M. W. Bassford
The betrayal of Jesus into the hands of His enemies is the beginning of the darkest sequence in human history. However, according to John 18:10-11, this grim scene contains a tragicomic episode. Peter, in apparent fulfillment of his promise in John 13:37, reveals his willingness to die for Jesus by his willingness to kill for Jesus.
The untrained fisherman produces a sword and takes a wild swipe at a slave of the high priest named Malchus. He’s likely aiming for Malchus’s skull, but instead he connects with Malchus’s ear. At this, Jesus intervenes, telling his would-be bodyguard to put away his weapon. He surrenders Himself into custody, and His disciples flee instead of fighting.
Though it might seem that the situation is unique, in reality, Peter has faced a temptation that many of us experience regularly. It is the temptation to make others be righteous.
Last week, a brother posted a picture on Facebook of a T-shirt he had received as a gift. It read, “Other People’s Free Will Stinks.” To that, many disciples would give hearty amens, myself included. Other people’s free will does stink! They use it to make all kind of horrible, evil decisions, from cheating on their wives to becoming atheists to having abortions to helping arrest the sinless Son of God.
(We, of course, would never, ever use our free will to sin. Oh, no! Not that!)
When faced with stinky free will, many of us want to respond in a way that is positively Petrine. If they’re not going to choose to be righteous, we’re going to make them be righteous! If they want to arrest Jesus, we’re going to use force to make them back off. If they want to have an abortion, we’re going to stop them by passing laws to make abortions illegal. If they want to leave the Lord, we’re going to browbeat them and make their lives pure misery until they come back.
On one level, these strategies appear to offer success. Jesus remains unarrested. Babies don’t get aborted. The straying Christian is filling a pew once more.
The problem is, though, that coercing someone into changing their behavior never results in a changed heart. Even if the high priests’ posse is defeated, the high priests won’t hate and envy Jesus any less. Preventing a woman from having an abortion does not lessen her fear or increase her natural affection. Forcing a Christian to assemble does not inspire them to worship.
Indeed, attempts at coercion often fail to produce outwardly good results too. If Jesus’ disciples defeat a posse, the chief priests will show up with a Roman cohort next. The fearful woman is likely to seek an illegal abortion. The browbeaten Christian often will persist in falling away, bearing a new cargo of bitterness over their bad treatment.
If we truly want godliness in others, then, we must look not to change behavior, but to change hearts. We must rely not on coercion, but on persuasion. God isn’t looking for sullen compliance. He wants devotion instead.
This is hard to do. The more we care, the more we want to fix others’ ungodly decisions by hammering them flat. We want quick results rather than engaging in the slow, patient work of winning a heart. However, only the latter can produce the fruit of genuine righteousness.
Give ear to my appeals, O Lord,
And listen as I groan.
My King and God, I cry for help
And pray to You alone.
When morning rises, I will speak,
For You will hear my voice;
In faith, I come with eagerness,
That soon I may rejoice.
You take no joy in wickedness;
No evil dwells with You;
They shall not stand before Your eyes,
The boastful and untrue.
You punish those who speak in lies
And all who dare transgress,
But in Your temple I will bow
To praise Your holiness.
Protect me from my enemies
And make my pathway straight;
No truth is present in their words
Of flattery and hate.
So hold them guilty, O my God,
Undone by what they do;
In their transgressions, thrust them out
For disregarding You.
Let everyone who trusts in You
Be jubilant in grace;
May they forever sing for joy,
Your strength, their hiding place.
Let those who love Your name exult
In what You have revealed;
You bless the righteous man, O Lord;
Your favor is his shield.
Suggested tune: ST. FLAVIAN
("The Army of Our Lord")
The other morning, I was bragging on my church family a little bit. I like to do that as they give me opportunity! I noted that that Sunday, I had seen Christians taking the initiative to take on good works in several different ways.
One brother (not part of the church leadership) facilitated a brainstorming session about evangelism. A group of women spent the afternoon teaching the middle-school to high-school girls of the congregation how to serve. A new sister volunteered to make T-shirts for the girls. A young sister continued to collect sleeping bags for the homeless. Another brother (who happened to be a deacon, though he wasn’t wearing his deacon hat at the time) collected money after services for a poor man who came to the door asking for help.
It’s hard to imagine a more Ephesians 4:16 scenario than that! Every part is doing its part. In addition to being obviously praiseworthy and encouraging, I think all of these active Christians are doing something else. They are protecting against false doctrine.
I’ve been arguing for years that authority problems are actually discipleship problems. You start wanting to send money to the missionary society or the sponsoring church when you’re feeling guilty about your local congregation not evangelizing. You start using church funds to help the world’s poor when your individual members aren’t helping them. The discipleship failure creates the need that is filled by departing from the pattern.
However, if your congregation has a vibrant, healthy evangelism culture, the pressure to turn to human institutions becomes much less. If your members are interested in and active in caring for the world’s poor, there is no need for unscriptural expedients to fill. There is no problem to solve. As they should, the disciples have got it covered.
I think we see something similar happening with the work of women. In many progressive churches of Christ these days, there is tremendous pressure to abandon the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Often, the people exerting this pressure make an emotional argument. They exclaim over how awful it is that we are sidelining all these gifted and talented women by excluding them from the pulpit.
Well. . . Do the Jackson Heights women who spent the afternoon teaching seem sidelined? How about the T-shirt maker? How about the sleeping-bag collector? I think anybody who thinks those women are sidelined needs to expand their definition of the playing field!
Of course, there is a scenario in which the sidelining argument becomes more potent—when members have abandoned discipleship so completely that their only meaningful activity occurs in the assembly. According to the Scriptural pattern, men must lead in serving in the assembly. If assembling is all a group of Christians does, then men will be the only servants. Under those circumstances, sure, you’ve got a bunch of do-nothing women, but you’ve also got a do-nothing church.
The cure for the disease is not to abandon the pattern for the assembly. It is to apply the pattern for Christian living to the lives of Christian women. Titus 2:4 is sadly neglected in most congregations. There are all sorts of good works in which any Christian may engage. The woman who devotes herself to these things is no less a productive and useful member than the preacher or the elder.
I also have believed for a long time that the solution to any spiritual problem is “more Bible”. More Bible study; more Bible application. This is particularly relevant whenever a spiritual problem appears to demand apostasy as a solution. In truth, we don’t need to reject what the word of God teaches about the use of church funds or the role of women. Rather, we need to embrace what it teaches about the work of the disciple. If we get that down, we will be amazed at the way that those apparent problems with the pattern will disappear.
In writing his gospel, the apostle John often likes to group Jesus’ “I am” statements with events that define that characteristic. “I am the bread of life,” follows the feeding of the 5000, “I am the resurrection and the life,” precedes the raising of Lazarus, and so on.
This certainly is the case with His statement in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.” In John 9:1-8, Jesus illustrates this claim by using His power to give sight to a man who was blind from birth.
However, this narrative focuses not so much on the miracle itself as it does on the reactions to the miracle. Even though several different groups see the light of Christ, only one person reacts favorably to it. Sadly, today many people reject Him for similar reasons. Let’s consider these things this evening as we ponder Jesus, the light of the world.
In this story, Jesus appears in three different ways, and the first is as A CHALLENGE TO TRADITION. Look at John 9:9-17. The Pharisees’ reaction here is fascinating. Rather than marveling that a miracle has taken place right there in their neighborhood, they get hung up on the fact that the miracle was performed on the Sabbath.
Some argue, unsuccessfully, that they should pay more attention to the miracle than to when it happened. However, the consensus that emerges is that Jesus can’t be from God because in working a miracle, He broke the Sabbath. Rather than evaluating their traditions in the light of the Lord, they evaluate the Lord in the light of their traditions.
Obviously, there are lots of potshots we could take at the denominational world for the way they reject Jesus in favor of their traditions. However, focusing on somebody else’s spiritual problems never made any of us more righteous. Instead, we must ask whether our own traditional views keep us from seeing the true Jesus.
Indeed, if the Jesus we see does not challenge us, we are not seeing the true Jesus. The true Jesus exalts the poor and pronounces woes on the wealthy. The true Jesus reaches out to the marginalized and unwelcome. The true Jesus celebrates the humble heart of the penitent sinner while condemning the religious elite. The true Jesus warns us not to be distracted by political issues from the spiritual issues that will destroy us. He tells us that we must take up our crosses and follow. Our Lord is an amazing Master, but if we find Him easy to hear, we aren’t listening hard enough.
Second, this story presents Jesus as A THREAT TO SOCIAL STANDING. Let’s keep going in John 9:18-23. In their quest to expose Jesus as a fraud, the Pharisees summon the blind man’s parents. Even though the parents surely must have known that a miracle has happened, in their answers to the Pharisees, they are as evasive as they possibly can be. They know that if they acclaim Jesus as the Messiah, they’ll be thrown out of the synagogue, so they refuse to acknowledge the truth.
On one level, this works really well. They don’t make the Pharisees angry, so they get to stay in the synagogue. The problem is that Jesus really did heal their son and really is the Messiah, so they knowingly have rejected their hope of eternal life to avoid social discomfort. They knew the truth about Jesus, but they refused to tell the truth.
It’s easy for us to shake our heads in contempt at the blind man’s parents. They knew that Jesus worked miracles, but that mattered less to them than staying on good terms with the Pharisees. Pretty dumb, huh?
Well, how about us? We know the truth about Jesus. Every one of us who is a Christian has professed that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
However, how often in our lives is the truth about Jesus less important than our social standing? How often do we have an opportunity to share our faith with an outsider, but we remain silent because we’re afraid it will ruin our relationship with them? Maybe the light of Jesus shining on our lives reveals that we are more like the parents of the blind man than we care to admit.
The final perspective on Jesus in this story, though, is that He is A MAN FROM GOD. Consider John 9:24-34. In his own words, the formerly blind man is a man with one idea. He knows that he was blind, but now he can see. He is willing to follow that fact where it leads. Because Jesus could not have done that if He had not been from God, Jesus must be from God.
This is a deeply unpopular conclusion. In response, the Pharisees ridicule Jesus. They try to pick holes in his story. They ridicule him too. In response to it all, the formerly blind man clings to the one thing he knows. In the face of that one thing, the Pharisees lose the argument, and they acknowledge that they have lost by throwing him out of the synagogue.
This looks like a deeply negative outcome for the formerly blind man, and in some ways, it is. However, it also is a deeply positive outcome because he is the only one who pleases God.
Our application is simple. Like the formerly blind man, we need to know one thing. The apostle Paul knew one thing. He tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2 that among them, he determined to know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified.
So too for us. If the one thing we know is that Jesus is the Christ, and we are willing to follow that fact wherever it leads, we will end up in the right place. The true problems in our lives don’t arise when we remember that fact. They arise when we forget it.
There are few more magnificent scenes in Scripture than John 17. In context, Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, while en route to the garden of Gethsemane, pauses to offer a prayer. Even though He knows that in less than 24 hours, He will die a degrading, shameful death, His concern is not for Himself. It is for His disciples.
As He prays for His ragtag band of followers, knowing full well that all of them will abandon Him before sunrise, He is most concerned that they remain united. Indeed, He asks the Father to make all of His followers in all time one, as He and the Father are one.
Tragically, Jesus wasn’t the only one who knew how important unity among His people would be. The devil knew too, and since the establishment of the church, he has worked tirelessly to divide it. Throughout the record of the first-century church, we see strife over caring for Hellenistic widows, the necessity of circumcision, and plain old personal friction.
Today, the fragmentation of those who claim to be Christians underscores the success of the devil’s work. Every denomination represents a victory for him. Even among those who have remained faithful to the ancient order, conflict and division within and between congregations continues to be a serious problem.
These challenges have only intensified during the pandemic year of 2020. All of us have found ourselves on unfamiliar ground amid a shifting landscape of government regulation, scientific confusion, and political passion. Even though most of us will candidly admit that we have no idea what we’re doing, we still must make decisions: church leaders for churches, and individual Christians for themselves and their families.
Not surprisingly, this confused process has yielded different perspectives and decisions. Some are haunted by the specter of disease stalking through an unwary congregation. They urge great care in assembling and sometimes even the suspension of the assembly altogether. Others fear that the coronavirus has led us to forget our duty to the Lord, and they are suspicious of any deviation from last year’s normal.
When we are afraid, it becomes easy for us to condemn others, and this too has happened. Christians who refuse to wear masks are foolish and unloving. Brethren who choose to worship from home lack faith and maybe were looking for an excuse anyway. Church leaders who curtail or suspend services have fallen for left-wing propaganda. And so on.
In the year 2020, this is not who the Lord’s church needs to be. We need to be the church of John 17:23 instead, the church that is so completely one that in a time as troubled as ours, others can look to us and see in our unity the evidence of Jesus’ divine origin and God’s continuing love. Our judgments may feel so right and true to us, but creating discord in the church over human reasoning can never be anything but sin.
Let us instead heed our Lord’s call to unity, not only in 2020, but in 2021, 2022, and all the years succeeding. He shed His blood to make us one. May we always take care with our actions, our words, and even our thoughts, so that we give full honor both to His prayer and to His sacrifice!