How do you abide in someone you can’t see or touch or audibly listen to? When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, was it merely for them or is it something we are called to emulate?
To the first question, Jesus most certainly expected his disciples to abide in him despite not being able to touch him and hear him and see him. After all, John 15 (where the speech comes from) is right before his crucifixion. Too often our faith is wedded to too much wooden-ness in understanding. We veer toward, “Yes, but…” Like Thomas who would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side, so also our faith is not expansive enough. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe–which leads to the second question.
Jesus prayed not only for his disciples in the Garden, but for all those who would hear the Good News from his disciples testimony. When he responded to Thomas that those who have not seen and yet believe are makarios (“blessed”), he had you and me in mind. What we see unfold in Scripture after the Resurrection is the kind of effulgent life he wants us to live…and abiding life.
So how do we abide?
I would suggest three ways.
Keeping His Word
Throughout John’s Gospel and his epistles, Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commands. Like a father who loves his child, like an older brother looking out for his younger brother, Jesus tells us how to navigate God’s world. Do we trust him enough to actually follow his steps?
This explicit teaching is what is called the Revealed Will of God. While God is constantly working in his world for his own purposes, part of that working is his condescension to tell us how to understand his world. That is, unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh determined to tell his people how to live. His Law is gracious and kind to reveal his ways to us.
All the Law hangs on Jesus’ admonition to love God and people.
Throughout the New Testament we see what it looks like to abide in Christ when we hear the Apostles telling people to put others before their own whims and preferences. We see this worked out as the Spirit comes at Pentecost and the Church extends to the uttermost parts of the world.
Led By the Spirit
It is no accident that John 16’s (continued) discourse on the preferment of the Spirit’s coming follows on the heels of Jesus’ command to abide in him. While the Law is gracious and good, we botch it up with our self-seeking and short-sightedness. We need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.
As I shared in my sermon on Sunday, there are three witnesses: water, blood, and Spirit. The first two speak to the doctrinal clarity and objective reality of who Jesus is. The third is the subjective application of these truths into the life of the believer.
Unfortunately the Spirit is equated with emotionalism and awkward and outlandish activity by those claiming to be Spirit-led. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, indeed. While the Spirit blows where he will, and does things outside our meager understanding, this does not necessarily mean that his working in incomprehensible or outlandish or alien (more on this in the third point).
What are some ways we can be led by the Spirit?
Well, he inspired the text of Scripture and has clearly spoken there. Go there.
In Ephesians 5.18, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. How? The participles that follow this command tell us how: Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Spirit is guiding and directing God’s people. Go there.
It would be good to reflect on each of these four participles and consider how you might be filled with the Spirit in ever-increasing measure. Are you speaking God’s songs over people? Are you singing to soothe the angst in your own heart? Are you grateful? Are you putting others’ needs before your own–considering them more significant than yourself?
Being Attune to God’s Working
One of my charges as a pastor is to help us see God’s continual work in the world. It is easy to wax on about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence but to deny his power and that this means right here right now. He is not all these characteristics merely in heaven. While you may say, “Obviously!” In fact, many of us affirm these aspects of God yet we live life as though he is not at work in the mundane stuff of life. We talk about him and his superintendent work int he world…but we fail to see his work in my making coffee or standing in line or talking to a stranger.
The shift in our lives happens when we see him always at work. Always. In the mundane. In the suffering and pain. In the exciting. That is God working and shaping you.
Every conversation. Every. Conversation. Is opportunity to hear God speak to you. For him to shape you. Every appointment is a “divine appointment.” He graciously guides our footsteps. The person in the checkout line needs to hear of God’s grace. Your co-worker needs to know that God loves him. The annoying neighbor needs to see God’s mercy. Your family needs to experience peace in your words and actions. These are all God’s ever-present work. His beckoning us to abide in his word and his world.
Israel found itself in the wilderness complaining against God for his ways of redeeming them. For the mundane activities he had them take part in (i.e., walking around in circles).
Side note: If you and I were led in the wilderness for 40 years we would be murmuring as well. We get in a tizzy when we have to do anything mundane for more than an hour typically.
So Israel complains and God sends serpents to bite them in judgment (see Numbers 21 for the full account). This act of judgment reminds us of the serpent in the Garden who is ever present with us. He tempts us to murmur and blame others rather than confessing and growing and trusting. These serpents become a vivid reminder of what each of our little speakings of our minds are really saying. That is, when we speak out against a circumstance or a person, we are setting ourselves up as the arbiter of right and wrong. Of truth. We are the ones to whom others ought to ask for permission.
But the act of healing did not come by taking a potion or jumping in a river or screaming out loud, “I’m sorry” followed by self-flagellation. The act of redemption came in the simple form of looking. Looking. Not reaching out. Not even crying out. Merely looking away from the self and to Another. There is no strength required. A mere acknowledgment of something outside of ourselves that needs to redeem.
What is fascinating further about this act of redemption is the object to which Israel was to look. They were to look to…a serpent. The Act of Rebellion against their Maker that started in the Garden is turned on its head. The Serpent is powerless to hold sway the delights of rebellion. He becomes the tool in God’s hands of redemption.
God doesn’t just say, “Stay away from serpents.” He doesn’t rid the earth of what would be deemed evil. Surely, the Adversary is not redeemer. That is not what we see in the text! Rather, we see that those things connected with and that can easily be lumped in with the hopeless, in this case a serpent, God redeems this seemingly hopeless object. He doesn’t merely get rid of the evil, he redeems the evil.
This is scandalous and you might find yourself saying, “Matt, you go too far!”
Do I? I venture to say that you have not entirely grasped who you are. You were an object of wrath. You were children of the Adversary. You delighted in your own desires and your universe orbited around your wants. God, being rich in mercy, took you out of that darkness. He didn’t merely remove you from the filth. He transferred you into the kingdom of his Beloved Son. The One he loved from before the foundation of the world. He not only transferred you into that kingdom. He has given you all the privileges of that kingdom. He has made you a son and daughter!
God is not in the business of just getting rid of his adversaries, but to those who will merely look to the Son who was also lifted up, he will give you the inheritance of his Beloved Son. No more to be destroyed. No more to be reviled and written off as hopeless. He gives you all that he has and all that he is.
This past Sunday I preached from John 3.14-21. In an effort to help us hear with fresh ears, I offered my own translation from the Greek. Of note in the translation, instead of “perish” as is typically used for the word apollumi in the Greek, I opted for “destroy.” The lexical range for the word can also include “to undo” as in “untie.” What a strange word or concept to consider that to be destroyed is to be untied or undone. What is John (and Greek!) getting at?
As we consider the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation, the idea of being untied is a beautiful picture of what happened at the Fall. That is, when our first parents fell to the temptation of the Serpent they were untied, unglued as it were. They were broken down from the integrated selves God had made them as.
So many times we can understand the death we experience from the Fall as puntiliwr in nature. That is, as in that moment in the Fall death happened. What we see as the biblical storyline unfolds is that the concept of “death” is one of living under the reign of death. That is, the moment we close our eyes for the last time is merely culmination of living under the tyranny of death. Prior to that moment, we are being undone, untied, thread by precious thread.
I believe this coheres with our own experience. Consider the moment by moment decisions you and I make. Each one of those decisions could potentially be one more thread pulled out of our already threadbare sweater. Sin entices. We get hooked. Sin unravels us. After a life of this, we become naked and unashamed–where there should have been a covering and shame for the rebellion we relish. At the end of such a life, we come to the final thread being snapped.
The Gospel, however, is about the work of integrating us. Of bringing us into wholeness. Whereas we continue to live under the reign of death, we are merely tenants and not inheritors of such death. We have been given the life of Christ and are being knit back together into the integrated self that God had intended from the beginning. And so, the Gospel saved us, saves us, and will save us from the frayed existence of those who do not believe on the Son. Those who refuse to come to the Tailor to receive their garments of praise, will continue to wear the ashes. Those who do not submit to the rectifying work of the Author and Finisher of our lives, will find that they are undone. They are ultimately destroyed.
In this way, the Gospel of Jesus a moment of transference into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. And it then acts as the agent of reifying the imago Dei that was unraveled. What a beautiful picture of how God works in our lives moment by moment! When confronted with a juicy morsel of sin, by the power of the Spirit to say “No” to ungodliness and our own rule, another thread is tighter in our fabric. Each moment when the promises of slavery seem enticing, instead of being undone and destroyed, we are made into wholly, integrated image bearers.