Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. John 8.54-59 | ESV
Jesus, not flinching in the least, told them, “If I’m fashioning my own persona, it’s a PR campaign that will fall flat. There’s nothing to it! But God is my great Promoter – the One of whom you shout the claim, ‘He’s our God!’ The truth is, you don’t have a clue who he is. But I know him. And if I said that I didn’t know him to be more acceptable to all of you, then I’d be just as big a liar as you are. Oh, but I do know him – and I carefully carry out the meaning and import of what he says. You say Abraham is your father, right? Guess what? Abraham was doing cartwheels of joy at the prospect of seeing me, seeing my day come. And see it he did. And then he did his own little happy dance.”
The opposition couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy. They scoffed at him, “You’re not even fifty years old yet, and you’ve seen father Abraham. Right!”
Finishing the conversation he started, Jesus put it out there plain: “I’ll say this twice and mean it: Before Abraham ever even existed, I AM, I was, I will be.”
That tore it. They got his meaning. Exactly. They picked up stones to stone him to death for such arrogant irreverence. But Jesus slipped right through their fingers – they looked up after picking up a rock to hurl at him, and he was gone, out of the temple and on his way. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Back to stones.
Back to the image from yesterday’s reflection – the image of wordy, religious white blood cells encountering the catalyst of life itself right there in their midst, and then attacking it as if it were a foul infection.
Sometimes we know too much Bible for our own good and that knowledge so puffs us up we’re not good for anything life-giving but only for stone-throwing.
Why is it that so often those with the most knowledge have their faces frozen with age into the most bitter scowls?
So revealing it is, this face we grow over a lifetime.
Religion can only pile on facelift after freakish plastic facelift;
Christ would transform our face by touching our heart.
What a revealing contrast between the scowling faces spewing sneers like “Samaritan!” “Demon-possessed!” “Illegitimate!” (though “bastard” would be the strong word they would have at least been thinking), and the contagious joy overflowing from Abraham’s face.
It’s the contrast between the prodigal love of the prodigal son’s father and the sulking, sneering face and tone of the resentful righteous older brother who won’t go into the party.
What a contrast between hands once again grasping at stones in righteous rage and the hands of Father Abraham doing cartwheels in holy celebration.
Back to stones.
Back to the question hanging in the air still right at the center of all this temple controversy:
Who’s your Father?
Our face – and what we are grasping in our hands – tells the tale.
Do some mirror work – perhaps using others’ eyes as the mirror. What does your face reveal about your heart – and about who your Father truly is? Ask someone to tell you, and to tell you the truth. Listen, and invite God to do whatever heart work is needed.
Abba God, reflect back to me today what you see in my face as I earnestly look into yours. Do the deeper heart work in me that needs doing. Clear out my clogged arteries of cynicism and suspicion and so reinvigorate me that I simply can’t help but join Father Abraham in his cartwheels of joy before you, before Life. Through Christ.
The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” John 8.48-53 | ESV
The opposition had had it. They snapped, “Aren’t we exactly right when we say that you are no better than a Samaritan half-breed and demon-possessed to boot?!” Jesus stayed cool. “I don’t have a demon. I honor God, and all you can do is diss me. I’m not tooting my own horn, promoting myself. Someone Else makes that call and does the promoting. So, again, I’ll say it twice and mean it, ‘If anyone goes beyond merely playing with my words to actually carrying out their full meaning and intent, no death for him! Not now. Not ever.”
The Judean in-crowd didn’t miss a beat. “That settles it. You have ‘satanic’ written all over you. Abraham is dead. The prophets are all dead – and yet you have the gall to say that if anyone who carries out the full meaning and import of your words won’t have to deal with death, not now, not ever! Who do you think you are? Greater than Abraham? Greater than the prophets? Handing out life while all they ultimately experienced was death? Who are you making yourself out to be?” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”
Eugene Peterson’s version of this classic Jesus storytelling moment has always made me squirm just a bit.
I love playing with words.
I love digging into etymologies and origins, sucking the verbal marrow out of root words and seeing how this form leads to this and then to that.
So easy to frame devotions that do little more than tickle our verbal fancies – or stroke our massive theological egos at how very smart and orthodox we are – or how savvy and progressive we are. This, unfortunately, is what too often passes for our “word work” – and it’s what mostly passed for “scholarship” in those vaulted temple halls.
And such play turns nasty and even deadly when in the presence of someone who doesn’t play according to the rules – or, even worse, who refuses to play with words at all. This repeated challenge of Christ to “abide in his word” or, alternately, to “let his word abide in us” is precisely this: the challenge to stop playing holy scrabble and ingest the word tiles; to work the words into our lives until they are absorbed into our very bones, the reality they communicate transforming the very nature of our being.
A delicate business, such absorption.
Like an organ transplant, often the body rejects it and makes war upon it, treating life-giving DNA like a virus to be eradicated. That’s what’s happening in this body in this temple scene. Wordy religious white blood cells are attacking the ultimate, DNA defining Word of life, treating it like an infection, a foreign body, seeking to eliminate it.
Oh what a slippery, dangerous business is this playing with words…
How would you quantify the difference, practically, between “abiding in his words” and merely “playing with them in Bible studies”? How would you describe your own relationship with the Bible? What does the study of the Word look like for you?
Word of Life, forgive me for the ways I try to manipulate you like letter tiles in Scrabble. Study me. Define me. Conjugate and pronounce me. Through Christ.
They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” John 8.41b-47 | ESV
Bristling to the breaking point, they howled, “We’re not illegitimate children (unlike someone else we could mention); our one true father is God himself!”
“If that were so, you’d be embracing me with open arms and inviting me in because your Abba – God – is my Abba; you’d see and own that he’s the one behind my being here and we’d be on the same family page; I’m not some upstart Johnny-come-lately pretender. The God you lay claim to is the very one who sent me here to your doorstep. Why can’t you follow my drift? Simple. You don’t have the capacity to listen to what I have to say for the simple reason we don’t share the same Abba at all. We’re speaking different languages. Let me give it to you straight: Your father is the devil himself and it’s his agenda that you’re wedded to. He has been anti-life from the get-go, a real killer, with no grasp of Truth because there’s no room for truth in him. That’s not his game. Lying is his game. Whenever he opens his mouth, out pops another lie. Falsehood is his native tongue – and he’s the author of the language. Now I show up speaking the Truth, and you won’t believe or put up with it for a moment. ‘Does not compute!’ you shout. Well, show me where I’ve miscalculated! Show me where I’m wrong. And if you can’t pinpoint my error, then why can’t you embrace my answer – embrace me? God’s kids hear when God speaks. Which makes this all rather academic: you won’t have it – have me – because you don’t have God. End of story.”
MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
John Stott writes this in his book Christ and Conflict: Lessons from Jesus and His Controversies:
“The popular image of Christ as ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ simply will not do. It is a false image. Certainly, he was full of love, compassion and tenderness. But he was also uninhibited when it came to exposing error and denouncing sin, especially hypocrisy. Christ was a controversialist. The Gospel writers show him as constantly debating with the religious leaders of his day…”
Christ the controversialist.
That one probably wouldn’t make it into most of our devotional calendars.
We can be so given to extremes. Either Jesus was meek and mild, tolerant of all, embracing all, or he was constantly in other’s faces stirring the pot of conflict and controversy and itching for a fight as he takes on the bastions of error and unbelief. Both extremes are mere caricatures of our own reflections, depending on our temperament.
Perhaps is it most accurate to say that Jesus was a man of truth – that, in fact, he was truth personified.
John does us one better, telling us that he has himself seen his “glory – glory as of the One and Only from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Jesus embodied both. He was grace and truth personified. And while we might at first wonder how the embodiment of grace and truth could possibly be a controversialist attracting venomous hostility, it would perhaps be good to reflect on the fact that few things can more readily unnerve us than grace and expose us than truth. I don’t think Jesus entered the temple courts spoiling for a fight. He didn’t have to. The reality of who he is was threat enough, automatically causing them to recoil, hands raised, ready to fight. Which is probably why he spent so much of his life intentionally away from Jerusalem.
Yes these are some hard words Jesus speaks to his contemporaries. Telling anyone that “your father is the devil” in just about any setting is a hard word!
Now it just remains for us to look beyond the surface words bracketed by those quotation marks and decide if we hear bitter accusation and exposure or loving rebuke and disappointment.
And perhaps that is the key on which all of this business turns.
Love is never rude, but oh how love can and will get in the face of the beloved – and most of the time, words are not even necessary.
Under which guise to you primarily view Jesus: Jesus the meek and gentle one who would never say anything to upset anyone, or the Jesus the argumentative pot-stirrer spoiling for a fight? What is the key to finding a more balanced, dynamic view of him – and of ourselves?
Abba, lead me in the way of being a blessed peacemaker that integrates and embraces grace and truth and that, while never spoiling for a fight, won’t shy away from it lies along the path of healing and life. Through Jesus.
I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41 You are doing the works your father did.” John 8.37-41 | ESV
“Let’s face facts. Yes, you are Abraham’s offspring – yet you seek to do me in because you can’t stomach what I have to say to you. And why not? I’m only feeding you what Abba is dishing up – so if you can’t stomach my words, it’s clear that you have another father who’s been touching your palate and shaping your appetite.” Once again they bristled. “Abraham is the only father we have known or need!” Jesus was unrelenting. “If that were so, if you really were Abraham’s children, then we wouldn’t have a problem here because then you’d walk, talk, and look like Abraham. But that’s not Abraham’s face I see – contorted with murderous rage towards someone who has simply told you the Truth he has heard from God himself. No, that’s not Abraham’s way at all. You’re mimicking another parent altogether.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
My youngest daughter graduated from high school. It was a remarkable achievement for her – graduating some two years early – and a milestone for us in that, well, she is our youngest. Being in a homeschool co-op, the graduating class was relatively small, so each graduating student had time to make a five-minute speech. We were excited to hear her speak – something we hadn’t managed to experience yet. She got up, began her speech, and instantly I was mortified. I wanted to slide under the chair.
I was watching and listening to me.
It was uncanny, and, frankly, horrifying – for the simple reason that I hate listening to or watching myself. And here I was, in her speech, in her movements. She wasn’t trying to mimic me. If she had it would have been parody. It was the unconscious imitation of the dad she’s seen speak publicly, clearly, one too many times.
There’s a whole lot of “daddy talk” in the rest of this heated exchange in John 8. Jesus talks about his Daddy (Abba); they talk about their “Father Abraham,” about their Father, God. Jesus challenges both claims and counters with the charge that their true parentage is found in darker realms.
Yes, it’s the “Who’s your daddy?” phase of the debate – a question that cannot be answered by birth certificates or claims of heritage; it’s all about what we do and how we do it – especially when we’re not trying.
It’s who we simply are.
It’s the unaffected manner of a child who’s spent an awe-ful lot of time around Dad. It just comes out. To overtly try being like Dad can easily degenerate into parody – and the religious world is filled with such acts, just as those temple courts were filled with those performing them. Jesus challenges us to drop the act and to stop haggling over a religious paternity test.
He calls for something much more simple and direct: to take a good look in the mirror and see what father is reflected in our face.
Take a good look in the mirror of your life: what father is evident in your face? What are the genetic markers you see on display?
Abba, deliver me from the glib use of that name, “Abba” – let it be the reality of me, Abba’s child, basking in your light, embraced in your arms, hearing and responding to your voice. Through Jesus.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:31-35 | ESV
Wanting to prod these local Judeans further, deeper in this turn towards trust in him many were experiencing, Jesus issued this challenge: “It takes more than nodding your head and crossing your heart to make you one of my followers; you have to settle deep into my Message and make it your home. Then you’ll be a bona-fide follower – and then you’ll finally and fully begin to grasp the Big Picture of all Reality, and step into true freedom.” The word “freedom” triggered some of them in the crowd politically and they bristled, “How dare you imply we need freedom! We are Abraham’s offspring, for crying out loud! We are free, our heads always held high – how can you say we will step into true freedom when that’s what we already are!?” Jesus responded patiently, “I’m going to say this twice and mean it: you’re hearing ‘political status’ and I’m talking ‘moral condition’ – and anyone stuck in endless repetitions of the same immoral ruts is clearly chained like a slave to those habits of heart and life. There’s no home and heritage there – only the tumbleweed existence of a slave who’s here today and gone tomorrow; but a son has lasting roots in the family that only grow deeper over time. And if such a Son unshackles you from your own destructive ruts, then we’re talking real freedom, not just slogans about it slapped on your bumpers.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Jesus is twelve years old, sitting among the teachers, asking them questions, and “they were amazed at his understanding and answers”
(check out the story in Luke 2:41-51).
How the wheel has turned. Same temple courts, same Jesus – though at least eighteen years older – and no doubt different teachers, but instead of admiration there is only rancor, ugly debate, and sneering accusations.
And it’s all triggered by Jesus using the word “freedom.”
Many words come to mind that can readily set people off, inflame emotions and create conflict on the spot – and “freedom” wouldn’t seem to be one of them. I suppose it all depends on the saying and the hearing of it. Jesus speaks the word “freedom” as a word of assurance to those who believed in him. It’s apparently the other, more hostile (and vociferous) part of the crowd who take it up as a challenge or even an insult, jumping on it as an insinuation that they needed to be free of anything and as a stain upon their heritage. I suspect many of us would find ourselves at home among this hostile crowd, crowing about our heritage of freedom and liberty as Americans, touting the history of our Founding Fathers, while we seek to divert the spotlight away from inner moral bondage and servitude to more exterior, safe, and incendiary political topics. It’s always easier to engage in political and cultural debates – or to attack the person that is making you feel exposed – than to do the hard work of self-examination.
The fact is, that though we have an amazing heritage of freedom, we are enslaved in more ways than we would ever wish to admit – to greed, to entertainment, to consumption, to pleasure, to pride, and to biting tongues, for starters. These are the great ills that Jesus targets, and over which he proclaims his own dramatic “free at last” – even as we run off bound by our own internal chains to break the fetters of a host of social ills.
And though he doesn’t employ the analogy here, it fits. “Clean the inside of the cup,” Jesus tells us, “and then the outside will be clean also.” Perhaps the greatest challenge of all for us is to actually examine the inside of the cup rather than trying to throw it at the one who’s pointing out the grease.
How are you being challenged to pursue the deeper work of freedom in your own heart and life? Where in your life do you feel in “bondage”? Why? How can you be “free at last”?
Abba, bring on a new birth of freedom in my heart, my soul, my mind. Advance the deep, inner work of freedom in my life. Rattle the cage in my mind and shatter the chains binding my soul. Let me be free indeed. Through Christ.
25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. 26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” 27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. 28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29 And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” 30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him. John 8.25-30 | ESV
They shot back, “Why don’t you just tell us right now in plain Aramaic WHO ARE YOU???” He shot right back, “What from the start I have been saying! Oy! So much I could say about you, so many judgments I could pass on you if that were my game! But what does it matter? The One who sent me is true through and through, and what passes from his mouth to my ear is what I will speak to you and to this world of yours.” And yes, they were clueless. No idea what or who he was talking about – his Abba. So Jesus, again, picking up the thread, wove a new picture for them: “Whenever you lift up the Son of Man – the ultimate Human Being – then you’ll finally get who I AM, and realize that I’m not the one calling the shots, carrying out my own game plan, but that I’m only carrying out and speaking out what my Abba gives me to say and do. And the One who sent me is with me, and he’s with me to stay, because what I do always meets with his big ‘thumbs up.’ Way up. Always.”
And while many were snarkily shaking their heads as he said all this, many began to experience a turn in themselves. A turn towards faith. A turn towards trust. In him. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“Those who honor me, I will honor; those who trifle with me I’ll turn into a mere trifle.” (1 Samuel 2:30)
Intensifying, deepening over time.
We are ever turning through life. The only turning some of us experience is like that of a door on its hinges – there’s a lot of movement, but it’s only back and forth as we remain affixed to our spot. But sometimes, we suddenly find ourselves shaking off the hinge and then turning into faith and trust.
Turning into grace.
Turning into life.
Too many remain glued to assumptions and presumptions, hinged to a squinty-eyed worldview, to binding religious or irreligious ruts with their predictable, endlessly repeated locked-in-place movement.
We so desperately need to become unhinged.
To have the bolt of our assumptions popped out, freeing us to turn in new, unpredictable ways.
This of course terrifies us.
Hinges are comforting.
We get used to the view, first this way then that repeated ad infinitem, ad nauseum.
There is security.
A comforting sameness and repetition.
Jesus being “lifted up” in his death would pop that bolt for many, unhinging them, while finally, fatally cementing it for others. Both groups are in evidence in this text, even as both are evident all around us each day. Everyone is experiencing movement. The question is, is that movement merely movement in place, turning now this way, then that – or has the hinge been popped turning us out into faith and its unpredictable, free-flowing movements?
Do we even know the difference?
Where in your life are you finding predictability a good thing? Where are you dying to be unhinged – to experience a fresh turning of faith?
Light of the world, may I been unhinged today in the brilliance of your light, leaving my affixed, familiar spot and venturing out into unpredictable God-adventures. Through Christ.
21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?”23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” John 8.21-24 | ESV
Fast forward. But just a little. Still in the temple, now over towards Solomon’s Portico. Still teaching. Jesus picks up the dangling thread and finishes this verbal testimony tapestry: “I’m leaving and you’ll look for me, but your search will lead you nowhere but to the dead end cul de sac of your own stubborn rebellion, and there you’ll die. The end. Fin. You simply can’t go where I’m heading.” The local religious trolls snarked to each other, “What? Is he going to kill himself and wake up in hell? Is that what he means by ‘You can’t go where I’m heading’?” Jesus then spoke clearly through their snickering guffaws, “If anyone here is from the nether regions, it’s you. I’m from above. You’re right at home here in this world of yours, but not me. This world of yours is not my home. Which is why I told you, ‘you’re headed to the dead end cul de sac of your own stubborn rebellion and there you will die.’ Yes, if you can’t see and trust who I AM, you will shrivel and die, right there in the sins of your stubborn defiance.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Alfred Edersheim postulates a shift here in scenery from the Temple Treasury to Solomon’s Porch – a long colonnaded walkway that frequently accommodated large groups who would gather to hear rabbis expounding or prophets proclaiming. Here there would also have been exit doorways through which people could step to grab stones to throw at bad rabbis or false prophets, and through these same exits those same prophets and rabbis could make a speedy exit and blend into the throngs.
Both will happen at the climax of this new encounter which Jesus begins by stating the obvious: “clearly, we aren’t tracking here!”
The prophet Amos proclaimed in ancient times, “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?”
No, they can’t, is the implied and obvious answer – and “no we won’t” is Jesus’ assertion here.
It’s one thing to have our path intersect that of Christ. It happens to every human being more times than any of us realize. It’s another thing to have our path drawn into his, becoming one with his.
Jesus would tell his disciples in the not-too-distant future, “Where I am going you know, and the way you know” (and they, of course, had no clue as to what he was really talking about. Par for the course, for them and for us!).
But to the experts who would challenge and debate the light rather than bask in it, he makes it clear: “You don’t know me and you don’t know where I’m going – and you’ll never be able to follow me there.”
It’s an early edition of his final, thundered pronouncement: “Your house is left to you desolate. You will not see me again. Not until you learn to cry, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
We are all on a trajectory moving on and up towards life and light, or cycling in upon ourselves into a dead end cul de sac of our own blindness, stubbornness, and distrust.
Jesus presents us with only two options.
Eternity is merely the confirmation of which direction it is we have consistently been taking all our lives.
Wide-opened eyes of wonder and belief or squinty-eyed cynicism and distrust.
Fine irony there.
The narrow path is wide-eyed, the wide way squinty-eyed;
the narrow path leads to ever widening fields of expanding experience and life;
the wide path to an ever-shrinking passage leading only to a dead end cul de sac with one of those “no outlet” signs staring us in the face.
Oh for the wisdom to choose the truly scenic route…
How would you characterize the trajectory and momentum of your life? Do you like where you are heading? How can we make a course correction if we don’t?
Light of the world, deliver me from the pull of darker ruts. Free me to pursue that “road less travelled” that leads me into wide open vistas bathed in your Light. In your Light, let me see light. Through Jesus.