From the day we are born we begin to die. Our body’s cells are like a wound up clock winding down. It’s as if our bodies are already dressed in grave clothes. As marvellous as science is, it has not yet mastered life’s greatest enemy, death. Yet there is someone who has the power over life and death and has already proven it (John 11:1-45). As "God in the flesh", Jesus resurrected people temporarily from death, which was a foretaste of the resurrection to eternal life. In a skeptical world it is quite a challenge to hear that whoever lives by believing in Jesus will never die. That’s what he said as he boldly claimed, I am the resurrection and the life. So let’s take off the grave clothes. If we believe in Jesus Christ we are alive forever.
Some people seem almost obsessed with miracles. They chatter incessantly about people being healed and promises of wealth. Among those addicted to the fad, the greatest miracle of all is spoken about in terms of someone resurrected from the dead. Such a miracle is recorded in John 11:1-45. However, even that miraculous resurrection was only temporary. It was not the greatest miracle of all that Jesus can perform. When we are overly focused upon physical miracles, the ultimate resurrection seems to take a back seat. That event will be no temporary resuscitation to life, but a resurrection to permanent life forever more. Charlatans and false prophets easily take advantage of the hysteria surrounding those who desire miracles now. When we focus our minds on our permanent home, it is much harder for such deception to take hold of us.
Jesus wept. Why? What is it that made the manliest of men weep? Theologians speak of Jesus having been the most complete human being to have ever lived since Adam. Adam sinned. So too have we. Yet Jesus did not. He was like Adam in every regard except one — he never sinned. He had human nature in its pure, unblemished form. He was the only man who ever lived to have pure, untainted manliness. He was manhood personified as God intended it to be. If we look in John 11:1-45 we see that Jesus was deeply moved. Men who have no feelings are not real men. Was that emotion anger as some translations suggest or heartfelt compassion upon people with so little faith? It’s hard to tell. One thing for sure: a real man was moved to tears.
In John 9 there are two parties that are blind. One is the man who Jesus healed and the other is a group of religious leaders who could not see who Jesus was. The one was physically blind and yet came to see who Jesus was and the other party were physically sighted but spiritually blind. The next chapter separates the one true Shepherd from the false, the Good Shepherd from thieves and robbers. At funerals we often hear Psalm 23 read, but do not consider that it does not apply to all at the funeral. We assume that it applies equally to those who believe and who do not believe in Jesus, do not care enough to go to be in the flock of the Good Shepherd. The Psalm begins with the assumption that the Lord IS my Shepherd.
In Psalm 23:5 is a metaphor of anointing our heads with oil. Understanding the original language and culture helps us see the deeper meaning. When a shepherd came in from the fields as did David when he was to be chosen king, he would have been rather dusty and perhaps even have dirt in his hair. Just as many moderns prefer to cleanse with perfumed oils rather than soap today, so did the ancients. The original language actually says you “remove ashes” from my head with oil. As David was ill-treated by his brothers, and ashes on the head symbolized mourning, this removal also symbolizes the Good Shepherd healing our emotional pain. Also, the anointing was to make David king, and symbolizes God lifting us up high after humiliation by others. Most importantly, God anoints us with his Holy Spirit.
The two tools of shepherding mentioned in Psalm 23:4 were a rod and staff. A sling was not mentioned. The rod was a often a club used to protect the sheep from predators, but also to discipline them for their own good. Jesus’ rod is also a vehicle of comfort, even though momentarily perhaps a little painful. Discipline is for our good. The staff was a bent piece of wood that could be used to catch and rescue sheep. In our age of mass manufacture we imagine that they were all of the same model as pictured in our Sunday School books. But that is unrealistic. They were homemade and just about anything that would do the job was chosen. There are many times in life that we need Jesus to rescue us and he sees that as his job.
For most people the right track in life is one of the ways of the world. It may be a meticulous kind of political correctness, a particular gender bias, the quality of foods we eat or the way we teach our children. However, the ways of the world often deceive us. They cannot guarantee a full and happy life, but God can. The word righteous is not popular today, but it simply means the right track and there is only one who can lead us there. In Psalm 23:3 that is often translated as the paths of righteousness, meaning the right tracks picturing the ways of justice and fairness. Anyone who has experience with sheep knows that they create and follow well-worn tracks. As God’s sheep, if we follow the Good Shepherd, he will lead us down the right track.
When sheep are hungry or frightened they will not lie down. This picture from Psalm 23:2 is one of serenity and security. How can we experience peace and safety in the midst of terrorism and other world problems? Terrorists can kill the body but not the soul protected by God. This is not a promise to everyone, but it is a picture relevant to those who allow themselves to come under that rod and staff of the Great Shepherd. When we go to funerals and this Psalm is read, many people just assume that it applies to them, but it does not apply to those who cannot be bothered with the things of God. It only applies to the sheep of the one who is. The Lord’s sheep experience lush pasture and quiet waters in the midst of dangerous predators.
David’s Psalm 23:5 pictures a table prepared right in front of our enemies. All his life David faced antagonists, from those in his own family to Saul the king of Israel and when he was king to enemies round about. In the midst of our own enemies we seem strangely shocked by terrorism and world troubles. It is as if we cannot accept that this has always been and always will be until Jesus’ returns and brings about world peace. From the first murder of a brother by a brother to Viking terrorism to the most recent bombing God has made a promise: that in the midst of all this, he would set a table for those in his sheepfold. The choice is ours. Who is our Lord? Is it this world or is our Lord the God of heaven?
When we look at that most famous of David’s melodies, Psalm 23:1, we begin to see healing in the midst of greed. The traditional translation of this verse is now moving out of use in everyday language. To not be “in want” is becoming strange terminology to our ears, when every advertisement encourages us to want more materialism in our lives. Yet that is not the original meaning. The Hebrew words lo ehser simply means I won’t be lacking, or I have all my needs. We could call this a theology of sufficiency. In a world of lust for more, it is rare to hear people say that they lack nothing, that they are satisfied and need nothing more materially. Yet, that is the point of the Psalm, to be satisfied with life, and that is a truly happy life.
Why are some church people spiritually blind (John 9:1-41)? Many outside the church choose to remain blind because they either believe it is irrelevant or because they are afraid. Yet when those in the church are spiritually blind, the tragedy is enormous. There are perhaps a number of things which could blind us to the work of God in others. Denominationalism is that form of narrow mindedness that believes only our denomination has it all right. Divisive doctrines blind us to those teachings upon which all Christians agree and actually unite. Man-made traditions, which are non-essentials, blind us to the essentials of the faith. How do we gain spiritual vision? Perhaps, like the man in the story we just need to keep it simple. One thing I know. I was blind but Jesus touched me and now I see.
Dirty, rotten fault-finding! Why do we look for faults in others to tear them down and build ourselves up? We criticize each other, other families, churches, parties and nations. Some believers even criticize the sick as having a sin or not enough faith to be healed. That’s exactly what happened in John 9:1-41. Is sickness a punishment for some hidden sin? Or is the fact that we haven’t been healed a sign of a lack of faith as some perversely claim? Or did the parents sin and pass on a disease as a result? The roads to condemnation are as varied as the imagination of the critic. How should we look upon the sick? Jesus first thought was to lift the man up, not put him down. And then the religious criticized him for healing on the Sabbath. Sigh!
That man is sick
He's got a tick
Let's throw a brick
Give him a kick
There must be sin
Or next of kin
Where to begin
Or to apprise
This man's demise
And his blind eyes
Jesus just bent
Gave his consent
Healed his torment
He did not rave
His life he gave
For us — to save
He's got a tick
Let's throw a brick
Give him a kick
There must be sin
Or next of kin
Where to begin
Or to apprise
This man's demise
And his blind eyes
Jesus just bent
Gave his consent
Healed his torment
He did not rave
His life he gave
For us — to save
There are people who think they know it all, but in reality are blind to the truth. We see it in blind bigotry, one-eyed politics and denominational prejudice. In John 9:1-41 Jesus gave a man sight twice, once to his eyes and once to his soul. Like the Pharisees, some intellectuals are blind to divinity. They cannot see the obvious evidence all around them. The Pharisees eyes were on the letter of the Sabbath law: no kneading or healing. Jesus broke both those rules by kneading spit and dirt to make mud, and by healing a blind man. Yet, despite his breaking of sabbath laws, he was sinless. The spirit of the law, which is far greater, was not broken. Blinded by their own legalism, by keeping the letter of the law they could not see the real Jesus.
A traditional approach to healing in the Church comes from James 5:14-16 where the elders of the church pray and anoint with olive oil. Some have taken this to be the only way of praying for the sick, yet even within the context, James says to pray for one another so that we may be healed. Jesus gave several examples of creative approaches to healing. In John 9:1-41 he spat in some dirt to make mud and placed that upon a man’s eyes. The theory of last orders would preclude anything prior to James’ instructions, but there is no such theory within the New Testament regarding healing. Where there is no ban, we have freedom in Christ. We may approach requests for healing in a variety of ways other than always anointing with oil. That’s what Jesus did.
After her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:42) went on to become a famous evangelist. According to tradition, she was baptized by the apostles with the name Photina. She is also known variously as Saint Photina or Saint Svetlana. Some call her the church’s first evangelist. She and her five sisters along with her two sons were also baptized and became a family of evangelists. After Peter and Paul were martyred, she and her family moved to Carthage to preach the Gospel. She and her son Joses are reputed to have fearlessly preached the Gospel there. Photina’s elder son Victor had become a military commander and was taken to Rome to betray Christians. Instead his witness converted his jailer and his servants and along with his family he eventually died a martyr in 66.
A professional evangelist comes to town, puts on an expensive show and leaves. A church experiences a flash of excitement, a big bill and very little growth. The best evangelists are not the professionals but the most unlikely people, like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:29). Was she of doubtful reputation or poor and had been widowed many times? We don’t know exactly and we cannot judge, but there seems to be some question about the man she was currently living with. Was she a caregiver or living in a dubious relationship? For sure she seems to have been a loner, who fetched her water at a time when the crowds were not there. The best evangelists can be new people and even those from the fringes, but always those who have had an encounter with Jesus.
As Jesus encountered the woman at the well, he discussed her marital status (John 4:5-42). He invited her to bring her husband back, then he stated that the man she is currently with is not her husband. In the beginning God joined the first marriage with no formality or papers. Then marriage became a matter for the family. Two sets of parents approved, the couple went into a tent alone and a party was held. Then the church tried to put God back into the picture. Eventually, marriage became a state matter, in a strange mixture of church and state. Today, some still go into the tent and declare themselves a couple. The line is rather fuzzy. Most churches recognize the state’s legal authority over marriage, but we face a dilemma as Old Testament marriage styles make a comeback.
I’m not interested in church growth gimmicks. They are boring and trite. I have tried many of them and found them to often be ways to keep churches busy but without much fruit. But I am big on ideas from the Bible and in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is an idea on church growth that succeeded wildly. The disciples were away buying food and Jesus shared the Gospel with one solitary woman (John 4:5-42). Sometimes just that one encounter makes all the difference. She then prepared the way for the Gospel by telling her whole village. One sows the seed and another reaps the harvest. In this case she sowed, and Jesus encouraged his disciples to reap the harvest. We may not need more church growth gimmicks, but we do need more Samaritan women.
Like the woman at the well to whom Jesus offered living water, he told his disciples that he had food to eat that they knew nothing about (John 4:5-42). Like living water, the bread of life is to be passed on. We eat the bread of communion on Sunday but our food is also to do the will of God and finish his work. What is that work? There is a harvest to be reaped. God has already prepared the hearts of many in our community. It is up to us to seek and find the souls that are ripe for harvesting and do the work. A lone Christian who goes to church and hides all week long cannot harvest. We need to be in our communities and know our neighbors. That involves all of us as a team.
When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about living water (John 4:5-42) he was referring to something spiritual not physical. Unlike the water in the well, living water is like a stream or river. It flows. Living water flowed from the woman’s encounter with Christ into her community. So the Gospel flows from our encounter into our communities. Churches are not cisterns where water collects, but river beds where we drink from flowing water. We were all once enemies of Christ. We went to a well dug by men to quench our thirst. He offered us living water. It flows regardless of ethnic or religious background. Living water flows while we still have questions. Living water flows to the harvest even into the homes of our enemies where many will come and believe in the Savior of the world.
Jesus came to Jacob’s well, an abundant source of water. He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink there (John 4:5-42). This was considered inappropriate. The Jews despised the Samaritans and usually went the long route between Jerusalem and Galilee to avoid them. Also, a lone man talking to a lone woman was considered immoral by many overly strict religious folk. The separation of men and women was not really necessary for morality and Jesus readily overstepped the taboo. He was preparing the way for a new order where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, but where all are one in Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28). Jesus offered her living water. She did not understand the riddle because the term meant flowing water. Yet, Jesus meant the water of life through baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Worship leaders sometimes try to incite people to "perform" like trained circus seals. Such forced "worship" is an outward show and not worship at all. Outward things like music, vocal sounds, languages, robes, crosses, gestures and liturgies are in fact NOT worship. They certainly may accompany worship, but worship is of the heart and spirit. In John 4:21-26 Jesus said that true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. When he said "and truth" Jesus did not mean true doctrine, but true or sincere worship from the heart. So, we do not need to feel judged or compelled to conform to any outward physical gestures or show of religion. Jesus made us free to worship the Father in spirit and truthfully. He declared this with authority, claiming that he is the “I am”, a name of God.
Who was the woman at the well from John 4:5-42? Prejudiced opinions seem overly anxious to paint her as either an immoral woman or an innocent victim. Either extreme reads more into the text than it says. She had had five husbands. Whether simultaneous or sequential polyandry, divorced or widowed is also not explained. Then Jesus said that the man she was currently with was not her husband. Whether she merely lived in the same household with a man or was having relations with him is also not clear. What is very clear is that Jesus did not judge the woman. He simply taught her about true worship. We do know that the woman could see that Jesus was a prophet, and she believed that the Messiah was coming and spread the news of Jesus to her whole village.
When the woman at the well met Jesus (John 4:5-42) there was no denouncing of her from his mouth. Commentaries about her are too often colored by whichever political or social ax people have to grind. Jesus was not interested in condemnation of her but revealing himself to her. His purpose in revealing his knowledge of her background had nothing to do with criticism of her life but, to reveal himself to her as the source of living water. Who we are or what mistakes we have made cannot stop God loving us. Jesus sees all that we have done and does not judge. He is far more interested in showing us the way to a kind of life which satisfies every thirst. It’s not what we have done in the past, but what he can do for us.
How do we invite people to faith? When Jesus met the woman at the well (John 4:5-42) his invitation was distinct in many ways. First of all, he was not a bigot, but willing to chat with anyone. His unbiased friendliness broke the ice. Jesus seized her curiosity by speaking about the gift of God and living water which gives eternal life. In ancient languages, flowing water was called living as opposed to still water. The woman’s curiosity grew. As the conversation progressed, Jesus revealed deeper and deeper truths to her, including his ability to know even personal secrets. The result of the conversation was that not only she came to faith, but others also. While we may not have every ability that Jesus did, we can certainly learn from him and make the invitation attractive to our hearers.
When Jesus met a woman at a well (John 4:5-42) he broke a number of social taboos. The woman mentioned the most obvious. She explained that Jews did not associate with Samaritans. Yet, Jesus was not concerned with such bigotry. A couple of other taboos may not seem so obvious. In a society that was hypersensitive to any appearance of evil, the fact that Jesus talked to a woman alone, could have been taken the wrong way. Especially so because perhaps only someone with a bad reputation would be gathering water alone at a well in the heat of the day. Yet, Jesus did not care what others thought, when he knew he was doing right. We have our own modern prejudices to contend with. How do we react, caring more about what others think or what is right?
Our consumer society is constantly buying new things yet never satisfied. We are encouraged to be dissatisfied because that will mean more sales for those who create an ever changing array of new gadgets, cars, appliances and fashions. When Jesus met a woman at a well (John 4:5-42) he suggested to her that he was the source of living water that really quenched a thirst, so that a person need never be thirsty again. A consumer society buys things which never satisfy permanently. If they did, we would never need to buy the upgrade, next model, or the latest fashion. Enticed by the latest and greatest, we fall prey as the merchants of dissatisfaction line their pockets with our hard-earned money. We are their willing slaves. There is only one thing that permanently satisfies and Jesus is its source.
In any country, foreigners can be looked upon with disdain and suspicion. Ancient Jews particularly despised their neighbors to the north, the Samaritans, because their ancestors had separated themselves from the union with Judah and Benjamin, been carried away to Assyria and been replaced with a mixed race people of perhaps partial Israelite stock. The distrust between the two peoples was also cultural and religious. The Samaritans were more conservative than the Jews, believing only in the five books of Moses, and they had a rival temple site. Unlike many Jews, Jesus did not avoid Samaritan territory on his travels and without prejudice or bigotry even conversed with one of their women at a well (John 4:5-42). It was this woman, an otherwise hated foreigner and others from her neighborhood who were among the first to believe Jesus’ message.
Is there a lesson in church growth in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42)? Protestantism began among the northern European tribes. These culturally diverse peoples may have one thing in common which perhaps influences Protestantism to this day, a bluntness of speech which tends to avoid mystery. When Jesus began introducing the truth of the Gospel to the Samaritan woman, he spoke to her in riddles. He created an air of mystery and intrigue. Jesus spoke of living, flowing water as opposed to still well water. He spoke of a thirst which can only be satisfied by that living water and he spoke of worship without the necessity for temples in particular geographical locations. The woman was intrigued and her village too. Perhaps this enticing air of mystery is missing from our church growth efforts.
Born from above or from heaven is also described as being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Water is used in our baptism, Jesus turns water into wine and Jesus will later speak of living water. Our human rituals are insufficient without the transforming power of that living water from above. Christian baptism is not just a water ritual, but includes an unseen spiritual component. That unseen component is like the wind. We may know generally that cold winds come from colder regions or that warm winds come from the tropics, but we cannot tell specifically where they came from or where they are going to. Our new Spirit born life is as mysterious as the wind. Christianity is not about doing certain moral acts, but a life of faith trusting God where his Spirit may blow.
Some interpret John 3:13 to mean nobody goes to heaven when we die but await the resurrection while they lie unconscious in a grave. Others believe it means that Jesus ascended to heaven before he died. It means neither of those two things. Jesus’ unique position is of one who was on earth and at the same time “in heaven” in constant communion with the Father. Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth. In a similar sense, all believers are “seated in heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) much as Jesus resided “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). Jesus is able to reveal heavenly secrets to Nicodemus because he “has ascended to heaven” and “is in heaven.” In Jesus, there is a bridge from heaven to earth which all those who are born from above experience.
Nicodemus is also called Saint Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee and a senator in the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He appears three times in the Gospel of John. He visited Jesus by night to ask questions (John 3:1–21), he challenged condemning Jesus without a hearing (John 7:50-51) and assisted Joseph of Arimathea preparing Jesus for burial (John 19:38-39). He is possibly the Nicodemus ben Gurion in the Talmud, a wealthy and popular Jewish leader famous for miraculous powers. Jesus explained to him the mystery of regeneration as was taught in the prophets. Nicodemus was not offended at Jesus’ correction but received it in humility. He defended Jesus openly against the Pharisees, assisted at his burial and was later kicked out of the synagogue for believing in Christ. He retired to his country home where he died.
The night time meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus was symbolic in two ways. First of all Nick was representing others who were not immediately present because he said “we know” (John 3:2) and so Jesus answered him in the plural speaking “unto thee” (you plural) and “ye” (you plural). Jesus was speaking to all those others for whom Nicodemus had spoken, other religious leaders, and perhaps also other believers and perhaps too all of us. Secondly, Nicodemus came at night, symbolic of the darkness that we all faced until light came into the world and we came into that light (verses 19-21). In the Old Testament the law was that light, now it is Christ. Even the most devout and moral people who may obey all the commandments can still be in darkness, because the true light is Jesus.
The circumstances of our birth can make a big difference in our worldly fortunes. Some are born into power and wealth. Others are born into subjugation and poverty. Equal opportunity simply does not exist. According to the Opportunity Index, income inequality is closely associated with opportunity inequality. That means that those from poor homes are less likely to have what is necessary to take advantage of opportunities. No matter what our circumstances are we have a better birth in God. To be born from the sky, from heaven above (John 3:3), is to belong to heaven. We owe our allegiance to a different kingdom not of this world. We are a child of God. Every level of status in this world is inferior to that which we have from heaven. In God we have the highest status of all.
When we are born we inherit a name, a nationality, and a family history including all the skeletons in the family closet. When we are born again, we are actually born from above. The Greek word in John 3:3 is similar to what musicians say when they say “from the top”. It can mean from the top of the page or again. So too the Greek word can mean either born “again” or “from above”. Nicodemus took it to mean born again, when actually Jesus meant born from above, from heaven. It is a shame that popular understanding takes Nick’s interpretation instead of Jesus’. Being born from above is an act of God. It is regeneration, a change of orientation. We give up an earthly birthright, nationality, status, heritage and identity to receive a heavenly one from God above.
In Matthew 4:1-11 the devil tempted Jesus with 3 basic temptations that we all will face in different forms. Unlike Jesus, humanity has given in and it has ruined our lives. Only in Jesus do we have hope of rescue from the evil. The first temptation was to be motivated by satisfying physical needs ahead of satisfying spiritual need guided by the word of God. The second was to misuse the Word of God to manipulate God rather than living by his Word. The third was selling out to the devil in exchange for power and prestige. How many Christians neglect the word of God for physical things? How many read the word of God but twist it to make it say what they want? How many are tempted to do wrong for the sake of money and power?
Are we suspicious when a preacher shouts exciting promises and a kind of hysteria takes over? We should be. Mass hypnosis also occurred at Hitler’s rallies and that certainly was not “anointed preaching.” Satan also made great swelling promises in the Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11). The hollow promises offered to Jesus included a miracle, a foolish risk and wealth. Sound familiar? Similar promises often come from deceptive sources disguised as good. If the source is not God, the promise is without guarantee. If someone tells us to act presumptuously without examining biblical principles, be very suspicious. We live by every word of God. If someone promises God’s protection in a risky, foolish act, be leery. We ought not tempt God. If someone promises great things for worshiping in strange ways, be cautious. We worship and serve only God.
A popular kind of preaching has crowd appeal, but very little of Jesus in it. The teachings of Jesus are overlooked in favor of the mass appeal of miracles, stunts and materialism. The hysteria witnessed is unlike any that Jesus encouraged. When Jesus taught, he challenged people to think. Instead these preachers encourage people to stop thinking, leaving their brains at the door. In reality, thinking people see right through the mass-deception. There is no teaching of what Jesus taught, but selected preaching of only those verses which in isolation seem to support popular preconceived notions. Satan also tried to deceive Jesus into a miracle turning stones into bread, to make foolish decisions disguised as religion and be materialistic. Trite miracles, folly and wealth did not tempt Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11). His miracles, thoughtful wisdom and voluntary poverty were real.
The temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) included antidotes to similar religious deception today. What is an antitoxin to deception involving miracles? Rather than performing a presumptuous miracle, Jesus was concerned about feeding on the word of God. Beware of those who place miracles ahead of teaching from the Bible. Beware of those who claim to have a word from God, but do not get it from the Bible. What is an antidote to those misquoting the Bible and tempting us into foolish leaps of faith? An antidote is to know our Bibles well enough to see through such things as cheap stunts disguised as faith but are in reality tempting God. What is an antivenin to deception involving promises of wealth and power? Jesus said to worship God and serve only him not the deception of wealth and power.
We are all familiar with scenes of great victory where a hero, with tears streaming down the face, is cheered on by a large crowd. Yet many of life’s greatest victories are won far away from the applauding multitude, in the privacy of our own solitude. The Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11) was such a victory. He was all alone in the wilderness without supporters to cheer him on to victory. It is easy to do the right thing when others are watching, but the real test is when nobody is around. The real victory may not occur when we are at a church service, but during the week when we are all alone. But we are not alone. Just as Jesus overcame temptation, so too by faith in him do we overcome the world (1 John 5:4-5).
In one place Jesus taught us to let people see our good deeds and yet in another place he taught us to do good deeds in secret not to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1-17). Is this a contradiction? It may sound so, but the key to the whole puzzle is our motive. If our motive for charitable giving, praying or fasting is to show off to other people then it is far better to do those things in private. We see this quite frequently in the public arena. Some people like to toot their own horns so to speak by making a big to do when they give. Others like to give anonymously. If our motive it to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16) or that others may believe (John 11:41-42) then it is good.
Who should we pray to? Contrary to our Protestant bigotry, the Bible nowhere forbids Catholics from making requests of Mary or of any other departed saints in heaven. Neither Jesus nor the apostles taught or forbade this practice. The Bible also nowhere indicates whether those departed saints even listen to our requests on earth. Another more modern practice is to pray to the Holy Spirit. This idea is also nowhere specifically taught or forbidden in Holy Scripture, and I’m certain that the Holy Spirit can hear what we pray. However, this practice also deviates from what is taught in the Bible. Who is our teacher? If he is Christ then we might be interested in what Jesus specifically taught us about who we should pray to? Jesus taught us to pray in this manner, “Our Father who is in heaven…”
Are we humbled by the Lord’s prayer. God is OUR Father, not one person’s alone. The very first word that Jesus wanted us to learn as we focus on the model for prayer is that we have no exclusive claim on God. Most of us must admit that we are bigots when it comes to our faith. We may disagree with the vocal outward show of some Christians, dislike the dogmas of others, abhor man-made rules, differ over traditions, theological interpretations, music, liturgies, authority, polity, social stances and so on, but our opinion does not gives us exclusive access to God the Father. When we pray, the very first thing that we need to acknowledge is that others also have access to heaven. We do not have a sole franchise on faith in God. He is OUR Father in heaven.
In Matthew 6:9 Jesus taught us to pray to God as our FATHER. That really annoys some people. The word patriarch is almost a swear word today. Some people argue that because God is gender-less, he could be called our Parent, the Universe or even our Mother. Such bigotry overlooks the lesson that addressing God as our Father in heaven teaches. Fatherless homes have increased, causing crime and social maladjustment. Children with fathers at home have greater success in life, are far less likely to be in trouble, more likely to show initiative, exhibit self-control, and are at less risk of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, less likely to cause sexual violence or have an unwanted pregnancy.* If God wants us to understand him primarily in patriarchal fatherly terms, it is we that need to learn something, not God.
Have you ever noticed the interesting contrast in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer? First of all Jesus taught us to pray to God as a Father, one who is a protector and provider for his children. Yet, at the same time, he taught us to pray to a Father who is IN HEAVEN. God is a Father who transcends everything that we know physically and has power to provide and protect in a way that no human father can. We may love our human fathers, but they all ultimately fail. Though most fathers try hard, they are ultimately incapable of rescuing us, providing for us and protecting us from life’s greatest difficulties. Without an all powerful heavenly Father, we’re all sunk (Matthew 6:9) but God has the power and the resources to solve all the world’s problems.
Is anything treated as HALLOWED today? Something is holy when it has been set aside for only divine purposes. It may not be used as commonplace. Everything is regarded as either holy or common. An object became holy through an act of sanctification. It became common by an act of profanity. When we treat the things of God as common, we profane them. Yet, we ought to respect the things of God as sacred. Many things can be holy. If we have dedicated them to God, we have hallowed them, made them holy. That act is called sanctification, making them sacred. They have been set apart for holy use. God’s name is also holy. The petition in Matthew 6:9 is purposefully said in a manner which shows that we have a part to play in making God’s name holy.
In ancient society people were often named because it meant something important to the family. It may have been a significant event, or even a character quality. So, people were named David (beloved), Barnabas (son of consolation), Elijah (Yah is God), John (God is a gracious giver). God’s name has everything to do with who he is. It is already holy. And so the petition of Matthew 6:9 in the Lord’s Prayer is not a request that something common be made holy, but rather that we all treat it with holiness that it has. How many times is God’s name used as a common swear word or used as an exclamation for surprise? God’s name is not an expletive, but the holiest name in the universe. How do we treat the name of God? May his name be hallowed.
In a world programmed to think in democratic ideals it seems strange to pray that a kingdom would come, yet that is precisely the administrative comparison chosen to represent God’s rule. There is however, a democratic component of sorts. We get to choose whether we want God to rule over us or not. Most of us probably would agree that democracy is as good as it gets in the human sphere. However, a problem with democracy is that a largely ignorant majority elects candidates based upon popularity, not real qualification for office. There is no question that God is the only one qualified to be who he is. He is a reasonable king who does not force himself upon an unwilling humanity. We get to choose. This world’s governments cannot save us. Let us pray to God, your kingdom come.
When we are indoctrinated with the fear of submitting to someone else’s will, praying that God’s will be done, can seem scary. Is not mindlessly obeying God what fanatics do? That’s the lie. Extremists actually follow the stupid and destructive ideas of men, not God. If we really would get to know God then we would have no problems in wanting his will to be done. It is God’s will that our planet be blessed with flowers and trees and rain and food. It is God’s will that we have life and live in happiness and peace. It is God’s will that we thrive and do well in our lives. It is God’s will that we be called his children and that we be given a magnificent life forever. Yes, let us pray your will be done (Matthew 6:10).
The first three petitions of the model prayer in Matthew 6:9-10 are set in a passive third person tense. That means we pray: may your name be hallowed, may your kingdom come, and may your will be done. We do not pray, I will hallow your name, I will bring your kingdom and I will do your will. Though we also play a part, we are praying that it may be done by others as well as ourselves. It can also be understood that we are praying that all three requests are fulfilled on earth as they already are in heaven. Humanity’s worldwide troubles come because we have turned our backs on God’s will. Those who hallow God’s name now are already citizens of that kingdom. Doing the will of God is a powerful summary of a disciple’s life.
We live in a fortress society where neighbors often do not know each other. This is partly fostered by the fear of crime and partly by commercialism which incessantly entices us to spend our money greedily on ourselves. We are often unaware and unconcerned about the needs of others in our own communities. The first statement of the Lord’s Prayer is OUR Father in heaven, not my Father. The model prayer then shifted to requests for everyone. Beginning with the fourth petition the model prayer shifts to back to a focus on community using the word US. No part of the prayer is selfish, but always includes others. That is not to say that an individual request is wrong. It is just not the prayer modeled in the Matthew 6. We were taught to pray, give US our daily bread.
In the fourth petition of the Pater Noster or Lord’s Prayer, the focus is on our needs for the coming day. In the context of an itinerant ministry, we can understand the immediate dependence of Jesus and his disciples upon God’s daily provision. First century workers also lived the precarious life of a day laborer, paid at the end of each day’s work. Today, we live in a different world and especially in wealthy modern countries may find the need to pray for daily provision of food to be rather pointless. But, we all have things which could worry us. The point of praying for our daily needs is that we don’t worry incessantly. As the old saying goes, if you are worried, pray; if you have prayed, don’t worry (Matthew 6:11) and consider the daily needs of others.
It is a burden to carry a debt. Why does the Lord’s Prayer use the word debt when it means sins? Why did Jesus teach us to pray, forgive us our debts? Debt is the word used in the original Greek in Matthew 6:12. The concept is that sin which has not been forgiven is maintained on the heavenly balance sheets as a debt owed to God. In other words, sin is not just an offense against our fellow humans, but an offense against God and he demands just compensation. We pay for that debt with either our lives or the substitute death of Jesus Christ. Many churches include a prayer for forgiveness in their weekly service. Certainly in private prayer, we ought to habitually include a request for God’s forgiveness. That’s why we pray: forgive us our debts.
When people do us harm, they become our debtors. They owe us compensation for the injury. Whether or not any court of this world recognizes our right, the supreme court of heaven may. In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus defines those who sin against us as our debtors. They owe us. Yet, he encourages us that when we ask God for forgiveness of our debts towards heaven, we also should have forgiven others their debts towards us. This is the only part of the Lord’s Prayer which Christ specially commented on. If we refuse to pardon others, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. In other words, how can we expect to be forgiven of our faults by God, if we habitually and stubbornly refuse to exonerate others? The obligation of God’s forgiveness is that we forgive too.
Sin can ruin everything that we treasure – family, health, reputation, finances and careers. How do we protect ourselves from our own human weakness? Even the strongest of us eventually give in to temptation and sin. Human will is too unreliable. There is a more reliable approach. Jesus described a simple two-step petition in prayer in Matthew 6:13. The first of those steps has to do with avoiding traps. The best way to battle a temptation is not to get near it at all. As we gain experience and wisdom, we become more aware of potentially tempting circumstances and avoid them. However, there are always those situations that come along unexpectedly. That’s why we need to ask God to back us up with his extra help to avoid a dangerous ambush. So, we pray lead us not into temptation.
Although we may be aware of many of life’s traps, we need God’s help to avoid the majority of those ambushes which seduce us to sin. We could live ascetic and isolated lives like monks, or some very exclusive religious sects, or we could just hang out with Christians and never go anywhere with non-Christians. But even monks fall into temptations and sin. In any case, such a radical approach makes being a light and spreading the good news very difficult. We are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” and as a result we fall into many doing the wrong thing, we sin. It’s almost inevitable. That’s where a second petition is needed. Jesus’ encouragement in the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, is to pray for God’s deliverance. Deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:13).
Jesus taught us to pray in private rather than show off. When he prayed in public his motive was that they may believe (John 11:41-42). Our public prayers will never really be totally devoid of wrong motives, so we will be exposed to prayers that may be manipulative, gossipy, a show, long and tedious, trite, irrelevant, repetitive or even self-righteous. Some churches use repetition by first announcing a prayer and then praying the exact same thoughts to God. Others avoid this tedious repetition by dispensing with a “let's pray about” discussion. Prayer is very important and churches ought to be houses of prayer, but Jesus taught us not to pray like hypocrites where our motive is to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5-8). Public prayer is difficult for imperfect humans and so we must overlook each other’s faults.
|The Heart of a|
Are pastors disobedient to Jesus when they lead prayers in church? Did not Jesus teach to pray in our closets, a private place, and not in public like hypocrites? Yes he did. But, he said more than that. He said that pretenders do so to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5-6). It was their motive that was wrong. It is better to pray in a closet than pray to show off. In John 11:41-42 and Matthew 14:19 Jesus set an example by praying in front of others, but his motive was totally unlike hypocritical show-offs. He prayed for the benefit of the people standing there, that they may believe. And that is the origin of the pastoral prayer. It is still a prayer to God but motivated by a desire to encourage the faith of the hearers.