be at the “right place,” and go through all the right motions and say all the right words, but still to not engage with God in worship. If true worship is to take place, it must take place within our spirit, in our inner-man, if you will. Because God is Spirit, He is invisible. We cannot see Him, but we can ascertain the effects of His presence and power. And our spirit is also invisible. We cannot measure the sincerity of our worship by the things we can see. But, our internal spiritual interactions with God, if they are truly worship, will have some effect on what we can see. When we encounter God in true worship, we are transformed from the inside out—but never from the outside in. You can be in the right place, dressed in the right way, going through the right motions, and saying the right words, and yet, as Jesus and Isaiah both said, your heart can be far from God. But when you are worshiping God in your spirit, in your inner man, you are engaging in something that transcends the visible, tangible world. You are engaged in true worship. That is the kind of worship the Father is seeking. It’s not geographical; it’s not visible; it’s not tangible. It’s spiritual, in the truest sense of the word. 

III. True worship is not in ignorance but in truth.

In the postmodern, post-Christian era in which we now live, some people say it is impossible to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Many have concluded that all religions have some mixture of truth and error in them, and therefore who can say which is right and which is wrong? In many of the world’s religions, there are some elements of truth. Now, where we find points of commonality between our beliefs and others, what are we to say about them? Are we to say, “They are right here at this one point, so they must be a true religion”? Are we to say, “Since we all have so many commonly held beliefs, all religions must be equally true”? Are we to say, “Since there are so many similarities between world religions, there is no way of knowing which is true and which is false, so it doesn’t matter what we believe as long we are sincere”? None of these responses are compatible with biblical Christianity. The precepts of the Christian faith have been revealed by God in His Word, the Bible, and are therefore true because God is truthful and trustworthy. So, those belief systems which differ from what God has revealed about Himself in His Word are not true. Do they have some truth in them? Often, yes. How do we account for that? It is partly as a result of man being made in God’s image; partly as a result of the general revelation of God that is found in His created world; and partly as a result the old saying, “Even a blind squirrel can find a nut every now and then.”

Now, to a growing number of people in the world, the assertion that our belief system is right and everyone else’s is wrong is highly offensive, arrogant, and unthinkable. Often we hear it said that Christians need to be more like Christ, who was always loving and accepting, and just generally nice to people. Jesus, they say, was not so judgmental and narrow minded. I believe that these people have never read the Bible. In His conversation with the Samaritan woman, she presents to Him one of many differences between Samaritan and Jewish worship, as if to ask, “Which one is right, and how can I know the difference?” Jesus’ answer to the woman is essentially, “Your beliefs are wrong.” He says in fact, “You worship what you do not know.” That is a nice way of saying, “You are ignorant.” But He even goes further. In this particular matter of debate between the Jews and Samaritans, Jesus takes a side with the Jews and says, “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Can’t you just see what would break loose in the world if that hit YouTube?

What Jesus is driving at here is the foundational difference between the two religions: it is a matter of revelation. The Samaritans had chosen to adhere to only a portion of what God had revealed—the first five books of the Bible only—and they had a corrupted translation of those books at that. The Jews sincerely regarded those books, but they also believed that God had continued to reveal Himself in the Historical writings, the Poetic writings, and the Prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. In that unfolding revelation, not only had the Lord revealed Jerusalem as the place where His temple was to be located, but He had also revealed a more full picture of Himself, His glorious attributes, and His plan for redemption. Jews and Samaritans alike could find in the Pentateuch the promise of a redeemer for mankind from sin in Genesis 3 and the promise of a prophet greater than Moses in Deuteronomy 18. But the Jews had received the unfolding promises of the offspring of David, the Son of Man, the virgin-born Immanuel, the Suffering Servant who would die for the sins of humanity. This Messiah was to come from the line of Abraham, the line of Judah, and the line of David. Thus, Jesus says, “Salvation is from the Jews.” The Jewish people had been chosen to bring the Savior into the world, as promised in Genesis 12, the seed of Abraham that would bring blessing to all nations.

But even in Jewish worship, so much of which was right, there was this great omission of truth. Their knowledge was incomplete. Paul says in Roman 10 that their zeal for God was an ignorant zeal. So Jesus says, whether Jew or Samaritan, or anyone else, if you would be a true worshiper, you would worship in spirit and in truth. You must know who God is and you must know and experience the truth of the salvation from sin that He would bring to the world through His Messiah. How are you to know this? You find it revealed in God’s Word. That is why the Bible is so central to our worship. We do not worship a book, but we believe that in this book, and only in this book, God has made Himself and His way of salvation known. Only in this book can we know the truth of Jesus, the Messiah. The woman says to Jesus, acknowledging her ignorance, “I know that Messiah is coming; when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” And Jesus responded to her in no uncertain terms: “I who speak to you am He.” He is the Messiah, the God-Man, the redeemer and savior of the world. He has carried our sins to the cross where He died in our place that we might be forgiven; and He has conquered sin and death through His resurrection that we might have life. The written word is our inerrant and authoritative revelation of Christ, the Living Word who became incarnate in human flesh. And it is our sufficient guide to know God, His will, and His work. Thus, if you would truly worship the Father, in a way that He is worthy of and a way that He seeks after, we must draw near to Him through His Word. As we read it, study it, and meditate upon it, we are interacting with God and learning who He is, what He is like, what He has done, and what He requires of us.

If you would know truth, you must know Jesus, because in Him, the truth of God is living and breathing. He is truth. We do not study the written word in order to learn facts. We study it to meet God in Christ. If we have not been led to Christ through the Word, then we have not rightly understood the Word because it points to Him in every portion. We’ve only come into truth if we have met Christ. In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” It is true for the lost person seeking to know God; and it is true for the Christian seeking to worship God. No one comes to the Father but through Jesus. He is the truth in human flesh. And we know Him because of the written truth of God’s word. In John 17:17, Jesus prayed that the Father would sanctify His people in the truth, saying, “Thy word is truth.” Your worship will never rise above the level of your confidence in the truthfulness of God’s Word.

True worship, that the Father is seeking, is worship in spirit and truth. It is the worship of the Father, not by tradition but by personal relationship. It is the worship of Him in spirit, not in the particulars of geography or circumstance. And it is the worship of Him in truth – the living truth of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the revealed truth that God has given us in His Word. That is the kind of worship the Father is seeking. What kind of worship are you seeking? If you are seeking a kind of worship that is different from what He is seeking, then you aren’t seeking true worship. And if this is truly what He is seeking, will He find it here? Will He find it you?

[1] A. W. Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship? (Camp Hill, Penn.: Christian Publications, 1985), 7, 9.
[2] Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 19.
[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, 1983), 1:108-109.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Scandalous Grace (John 4:1-18)

Watch the news, read the newspaper or magazines, or just survey the headlines of the tabloids while you are in line at the grocery store, and you will see that there is a morbid fascination with scandal. Here’s a politician, a preacher, a celebrity, a business executive, who has been caught red-handed and up to no good. It is nothing new. If there is anything new about it, it is that we have become so inoculated to scandal that we are no longer offended by it; rather it has become a form of popular entertainment. This begs the question: If it doesn’t offend, is it really a scandal? After all, one of Webster’s definitions of the word scandal is “a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it.”[1] It comes from a Greek word, skandalon, which is used in the Bible to refer to “an obstacle to faith.” [2] There’s an offense that hinders faith. Thus Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block (skandalon) and to Gentiles foolishness (the Greek word is moria, from which we get the word moron), but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul is saying that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a moronic idea to the Gentiles, but to the Jews, it is offensive. The very good news that saves those who believe on Christ is a hindrance to the belief of Jews and others. It is offensive. It is a scandal. And what is it that is so scandalous about the Gospel, so offensive to a lost and dying world? In our text today, we see a picture of the scandal in action and discover that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of scandalous grace.

Verses 1-5 serve as background to the main action of the text. They set the stage for what follows. In Chapter 3, we saw that John the Baptist’s followers discovered that Jesus and His disciples were becoming more popular than John and drawing large numbers of people. John’s response is summarized in his well-known statement of John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” But John’s disciples were not the only ones who had gotten wind of the surging popularity of Jesus of Nazareth. Verse 1 tells us that the Pharisees had heard about it too. Jesus knew that they would not react the same way John did. They would come in and stir up trouble and attempt to bring a premature end to the divine mission of Jesus. So, He left Judea and went back to Galilee by way of Samaria. And coming into the town of Sychar, where Jacob’s historic well stood (and still stands today) and where the Patriarch Joseph is buried, Jesus sat down by the famous well. Soon he was joined there by a Samaritan woman, and in the course of His interaction with her, His scandalous grace is put on full display.

I. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Condescends to Our Human Condition (vv 6-7)

Think back to the opening words of this Gospel. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John did not begin with a Christmas narrative like Matthew and Luke did. John gave us, if you will, a prequel. The story of Jesus doesn’t begin on Christmas Eve. In fact, His story has no beginning. As the divine Logos, the living Word of God, Jesus has existed from eternity past. He was “with God,” in the beginning. But not only was He with God, He, in fact, was God. John 1:3 says that He created everything that has come into existence, and nothing came into existence apart from Him. To fully understand Jesus, we need to understand that we are speaking about the infinite and eternal God of the universe. As God, He is transcendent. It means that He exists outside of the created universe, above and beyond all in a realm that defies definition or boundary. But not only do we worship a God who is transcendent, He is also immanent, present everywhere at all times and always at work sustaining that which He created. He is far off, and He is near. The great 19th Century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck says that God “transcends all space and location; He is not ‘somewhere,’ yet He fills heaven and earth.[3] And this has been so from the beginning. But when Jesus came, God came near to humanity in a way that was qualitatively different. John 1:14 says that this Word that was with God, and was God, in the beginning, became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus Christ, God became man. The prophet Isaiah foretold His coming and called Him Immanuel, which means in Hebrew, “God with us.” 

Philippians 2:6-7 describes the condescension of the incarnate Christ: “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that Christ is not a high priest who “cannot sympathize with our weaknesses,” but is One who has been “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” In Christ, God took upon Himself not just the appearance of humanity, or the physical form of humanity. He took upon Himself a human nature that was subject to the same weaknesses and experiences that each of us have. We see that on full display in this text in verses 6-7. After walking for a considerable distance for a day and a half, Jesus took a seat at Jacob’s well, “being wearied from His journey.” The “sixth hour” would be noon, the heat of the day. And He was thirsty, so He asked the stranger at the well to give Him a drink. The God who is described in Psalm 121:4 as the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps knows what you feel like when you are weary. The God who is infinite in strength and power, who can produce water from a rock and springs in the desert, who describes Himself as the Fountain of Living Water, knows how you feel when you are thirsty. The God who possesses the earth and all it contains, who says, “every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills,” knows what it means to have nothing, and to be reduced to asking of the kindness of strangers to meet His most basic human need.

This is scandalous to the unbelieving mindset, to think that God would stoop so low to become a human, and one of humble means as that. A common objection to the Gospel that one often hears from Jewish people is, “If you claim that Jesus is God then you are guilty of making God into a man. That makes you an idol worshiper!” Sometimes, the objections are more harshly worded: “Our God sits enthroned in heaven! Your god wore diapers!”[4] I think of countless conversations I have had with Muslims over the years, in which they always say, “You Christians blaspheme when they say God is a man.” My response is, “Can God do anything He chooses to do?” They say, “Of course He can.” I say, “Suppose God chose to become a man, could He do that?” They respond, “Of course not. God would never choose to become a man!” Ah, but He did. And He did this in the person of Jesus Christ. But it is an offensive thought to many, downright scandalous. But this is how His grace operates. It is scandalous grace that we see displayed as God Almighty condescends to our human condition.

II. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Overcomes our Social Stigmas (vv 3, 9)

If you are familiar with the New Testament, you probably understand that the Jewish people of the first century looked down upon the Samaritans with a bitter prejudice. And the feeling was mutual, by the way; the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews any more than the Jews liked them. This prejudice was rooted in several historical events. In the year 722 BC, the Assyrians had invaded and conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deported most of the Jewish population. They resettled the land with their own people and with other foreign people. Not only did these new arrivals to the land bring their idolatrous religious beliefs with them, but soon they began to intermarry with the remaining Jews in the land. The offspring of these unions were the first Samaritans. The Jewish people considered them to be idol-worshiping, racial half-breeds, the sons and daughters of political enemies. The Samaritans had a belief system that overlapped some, but differed significantly from their Jewish neighbors. They could not worship together, so the Samaritans erected their own temple on Mt. Gerazim around 400 BC. Around 100 BC, their temple was destroyed by the Jewish forces in Judea under the leadership of John Hyrcanus. With all this, needless to say there was no love lost between the Jews and Samaritans.

Notice in verse 3 that it says that, in order to get from Judea to Galilee, Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.” Now, geographically speaking, He did not have to pass through Samaria. There were two well-travelled ways to get to Galilee from Judea. Going through Samaria was a common way, being significantly shorter. But some Jews so despised the Samaritans that they actually crossed over the Jordan River and made their way North through Gentile territories, crossing back over the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. They would rather take their chances going the long way through Gentile lands than to take “the short cut” through Samaria. But, Jesus had to pass through Samaria. It was not a geographic necessity; it was a necessity of the will of God. Jesus had to go through Samaria in order to overcome the social stigma of the Samaritans and deliver the good news of His Gospel to them. And God had already established a divine appointment for a meeting with a particular Samaritan here at the well. Not only was the person that He would encounter there a Samaritan, this person was also a woman. In either case, the average Jewish male would have wanted to keep his distance. Within a generation or so, the Jews would actually codify a law that declared all Samaritan women to be in a state of perpetual uncleanness.[5]

It was scandalous for Jesus to be in Samaria, here interacting with a Samaritan, and with a Samaritan woman at that. Because Jacob’s legacy was prominent in the area, people would certainly be familiar with how both Isaac and Jacob’s prospective wives were met at wells. For Jesus to be fraternizing with a woman near a well like this would have been frowned upon as flirtatious. Not only this, but notice that the woman herself seems taken aback by His forwardness. She says, “How is that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink, since I am a Samaritan woman?” She points out in verse 11 that Jesus does not even have anything to draw water with, meaning that He will have to use her supplies. That was an unthinkable thing. The statement in verse 9, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” is generally true, but the statement’s literal meaning may be something like, “Jews do not use the same things as Samaritans.”

In the eyes of an average Jew, or an average Samaritan for that matter, everything about this scenario is all wrong. It is all scandalous! There are so many social stigmas about it all. But the scandalous grace of Jesus overcomes these social stigmas. He will not let her womanhood or her Samaritan heritage stand in the way of the good news that He has come to share with her. Maybe you are like her today. Maybe you think that there is something about you that would keep you separated from Jesus. You are from the wrong side of the tracks and you think Jesus wouldn’t want you. Maybe you’re from the “right side” of the tracks and you think you don’t need Him. Whether it is the color of your skin, or the language you speak, your gender, your financial standing, your personal well-being, or some other stigma that you feel isolates you, you need to look into this passage of God’s Word and see the scandalous grace of Jesus that overcomes every social stigma to meet you where you are today.

I wonder, are we as willing to overcome these obstacles to get the good news of Jesus into the lives of the stigmatized people in our community? If we reach out to the unreachable peoples of our community, there could be a scandal. But if we understand grace, we know that it is always scandalous. Jesus wasn’t put off by the scandal of social stigmas. He overcame them by His scandalous grace.

III. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Confronts Our Sinful Past (vv 16-18)

In Seminary, I concentrated in Apologetics, which involved a lot of study in the Philosophy of Religion. So, I would say that I am sort of an “armchair philosopher.” Every now and then I find myself in a conversation with people who are much more conversant in the realm of Philosophy, and for a while I can fake it and pretend like I am following the conversation. But then someone will ask me a question like, “What do you think the major contributions of Ayer to the field of logical positivism are?” I kind of do one of those hard swallows and find a way to back out of the conversation politely. This is not really the conversation I was wanting to have! Usually I have to just confess, “Look, you really lost me a long time ago, but now I’m completely dumbfounded and there’s not much I can say.” My ignorance is exposed at that point.

This Samaritan woman may have had an experience kind of like that with Jesus. Once the obvious was stated, that He was a Jewish man and she was a Samaritan woman, they seem to interact as equal conversation partners here. She’s interested in water, He’s interested in water. They banter a bit politely back and forth. But suddenly the conversation takes an unexpected twist in verse 16 as Jesus says, “Go, call your husband and come here.” I imagine she might have hesitated for a moment, maybe she did one of those hard swallows, before she said, “I have no husband,” hoping to just dismiss herself from the conversation. But Jesus won’t let it go. He says something that leaves her absolutely dumbfounded: “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one who you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” I can see the wheels turning in her mind. “How does he know this? What do I do now? This is not really the conversation I wanted to have with a stranger at the well!” Never once did she deny the things He said. She even says in verse 29 that “He told me all the things that I have done.” But she has to understand something about Jesus. If you come to deal with Him, He is going to confront your sinful past. If He truly is who He claimed to be, He has to. At His birth, the angel said to Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). John the Baptist heralded Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” If He’s come to save people from sin, then we need to understand that He is going to have to confront it in us all.

Here is a woman with a checkered past. She’s had five broken relationships in her lifetime. Were they all failed marriages? We don’t know her circumstances. Perhaps she had been widowed five times. It seems highly unlikely, but I suppose it is possible. Perhaps once or twice she had been abandoned by her husbands for some petty reason, as women often experienced in that day. It is hard to believe that this would have happened five times! If she had been divorced multiple times, it is not hard to imagine that at least once she may have been found guilty of adultery or some other sin that ruined her marriage. The rabbis of her generation would not have approved of five marriages under any circumstances, for more than three were considered inappropriate. But the five past relationships may not have all been marriages that ended in divorce or death. The Greek word translated husband in the passage is a rather generic term that most often simply means, “man.” She’s had five men in her past. Was she married to them all? Had five husbands died? Was she five times over the victim of abandonment? Or had she had five lovers, some of whom she was not married to at all? Regardless of those issues, Jesus’ primary emphasis falls on the latter portion of His statement: “the one you have now is not your husband.” She has a lover now, and she is not married to him. He is not her husband. The wording may even imply that he is not her husband, though he might be someone else’s husband. Whatever her circumstances were five times in the past, she was presently involved in an illicit sexual relationship with a man to whom she was not rightly married. And it seems that she has even developed an unsavory reputation in her community because of this. How do we know that? First of all, the drawing of water was a social custom for the women of that day, as it is for most women in cultures like this around the world today. Women would rarely come to draw water alone. The hard work of fetching the daily water was made more endurable by the social interaction with friends. But she has come alone. And she has come at noon, in the heat of the day. Most often, women would come early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler and the heat of the sun not so intense. But perhaps to avoid a socially awkward situation, this woman has come at a time when others are not present. Maybe she seeks to avoid an encounter with the wife of the man with whom she is now involved, or the wife of another of her past lovers? Her life is marred by one relational trainwreck after another. She carries around the baggage of all this with her every day. It has affected her entire way of life. For a woman who has had so many relationships, she finds herself shamefully alone to bear her sins in social isolation.

If we had been there, and known Jesus and known this woman, we might have been offended that He would interact so congenially with the likes of her. We might protest and say, “Jesus, you should not desire the company of such a person as this!” After all, that is what many in His day thought in their hearts (Lk 7:39), and many likely said aloud! But remember that Jesus, even though He knew all these things about her, is the one who initiated this conversation by asking her for a drink of water. In scandalous grace, He reaches out to the sinner, confronting her past sins, that He might save her from them. And He does the same to each of us. He is not ashamed to be called the friend of sinners (Mt 11:19). He said Himself, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32).

So, perhaps you wandered into church today, or maybe you come in every Sunday, and you play pretend in conversation with Jesus. You dress up and smile and play at church like someone who has it all together. But know for certain that if He hasn’t yet, there will come a time when Jesus will deal with your sin. You can try to keep it under wraps; ward off the confrontation with curt dismissals as this woman attempted to do. But you will not forever evade Him. He has come to be the Savior of sinners, and if you would be saved then you must deal with Him about your sins. He loves you too much to leave them hidden below the surface. He will draw out the truth, which He already knows fully well. Your sins are known to Him. But He is not deterred. In scandalous grace, He takes the initiative to confront you and your sin, not in order to condemn you, but in order to save you. He would have you know that He has come to take your sin upon Himself, and bear it on your behalf under the judgment of God as He dies on the cross. He would have you see your sin covering Him in His death, and He would have you see that sin destroyed and put away forever as He triumphs over it in His resurrection. That the King of Glory would fraternize with sinners, this is quite scandalous! But it is a scandal of grace that is necessary if we would have any hope of being reconciled to God. Fear not that He will confront your sin! Welcome the confrontation of this scandalous grace. Embrace it, for in this confrontation is salvation found. The most scandalous aspect of the entire scene is found, not in how Jesus confronts the woman about her sin, but in the offer that he makes to a sinner such as she is, and to sinners far and wide such as we are.

IV. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Satisfies Our Deepest Longings (vv 10, 13-14)

Have you ever had a desire for something, only to obtain it and find that it does not satisfy? We all have. Why is that such a universal experience? It is because that is the way God has designed you and the world you live in. God loves you so much that He created you to long for Him. There is within every human being what some have described as a “God-shaped hole.” This sends us on a quest to find satisfaction for that longing. But God loves you too much to allow anything other than Himself to deliver that satisfaction. He has “wired the world,” if you will, to disappoint you. He has set limits on the amount of satisfaction that you can have from anything that is not Him. Other things beckon you, promising to fill that void and satisfy your longings, but they only lead to disappointment. So many have tried to fill it with drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, religious activity, money and material possessions, but they soon find that the hole remains unfilled. Only God can fill that hole. David said, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God” (Psalms 42:1). That is the longing of every human heart, even the ones who refuse to acknowledge or admit it.

Day after day, the Samaritan woman has come to Jacob’s well to draw her water. She takes it home with her, and uses it to clean, to drink, to cook, and when the day is done, the water is gone, and the next day, she has to go back and do it all over again. Her experience with the water is like many other experiences in her life. She had a thirst for love, for companionship and pleasure. She found a man whom she thought could satisfy it. But he didn’t. She found another man, and another, and another, and another, and now another. With a lifetime of sin and shame in her past, she still hasn’t found that which will satisfy her deepest longings. But on this day she met Jesus. And though she is put off by the forwardness of His request for her to give Him water, He says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” For nearly two millennia, people had drawn water from Jacob’s well. It’s still there, and you can still draw water from it today. But no one ever left there with all they needed to satisfy them forever. Jesus points to that well and says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” She misunderstands. She thinks He’s still talking about regular old drinking water. She has yet to realize that He is offering her something every greater, that satisfies a deeper need and a deeper longing. His offer is to quench the spiritual thirst in her life that she’s tried to satisfy with any number of other pursuits. But if she will receive the living water of Christ, that thirst will be satisfied forevermore, and the living water will gush forth like a geyser flowing into eternal life.

King Solomon was a man who many would say had it all. He writes in the book of Ecclesiastes about his great riches, his vast power, his many lovers, but in the end he concludes that it is all vanity; it is empty and hollow and ultimately does not satisfy. So, after a lifetime of disappointment, he says that it all comes down to this: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl 12:1). Don’t waste your life trying to fill the void or quench your spiritual thirst with things that can never satisfy! Not only does it frustrate and disappoint you, it breaks the heart of God who is reaching out to you with the offer of eternally satisfying living water. The Lord speaks through Jeremiah, saying, “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer 2:13). Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt that you were trying to drawing water from a well that has run dry? Yes, we all have! Over top of every would-be well in life that would promise us satisfaction apart from the Lord, He has inscribed the words, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give Him will never thirst again.”

All around the world today, people are dying from diseases caused by a lack of clean water. Today, you have the opportunity to drop a few coins into some buckets as you exit, and that money will be used to dig wells in places like Bihar, India where clean water has never been tasted before. We’ve already sent money off for the completion of one well, and we’re working toward number two now. But not only have the people of Bihar never tasted clean water; they’ve also never heard of the living water that Christ supplies. And so wherever these wells are dug, the message of Christ is proclaimed that the people of Bihar and many other areas of the world will know that though they may have to return to the well every day for their drinking water, the living water of Christ will satisfy their spiritual thirst for God forever! In scandalous grace, He offers it to a sinful Samaritan woman, to a village in India enslaved to the worship of 300 million false gods, and to broken people seated in a church pew in Greensboro. The invitation echoes across time and space, leaping off the last printed page of our Bibles: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev 22:17). Taste the living water of Jesus, and never thirst again! And if you have this living water in you, let it spring forth from you and spill over onto those around you as you offer this water to all who are thirsty for what Jesus alone can provide!

[2] G. Stahlin, “Skandalon” in Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Geoffrey Bromiley, trans.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 7:339-358.
[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (abridged in one volume, John Holt, ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 192.
[4] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume Two, Theological Objections (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 14-15.
[5] “Daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle, and therefore perpetually in a state of ceremonial uncleanness.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 218.

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

Well, here we go again! It was on the news when I woke up this morning and its been trending all day. The story says that a document has been found that states that Jesus had a wife. You can find a picture of the fragment here with a (possible) translation and some related Q&A.

The question has been raised numerous times in recent history, most notably surrounding the DaVinci Code craze. I dealt with it then, and still stand by what I wrote. 

So, what shall we say to the "new" report that Karen King has found a document which speaks to this issue again?

1. The document in question is tiny, very tiny, smaller than a business card. The Harvard link above plainly shows that only a few surviving words are found on each line. Therefore to draw ANY conclusion on such sparse evidence requires much reading between the lines, literally! I need to see more than "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... '" to conclude that Jesus was married. Imagine that we found a similar fragment of John 4:34 that read, "Jesus said to them, 'My food ... '." Could we rightly fill in the blanks with no additional information? We might suggest that Jesus said, "My food consists of fruits and nuts," or "My food was delivered to me earlier today." But, in fact, the completion of that sentence reads, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work." Is it possible that Jesus could be saying (a la Ephesians 5 or Revelation 19), "My wife is My church"? Certainly, but we are jumping to an unnecessary conclusion, for this would assume that the document is authentic and reports something that Jesus actually said. Additionally, it probably does not escape the notice of those who look at the photograph of the document that there are no marks of punctuation. In fact, in the history of written language, punctuation marks are fairly new on the scene. Those who understand the document to say, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'", have determined where they think the punctuation should go. But what if the words, "Jesus said to them," actually forms the end of the preceding sentence, and "My wife" forms the beginning of a new sentence? That changes things significantly, doesn't it?  

2. If I were to write, "Abraham Lincoln once said that Twitter is the most effective way to stay abreast of breaking news," would you assume from it that Twitter had actually existed in the 19th Century? No, but why not? Because we have plenty of verifiable, historical evidence to the contrary. But is it not possible that I could be referring to some other person named Abraham Lincoln who is alive and well in the 21st Century? Is it possible that there existed some other news source called "Twitter" in the 19th Century? There are more than one way to interpret the words. But, left to the most natural reading of the text, we would immediately discard the statement as false because we know that it does not correspond with actual facts. So, this document says that Jesus spoke of His wife. Is it not possible that someone, writing later, was writing something patently false? Is it not possible that some other "Jesus" is the subject of this sentence? Is it possible that some other translation or meaning of the word "wife" is intended? All of these are possibilities. But I want to focus now on the first of them.

3) This document is purportedly from the fourth century AD. Currently, scholars recognize that the oldest New Testament manuscript fragment available to us dates to the early second century AD. In fact, there are reports circulating presently that there is a newly discovered fragment of the Gospel According to Mark that dates to the first century. Internal and external evidence alike confirm that the four Gospels contained in our New Testament are early, eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There is no report of a married Jesus in any of these documents. So, do we discard these in favor of a fragment that may date three hundred years later than those documents? Beyond this, are we absolutely certain that Karen King's bombshell document is actually from the fourth century? It could be a forgery (dating from any era), or it could be actually quite later. But, suppose it came from the first century. Would that make the statement that Jesus had a wife undeniably true? Let me ask, "Do people write things about Barack Obama today that are not true?" Certainly, they do. So the true test is whether or not the information corresponds with historically verifiable documents. And if it says that the Jesus of Scripture and history was married, then it does not. Even Bart Ehrman, who is no friend of conservative evangelicals, admits, "It's certainly not reliable for saying anything about the historical Jesus."

In essence, this document is meaningless. It doesn't prove anything, it doesn't mean anything, if for no other reason than that it doesn't actually say anything! But there are always going to be folks like Karen King who are looking for what they want to see. As Ben Witherington noted, "She does have a dog in this hunt." She comes at the evidence with a bias, for how else can she draw any conclusion from such a small selection of sentence fragments. Apart from this kind of "tabloid scholarship," this document wouldn't gain a second glance. If the document contained more substance, then it might be useful to demonstrate what some people at some particular point in time believed (falsely) about Jesus, but it cannot be used in any way to prove or disprove something about the actual, historical, biblical Jesus Christ.

No, Jesus was not married. But one day He will be. Revelation 19:7-9 says, "Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. ... Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. ... These are true words of God." His bride will be His church, those who are pledged to Him by faith and sealed by the Spirit, whose covenant union with Him will be consummated for eternity when that day comes. You are cordially invited, not only to attend, but to be part of that marriage ceremony as one of His people, whom the Lord Jesus will take to Himself. 

Again, I would point the reader to my earlier work on this subject