EFAC Australia

Bible exposition

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32.) Mary’s words to Jesus when he finally arrives in Bethany, three days later than requested and four days after Lazarus has been put in the tomb, carry all the pain and disappointment of one who feels that the Lord has completely let her down. Martha manages to retain some hope in Jesus’ ability to do something for her brother, though she doesn’t seem to know what, exactly (11:21-24); Mary, though, voices no such hope: We called you, you didn’t turn up, and now it’s too late.

What Mary and Martha don’t know, however, is why Jesus didn’t come earlier, as soon as they sent word to him of Lazarus’s illness. It wasn’t, as they might imagine, due to distraction, or procrastination, or laziness; it was in fact, paradoxically, due to love: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (11:5-6.) Notice carefully what is being said there – it’s not despite the fact that Jesus loved them that he waited (though some translations, most notably the NRSV, render it this way); it’s specifically because he loved them that he waited. Out of his love for this family, Jesus didn’t come immediately, arriving in time to heal Lazarus’s sickness. Rather, he hung back longer where he was, on the other side of the Jordan, so as to allow Lazarus to die.

And this raises the obvious question of how that could possibly have been the more loving course to take. Surely the more compassionate response would have been to act immediately on Mary and Martha’s message, spare them from grief and spare Lazarus from death. What kind of love would stand back and allow this horrible thing to take place? The answer is given to us by Jesus himself: it is a love that intends to display a greater glory. When he is informed of Lazarus’s illness, right before John tells us that love motivated his delay, Jesus says “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4). Jesus will love Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not by keeping them from such a painful event, but by letting it come, because he deems that they will more clearly see who he is as he rescues them from the midst of the mess, than if he keeps the mess from overwhelming them in the first place. And giving them a clearer view of who he is – that is the most loving thing he can do for them, or for anyone.

Of course, as Jesus arrives in Bethany, all this is hidden from Mary. Jesus doesn’t explain his purposes to her. She doesn’t see someone acting out of love towards her and her family, she only sees a Lord who apparently shelved her request, neglected to show up when he was needed, and failed her brother. But in a few moments she will accompany him to the tomb, and as he calls the dead man out, she will see the fuller glory of the one whose word can not only heal the sick, but can give life to the dead – the word of the one who has life in himself (5:25-26).  

Now at this point, it would be tempting to draw a simplistic theodicy from all of this – to see tragedy as something purposed by God in a straightforward way for his glory, and therefore as something which, while we might not recognise it at the time, is essentially good. We ought to resist that temptation. The fact that Jesus weeps and feels rage in the face of death (11:33, 35) shows that death remains in itself an unqualified evil, even as Jesus uses it as the occasion of his glory. Rather, as Jesus allows Lazarus to die and then raises him, that death comes to magnify the Son’s glory, not as we might – as a willing and obedient servant with a positive place in the Father’s purposes – but rather as, in those purposes, it is entirely trampled down. It is only in its defeat and negation that death serves the glory of the Son. And indeed, the defeat which begins beside the tomb of Lazarus will be concluded in several chapter’s time, after the Father has glorified his Son in his death, and he himself emerges from the tomb – this time with the bands of death left behind (cp. 11:44; 20:6-7), and its power definitively broken.

Mark Calder is Rector of the Anglican Church in Noosa, QLD

I invite you to read one of the very challenging statements of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-36. On first reading, this is so upsetting. It’s very provocative. The inference is that Jesus has come to divide the human family — the closest and most loving of relationships. But isn’t Jesus called the Prince of Peace? Surely he did come to bring peace! Didn’t the angels proclaim at his birth in Luke 2 – ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom his favour rests’?
Of course, we understand from elsewhere in our Bibles, that Jesus came so that through his perfect life and sacrificial death we might have peace with God. We also take on board what else we know of God’s will for us and for families. He is responsible for what we could argue is the greatest of all divine inventions, and he commands us to honour our mother and father and to love and care for our children. So then, how do we understand Jesus’ teaching here? Let’s explore:

Michael Flynn is the Vicar of St Columb’s Hawthorn, Vic.

Last year I had the privilege of speaking at the Melbourne Diocesan Curate’s conference on the charges given in the ordinal. We considered how the charge, ‘Be a pastor after the pattern of Christ the Great Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep’, can become a heavy burden in long-term ordained ministry and we turned to 1 John 3:16-24 for wisdom.

The key text is: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16). The context of the apostle John’s letter is schism. The church had split, people had left (2:19) but those who had left were still in the local community accusing and misleading those who remained in the church. John’s treatment for a difficult pastoral situation is to provide theological guidance based on tested authority (1.1-4) because we need meaning that is reliable. That is how we hope. John provides four interwoven tests of genuine Christianity to encourage those who remain. Three are observable tests and one is a subjective test. They are:

1. The social test or test of love. Love is defined as the love God showed us in Christ - self sacrificial love. (2:9-11; 3:13,16-18; 4:10-12)

2. The theological test of Christology and Incarnation. That Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ the Son of God. Or, to put that another way, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. (2:22,23; 3:23; 4:1-6)

3. The moral test. John is realistic; where there is pastoral and theological confusion there will be moral failure. (1:8-10; 2:3-6; 3:7-10)

4. The subjective experience of the Holy Spirit and answered prayer. (3:21,22,24)

What is of interest to pastors under pressure is how John applies these tests to our consciences and motivations. In 3:16-21 John is practical and unsentimental about love. Love means to share possessions, because that is literally to lay down life by giving up livelihood (time and the possessions gained by our time) to serve others. John applies the cross of Christ, the atonement, directly to his people as a model of Christian living (3:18). He then goes on to apply this evidence of practical, atoning love to his people’s consciences. The living out of atoning love, by the practical sharing of material possessions and giving life is evidence to our consciences that we belong to Christ.

This is a hard thought for biblical believers as we are nervous of any hint that our works may contribute to our salvation. Our mental habit is to discount the value of the Christ-like works we do but, it turns out, that is to dishonour the work of God. John is clear; our attempt to imitate the atonement of Christ in practical love is not evidence that we can save ourselves. In 2:2, Jesus alone is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, in 4:19 we love only because he first loved us. However, our love is evidence that we have been saved, that God is at work in and with us. So, when our hearts condemn us (3:21) we can set out hearts at rest in his presence (3:19). This is akin to the kind of spiritual self-talk we see modelled in the Psalms, when the Psalmist gathers up the evidence of God’s promises and actions to rebuke his discouraged soul (eg. Psalms 37, 42). In 1 John, part of God’s action is the stumbling practical love he enables us to do; we can speak to our conscience even when it wavers and condemns us and tell it no, we belong here, in the presence of the living God.

Because having an argument with your conscience is one of the toughest, long-term debates we ever have — especially if others around us are also accusing us (2:26), John adds to the evidence of sacrificial love the evidence of belief; belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He weaves together the social test (love as Christ loved) and the theological test (what we believe about Jesus, 3:23) into a practical outcome; that we will see answered prayer in the life of the church (3:22) and experience the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit (3:24. It is worth noting that for John this fourth subjective test accompanies the objective ones or it is not true. 2:20-27).

I am deeply encouraged that though John was not writing to perfect people (2:1) in a perfect church, nevertheless their hard won growth in Christ seen in the tests of sacrificial love, theological understanding, moral effort and the experience of God’s Spirit can be held up to their consciences as evidence of God amongst them. Ladies and gentlemen, here is how to measure ministry success. Here is help for sustaining the long-term work of laying down our lives for the sheep. Rebuke your conscience.

God’s Modus Operandi

Mark Peterson is the Music Minister at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide

Do you enjoy vision-setting meetings?  Perhaps brainstorming, or presentations of vision, mission and key values?  Sometimes these events invigorate me; other times they bore me.

If King David was casting a vision for Israel, 2 Samuel 7 describes a stunning and sudden overturning of the strategy. 

He was settled in a palace, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies.  It was time for some development on the domestic front.  Admirably, God’s chosen king chooses to honour God.  He will build him a house that would be more appropriate than the travelling tent.  The king is established in Jerusalem: now the Lord needs a temple. 

The Lord, however, wipes the whiteboard.  Actually, this is not the plan.  I will tell you the plan.  You will not build me a house; I will build you a house, and it will never be destroyed. 

Luke 4:1-13

What exactly does Jesus resist when he stands against the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness? The history of the reception of this passage and its parallels offers a number of possible answers to this question. Chrysostom is representative of the fathers in seeing here a rejection of specific sins – gluttony, vain ambition and the desire for riches.1  Calvin charts a different course as an explicit correction of this exegetical tradition, taking the Devil’s offers as an attempt to provoke Jesus to doubt God, to rise up in rivalry against him, and to seize his gifts apart from him.2 Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov famously perceives in Christ a refusal to adopt a tactic of coercion whereby allegiance would be forced through an irrefutable display of miracle, spectacle, and power, and instead a commitment to the preservation of human freedom. These readings ought not to be dismissed out of hand; yet what none of them seems explicitly to reflect (with the one possible exception being Calvin’s reading) is the extent to which it is Jesus’ sonship that is at stake in the wilderness (‘If you are the Son of God…). Here we might offer another answer to the question of what Jesus rejects that seeks to take this into account, specifically by reading the temptation narrative in the light of what immediately precedes it – the account of Jesus’ baptism.

In Jesus’ baptism, a paradox is revealed to be lying at the heart of his identity and task, and it is a paradox of sonship.

On the one hand, at the Jordan, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is publically manifested – he is the one who stands in unique relationship to the Father, and who comes as his king and judge.3 On the other hand, it is also revealed that this sonship doesn’t secure for Jesus a path of ease and comfort; on the contrary, it calls him to the work of suffering in the place of his people. This is made clear both by the second half of the heavenly announcement of Lk. 3:22, with its allusion to the servant song of Isaiah 42, and by the action of the baptism itself, in which Jesus the judge adopts the posture of a sinful and repentant Israelite, and so stands in solidarity with the judged. Jesus’ sonship, then, far from promising him the earthly career that one might expect for so exalted a figure, delivers him into its opposite; his will not be an impervious life marked by an immediacy of glory, but rather one of weakness and affliction in the self-giving service of his own.

With this in mind, the Devil’s temptations that follow may be seen as each offering Jesus an alternative way of being the Son to that revealed in his baptism. We may take each temptation in turn, to see how this is so. The first temptation, to turn a stone into bread, invites Jesus to prove his sonship, not simply by performing a mighty deed, but one that will do away with his own hunger and lack – for surely, if he is God’s Son, God wouldn’t let him starve?4 The second temptation,  proposing universal sovereignty in exchange for a shift in Jesus’ allegiance, offers him something that the Father has, in fact, already promised his Son,5 but offers it now, with no expectation that the path by which the Father has determined the Kingdom will come – the path of rejection and crucifixion – need be trod. The third temptation, to put God to the test, goads Jesus in a way similar to the first to evidence his sonship through a demonstration of an automatic divine protection that will spare him harm in all circumstances. Each temptation, then, coaxes Jesus to act on the basis of a very different vision of what it means to be the Son of God to that which has been revealed and embodied in his baptism – one which doesn’t direct him into the passion for the sake of his people and commit him to trusting God through it, but instead spares him such things, proffering entitlement, safety and suffering-free glory.

Jesus, of course, resists these temptations through God’s word. In doing so, he reaffirms that vocation which, though manifested in his baptism, is grounded in the depths of eternity; his “No” to the Devil is in fact a “Yes” to the Father, and in this he triumphs over the one who would turn him from the Father’s course. This triumph, however, is not so much for himself, as for us; and it is such in at least two ways.

Firstly, as is often noted, Jesus triumphs for us in that the battle he wins is one that had previously been lost – by Adam, by Israel, and with them, by all of us. Luke tells the story of the temptations expressly to show that where those ‘sons of God’ failed,6 here the true Son of God – the true Adam, the true Israel – resists temptation, refuses to yield to sin and to Satan, and so undoes the knot that we had tied.

Secondly, Jesus triumphs for us in that his refusal to turn from suffering is a refusal to turn from the path by which he will redeem us. Jesus suffering isn’t, of course, something arbitrary that the Father has set upon him; it is the means of our salvation. This is how Jesus will bring not only himself, but us with him into his kingdom – by refusing to insist that his sonship ought to afford and preserve him certain rights and privileges, and instead committing to relinquish such things for us. Therefore, when Jesus says “No” to the devil in the wilderness, he says “Yes” to God, but as such he also says “Yes” to us. Jesus will not abandon the way of the cross, because he will not abandon us. He will not be Son simply for himself; no matter the cost, he refuses to be king without his people.

1 Homilies on Matthew, 8.5

2 See the comments on Luke 4:1-13 in the Harmony of the Evangelists

3 cp. Pss. 2:7; Lk. 3:22

4 Notice that in Luke’s account, it is specifically one loaf that Jesus is tempted to produce – in contrast to the later miracle of the loaves and fishes, this would be a purely self-serving act.

5 Pss. 2:7-8; Lk. 1:32-33

6 Exod. 4:22-23; Lk. 3:38