Do we go to church as tourists or as pilgrims? Tourists go out of curiosity, to see Jesus but not to change. Pilgrims go to change their lives. The after-church experience of tourists is not to die to self, but to preserve their way of life. The after-church experience of pilgrims is much different, they go away inspired by a new life in Christ and to deepen their repentance. The tourist leaves church still loving their life in this world and its sins. The pilgrim leaves church loving this world even less and loving Christ all the more. The tourist leaves still following their favorite political party, or the advice of their favorite TV host, or the counterfeit wisdom of a false Gospel. The pilgrim realizes that all these are cheap substitutes for following Christ (John 12:26).
The “sinner’s prayer” is a gimmick not found in the Bible. It is a manipulative, cheap substitute for repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38-39). Quality evangelism is best done by evangelists in local churches, not by transitory evangelists who have no stake in our community. The Holy Spirit leads people to repentance, uses local pastors to baptize and local Christians to mentor new converts. A seed being transformed into a new plant is not instantaneous gratification. The struggle with the old person and sins of the past are not solved by a quickie prayer that is not found anywhere in the Bible. Learning to allow Christ to reign in our hearts, to follow him and serve him (John 12:26) takes time. Like a seed metaphorically dying and giving life, it takes time for new life to germinate and grow.
Materialism is death not life. We may have things but let us not be deceived. Things do not define life. Over a lifetime we collect a lot of things, a favorite set of cutlery, dishes, a favorite car or dolls perhaps, a gun collection or a set of fine china. We get really emotional about the potential loss of these things, yet if we end up in a nursing home at the end of our lives, we can’t take them with us and our children may sell them for junk. We think that these things define our lives but they do not. If we give up what we think is life but is not and lose these fake lives, then we can find true life (John 12:24). True life is defined by what we give, not what we get.
A queen preserves her wealth. Mother Teresa gave up her life of material wealth to find true life and true wealth. Jesus said that anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24). What is life? Righteous living is life, but wicked living is sin and death. Right living is true life and immortality. When our minds are ruled by the things of the flesh we are not truly living but dead. Having our minds focused on the things of the Spirit is the way to true life and peace. (Proverbs 10:16; 12:28; Romans 8:6) Selfish kings and queens of this world are in spiritual poverty. Mother Teresa found true life and true riches. We can find true life too.
Self-preservation is a natural desire. We don’t want to die. We don’t want our way of life destroyed. However, we also know Jesus well enough to know that he would challenge that kind of thinking. One such place is in John 12:20-36. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. Jesus confirmed this teaching in different words at different times. If we try to make our lives secure we will lose them, but if we lose our lives we will save them. A kernel of wheat preserved is unfruitful, but a kernel of wheat planted can produce an unlimited amount more. A grain of wheat must die if it is to produce. So too, only the life that dies to self is truly productive.
When I was a young man I worked in a factory that produced typewriter ribbons. In our department we had about a dozen people and the man who inked all the ribbons. My job was to clean up. I was bottom of the rung. The inker was unwilling to train anyone else lest he lose his position. He was afraid and wanted to preserve his job. The big boss took me into his office and told me that the inker could not be promoted, because he would train nobody to do his job. But, the boss liked my attitude and promoted me to be the boss of the department. Naturally, the inker was angry, but he created his own dilemma. As Jesus said in John 12:20-36, unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future. Self-preservation is death.
Unless a grain of wheat dies it has no future (John 12:20-36). Unless the church buries pointless traditions it too has no future. Change we must or become irrelevant to everybody. The message of the Gospel will never change, but the package must. Vacuum tubes, transistor radios and printed circuits have all competed in the electronic world. Two of them died and most companies that made them are gone too. What is the difference? Companies that refused to change and keep up with the new waves of technology have died. Technology remains, but doing it the old-fashioned way has not. Companies willing to let old ideas and departments die survive while those that try to preserve old ways die. Churches must be willing to let old traditions die and change to make the unchanging Gospel relevant to new generations.
As Christians we are members of a global community. I have lived in four countries and heard the jingoism and xenophobia that exists everywhere. People tend to think that their country is the best. Each criticizes and puts down the others for various reasons. Yet God hates pride. Self-importance and arrogance are not on any list of holy attitudes. In John 12:20-36, Jesus introduced his ultimate sacrifice not as a son of David, a loyal son of Israel, but as the Son of Man. In today’s language, we would call him the son of humanity. Jesus did not die for God and country, although that is a worthy thing. As the son of Man, or son of Humankind, Jesus died for God and all human beings. Christianity is not a narrow, nationalistic religion, but a faith for all humanity.
As we look at potential candidates for a leader what do we look for? What makes a leader worthy of any honor? Is it success in the greedy business world, making millions off of people for overpriced goods and services? Is it success in lying and flip-flopping and slinging mud? Is it the ability to win debates? None of that was at the center of what glorified Jesus as king of Kings. In John 12:20-36, we see Jesus’ glory and honor defined by personal sacrifice. While most leaders are self-defensive and self-promoting, Jesus set us all an example of true leadership by self-sacrifice. That is why when Jesus returns he will take the kingdoms of this world from its leaders and give the leadership roles to those who have proven themselves worthy of honor by lives of selfless service.
Jesus introduced us to the paradox of glory through shame. It was through the shame of the cross that he now lives in glory (John 12:20-36). In dying alone he gave life to many. In giving up his life in this world he gained eternal life in glory for all. In the disrepute of the cross the greatest reputation in the world was built. In the greatest dishonor the greatest honor to any man in history was given. How does that affect us? Our natural desire is for glory and honor, but Jesus’ paradox teaches us that our means of getting it is all wrong. We seek it by means of self-promotion rather than self-sacrifice. The paradox of glory through shame teaches us that it is precisely at moments when we give it all up, that victory is ours.
Material capitalism says that those who die with the most toys wins. It is a lie, because those who die having hoarded the most, will possibly not even have eternal life. They are in danger of becoming the ultimate losers. Spiritual capitalism says that those who die to self give life to many others (John 12:20-36). Material capitalists are deceived that they love their souls, but in reality they have lost their souls to the devil for temporary material gain. Those who love their lives (or souls) will lose it. Spiritual capitalists give their souls away to enrich the lives of others and so keep their souls forever. Anyone who hates their lives (or souls) in this world will keep them for eternal life. Our Savior calls us to be creators of spiritual capital, enriching the lives of others.
Easter Island is famous as a microcosm of what all humanity could potentially do to our planet. Destruction of the island’s natural resources almost totally destroyed everyone living there. Greedy materialism is like that. We destroy our entire civilization in the lust for more and in the end we also destroy ourselves. The saying in John 12:20-36 that he who loves his life loses it, has a far more profound meaning in the original Greek. It says that he who loves his life "destroys it utterly." Mental health professionals recognize the need for people to get outside of themselves and give to others. In helping others, mental health improves. That is why greed is the ultimate insanity, because it only ends up destroying the greedy. The remedy is selflessness. Giving life to others is the ultimate act of sanity.
The Greek word agapé does not mean divine love. This is an urban legend perpetuated by poorly educated preachers and televangelists with bad research. Ask any Greek scholar and you will find out that agapé just means love or affection. In the Bible it sometimes even refers to a negative love. Men "loved" darkness (John 3:19), some "loved" the praise of men more than God (John 12:43), and one "loved" this world more than Paul (2 Timothy 4:10). The context clearly shows in three cases that word agapé was not a divine love. And that is the clue. Just like the words love or affection in English, the meaning depends on the context. A preacher's volume and enthusiasm are not always a sign of divine inspiration and quiet preaching may not indicate that truth is absent. Separating truth from hogwash sometimes involves digging a little deeper like the Bereans.
Our natural inclination is to think of suffering as one of life’s low moments. John 3:14 seems to suggest just the opposite. Just as Moses lifted up a snake on a pole, so was Jesus to be lifted up on a cross. The words “lifted up” are elsewhere translated as exalted. We think of the cross as ignominy not exaltation. We think of money, power and fame as exaltation. Jesus views his suffering with his creation as an exalted privilege. We don’t want to suffer. That’s why preachers who emphasize material prosperity are popular. It’s not fashionable to teach that to be truly exalted, we must follow Christ, and if so, are we also willing to be truly exalted by suffering? Do we come to the light of the cross, or the dark and deceptive world of materialism?
“God so loved the world” means what? It means he loved the world "in this way," or "like this." So our famous saying from John 3:14-21 could be translated “God loved the world in this way.” What way? He lifted up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the snake for the healing of Israel. The snake on the pole was meant to remind Israel to trust God for healing but it later became an idol and had to be destroyed. Church traditions can be like that. Invented to point us to God, traditions degenerate into idols which need to go. We too need to constantly lift up Jesus, ahead of our traditions and denominational pride. Does Jesus take second place to our cheap human politics? Do we show love to the world by lifting up Jesus?
Humanity runs away from God. Do we hate him? Are we ashamed and think that he will want to condemn us for all of the bad things we have done to each other? Is John 3:14-21 saying just the opposite of that? Rather than wanting to condemn the world, God sent Jesus into the world to save it. An example is Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Those caught up in Pharisaic religion condemned her. Jesus told them that if any of them was without sin, they ought to cast the first stone. None dared and Jesus said he did not condemn her. Instead of running from God, it is condemning religion which we should run from. God and the true religion of Jesus do not exist to condemn but to save.
Ri Hyon-Ok (ree hyon-ow, Ri is the family name Lee in South Korea) was a 33 year old mother of three in North Korea, probably the worst place in the world for a Christian. In 2009 she was executed for a crime against the state. What made her a criminal? She was caught giving away a Bible. She died for her love of God in a place where loving God is a crime. Her husband and three children were sent to a slave labor camp after her execution. Why do 30,000 North Koreans love God so much that they are willing to risk the death penalty? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Jim Elliot graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He developed an interest in translating the Bible into native languages and later joined a group of missionaries to reach the Woadani Indians in Ecuador with the gospel. Discovering a sandbar on the Curarai River barely long enough for their plane to land, they gave the natives gifts. On their return, they were attacked and killed. Jim’s famous quote tells his story best, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." Why do missionaries all over the world love God so much that they are willing to risk death? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die John 3:14-21 so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed the Nazis. His was one of few voices with the courage to speak out against them. After a time in Britain and the USA, he decided to return to Germany before all civilian transport was closed, to be with his German people during this difficult time in their history. At home he worked tirelessly in the underground resistance movements. He was imprisoned and discovered to have connections with the plot to kill Hitler. He was hanged just two weeks before Americans liberated the area. Why do people like this love God so much that they are willing to die? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die John 3:14-21 so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Highly honored in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ignatius may have been one of the children that Jesus took in his arms and blessed. A disciple of John he later became pastor of the church in Antioch. During a period of persecution under Roman emperor Trajan, he was arrested and condemned to death because he professed Jesus. He was thrown to the lions. Ignatius replied to his condemners, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” Why do people like this love God so much that they are willing to die? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die John 3:14-21 so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Is the Evangelical sin that of self-righteous judgmentalism? Has Evangelical Christianity become unfriendly, condemning and uninviting? Whatever happened to the welcoming Jesus? Whatever happened to the words from John 3:16-18, that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? How can Evangelical Christians return to being the inviting Church? Perhaps we ought to leave judging to the Judgment Day. Perhaps we ought to focus more on healing and salvation than on the sins which necessitated both. Rather than criticize those who are hurting, perhaps we ought to invite them to be healed. Rather than condemn those in a prison created by the sins of the world, perhaps we ought to invite them to freedom. Perhaps we need to invite them to come and see Jesus (John 1:29-42).
Think of a group of people who absolutely hate us. Maybe it is a country that hates ours. Maybe it is a group of hate-filled and demented terrorists whose only plans are our destruction. Maybe it is another class of individuals who despise us. Imagine then that we decide to die for that group out of love. That is what it means when the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16-17). Amazing! The word world just about everywhere else in the Bible refers to those who hate God, yet "God with us," Jesus Christ died to save that same God-despising world. While many use faith to divide, God teaches us one simple rule, love that unites.
We are creatures of extremes, either condemning adultery, homosexuality, divorce and fornication or approving them all. Jesus did neither. On one sexual sin, he said that in the beginning it was not so, but due to hardheartedness Moses allowed it. Jesus did not condemn a woman caught in a sexual sin, but told her to sin no more. He did not come to condemn the world (John 3:17). It does not mean that Jesus could not condemn the world, or that he will not at the judgment, but that he does not now. We also know that it is also not our business now to judge. So, what would Jesus say to any sexual relationship that is different than it was in the beginning? Are we here to condemn the world or join Jesus in saving the world?
Are Christians judgmental if they disagree with sinful behavior or heretical doctrines? Some may be, but that does not mean that everyone is. Can a Christian be non-judgmental yet discerning? In John 3:17 Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world. Unfortunately some Christians do just the opposite, condemn. Does that mean that we may not disagree or discern that a particular sin is wrong? Of course not. In the same chapter where Jesus taught us not to judge (Matthew 7:1, 15) he also said to watch out for false prophets. There is a big difference between a condemning, hypercritical attitude and having an opinion that something is wrong. Jesus Christ is the final judge, not us. Our judgment now is to be righteous — not a damnation, but a discernment of right from wrong.
Can condemnation and grace coexist? Do we treat sin with grace or judgementalism? We all sin. Grace does not mean that we approve of sin. It means that we know that we have no right to condemn. Jesus did not come to condemn the world (John 3:16-17), but to save the world. Of course, there are things in this world that are wrong, even in the church. But, does that mean that we Christians ought to play Satan, the accuser. Conservative and liberal wings of churches love to criticize, condemn and cause division. God hates division. Are our disagreements so bad that we who have faith in Jesus can no longer have communion together? I don’t think so. Perhaps Instead of a graceless approach of condemnation we should all realign ourselves with the mission of Jesus Christ, to save.
Ancient Israel was often critical of God. One one occasion, God punished them by sending poisonous snakes into their midst (Numbers 21:4-9). The people regretted their whining and Moses prayed and following God’s instructions made a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bitten and looked on the bronze snake, they lived. The immediate problem was snakes. The cause was their lack of faith in God. The solution was to stimulate them to repentance and faith. In similar fashion humanity is in trouble and we are mostly to blame (John 3:14-15). Just as the solution to a snake problem came via a snake, so has the solution to our human dilemma come through the man Jesus Christ. He too was lifted up on a pole and those who keep their eyes on him will also live.
We arrived at the church of the Black Madonna like most tourists, by bus. To enter we walked through droves of trinket and souvenir sellers. Inside people were praying. It reminded us of the money changers in the temple that Christ drove out (John 2:13-25). Surely we don't have such things in today’s world do we? It was years later that I entered a church to hear a famous evangelist speak. In the back were tables with copies of his books on it and a portable credit card machine. I have seen more money-making ministries since. One church even had a permanent store built in the entryway of the sanctuary where they sold audio and video copies of their sermons and books. By contrast, I have visited many churches where prayer is the genuine focus. There is a difference.
I visited a church once where there was a guest speaker. He had his videos, books and CD’s on the back table for sale after church complete with credit card machine. It reminded me of the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25). I was offended. The money changers had good motives. People needed to buy sacrifices for the daily offerings. The problem was that it took the focus away from the purpose of church. It seems sometimes that too much of church life is about money-making. It seems that there is always someone trying to make money off of us, usually for good causes in far away places. Yet it is off-putting. It seems that church is sometimes overly focused on money and not faith. Would Jesus likewise upturn our efforts and have us focus more on prayer?
What do the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25) teach us about the church and money? As a group once toured Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome someone in the crowd asked their priest tour guide how much it cost. His reply was that it cost much of northern Europe. He referred of course to the selling of indulgences under Tetzel as a fundraiser for reconstruction and a cause of the Protestant Reformation. Financial abuse has occurred throughout history and the church has not been immune. When denominational officials take more from local churches than the tithe of the tithe taken by Moses, then one wonders why the New Testament church is more burdensome than the Old. When popes and televangelists live in palaces while others starve at their doorsteps, one wonders what happened to the religion of Jesus.
Ought not Christians take the Bible literally? Some teach so. Yet in John 2:13-25 Jesus taught the Pharisees a lesson that was not meant to be taken literally. They took him literally, when they should have understood that he was teaching figuratively. They asked for a sign of his authority. He replied, destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. Of course they thought that he meant the literal temple that had taken forty six years to construct. However, he was speaking of his body, which was raised three days after his crucifixion. Even his disciples did not grasp the full significance of this saying until after his death. In fact a large part of what Jesus taught was not literal, but metaphor, parable and hyperbole. We understand Jesus by his intent not literal interpretations.
Ought Christians ever get angry? John 2:13-25 reveals that Jesus got angry. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. The Old Testament mentions God’s anger a lot, mainly referring to his indignation at evils caused by humanity. Proverbs also recommends strongly against a quick temper and avoiding friendships with people who are impatiently angry by nature. Jesus also condemned unjust anger in the Sermon on the Mount and when it is justified Paul recommended not allowing it to last beyond sunset. Even modern psychology recognizes the wisdom of that advice. A quick temper can disqualify a person from church leadership. Jesus’ anger in the temple showed his passion for the one place where prayer ought not to be overshadowed. Church ought to be a place of refuge from the questionable practices of the market.