Bright Lights

Then Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”

So the Pharisees said to Him, “You are testifying about Yourself. Your testimony is not valid.”

“Even if I testify about Myself,” Jesus replied, “My testimony is valid, because I know where I came from and where I’m going. But you don’t know where I come from or where I’m going. You judge by human standards. I judge no one. And if I do judge, My judgment is true, because I am not alone, but I and the Father who sent Me judge together. Even in your law it is written that the witness of two men is valid. I am the One who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.”

Then they asked Him, “Where is Your Father?”

“You know neither Me nor My Father,” Jesus answered. “If you knew Me, you would also know My Father.” He spoke these words by the treasury, while teaching in the temple complex. But no one seized Him, because His hour had not come. (John 8:12-20)

Many people fear the dark. Jesus offered to get rid of what we fear. At the time of creation, God created light from the darkness and provided the sun and moon to give light by day and night. Jesus claims to be the light of the world, not in a literal, physical sense like the sun or moon, but in a metaphorical sense. By “light of life” Jesus means that he is able to give meaning and purpose to people. He can give them the direction they need for making better decisions.

Bad things happen to people in life just because life is that way. But sometimes bad things happen to people because they make poor decisions. Jesus announced that he could bring people out of such darkness. The past bad decisions did not have to mean that your future would necessarily have to be dark, too. The Pharisees, in the dark but not realizing it, cringed from the light that Jesus offered. Jesus told them that he and his father were offering them a unified way to life.

Jesus said that he and his Father were one. If you know the Son, you know the Father and vice versa. Because the religious leaders didn’t really know God, they failed to recognize the Son just the same. The Pharisees continue to stumble about in the darkness.

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“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent investigators to listen to John the Baptist, and his testimony about me was true. Of course, I have no need of human witnesses, but I say these things so you might be saved. John was like a burning and shining lamp, and you were excited for a while about his message. But I have a greater witness than John—my teachings and my miracles. The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.” (John 5:31-38)

Who are you going to believe? My words or your lying eyes? Affirming something doesn’t make it so. When the Iraqi Information Minister stood before the cameras claiming that no American troops were in Baghdad, the rumble of tanks in the background made it hard for anyone to take him seriously.

In the Old Testament, Moses specified that for a crime to be proven there had to be at least two witnesses. A lone witness to an event could not be trusted. A single witness could be mistaken or malevolently biased. Jesus agreed with his critics, therefore, that if he alone were claiming to be the Messiah, it proved nothing.

But Jesus wasn’t the only one claiming he was the Messiah. John the Baptist claimed Jesus was the Messiah. But even more powerfully, the twin witnesses of his words and his miracles were enough to prove that the Father had sent him.

The fact that the religious establishment was standing as a witness against Jesus did not prove that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. Instead, it demonstrated the spiritual bankruptcy of the religious establishment of Israel. If they had really been the people of God, then they would recognize God when he showed up. Their failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah—and their failure to actually keep God’s words—demonstrated that they were clueless about God.

You can deny reality only for so long. Eventually it catches up with you.

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Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:10-15)

The Pharisees were very good people and were very well respected by everyone. They took God and the Bible seriously, and their lives were consumed by being religious. Nicodemus belonged to that strict sect, and he was also a member of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, an assembly of seventy-one religious leaders, both Pharisees and Sadducees, who met six days a week, except during holidays. Those who became members of the Sanhedrin were the best of the best. To them was given the task of settling all disputes relating to the Bible and its interpretation.

The majority of the members of that Sanhedrin did not like Jesus. So Nicodemus approached Jesus under cover of darkness one night. He was worried about what the other members of the Sanhedrin would think, but he needed to hear from Jesus directly. He was uncomfortable with relying on second hand, and clearly biased and contradictory accounts of Jesus’ activities.

Jesus explained that what he was teaching were things that Nicodemus, given his position and education, should have already known. Jesus wasn’t offering new, strange ideas. His teachings came from what the Law and the Prophets—that is, the Bible—presented. The Bible had promised that the Messiah would finally take the sins of the world away, because God loved the world and didn’t want people to perish.

By the time Nicodemus had finished listening to Jesus, not only did he understand him, he believed in him, too. Even a Pharisee can believe when he really hears Jesus and really understands what he has taught.

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Where You Come From

Jesus decided to go to Galilee. There he met Philip, who was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter. Jesus said to Philip, “Come with me.”

Philip then found Nathanael and said, “We have found the one that Moses and the Prophets wrote about. He is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

Philip answered, “Come and see.”

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said, “Here is a true descendant of our ancestor Israel. And he isn’t deceitful.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”

Nathanael said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God and the King of Israel!”

Jesus answered, “Did you believe me just because I said that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see something even greater. I tell you for certain that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up and coming down on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51)

Jesus can’t be ignored. People have to make a decision about him, one way or the other. Philip quickly became convinced that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, so he asked Nathanael—elsewhere in the Bible referred to as Bartholomew—to come and meet Jesus.

Nathanael was doubtful. Nazareth had a bad reputation and he couldn’t see how Israel’s Messiah could call such a place home. When Jesus saw Nathanael, he said something that Nathanael probably thought was mere flattery. So he asked Jesus a simple question, “how do you know me?”

Jesus’ answer about seeing him under a fig tree convinced Nathanael that Jesus was the Son of God and the king of Israel. Why did Jesus’ few, and rather mundane words convince Nathanael of so much? Because no ordinary person could have known where Nathanael was or what he was doing. It meant Jesus really was the Messiah.

Jesus’ response to Nathanael’s expression of faith was to let him know that, in effect, “you thought that was impressive? You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Jesus would perform far more impressive miracles than something akin to what Sherlock Holmes or a stage magician might have been able to figure out.

Jesus inspired passion in the hearts and minds of everyone he came in contact with. They either accepted him or rejected him. You can’t stay on the fence about Jesus.

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Kingdom Now

Jesus, grilled by the Pharisees on when the kingdom of God would come, answered, “The kingdom of God doesn’t come by counting the days on the calendar. Nor when someone says, ‘Look here!’ or, ‘There it is!’ And why? Because God’s kingdom is already among you.”

He went on to say to his disciples, “The days are coming when you are going to be desperately homesick for just a glimpse of one of the days of the Son of Man, and you won’t see a thing. And they’ll say to you, ‘Look over there!’ or, ‘Look here!’ Don’t fall for any of that nonsense. The arrival of the Son of Man is not something you go out to see. He simply comes.

“You know how the whole sky lights up from a single flash of lightning? That’s how it will be on the Day of the Son of Man. But first it’s necessary that he suffer many things and be turned down by the people of today. (Luke 17:20-25)

People look for God in all the wrong places. When Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, he really meant it. He wasn’t speaking metaphorically, he didn’t mean that it was “soon” in the sense that for God a thousand years is like a day, so that “soon” could be a really, really long time as far as mere mortals were concerned. Jesus was very clear with the Pharisees: he told them that the kingdom of God had arrived. It was right here, right now.

The Pharisees and for that matter, Jesus’ disciples and the bulk of the Jewish population thought that the kingdom of God was a physical kingdom. They believed that when the Messiah arrived, he would raise an army, defeat the Romans, and sit down on David’s throne in Jerusalem, replacing Caesar, and making the world a perfectly wonderful place. They thought they would all live happily ever after—well, except for the sinners—and the Pharisees had a list of who those were—who would all die miserably.

Jesus explained that they all—from the Pharisees to his own disciples—simply didn’t get it.

God’s kingdom wouldn’t be like the Roman Empire at all. The kingdom of God existed in the hearts and minds of those who believed the Gospel. It wasn’t physical, even though it did have real world implications that would be as obvious as a flash of lightning.

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Divided Loyalties

No worker can serve two bosses:

He’ll either hate the first and love the second

Or adore the first and despise the second.

You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch. So Jesus spoke to them: “You are masters at making yourselves look good in front of others, but God knows what’s behind the appearance.

What society sees and calls monumental,
God sees through and calls monstrous.
God’s Law and the Prophets climaxed in John;
Now it’s all kingdom of God—the glad news
and compelling invitation to every man and woman.
The sky will disintegrate and the earth dissolve
before a single letter of God’s Law wears out.
Using the legalities of divorce
as a cover for lust is adultery;
Using the legalities of marriage
as a cover for lust is adultery. (Luke 16:13-18)

You can do all the right things, follow all the rules, and still be wrong. The religious leaders in Israel were concerned that they always did the right thing. Not because they wanted to be right, so much as they wanted to protect themselves and their reputations.

So they consistently missed the point of the law, which is something that escapes the notice of all legalists everywhere. Legalists like the Pharisees were really only concerned with figuring out how not to get into trouble for whatever it is they did.

Jesus pointed out that this attitude arose from a divided loyalty. To illustrate the problem, he used as an example how they treated their wives. The religious leaders knew that adultery was forbidden and that adultery meant having sex with a woman they weren’t married to. But what if they wanted to have sex with a woman other than their wives? They found a way. They would divorce their current wife and then marry the other woman. When they tired of the other woman, simply repeated the process. They could then have sex with whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and they never broke the law. The religious leaders were very good at making the law work for them.

And that was the problem: it was all about them. They didn’t love God. They didn’t love other people. They were misusing the law for their own selfish purposes. Their loyalties were divided.

Who do you serve? God or yourself? You can’t do both.

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“The younger said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living….

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” ’

“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again.” (Luke 15:12-23)

It is easy to believe the lies we tell ourselves. Why would we steer ourselves wrong? And yet all too often, we do precisely that.

In ancient Israel, the younger of two sons received a third of the property upon the father’s demise. And it was possible for a son to ask for the inheritance ahead of time. But to do so was like telling a father “I wish you were dead,” since that’s when an inheritance was normally given.
The younger son believed that his father was holding him back, standing in the way of his happiness. That’s why he wanted the money and left home. He thought he had to get away in order to really enjoy life.

So when his life fell apart, he decided he had to go back home. But he pictured his father as the same man that had made him want to leave in the first place: a harsh taskmaster who didn’t understand him, a man who would justly punish him for his mistake and make him suffer for it.

Jesus’ point, of course, is that our Heavenly Father is different than what we might think, just as the younger son’s father was not the man he imagined him to be, either.

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What Matters

As Jesus was speaking, one of the Pharisees invited him home for a meal. So he went in and took his place at the table. His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom. Then the Lord said to him, “You Pharisees are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and wickedness! Fools! Didn’t God make the inside as well as the outside? So clean the inside by giving gifts to the poor, and you will be clean all over.

“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.

“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you love to sit in the seats of honor in the synagogues and receive respectful greetings as you walk in the marketplaces. Yes, what sorrow awaits you! For you are like hidden graves in a field. People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on.” (Luke 11:37-44)

Jesus was not against personal hygiene. But he used the issue of ceremonial washing as the opportunity to push a Pharisee outside his comfort zone, in order to help him reassess his relationship with God. If Jesus had simply asked the Pharisee what was most important in the law, he would have received the proper, canned response about loving God and loving people. But those words had little to do with how he conducted his life.

Like so many religious people, this Pharisee mostly concerned himself with boundary issues: the quantifiable things that separated him—the “righteous” person he believed he was—from them, the “unrighteous” people who did what he didn’t. It was easy to quantify and measure boundary issues: making sure that he gave the penny to God from the dime he found on the street. Or—to put it in a modern context—that he said a prayer before he put any food in his mouth. It was good to tithe and to pray. But it was more important to focus on how you cared for the distressed and needy, how you treated your neighbors and coworkers and family—let alone strangers like the clerks in the store or the beggar in the street.

Jesus wanted the Pharisee to look at the hard things of righteousness, not the easy boundary issues.

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Hope and Change

The disciples of John reported to him about all these things. Summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?”

When the men came to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, to ask, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?’ ”

At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind.

And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Luke 7:18-23)

John had spent his last few years like limo driver at an airport waiting for his passenger near the baggage claim, holding up a sign with the name “Messiah” scrawled on it. John’s question about Jesus was not just a consequence of discouragement from being locked away in prison. His question grew out of what people in the day believed about the coming of God’s kingdom.

The “Expected One” was the Messiah. According to Jewish tradition, there were two Messiahs coming, a “Messiah son of David” who would rule and reign as king and a “Messiah son of Joseph” who would suffer and die. The idea of two Messiahs grew out of the two pictures of the Messiah in the Old Testament: one reigning, one suffering and dying. So John’s question was not to wonder so much about the reality of Jesus’ messiahship, as to wonder which of the two he might be.

Jesus responded to John’s question by healing the sick, casting out demons, and restoring sight to the blind. Then he sent John’s messengers back to report what they had seen.

Why did Jesus end by telling John that the one who didn’t take offense at Jesus would be happy? Because the Pharisees and other religious leaders were seeing the same thing that John’s messengers saw, but they only criticized what Jesus was doing. Jesus believed that John’s reaction was likely to be something different than that of the Pharisees.

So will we respond Jesus’ answer like a Pharisee—or like John the Baptist?

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What Matters

One Sabbath when Jesus and his disciples were walking through some wheat fields, the disciples picked some wheat. They rubbed the husks off with their hands and started eating the grain.

Some Pharisees said, “Why are you picking grain on the Sabbath? You’re not supposed to do that!”

Jesus answered, “You surely have read what David did when he and his followers were hungry. He went into the house of God and took the sacred loaves of bread that only priests were supposed to eat. He not only ate some himself, but even gave some to his followers.”

Jesus finished by saying, “The Son of Man is Lord over the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a Jewish meeting place, and a man with a crippled right hand was there. Some Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses kept watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man. They did this because they wanted to accuse Jesus of doing something wrong.

Jesus knew what they were thinking. So he told the man to stand up where everyone could see him. And the man stood up. Then Jesus asked, “On the Sabbath should we do good deeds or evil deeds? Should we save someone’s life or destroy it?”

After he had looked around at everyone, he told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did, and his bad hand became completely well.

The teachers and the Pharisees were furious and started saying to each other, “What can we do about Jesus?” (Luke 6:1-11)

What’s the meaning of “is?” That’s the sort of question that the religious leaders in Israel enjoyed puzzling over. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes—they concerned themselves with riddles regarding the Law. The commandment to “keep the Sabbath” was not as simple as it appeared. When God said that one must not work on Saturday, what did he mean by “work?” Was harvesting grain work? Obviously. How about threshing grain? Also obviously. But then what was “harvesting?” What was “threshing?” By simply plucking a few ears of wheat from a field, the disciples had “harvested” the wheat. By rubbing the husks off in their hands, they had “threshed” it.

You can almost hear Jesus rolling his eyes in response to this line of reasoning. He responded by pointing out that their line of reasoning took them to an absurdity when they tried to use it on the people in the Bible. Jesus wanted them to understand that in interpreting the Bible, it was important to pay attention to the whole thing. If you get lost in the details, you may simply get lost.

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