Monday, January 21, 2013

Will Work for Food (John 6:25-36)


Drive through any major intersection in town and you will see them there – folks who, for one reason or another, have resorted to asking for handouts from passers-by. Some of them hold cardboard signs on which they’ve scribbled their circumstances or hardship, and some (though I’ve noticed, not as many as there used to be) have signs that say “Will Work for Food.” Obviously, these mean to imply that they are not merely seeking a handout (though most would gladly receive one), but that they are willing to do something – to labor – in exchange for food or for money that they intend to use to buy food. Now, there have been a number of exposés done by various investigative reporters that indicated that some of these were unwilling to actually work, and some who work and get money turn around and use that money to buy drugs or alcohol, but that is not the point. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that they mean what they say, and that they are willing to work for food. Now, essentially, if you work at all, in whatever kind of job you do, you are working for food. You are working to earn an income that you will use to meet the needs of your life, including the food that your body needs to have the energy to continue to work, so that you can continue to eat. It’s a cycle. You work to eat, so that you can work to eat. We may not all hold cardboard signs on street corners, but we all have to work for food in one way or another.

Now, in our text today, Jesus talks about working for food. He talks about two kinds of working, and two kinds of food. And what He says here is a promise to be savored and a warning to be heeded, not only by the crowd that sought Him on that day, but by all of us as well. But before we get to that, we need a reminder of the context – how did we get here to this point in the text? You recall that the first 14 verses of this chapter recounted how Jesus was surrounded by the massive crowd – 5,000 men, plus women and children, maybe 20,000 people in all – and the hour was getting late and the people were hungry, but the only food on hand was five loaves of barley bread and two small fish that had been offered up by a boy in the crowd. And with that small amount of food, Jesus miraculously fed the entire crowd, and they ate as much as they wanted, and they were filled. Now, the next morning, they were looking for Jesus but they couldn’t find Him. Maybe they were hungry again, and were hoping that He would provide the breakfast in the same way He had provided the supper the night before. But they did not realize that Jesus had walked across the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee to join His disciples. Now when they came across to Capernaum, they found Him with His disciples – and verse 59 says He was in the synagogue – they were puzzled and asked Him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Now, verse 26 says, “Jesus answered them and said ….” We might translate this a little better this way: “Jesus answered them by saying ….” Because really, He doesn’t answer the question they asked.

He didn’t answer when, or even how, He got there. Instead, He lays into them about their motive for seeking Him. He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” That’s confusing, isn’t it? Because, they saw the sign, didn’t they? Well, actually no. They saw what Jesus did – they saw how He miraculously made the food, and they ate it, but they did not see the sign; they did not perceive the significance of what He did. He did what He did so they would see who He is. And that’s the part they missed. How do we know they missed it? Easy – Jesus said they missed it! But they demonstrate how badly they missed it, because in spite of what they have seen, they turn right around in verse 30 and say, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?” That question ought to leave you absolutely dumbfounded! How on earth could they ask that? They just ate the food the night before! When their mouths and bellies were full, they were calling Him the promised prophet who was to come, and ready to install Him as their King. But now, they are hungry again, and so they are basically asking him, a la Janet Jackson, “What have you done for me lately?” That’s why, when they say, “Do something for us so we can see and believe,” Jesus responds by saying in verse 36, “You have seen Me, and yet you do not believe.” They are not looking for Jesus because they realize that He is God in the flesh, even though that is what His miracle should have revealed to them. They are seeking Him because, when they were hungry (last night), He fed them; but now it’s a new day, and they are hungry again. What was the question? “When did You get here?” What was the answer? “You sought Me out for all the wrong reasons!”

So, here is where He begins to speak about working for food. There’s two kinds of work, and two kinds of food. And what Jesus says about this is a promise and a warning – a glorious promise to those who do the right work for the right food; and a severe warning to those who do the wrong work for the wrong food. Your joy in this life, and your eternal destiny hangs on getting this right. It’s a big deal. It’s the difference between coming home satisfied at the end of the day, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, or coming home in frustrating despair. Moreover, it’s the difference between eternity spent with Jesus in heaven, and eternity spent separated from Him in hell. This stuff matters that much. So, let’s get into the text and hear these words of Jesus and apply them to our hearts and lives.

I. There’s a severe warning to be heeded: Don’t spend your life doing the wrong kind of work for the wrong kind of food. (v27)

The alarm goes off, you roll out of bed. You shower, dress, have a bite to eat, and head out the door for your job. You work hard all day, you come home exhausted, you have a bite to eat, and you go to bed. Tomorrow, you will do it all over again. And you’ll do that over and over again, and after a while, you will get a paycheck. And you’ll take that paycheck, and you’ll pay your bills, give your offerings, and you’ll buy your groceries. Maybe you have a little money left over to put away in savings or give some away to some away, or do something nice for yourself, but the money vanishes eventually. The food you buy tastes good, but it doesn’t last long, and you’re hungry again, and you run out of groceries, and more bills come in. So you keep on working, keep on paying bills, keep on buying groceries. It goes on an on. And Jesus says if that is all there is to your life, then you are at risk of missing what matters most.

Jesus gives a severe warning here in verse 27: “Do not work for the food which perishes.” Now, what does He mean? Well, let’s consider a few things that He most certainly doesn’t mean. First, He doesn’t mean “Don’t work.” No, you were created to work. That’s not something that you have to do because sin has corrupted the world. Before sin ever entered in, God gave Adam and Eve work to do. Idleness and laziness are not God’s plan for your life. It’s one thing to be unable to work; it’s another to be unwilling to work. So, He doesn’t mean that. And He also doesn’t mean, “Don’t work for food.” God created our bodies so that they need food to survive, and He has created food so that it provides our bodies with nutrients and energy, and He has given us work to do to earn that food. When you work, you are doing something God created you to do. When you earn an honest living, you are being provided for by God through the abilities He has given you. And when you buy food to eat, you are fueling your ability to keep doing what God created you to do so that He will keep meeting your needs through your labors. There’s nothing wrong with that – it is how life works. You eat so that you can work, and you work so you can eat. That’s why Paul said in 2 Thessalonians, “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread” (2 Thess 3:10-12). See, there are these people who are unwilling to work, they are idle, and because they aren’t being productive with their time and energy, they get into sin (Paul says they act like busybodies), and they have to depend on others to eat. No, Paul says that God’s intention is that you work, and that by your work, you earn your food, or the money that you use to buy your food. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not what Jesus is warning us against here.

What Jesus is warning us against here is “working for the food that perishes.” Now, certainly, all food is going to perish. It might go bad before we eat it. But if not, we eat it, and after our body is finished using it for nutrition and energy, it becomes waste. So, we might say that all the food that we work for is food that perishes. But, that’s not the warning. The warning is making this the entire focus of our lives. We are not to be consumed with the pursuit of breakfast, only to then turn our attention to lunch, and then to supper, and so on and so on all day, every day, for our entire lives. And it’s not just food that perishes. It might be stuff. It might be entertainment, a hobby, an experience, whatever. If the goal of our life is to labor to have money so we can have it, and that’s all we’re consumed with, then we are laboring for the food that perishes.

Well, what’s wrong with that? First, there’s no end to it. Eat a meal, you will be hungry again. Jesus said nearly the exact same thing to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He said, “Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again.” But second, if all you are living for is the satisfaction of your physical needs, what will you do about your greater needs? You may say, “Well, I’ve got a roof over my head, food on the table, the bills are getting paid every month, and there’s gas in the tank.” Or you may have much more than that – a lucrative financial portfolio, every tangible item you’ve ever desired, and all that the world prizes. So, you might wonder, “What more do I need?” Well, do you not know that all of those things will perish? They can disappear in an instant, and then what are you left with? Moreover, one day your life will come to an end, and I have yet to see a hearse with a trailer-hitch and a U-Haul behind it. You won’t take any of it with you when you die, but you will stand before God, and what will you have to show for your life? A lot of things? An investment portfolio? A well-stocked pantry? You have labored for the food that perishes.

This is not the only place where Jesus warns us against this. In Matthew 6, Jesus warned against storing up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). In Luke 12, He told a story about a rich man whose land was so productive that he ran out of room to store all of his crops. So he decided to build bigger barns, and boasted to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” But here is what Jesus said of that man: “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” He says that the man “who stores up treasure for himself” is “not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). Maybe rich in the eyes of the world; maybe impressive to every person you meet; but not impressive to God; not rich in the things that matter most. Are we beginning to understand the severity of this warning? Surely the point is driven home in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world …?” We hear that and scoff! “Why, it profits that man a great deal” we would say. But Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Ah, now there is the warning! If you have pursued all these things, but have neglected the greater need of your soul, then you have labored for the food that perishes. What good would it be to be rich in hell? What good would it be to well fed in hell? Would it not rather be better to be poor and in heaven, or hungry and in heaven? That’s not to say that only the poor and hungry will gain heaven. No, not at all. But it is to say that the accumulation of things to the neglect of our greater spiritual need – the filling of our bellies to the neglect of the gaping hole in our soul – is working for the food that perishes. And Jesus warns us severely that we must not do that.  

Do not work for the food that perishes! Of course you have to work. Of course you need food, even food that perishes, and many other perishable things. But don’t make the pursuit of your entire life the accumulation of these things and the satisfaction of your physical, material needs only. Heed this severe warning.

II. There’s a glorious promise to be savored: “He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” (v35)

Remember the warning, “Do not work for the food that perishes.” And then Jesus says that we should work “for the food which endures.” How long does it endure? You know some food kind of stays with you a little longer than others. Do you like pancakes? I love pancakes, smothered in maple syrup. I’m a Baptist, so I don’t believe in sprinkling the pancakes; they’ve got to be immersed. Sometimes I feel like I can eat my own body weight in pancakes, and then I feel like I need someone to roll me out in a wheelbarrow. But a couple of hours later, I feel like I am starving! But there are other foods that are more enduring. We call that kind of food a “stick-to-your-ribs” meal. It stays with you a while. But at best, what are we talking about? A five, six hours, maybe eight? And then you are going to be hungry again. Why? Because this is food that perishes. But Jesus is saying that there is another kind of food that doesn’t perish. It endures, and for longer than a good stick-to-your-ribs meal. This food that Jesus is talking about endures to eternal life. Both the bread and the body that eats it never perishes, but endures forever.

Well, what kind of magic beans to I have to plant to have this kind of food? No, it doesn’t come from magic beans. So how do we get this food that endures to eternal life? Jesus says that He gives this food to us, because the Father has set His seal upon Him (v27). This means that God the Father has consecrated Him for this purpose and certified with His own authority that Jesus Christ, God the Son, has the power and right to give this food. But just a moment before that, He said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” So first He says we should work for it, and then He says He gives it. Now, if it is a gift, we don’t have to work for it; and if we have to work for it, it isn’t a gift. So, which is it? Well, you notice that in verse 28 the people ask, “What shall we do so that we may the works of God?” – that is, what are the works that God requires for us to earn this food that endures to eternal life?

That’s sort of a universal question, isn’t it? There’s an awareness in our souls that things are not right between ourselves and God, and we resort to thinking that there must be something we can do, some work we can perform to earn His favor. Every religious system except one in the world has a prescribed system of rituals and deeds that a person must do to placate the deities, because our minds cannot fathom any other way of remedying the problem. That one exception, among all the beliefs in the world, is Christianity. And Jesus makes the difference clear here in verse 29. He says, “This is the work of God (or the work that God requires of us): that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” So, the work is to not work, but believe. The food that endures to eternal life is a gift given by Christ to those who come to Him by faith. Notice, that the solution is not to believe nebulously in any old thing. Some people talk about having faith, but it becomes clear that there is no specific object of their faith. It’s nothing more than faith in faith, which is foolish and unfounded positive thinking. Jesus doesn’t just say believe, and neither does He say “believe in God.” There are multitudes who believe in a higher power, a divine being or beings, but they have not yet received the gift of eternal life. This belief, this faith, of which Jesus speaks is very specific: it is belief in Him whom He has sent; belief in the one whom God has sent – namely, Jesus Christ. You want to work for this food? You can’t. God the Son, our Lord Jesus has been consecrated and commissioned by His Father to give this eternal life as a free gift to those who cease their striving and rest in Him by faith.

As we mentioned before, the people find these words hard to swallow, as most people do. We are warped by our sin nature to believe that there must be a deed to do; we cannot fathom the riches of His grace. It runs counter to our nature. So, they ask Jesus to prove it. Some of you, or people you know, have such a hard time believing the promises of God’s grace in Christ, that they are always seeking for proof that His promises are true! Their demand is for Jesus to do something that they can see and then they will believe. Of course, He’s already done more than necessary to convince them by the feeding of the multitude, and it’s not that they have forgotten that. It’s just that their stomachs are growling again. They say, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.” What they seem to be indicating is that they are willing to follow Jesus, to believe Him as the promised prophet who was to come in the spirit of Moses, and the King who would reign over them and lead them, but He’s got to keep providing the food. After all, they are thinking, Moses gave our ancestors bread from heaven every morning for forty years! Do You think you will convince us with just one meal?

Jesus’ response is two-fold. First, He corrects a misunderstanding about the source of that food they ate in the days of Moses, the manna that miraculously appeared on the ground every morning during the wilderness wanderings. He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.” Moses didn’t have the ability to provide that bread; it was God Himself who was providing it for them. Notice also that Jesus shifts the tense of the verbs. The Father has given them bread to fill their stomachs in the past, and He gives them the true bread out of heaven even now, in the present. And this bread is not just for the Israelites. Jesus says that the true bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven and gives life to the whole world. There’s so much grace in that promise that we must savor it for a moment – the whole world! That includes you and me, does it not? The true bread of God, this food that endures for eternal life, has come down out of heaven to give life to you. You can just write your name in there. The true bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to _____________. Savor that gracious promise.

You know, I’ve discovered one downside to our church building being right down the street from Stamey’s. At a certain time of day, the air is filled with the aroma of barbeque cooking. And if I’m already a little bit hungry, one sniff of the air moves me from being a little bit hungry to thinking, “You know I think I need barbeque, and quickly.” Well, think about that here: we are a hungry people. We have an insatiable hunger for God and for eternal life in our hearts, if we are willing to admit it. These people talking to Jesus were no different. But now, it is as if He has wafted the aroma of the all-satisfying food of eternal life before their spiritual noses, and their mouths are watering for it. They say, “Lord, always give us this bread!” I mean, this guy’s got bread that will fill us up so that we never have to eat again, and it will keep us alive forever! Hand it over, and let us have some! And then comes this watershed moment of divine revelation, as Jesus tells them that the bread is not something He has, but something He is!

He says, “I am the bread of life.” I am that true bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the food that endures to eternal life. When the gave the food from heaven, He gave Me! I give it, and what I give is Myself! You can’t work for this bread, but you can come to Me and believe in Me. He says, “He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” They will be satisfied forever with Him. The need of the soul is met, and met for all eternity. Savor the glory of this promise! What must you do to work for this food? No, your doing and your working will never get it. You must humble yourself and come to Him with open hands to receive it as a gift – to receive Him as a gift, for He is this bread. You may think, “But surely something must be done! I have sinned against God, and surely I must do something to make that right!” Well, there is something that must be done, but nothing you can do. You see, He has done it all for you. Christ has come for you as a man, God-in-the-flesh, and He has lived the life you cannot live. He has satisfied all of the righteous works of God on your behalf, fulfilling all righteousness in God’s Law. And because the life He lived was lived for you, the death He died was for you as well. You see, as He died, He took all of your sins upon Himself, so that He might bear all the punishment, all the judgment, all the wrath and condemnation that your sins deserve, as a substitute dying in your place. And He has conquered sin and death for you through His resurrection, and ever lives to receive you and save you. In exchange for your sins, placed on Him in His death, He promises to place upon you the perfect righteousness of His life, so that you stand before God, not covered in the filth of your sin, but in the splendor of His holiness. And it is for that reason that Christ, and Christ alone, is able to rescue you from sin and death, to reconcile you to God, and to grant you abundant life through all your days of earthly living by the power of His Holy Spirit, and eternal life with Him forever in heaven when these days come to an end. There is a doing to be done, but it is His doing, and not yours. Your doing is to cease trying to do, in order to earn His favor, and merely to come to Him with open hands outstretched to receive this wondrous gift of His grace. Otherwise, all of our efforts to work our way to Him only add to our condemnation. They are dead works because they cannot save us; and they are deadly works if we think they can.

What work must you do to earn the food that endures to eternal life? Cease your working, and come to Him believing that His work has accomplished it for you. Then you will have Him, and He is the bread of life that comes down from heaven and give life to you, the true bread of God that endures to eternal life, the bread of life that satisfies the hunger and thirst of your soul forever. If you spend your whole life laboring for the food that fills your belly but doesn’t satisfy your soul, then you’ve wasted your life with the wrong kind of work for the wrong kind of food. But if the need of your soul is filled with the bread of life that is Jesus Christ, then you will be forever satisfied in His presence. Wouldn’t it be better to enter heaven, with Christ, with an empty belly, than to be separated from Him forever in hell, though you died with a full belly? And wouldn’t it be better to see to it that others have this bread of life, this food that endures, as well? There is no labor you can do to earn it, but once you have it, you will want to labor until all the world is fed with this bread as well.

Weary, working, burdened one, wherefore toil you so? Cease your doing; all was done long, long ago.
Till to Jesus’ work you cling by a simple faith, “doing” is a deadly thing—“doing” ends in death.
Cast your deadly “doing” down—down at Jesus’ feet; Stand in Him, in Him alone, gloriously complete.[1]  

[1] James Proctor, “It is Finished.” Accessed January 17, 2013.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Looking for Jesus (John 6:16-25)

Don’t you hate it when you misplace something and can’t find it after looking all over for it? People say that you always find those things in the last place you look. Well, I hope that’s true, because if you find it, and then keep looking for it, something is definitely wrong with you. But, I’m sure we’ve all had those times when we find what we are looking for in some strange place and wonder how in the world it managed to get there. And then sometimes, when we are looking for one thing, we never find it, but we find something else that we lost a long time ago and had given up on finding. I heard someone say once that if you can’t find something, try losing something else, and maybe while you are looking for it, you will find the other thing you were looking for. Well, in our text today we read about two groups of people: one who found Jesus in an unlikely place even though they weren’t looking for Him; and another group who didn’t find Him even though they were looking for Him.

Of course, in a way this could summarize the entire human race. In one sense, in our natural human condition, none of us are really looking for Jesus. We are born spiritually dead in sin, and our faculties for seeking God are incapacitated. Paul said in Romans 3:11, “There is none who seeks for God.” Thankfully, once we’ve been born-again, our dead spirits are made alive and we experience and desire the presence of God in our lives, but not before then, and so few have actually experienced this. But then in another sense, in some way, it could be said that all of us are looking for Jesus but don’t realize it. That “something” that every human being is missing and striving to find in life is ultimately only found in Jesus. As Augustine said, “You made us for Yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”[1] People are clamoring for success and money and significance and notoriety and popularity and a host of other things, thinking that those things will fill the void in their lives. But ultimately, only Jesus will fill that void, so albeit unknowingly and in many wrong-headed ways, what they are ultimately seeking is Him. And then it is also true that so many who are struggling through the world without giving even a thought to Jesus are those who actually find Him in the most out-of-the-way places, while those who most overtly and ostentatiously pursue “spirituality” never do in fact actually encounter the Lord Jesus. We see these realities playing out all around us, and many of us could give testimony to it in our own lives. But here in these verses, we see it on display in the circumstances of the disciples in the boat on the one hand, and the throng of people on the shore on the other. In a world filled with people who are looking for Jesus in one way or another, how can we find Him? Let’s see if we can’t find some guidance for the quest here in the text.

I. If you’re looking for Jesus, you will often find Him where you least expect Him (vv16-21).

In 1982, the English Department of San Jose State University launched the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, named in honor of Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It is not your ordinary literature-writing contest. For this contest, writers are challenged to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Though I would suppose that few of us have read any of the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, we would likely all recognize the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. That sentence has become one of the most overly used and clichéd sentences in English literature. You know the sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night.” You know those words, and very likely, you could survey your life and find many evenings that you could describe as a dark and stormy night.

If we were to retell the story about the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee here, we might begin by saying, “It was a dark and stormy night.” They had departed from the eastern edge of the lake near the Golan Heights where Jesus had fed the multitude, while Jesus stayed behind. We might wonder why they took off without Him. Had they forgotten Him? Were they tired of waiting on Him? No, in fact, Mark 6:45 tells us that Jesus had made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side. Why had Jesus done this? Remember that verse 15 said that Jesus had withdrawn and retreated from the crowd “to the mountain by Himself alone” because He perceived that the crowd of upwards of 20,000 who had been fed by the miracle of the fish and bread was plotting to take Him by force and make Him their king. Robert Mounce writes, “It is clear that he did not want his disciples to be caught up in the excitement of the crowd, lest they lend their support to an ill-advised messianic uprising.”[2] So He sent them away from the crowd, but it may seem like they’ve jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. They have escaped the surge of political zeal, only to embark into the storm surge of the turbulent sea.

The Sea of Galilee is, because of its geography, notorious for the uprising of sudden storms. Situated over 600 feet below sea level, cool air blows into the bowl-like area through the corridors of mountains and hills surrounding it, displacing the warm moist air over the lake, “churning up the water in a violent squall.”[3] Even in modern times, “powerboats are to remain docked as the winds buffet the water.”[4] Jesus sent them into this storm, not only knowing that it was possible, but that it was certain. Has it ever occurred to you as you encounter storms in the dark nights of the soul that you experience that the Lord may have designed this storm for you and sent you deliberately into it? Why would He do such a thing? As we are about to see here, He often does this so that we will come to the end of ourselves and find Him there in that unexpected place.

The disciples did the best they could to make it through the storm. They rowed hard for three or four miles (Mark 6:48 says they were “straining at the oars”), placing them nearly in the exact middle of the lake. Having left in the evening, and with Matthew and Mark telling us that the time had now reached the fourth watch, sometime between 3 and 6 AM, they had been at it for nine hours or so, much longer than the trip would have normally required. They had to be exhausted and exasperated. Trying as hard as they could to get through the stormy sea in the dark of night was not working very well for them. Some of you know this feeling. In the dark night of your soul, you have exhausted every personal resource you have at your disposal to weather the storm that threatens you and have realized that there is nothing more you can do to get through it. Just when you wondered if there is any hope at all, and you felt like giving up and giving in, that is when you found Jesus in the most unexpected place.

The Bible tells us that Jesus came out to them. He wasn’t standing on the safe shores urging them to try harder to make it to where He was. He came to them, walking on the stormy sea. That stormy sea that had them straining at the oars was no obstacle for the Lord Jesus. With effortless ease, He walked to meet them and they saw Him drawing near. Straining against the waves, they would have had their backs to their destination, with their faces looking back toward the shore where they had left Jesus. Had they been looking in any other direction, they would not have seen Him. But because they were looking in the right direction, they found Him – they saw Him coming to their aid.

Now, notice the fear of the disciples. In a previous incident, recorded in Mark 4, in which they encountered a storm on the sea while Jesus slept in the boat, they were frightened by the storm. What frightens them in this account is the sight of the Lord drawing near to them. Mark 6:49 says they thought it was a ghost. But Jesus reassured them, saying, “It is I.” And because it is Jesus Himself who comes to them, He can speak to them saying, “Do not be afraid.” If He is present, there is nothing to fear, no matter how severe the storm we encounter. And this miracle was designed by the Lord Jesus to teach those who follow Him that He is always present with us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.[5] He has promised, “Lo I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20), and “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Therefore, we must not be surprised to find Him in unlikely places for He is never far from those who are His.

II. If you’re looking for Jesus, you will seldom find Him where you presume Him to be (vv22-25).

Back in July of last year, a reader wrote into The Huffington Post asking, “The day after a big meal, I go to bed feeling stuffed and wake up hungrier than ever. Why is that?” The medical expert who responded to the question admitted that, though he also had experienced that sensation, “the truth is, we don’t have a rigorous scientific answer for this.”[6] Have you ever had that experience? I’m sure most of us had. Apparently the crowd of people that Jesus fed on the far side of the Sea of Galilee had that experience as well. Jesus had miraculously multiplied five loaves and two fish, and the people had eaten “as much as they wanted” and “were filled” (vv11-12). After the meal, many of them just made camp and settled in for the night rather than traveling back to their homes by foot in the late hours. And when they woke up, I can imagine them raising their arms in a good stretch, and saying, “Man, am I ever hungry! What’s for breakfast?” Well, they had no food, which is why Jesus had performed the miracle. So, what’s the next thought they have after realizing they have no food for breakfast? “Hey, we don’t need food, we’ve got Jesus! Where is He? Let’s see if He can whip up some eggs and bacon!” Well, maybe not bacon – they were Jews, after all – but you get the idea. They studied the situation. “Hmm. We saw the disciples leave in their boat, and we saw Jesus go up into the mountain, and the only other boat available is still here, so He must be around here somewhere.”

Other boats began to arrive – perhaps they had come because word had spread about the feeding of the multitude. Maybe they heard about what He had done, and they wanted to find Him for themselves, so they have gone off to the place where they expected Him to be. Maybe some of them were venture capitalists who saw a stranded multitude far from home as a lucrative market for a water taxi service to get them back home. Some may have just been blown that way by the storm during the night. Whatever the case, apparently a search party was arranged to go looking for Jesus, but it was in vain. The crowd discovered that “Jesus was not there” (v24). What a startling discovery, to realize that the Lord is nowhere to be found, especially in the places where you presumed Him to be. But some of us have learned that He seldom is.

If you were looking to find Jesus, where would you go? You might think of some elaborate temple or magnificent cathedral. You might think of some place of natural beauty. Maybe you’ve heard of others who found Jesus at a particular place and time, through some particular act or ritual and you think, “I should go to that place, I should do that thing, and I will find him too.” But often we come away from those places or rituals feeling like something was missing. We didn’t find what we were looking for.

I think of the sense of despair in a song from Crosby, Stills and Nash called “Cathedral,” in which Graham Nash writes about a visit to Hampshire’s historic Winchester Cathedral while he was high on LSD. The song mentions the architectural beauty, and the efforts of those present to beautify the place. But ultimately Nash sings, “I’m flying in Winchester Cathedral, all religion has to have its day. Expressions on the face of the Saviour made me say I can’t stay. Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here. Too many people have lied in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call. So many people have died in the name of Christ that I can’t believe at all.” I don’t want to psychoanalyze this song or its composer, but I can’t help thinking that Nash was confessing that his drugs did not deliver what he had hoped for, and so he wandered into the church hoping to find it there. But he left realizing that he had not encountered Christ there. I compare that song with another, a U2 song which says, “I have climbed highest mountains, I have run through the fields only to be with you. I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls only to be with you. I have kissed honey lips, felt the healing in the fingertips … I have spoke with the tongue of angels, I have held the hand of a devil … but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

All around us there are people who, in one way or another are seeking something they can only find in Jesus Christ. Where might they think to find Him? They might have thought to seek Him in a church, but they left disillusioned having encountered grouchy people and endured a long talk about some pastor’s opinion about a social issue or what it means to be happy and successful. They didn’t see Christ in the lives of those gathered there, and they didn’t hear Him speaking to them by His Spirit through His Word. And that has left them convinced that if they are going to find what they are looking for, they won’t find it in a Christian Church. The problem with their conclusion is that they are unaware that many of those people they have met are not, in fact genuine Christians, and though those buildings might have had steeples, pulpits, and organs, they are not churches in the biblical sense. But because they didn’t find Jesus in the place where they presumed Him to be, they’ve either given up the quest or begun to look for Him elsewhere.

But if they are ever to find Him at all, it will likely be in the least expected places. He will be found wherever those who truly follow Him are found, and where His word is going forth. That hungry crowd, not finding Him where they expected Him to be, made their way to the place where His followers had gone, and there they found the Master. And when they did, they said, “Rabbi, when did You get here?” They found Him in a place they never expected Him to be. They were pretty sure He wasn’t with His followers because they had seen them without Him the night before. But that is in fact where He was, because He is never far away from His people.

These two groups of people in the text we’ve been studying today are like everyone in the world today. There are those who know Him, who are following Him, but who find themselves caught in a storm, and can’t seem to find Him with them in the midst of it. Try as they may in their own efforts, they can’t seem to improve their circumstances. But as despair threatens to set in, they find Jesus coming to them, in the place they least expected Him to be, and He speaks peace and comfort to them in the midst of the storm, and gets them safely to the other side. Maybe you’re in that storm today. Maybe you’ll find yourself there sometime this week. And if you’re looking in the right direction, you will see Him walking out across the sea to bring peace and comfort to you and to guide you safely through the storm. And I hope when you see Him coming, you will do what the disciples did. “They were willing to receive Him into the boat.” Let Him come alongside of you in the midst of your storm, and He will guide you safely through it.

But there are also those who are like the crowd. They are not His followers, they have no personal relationship with Him. But they are looking for Him, some for the wrong reasons, and some in the wrong places. Maybe you are one of those. What is it that you are hoping to gain in your search? Are you seeking Jesus because of who He is or because of what He can give you? And where are you seeking Him? Your presumption might be that you will find Him where the architecture is grand, or the natural beauty is rich, or where the rituals are followed with precision, or where you’ve heard others say they encountered Him. But maybe your search in those places has come up empty. Maybe you’ve decided to give up the quest. Don’t give up the search, because He hasn’t given up His quest to find you and save you. To save you, He has pursued you all the way to the cross where He died for your sins. Look to the cross and find Him there, reaching out with His arms stretched wide. That’s where all of His followers have found Him, weathering the storm of God’s judgment on our behalf in order to bring us safely home at the end of our journey.

Wherever you find Him, the main thing is that you find Him, and that He finds you. He will seldom be where we presume Him to be, and often be where we least expect Him to be. We’ll be surprised and we’ll wonder, “Lord, when did You get here?” And He’ll say to us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

[1] Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Classics edition; translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin; New York: Penguin Putnam, 1961), 21.
[2] Robert Mounce, “John” in Expositors’ Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Volume 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 438-439.
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 275.
[4] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 204.
[5] Merrill Tenney, “John,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 73.
[6] Meredith Melnick, “Why am I Hungry After a Big Meal?”, Huffington Post, 7/18/2012. Online at Accessed January 10, 2013. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Master Manifested at a Miraculous Meal (John 6:1-15)

Today we resume our study of the Gospel According to John, after several weeks of observing Advent through the songs recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Picking up where we left off back in November, we begin today with Chapter 6. In the first portion of this chapter, we read of the feeding of the five thousand. That is a bit of a misnomer, as all of the Gospels indicate that the number of the people included 5,000 men, while Matthew states clearly that there were women and children in addition to these men. Therefore, most estimates would number this crowd of people to be perhaps 20,000 or more. The significance of this miracle is understood by the fact that it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to be included in all four Gospels.

John begins the chapter with the words, “After these things.” On the surface, one would assume that “these things” would be the events recorded in the verses immediately prior. However, when we look back on these verses, we notice that the last account took place in Jerusalem, while this one takes place on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. There has been a lot of ground covered that John does not record for us. Additionally, the events of Chapter 5 take place around some “feast of the Jews” that is not specified, while John 6:4 tells us that this event took place just prior to Passover. If the feast in John 5 was one of the Fall Feasts, then six months or so have passed. Some suggest that the unnamed feast in John 5 was Passover, meaning that an entire year has elapsed. In either case, much time has passed and much ground has been covered when Chapter 6 opens.

We know from the other Gospels that just before this time, Herod Antipas, the Roman’s puppet governor of the Galilean region, had ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. And we also know that Jesus had sent His disciples on a ministry assignment around Galilee. Herod was so unsettled by all that God was doing through Jesus and His disciples in the region that he wondered if John the Baptist had risen from the dead. With His popularity surging and crowds gathering wherever Jesus went, He had withdrawn to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee with His disciples, to the area that today is called the Golan Heights, for some rest and fellowship with them. He intended to use this time to debrief with them about their ministry assignments in Galilee (Mark 6:30-31) and to speak frankly with them about His future, including His death, and to prepare them for what was to come (Luke 9:10). With hostility arising from the authorities, Jesus had also hoped that this time away would allow for the excitement to die down a bit so He could continue on with His mission. We also know that Jesus was seeking somewhere to grieve privately over the death of John the Baptist, His kinsman, His forerunner, and His friend.[1] But the crowd of people following Jesus would not relent, and as Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat, the growing crowd travelled by foot around the northern end of the lake and met Him on the far side.

Why was this crowd following Him? John tells us in verse 2 that it was because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. They are like so many others we have met in the Gospels who were interested in Jesus in much the same way that we might be interested in a sideshow or a magician. It is a combination of curiosity mixed with a selfish interest in what He might be able to do for them. Though they witnessed the miracles, they did not perceive the ultimate reality beneath the miracles – the revelation of Jesus as God the Son, the Messiah who had come to redeem humanity from the curse of sin. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw this crowd coming to Him, “He felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Out of His compassion for their deep spiritual needs, the first thing that Jesus did was to teach them “many things.” And as this time of teaching went on and the hour became late, His disciples began to ask Him to send the people away so that they could go and find something to eat. And so the stage is set for what we read here in John 6:1-15. And Jesus here takes action to perform a tremendous supernatural miracle. And in this miracle, as in all of His miracles, He demonstrates something about Himself.  The other gospels draw attention to His compassion, and certainly it is on full display here; but John directs our attention to other attributes of Christ as this narrative unfolds. As we see what He does, our understanding of who He is should be affected, and this has the power to shape us as we seek to know and follow Him.

I. Christ’s infinite wisdom is revealed in His preparations. (vv5-10)

I, for one, was not sad to see 2012 come to an end. It was a difficult year for me. Over the last year, I’ve had several reminders that I do not handle stress and anxiety well in my own power. When things seem to get out of control, I tend to panic and scramble to try to wrestle those things back under reign. But what God has been teaching me through these things is that, although things are often out of my control, they are never out of His. In His infinite wisdom, He is always at work in our circumstances in ways that we may not even perceive. And when He is at work, He is accomplishing something beneficial for us, even when we do not understand what it is.

I am captivated by the phrase in verse 6 here that says “He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” You have to behold the chaos of this scene. The crowd is massive; the people are hungry; the hour is late; there is no food; there is no money to buy food, and no place to buy it anyway. If you asked the disciples, they would say that things had gotten out of hand. In fact, Jesus did ask one of the disciples: Philip. Being a native of the nearby town of Bethsaida, Philip was a natural choice for the question Jesus asked: “Where are we to buy bread?” But the question was only a test to see how Philip would view the situation. Had he matured in his walk with Jesus to the point of trusting that Jesus knows what He is doing, or would he view it only with his human eyes and see things only from a natural perspective? He shows us with his answer. He says, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for everyone to receive a little.” Two hundred denarii was equal to about 8 months of wages for the average worker in that day. And according to Philip, even if they had this much money, it would not be enough to feel thousands people more than just a bite. He failed the test. He was still looking at things through human eyes and a natural perspective. He was not thinking supernaturally about what Jesus had the power to do. He responded to the situation by giving up hope. In His wisdom, Jesus proved the spiritual mettle of His followers with this single, simple question.

But another disciple had a somewhat different perspective, and in His wisdom, Jesus had arranged circumstances in such a way that even a small glimmer of faith could shine through. While Philip was crunching numbers and seeing all that could not be done, Andrew came with a more positive report, albeit only slightly more positive. Andrew has gone around the massive crowd to see what supplies he can muster in his own effort. He’s found one boy, a lad (the Greek word could mean a person ranging in age from a young child to a man in his early 20s), who has five barley loaves and two fish. This is not much food. The loaves would have been very small, and barley was the common staple grain of the very poor. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo said that barley was “suited for irrational animals and people in unhappy circumstances.”[2] The fish were not big at all; they were small, pickled fish that were used as a relish for the bland barley cakes to give them flavor. Andrew recognized that this quantity of food was “ludicrously inadequate” to feed such a crowd.[3] He said, “What are these for so many people?” If Philip’s response to the situation was one of giving up hope, Andrew’s was more that of trying harder. What we will find as we go through difficulties in life is that neither approach is sufficient. While Andrew’s attempts to try harder to solve the problem were not sufficient, with faith as tiny as a mustard seed, he does the one thing that we all have to learn to do. He brought the boy with the food to Jesus, and the boy gave what he had to Jesus. I tell you, if nothing more had been done on that day, this much would have been a success. You have never failed if you’ve brought someone to Jesus; and you’ve never failed if you’ve given what you have to Jesus. In His infinite wisdom, Jesus had arranged the circumstances so that Andrew would see the futility of his own self-effort, and in utter desperation do the only thing he knew to do – hand the situation over to Jesus. And this is what Jesus had been waiting for: someone to finally recognize that if the situation was going to improve, it was not going to be by giving up hope or trying harder but by turning it all over to Him.

We also notice the infinite wisdom of Jesus on display in v10, where we read that Jesus ordered for the disciples to have the people sit down in the grass, and this they did. The other Gospels tell us that Jesus had the disciples to arrange the people in groups of hundreds and fifties. You see, Jesus knew what he was intending to do. And in order to do what He intended to do, He took measures to do it well. Notice He had the people to sit, so that the crowd would be stabilized and there would be no rush, and so that the serving of the people would be expedited. Another reason perhaps is that the people, once seated, would all have a better view to see what Jesus was about to do. They would be able to see the miracle that was about to take place with their own eyes. But also don’t miss this point – that Jesus desires to put His disciples to work in His mission. He gives them an assignment to carry out. It wasn’t necessary to do it this way, but in His infinite wisdom Jesus creates opportunities for His followers to serve Him and invites them to join in His work.

Now, before we leave this point about the infinite wisdom of Christ, let’s draw out some practical points. First, when situations seem out of hand to you, are you confident that they are not out of the Master’s hand? Do you trust that He knows what He is doing? How do you respond to stressful situations? Do you try to sort out the logistics of it all in your head, and ultimately conclude that it is hopeless and give up? Do you try harder to fix the problem in your own self-effort? Or do you take the situation to Jesus and hand it all over to Him? And through it, are you looking for others that you can bring to Jesus in the midst of the circumstances, and for ways that He is inviting you to participate in His work? When we behold His infinite wisdom we come to understand that He is always in control, even and especially when things are beyond our control. We are confident that as long as He is with us, we must not give up hope because He knows what He intends to do. He may be testing our ability to view things with the eyes of faith, and our response indicates whether we pass or fail the test. We understand that trying harder is not the solution, but entrusting matters to Him is! And we see a place carved out for us by the very circumstances we are in: a place for us to serve Him and to serve others, and a place for us to bring others to Him. Only Jesus in His infinite wisdom can accomplish these things in the midst of chaotic scenarios.

II.  Christ’s unlimited power is revealed in His provision (vv11-13)

Notice again Andrew’s question in v9. Here is a boy with five loaves and two fish. “What are these for so many people?” Five thousand men, plus women and children; maybe 20,000 people there, and we’ve got one boy’s snack to feed them all with. Surely this is not enough. But what everyone on that hillside is about to be faced with is the truth that though these are not enough, Christ Himself is enough. This small amount of food cannot meet their need, but this wonderful Savior can. As He provides for them all, His unlimited power is displayed.

It is really interesting, the lengths to which some will go to undermine the authority of God’s Word. This passage has been tinkered with by some who simply refuse to believe that Christ has the power to do what He did here. There are a group of so-called scholars who say that if there was a miracle at all here, it was a miracle of the human spirit. They say that this crowd had been hiding their food and unwilling to share it with their fellow-man, but seeing the boy’s willingness to give Jesus his food, they were all moved in their hearts to break out their food and share it as well. I suppose stranger things have happened, yet I cannot fathom why, in the wake of an event such as this, that the people would conclude that Jesus was the promised Messiah and desire to make Him their king. If anything, it seems that they would rather applaud the boy with the fish and bread rather than Jesus. But the people were aware that Jesus had done something extraordinary here. They saw it, they experienced it, and they ate it. Then there have been others who suggest that enough food was mustered up to give everyone present a tiny morsel of food, much like we receive when we share in the Lord’s Supper. Again, this seems very odd, for certainly it couldn’t have been possible with just five loaves and two fish; and if there was more food than this, then why was it significant to mention the boy with his loaves and fish at all?

But more than just this, notice how unlimited the power of Jesus is as He reveals His nature through this miracle. First, notice what Jesus does with the loaves and fish. He “gave thanks.” Whom did He thank? He might have thanked the boy, but the other Gospels tell us more. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that He took the loaves and fish and He looked up into heaven. Just as the boy had offered what He had to Jesus, so Jesus offers it up to His Father in heaven. In the NASB and some other English versions, Matthew and Mark say that next Jesus “blessed the food.” If you look at that text in Matthew 16:19 or Mark 6:41, you will see that the words “the food” are in italics, meaning that they are not found in the original Greek text, but were added by the translators. And, in this case, I believe the translators got it wrong. I do not believe that Jesus blessed the food, I believe that He blessed God by giving Him thanks for this provision of food. The traditional Jewish prayer offered up before a meal would say something like this: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.” Jesus is, by His actions and words here, indicating that whatever we have, we have from God’s gracious hand; and what we have from God’s gracious hand is enough to supply our need.

Now the text says that He distributed the food to the people. The other Gospels explain that He began breaking the bread and dividing the fish and giving it to the disciples to distribute. And as He broke the bread, He kept on breaking it. And as He divided the fish, He kept on dividing the fish. The more He broke and gave out, the more there was to break and give out. As the food was all distributed, notice that the people had “as much as they wanted” and “they were filled.” Jesus did not merely have the power to generate a tiny morsel for everyone. He had the power to take what was offered to Him and make it into a satisfying meal for the entire multitude. Philip was concerned that 8 months’ salary would not provide even a little for everyone; but Jesus was able to produce much more than that from much less.

In fact, so abundant was His provision that there were leftovers. In keeping with custom, Jesus ordered that the leftovers be gathered. Jewish custom required anything larger than an olive not go to waste.[4] John only mentions the bread, but Mark tells us there was leftover fish as well. And the leftovers amounted to twelve baskets full. The disciples may have thought, as they distributed all of this food to others, “What about us? Is He going to let us starve?” But, they were not overlooked in the provision, as each had enough to supply their needs for several days. In fact, what they were left with was more than they started with! So unlimited is His power.

Before we move on, a couple of practical points can be drawn out. First, we must never underestimate the power of Jesus to meet our needs. Now, just because He can does not mean that He always will in the way that we think is best. How He chooses to meet our needs is up to Him. Our part is simply to trust Him to meet them in the way that He knows is best. Second, we must come to see that all that we have comes from His hands anyway. Just as Jesus received the bread and fish from the boy, and then blessed God with thanksgiving for it, so we must understand that no matter whose hands deliver the provision, it ultimately comes from the nail scarred hands of Jesus. Whatever good things come our way come as blood-bought blessings from Him, when all we deserve from Him is wrath. Also, when we see the Lord providing for others in abundance, we must not become bitter or envious. We should rejoice that they are receiving such a blessing, and trust that if we belong to Him, we will not be overlooked in the distribution of His provisions. Even if what we receive are leftovers, the leftovers of the Lord are far better than the main course of any other. And when we observe the meticulous care of the Lord, who preserves even the morsels of food that have fallen to the ground, we must delight in knowing that His love for us is even greater. He will preserve us as well, and not suffer those who are His own to be trampled underfoot or to waste away and perish. The morsels are gathered into baskets; His people are held securely in the very nail-scarred hands that provide for us.

This miracle reveals the infinite wisdom and the unlimited power of Jesus. But it was intended to do more than this. He Himself knew what He was intending to do. And ultimately He intended to reveal something even more important than His wisdom and power.

III. His saving purpose is revealed in His person.

I knew a pastor once who carried around a little card that he would leave in the doors of people he went to visit who were not at home. The card said, “I came to tell you about Jesus. Missing me is not a big deal; missing Him is.” I think of that when I think of this miracle. The point of it was not that the people got their bellies filled. If they missed the meal, it would not have been a big deal. But if they miss Jesus in this, it is a very big deal. It would be a tragedy to leave that hillside and rejoice over how delicious and satisfying the meal was, only to forget the splendor and glory of the One who provided it. You see, Jesus’ intention was not just to put food in their mouths. After all, this is the same Jesus who told the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.” Jesus fed the people for now, but they will hunger later. His intent was to show them that they have a greater need that food cannot satisfy. But just as He is able to satisfy their hunger with food, so He can satisfy the greater need for all eternity. Once He meets the need of spiritual hunger in their lives, they will never hunger in that way again.

When the people had eaten their fill, v14 says that they proclaimed, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” It is interesting that, of all the Old Testament references to the Messiah, they chose this one. It comes from Deuteronomy 18, where Moses tells the people that in the future, the Lord will raise up a prophet like himself from among them. While every genuine prophet was a partial fulfillment of this promise, many rightly understood that the Messiah would be the ultimate fulfillment, and the final prophet sent from God. But what is interesting about it is that the people seem to be focused, not on the “prophet” aspect of the promise, but the “like Moses” aspect. Moses was considered to be the agent God used to bring the manna to the people in the wilderness, and so here was a new Moses providing the people with a new manna in the wilderness. And because of this, they sought to make Jesus their king. They didn’t say this, but they didn’t have to. Remember that John 2:24-25 says that Jesus knew all men and knew what was in man. He perceived that they wanted to take Him by force to make Him king. Surely a mob of 20,000 people could amass quite a force to do battle under their newly crowned King.

Now, notice that nowhere here do we read that they were wrong in their conclusions. In fact, Jesus was that Prophet who had been promised, and He was the King who was to come. The irony of this is that they could not make Him more of a King than He already was. The problem was that He had not come to be the kind of King that they wanted. In their minds, here was a King who could fill their bellies and rescue them from the oppression of Rome. But in reality, if that is all that Jesus came to do for them, they would not be much better off than they already were. The fact is that He came to satisfy a deeper need than physical hunger, and to deliver them from a greater bondage than that of Rome. He came to redeem them from sin and to reconcile them to God. This victory would not be accomplished by defeating a Roman army on the battlefield, but by defeating sin, death, and Satan on the cross. He would not “wield the spear and bring the judgment,” but rather He would “receive the spear” and “bear the judgment” as He died for man’s sin to save us.[5]

Jesus was unwilling to become what they wanted. He was steadfastly committed to being for them what they needed: not a commanding general, but a suffering Savior. So, rather than giving in to their corrupted desires, He withdrew from them alone, taking not even His disciples with Him as He ventured further up into the Golan Heights. Hear the words of John MacArthur as he applies this important truth to us all:

Jesus “comes to no man on that man’s terms. People cannot manipulate Him for their own selfish ends. … People do not come to Christ on their terms, so that He can heal their broken relationships, make them successful in life, and help them feel good about themselves. Instead, they must come to Him on His terms. … Even today, He continues to withdraw from those who seek Him for their own self-serving ends, just as He did from the crowd that sought to make Him king on their terms.”[6]
A few verses beyond our text here, Jesus will say, “You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. … I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. … Everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise Him up on the last day” (6:26, 35, 40).

What do you seek from Jesus? Do you seek in Him one who will always grant what you desire? One who will be for you what you want Him to be? Or do you come to Him in humble recognition of your true spiritual need – that you are a helpless sinner without hope before God unless Christ in His mercy rescues you through His cross? Are you seeking in Him a King who will reign over your own Kingdom and follow your agenda, or are you prepared to surrender to Him as King over His own Kingdom and yield to His agenda? If you enter into His Kingdom, you are committing yourself to One who is infinitely wise, who knows your needs before you ask them, and who meets those needs in the way that He deems best for you. He welcomes you and bids you to become part of His Kingdom work by His grace. In His unlimited power, He provides for you so that all that you have comes from His hand as a blood-bought blessing. He may be all you have; and when He is, then gloriously and graciously you find Him to be even more than you need. And as your King, He will carry you through the battles of this life, holding you in His grasp. And when this life and this world has done its very worst to you, bringing you at last into the throes of death, He offers you eternal life and promises to raise you up with Him on the last day. Oh that we might find all our longings, all our desires, and all of our hunger satisfied in Him and in Him alone as we turn to Him and walk with Him by faith.

[1] Merrill Tenney, "John" in The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 71.
[2] Cited in Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 201 fn. 4.  
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 270).
[4] Kostenberger, 220 fn. 20.
[5] Carson, 273.
[6] John MacArthur, John 1-11 (MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 2006), 225-226. 

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Kenosis (Philippians 2:5-11): The Church's Song of Wonder

Over this season of Advent and Christmas, we’ve been examining together the songs that were sung by saints of old, recorded for us in the Gospel According to Luke, that celebrated the birth of the Savior. We looked at Zacharias’ song of praise, the Benedictus. We also examined the Magnificat, the song of Mary, an amazing, ordinary woman. Then we took up the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s beautiful song of salvation. And on the last Lord’s day, we looked at the Gloria, the angels’ song of glory to the newborn King. But though Christmas has passed, the songs go on. We know that music was an important part of the worship of the church from the earliest time. They sang psalms (the same Psalms you can read in the Bible today); they sang hymns (songs written to proclaim the glories of God in Christ); and they sang spiritual songs (songs that likely expressed the joy of the life of the Christian). Thankfully, some of those early songs have been preserved for us, in portions and fragments, in the New Testament and in the writings of the church fathers. One of the most well preserved hymns of the early church is this one that we find in Philippians 2:5-11. The text is known to many as the Kenosis, a Greek word that means “emptying,” which is found in verse 7 of this hymn. It is a song about how the Lord Jesus “emptied Himself,” and became one of us. Thus, though Christmas celebrations as we know them arose much later in Christian history, this song is a fitting one for this time of year, and a fitting one for us to conclude our series of messages on the Songs of Christmas. This is not the song of an ancient Hebrew who was looking forward to what the incarnate Christ would do. This is a song for the church to sing – a song of wonder at the miracle of Christ’s coming for us and for our salvation.

Soon, if not already, the gifts will have all been given, regifted, returned, or put away for time indefinite. The decorations will all disappear until next November or December. Our snowy wintery scenes will be replaced by images of the flowers of spring. But the wonder of Christmas is not found in these things. The true wonder of Christmas is a reality that abides with us throughout the year and throughout all of time and eternity. It is that wonder of which we sing as the redeemed people of God, expressed so beautifully for us here in the Kenosis hymn.

I. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s eternal existence (v6a) – “He existed in the form of God.”

In this brief phrase, the Apostle Paul tells us two things in particular about Christ’s existence prior to that holy night in the little town of Bethlehem. Though we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, we are not celebrating the beginning of his existence at this time. In fact, there is no passage in all the Bible which says anything of Jesus coming into existence. Rather we read over and over again that He is the one who brought all things into existence. “In the beginning,” John says, “was the Word,” and this “Word became flesh.” Jesus said to His critics, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” The prophecy of Isaiah 9:6 was that a child would be born, but a Son, it says, would be given. Jesus did not come into existence on Christmas day at Bethlehem. It is biblically accurate to say that He came into the world. This is the wording of John in his gospel and his letters, and it is the wording of the writer of Hebrews. Paul says that for all of eternity past, “He existed.”

Not only did He exist, but He existed in the form of God. The wording that is used by Paul here is a word that indicates a correspondence with reality. He existed in the form of God because He really was God. From the very first page of the Bible we are presented with the mystery of the Trinity. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Hebrew text, God is Elohim, a plural noun; but the verb created is singular. This God Elohim speaks to Himself saying, “Let us make make man in our image.” Then in Deuteronomy, the great Shema passage, the Israelites are told that Yahweh is Elohim, and He is one. The mystery of the Trinity is this one God, existing in three persons – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. God is three persons, each person is fully God, and there is only one God. That is a complicated truth, but it is nonetheless explicitly clear in the Scriptures.
Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” The Isaiah prophecy about this child being born, this Son being given, says that He shall be called among other things, “The Mighty God.” John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The writer of Hebrews said that the Son “is the radiance of” the Father’s “glory and the exact representation of His nature.”
This is one of the wonders of Christmas – this Jesus whom we celebrate on Christmas has always existed and always will, and He is God. But consider also …
II. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s incarnation (vv6b-8a) – He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man ….”
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central focus of Christmas. The word incarnation means that God took to himself a human nature; the Word became flesh; God became a man. This union of the two natures has been called the hypostatic union, meaning that the divine nature and the human nature are united in one being in Jesus Christ. He is not half-God and half-man. He is fully God and fully man. He did not stop being God to become a man, but rather manifested His divine nature in and through His human nature.

Paul details two movements of the incarnation. First, he describes the divine movement of the incarnation in vv 6b-7a. We read that Christ “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself.” The first part of this phrase is difficult because the Greek wording that is used is rare in the Scriptures and in secular Greek. In some places it was used to describe the act of robbery, hence the KJV translates this that Jesus “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” This, however, is a rather poor rendering of the text, because it sounds to us like it is exactly opposite the intention of the context. This sounds like equality with God was what Jesus was aiming for. But the context makes it clear, this was not His goal; it was His starting point. He was equal with God because He was God. It is helpful for us to know that the Greek word used here was often used to describe an advantage or benefit, and in the case of robbery, it was what the person sought to gain in the robbery. So the real idea here is that even though Jesus existed in the form of God, He did not see that as a benefit to take advantage of. He did not try to hold on to His deity, but He emptied Himself.

This idea of emptying is found 5 times in the NT, all in Paul’s writings, and each time it has the figurative notion of nullifying something or making it of no account. So the idea is not that Jesus purged Himself of deity. In one of my favorite hymns, Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” there is a line that says, “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace—Emptied Himself of all but love.” This line can be confusing because it suggests that the only divine attribute that Jesus retained in His incarnation was His infinite love. Yet that is certainly not what Paul means here, and it is most likely not what Charles Wesley meant when he wrote “And Can It Be.” Rather, Christ emptied Himself by “taking the form of a servant.” His human form “served as a temporary veil cloaking” the form of God, which He still possessed in the fullness of all of His glorious divine attributes.[1] At the Mount of Transfiguration, the fullness of His divine glory was made visible through the veil of His humanity. So it was not that He became any less God in the incarnation, but rather that He did not cling to His deity. He made Himself of no account, and took upon Himself a human nature. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says it this way, “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor.” He gave up His glorious prominence in heaven, and came to live among us.

This brings us to the human movement of the incarnation, described in vv7b-8a. Jesus emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man. Notice that Christ took the form of a bond-servant. The One who was the rightful Master of all that is became a servant. Jesus said in Mark 10:45 that He came not to be served, but to serve. In John 13, we read that during His last supper, as the disciples were clamoring over who was the greatest in the kingdom, the One who truly is the greatest took up a basin and a towel and began to wash the feet of the others. The One who deserves to be served by us came to serve us and meet our most pressing need – the need for salvation from sin.  

Then we notice that Christ was made in the likeness of men. He experienced a natural birth, though He was born of a virgin. He might have had his mother’s eyes, or her nose. Contrary to much of the art through the last 20 centuries, He did not have a halo around His head (and neither did His mother for that matter). He looked no different from any other person around Him. But it is not sufficient to say that Christ merely appeared as a man. In the latter first century, a group of heretics called the Docetics began teaching that Christ merely appeared to be human, but that He really did not become a man. For example, they claimed that Jesus did not leave footprints in the sand where He walked, or that if you attempted to strike Him, your hand would pass right through Him. These were some of the early forerunners of the Gnostics that get so much publicity today in the writings of biblical critics and skeptics. And the really interesting thing is that it is claimed by so many today that the Gnostics got it right, because they knew Jesus was just an ordinary man, but it was the apostles and their followers who erred by making Jesus out to be God. Well, that’s not just bad theology, it is bad history. In fact, the Gnostics did not view Jesus as “just a man.” They did not view Him as a man at all. The Docetics were one of many proto-gnostic groups that viewed Jesus as thoroughly divine and supernatural, and his humanity was merely something of an illusion. Certainly the apostles and their followers did proclaim Christ as divine, but not more divine than the Gnostics. The apostolic teaching was that Christ was fully divine, but that He was also fully human, something that the Gnostics seldom if ever claimed. He was made in the likeness of men. In Jesus Christ, God truly became one of us! Thus, the Apostle John says that one who says Christ has not come in the flesh is antichrist (2 John 1:7).  

He was fully God and fully man. Consider this: In the Gospels we read that He hungered, and yet He also multiplied the loaves and fish to feed 5,000. He thirsted, and He also turned water into wine. He slept in the hull of a ship, and yet He woke up to calm the raging sea. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and then He called him out from death and restored Him to life. He died. And then He rose again! All these instances point to the fact that Jesus was fully man and fully God in one being. This is His incarnation, and this is the wonder of Christmas.

III. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s mission (8b-9) -- He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.

Often in the midst of our singing and storying during Christmas, we lose sight of the fact that this baby in Bethlehem’s stable came for a purpose. The hands and feet of this little baby would be pierced at the cross. The sacred head would be wounded with a crown of thorns. The popular Christian writer, Max Lucado, captured this reality very well in his book God Came Near as he imagines a prayer that Mary could have prayed following the birth of Jesus:

… God, O infant-God. … Sleep well. … Rest well, tiny hands. … Your hands, so tiny … clutched tonight in an infant’s fist. They aren’t destined to hold a scepter …. They are reserved instead for a Roman spike that will staple them to a Roman cross.

Sleep deeply, tiny eyes. Sleep while you can. For soon … you will see the mess we have made of your world. … You will see our selfishness, for we cannot give. You will see our pain, for we cannot heal. O eyes that will see hell’s darkest pit and witness her ugly prince, sleep … sleep while you can.

Lay still, tiny mouth. … Tiny tongue that will soon summon the dead, that will define grace, that will silence our foolishness. Rosebud lips—upon which ride a starborn kiss of forgiveness to those who believe you, and of death to those who deny you—lay still.

And tiny feed cupped in the palm of my hand, rest. For many difficult steps lie ahead for you. Do you taste the dust of the trails you will travel? … Do you wrench at the invasion of the nail you will bear? … Rest, tiny feet. Rest today so that tomorrow you might walk with power. For millions will follow in your steps.

And little heart … holy heart … pumping the blood of life through the universe: How many times will we break you? You’ll be torn by the thorns of our accusations. You’ll be ravaged by the cancer of our sin. You’ll be crushed under the weight of your own sorrow. And you’ll be pierced by the spear of our rejection. Yet in that piercing, … you will find rest. You hands will be freed, your eyes will see justice, your lips will smile, and your feet will carry you home. And there you’ll rest again—this time in the embrace of your Father.[2]

So it is that the life that we celebrate the birth of each December will eventually experience the death that we recognize each Easter. He came to die. And He came to die for us. This was the mission of His coming. Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:15 that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Notice that here, in this Kenosis song, the church sings, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death. Jesus did not exercise His divine power to escape death. He went to Calvary knowing that it was for this very reason that He was born.

Even death on a cross. This was the worst death one could experience. It was reserved for slaves, the most horrible criminals and most treacherous traitors of the Roman Empire. The death of a cross was slow, torturous, and vicious. It was a prolonged death of blood loss, thirst, hunger, and suffocation. This was the death Christ endured for us. He went from the glorious throne of heaven to the brutal cross of earth. There He experienced the most horrendous treatment humanity can inflict on one of its own. And there He experienced the wrath of God that we deserve for our sins. I deserve that cross. I deserve to die like that because of my sins. Yet Jesus took my place in that death.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. In this one statement, we have the summary treatment of the resurrection of Jesus, and His ascension into Heaven, and the consummation of His enthronement in heaven as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the judge of the living and the dead. Before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father, 4"I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”[John 17:4-5 (NASB)]. The statement here in Philippians tells us that the Father answered this prayer of the Son. His mission is completed, and this is one of the wonders of Christmas.

But now we come to the coda – the final stanza. And in it …
IV. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s worship (vv10-11) -- so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus is worthy of our worship because of Who He is. And the Father has given Him, along with His eternal glory, the name that is above every name. At the sound of this name, we are told every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. But this has not happened yet. Many have not uttered His name in worship. Some have never heard His name. Just a few weeks ago, we heard a missionary from North Africa and the Middle East speak of how a colleague had asked a group of refugees if they had ever heard of Jesus. They walked away from the missionary and returned a few moments later to say, “We are sorry sir, but your friend Jesus does not live in this refugee camp. You might try the next camp down the road.” Paul says in Romans 10:14, “How will they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” We must go and proclaim His excellent name far and wide so they can hear, so they can believe, and so they can call out in worshipful adoration that Jesus Christ is Lord!

Others know His name only as a vulgar exclamation that they vainly utter in exasperation. Some scoff at the sound of His wonderful name and mock those who proclaim Him. What are we to say of them? We say what the Bible says: Every knee will bow. There are no exemptions – those who are in heaven, those on earth, those under the earth. That is everyone! Every tongue will confess. Some have done it already, others will wait until it is too late. And their recognition of Christ as Lord will not result in their salvation, but will be a reluctant resignation to their condemnation. Standing guilty before the throne of Christ, they will recognize, as they receive their eternal sentence, that Christ is Lord, and their life was wasted because it was spent glorifying something or someone else other than Him, rather than bending the knee in worship and surrender to Him. That day is coming when they will be able to ignore or mock Him no longer.

For those who have bowed the knee and confessed the name in the here and now, they enjoy the blessing of salvation, of eternal and abundant life invested in the worship and service of the Lord Jesus Christ. These truly know and fully experience the wonder of Christmas, for they have received the greatest gift ever given. The gift of Jesus Christ, given to us to save us from our sins, and reconcile us to the God who created us, who loves us, and who has redeemed us. These are the followers of Christ – those who worship and serve Him. And these are they who can sing the Kenosis hymn in joyful adoration to Christ as Savior and Lord!

But I will remind you that Paul is not simply giving a theological discourse here. He begins this passage with a very practical admonition. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” If He, being equal and of one nature with God, humbled Himself to obey the will of the Father and to serve humanity, then so should we. As we worship Him and serve Him, we should seek to be like Him, knowing that God honors humility, obedience and the servant-attitude. He opposes pride, arrogance, selfishness, conceit, and vainglory. So when we want to know how Christ would have us to live, how we should serve God, and how we should relate to others, God directs us to the stable where we behold the wonder of Christmas.

If you have never received the greatest gift ever given – the gift of Jesus Christ – then we offer Him to you today. The Christ of Christmas ransomed you from sin and death at Easter. And every day of your life can be filled with the wonder of His salvation if you know Him as Savior and Lord. Turn from the emptiness of the life of sin and trust in Him to rescue You! And when your heart is captivated by the wonder of who He is and what He has done for you, you will not be able to contain the song of wonder that will erupt from within as you worship Him!  

[1] Rod Decker, “Philippians 2:5-11, The Kenosis.” Online at kenosis.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2012.
[2] Max Lucado, God Came Near (Portland: Multnomah, 1987), 35-37.