Next words of Jesus: Do you love me?

“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?'” — John 21:15 (NIV)

Shane Stanford, whose The Seven Next Words of Christ (Abingdon Press, 2006) provided the framework for this series of devotions, considered the entire 21st chapter of John as a single word. There is a certain symmetry to seven last words balanced by seven next words. Besides, according to the number symbolism in biblical times, seven is the number of completion. Still, I think Jesus’ interview with Peter is too important to combine it with anything else.

Peter had always been brash and impulsive. When the disciples argued over which of them was the greatest, Peter must have been in the thick of it. At the Last Supper, when Jesus predicted that all the disciples would desert him, Peter boldly contradicted him. Then, of course, he denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection, he decided to go back to the fishing trade.

Jesus’ question to him has three possible interpretations: Do you love me more than 153 fish? Do you love me more than you love the other disciples? Do you love me more than the other disciples do? As to the first two interpretations, Peter and every other Christ-follower must answer an unqualified yes.

As for the  third interpretation, no one can possibly make that comparison, but Peter had as much as claimed so when he declared that even if all the other disciples deserted Jesus, he never would. Put that way, the question demands humility.

However Peter interpreted the first question, he answered, “You know I love you.” As Greek is richer in shades of meaning than English, it bears repeating that Jesus asked his question using agapao for love and Peter replied with phileo. It is as if Jesus asked, “Do you love me with a sacrificial love” and Peter responded, “You know I consider you a friend.” He could not bring himself to claim that higher love.

Jesus asked the question a second time, and Peter responded the same way. Then to Peter’s great embarrassment, Jesus asked the third time, but this time using phileo: “Do you even love me to the extent your choice of words suggests?” That broke Peter’s heart, but three hurtful questions balanced out three denials.

Every time Peter confessed his love, Jesus reminded him of his commission. Jesus had chosen Peter for a particular role in establishing the church. Peter’s shameful sin did not cancel that assignment, but sin requires restoration. Jesus certainly hurt Peter’s feelings, but restoration must cost something.

Jesus also reminded Peter that his assignment would ultimately cost his life and commanded him, “Follow me.” In this case, it explicitly meant “follow me to death by execution.” But now that Jesus had restored Peter, he could trust him to complete his mission.

No Christian since has avoided confrontation with this same question. We must love Jesus more than any activity, more than any possession, more than any relationship. Until we do, we live below his expectation for us and below our kingdom privileges.

Do you love Jesus with the special sacrificial love the Holy Spirit gives?

Next words of Jesus: Haven’t you any fish?

“He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ ‘No,’ they answered him. He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” — John 21:5-6 (NIV)

Jesus seldom does the same thing twice, yet this was the second time he told his disciples to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. Nearly every sermon I have ever heard on either passage points out that commercial fishing was and is done from the left side of the boat. If that’s the case, Jesus essentially told them to do it wrong, and it worked.

Even though Jesus repeated himself, the situation here is very different. The same people who had been raw recruits the first time are now seasoned preachers who have endured the trauma of loss and recovered the joy of being with Jesus. Now, it seemed just like old times. It seemed right, normal.

In this context, it’s a little troubling that Peter announced his intention to go fishing. As a former professional fisherman, he wasn’t proposing a relaxing time sitting on a pier and chewing the fat with friends.

Apparently, he had decided to go back to the business of fishing for fish instead of men. Jesus had said that he would meet the disciples in Galilee. He had not said anything about releasing them from the Great Commission.

The amazingly large catch serves as a reminder that we cannot even accomplish what we’re good at by nature and training without God’s blessing. It also reminds that we cannot expect success if we chose to do something other than what God has called us to.

That breakfast must have been fun for all. Perhaps they talked over everything they had experienced together. Surely the presence of the risen Lord helped the disciples understand those experiences in a new way. Very likely, the common pool of preaching points in the early church came out of the conversation over this meal.

It was more than a reunion, though. Jesus expected these men not  only to give up their professions, but eventually also their lives. Therefore, the meal was more than breakfast. It amounted to a sacrament. Surely the joy of camaraderie had a solemn coloration.

The whole church grew from a band of quite ordinary men who had experienced life with our extraordinary Lord. Our biblical scholars would better serve the church if they explained the similarity of the synoptic gospels as resulting from a common oral tradition–perhaps begun on this very occasion, and certainly honed by repetition as the disciples preached in Jerusalem–rather than positing a wholly undocumented and unnecessary lost written source.

Meanwhile, today’s Christians represent part of a great chain of people who have heard the gospel preached and have had their own experiences with the risen Lord. The joy and solemnity of that sacramental breakfast by the lake, along with the commission to tell the story until everyone in the world has heard it, has been passed down to us.

Next words of Jesus: Go into the world

“Therefore go make disciples of all nations. . .” — Matthew 28:19a

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” — Mark 16:15

“You are witnesses of these things.” — Luke 24:48

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” — John 20:21 (All quotations NIV)

Whether “all the world” means going across the ocean, across the country, or across the street, many people find this commandment, in whatever form, the scariest thing Jesus ever said. Learning to lead a holy life is hard enough, but go talk to someone else about it?

I’m confessing my own greatest weakness here. While the country in general fears public speaking more than death, I would much rather give a speech than initiate a conversation. So far, speaking opportunities have turned up only within my own congregation.

The disciples had their own reasons to be uncomfortable at this commandment. Jesus had sent them out before, but they always had explicit instructions and an assignment limited in both time and geography. The world is much bigger than Galilee and Judea, and Jesus said nothing about reporting back to him in a week or so.

The earlier words Jesus had spoken since his resurrection dealt with the disciples’ own insecurities. Before they had had time to process those words and get over their insecurities, he changed his emphasis from their feelings to their ultimate purpose. (Notice that one of the earlier words prefaces John’s statement of the Great Commission.)

They must have had the sense that, having returned from death, he would not stay long with them in bodily form. And now he’s saying to go. Their previous mission trips had been rehearsals. They were about to embark on the real thing. Excitement and apprehension must have jostled within the minds of each man.

How did they respond? Starting not  immediately but on the day of Pentecost, they felt their way along. Individually and corporately, they faced up to what they didn’t understand and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, figured things out. After a while, they fanned out and went their separate ways.

The world has not yet seen what will happen when everyone on the face of the earth has personally heard the gospel, but that little band of people who first heard the Great Commission started a good work, insecurities and all. God will finish it, but he expects us to go and tell someone else, insecurities and all.

Some people have a special calling to leave home and go across the world to minister where no one has ever heard the gospel before. For most of us, the commission means listening carefully for an opportunity to minister to people around town.

Next words of Jesus: Peace be with you

“While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.'” — Luke 24:36 (NIV)

“A week later  his disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” — John 20:26 (NIV)

Have you ever been reluctant to encounter a friend because you owe him money? Or has a friend avoided you for the same reason? If you have not experienced either case, you surely know someone who has. Something very much like that explains this fourth next word of Jesus.

When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, no one knew that he had risen. The sight of him, and recognition of who it was, came as a shock. The men did not believe her testimony, but the two men who decided to walk to Emmaus at least decided to talk about it and puzzle about it.

When they, too, recognized Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem with their testimony.
Everyone was happy and joyful with this confirmation of the good news–until Jesus himself showed up. Why would that dampen the mood so much?

Luke says they thought they saw a ghost. We can understand that. It’s not every day that people stand around talking about a dead man who’s up walking again and then he suddenly shows up, despite locked doors, of all things. So he invited them to touch him and asked for something to eat. They still didn’t entirely believe.

There’s more going on that Luke does not say. Peter had denied Jesus three times. Everyone else but John had deserted him and not had courage enough to show up at the cross. For three years, they had experienced his occasional frustration at their lack of understanding. They had seen his anger.

But they had never failed him before as they did after his arrest. And now here he is. What do we do now? What if he’s given up on us? Guilt and shame must have clouded their joy.

John testifies that Thomas was not present on that occasion and that he did not believe their testimony. He declared that seeing Jesus would not be enough. He could not believe until he touched the wounds.

Thomas seems like a gloomy Gus every time we meet him, but let’s not be too critical. Pessimism often causes people to give up on whatever hopes and desires they have. Thomas kept doggedly wanting to believe, even though his own innate pessimism was the only barrier that kept him from it.

The week after Easter must have been much longer for Thomas than for the others. At least they believed their own experience.

Only on the following Sunday did Jesus turn up again. Again they had locked the doors. Whatever all but Thomas believed about Jesus, they did not yet have the courage to declare the risen Christ publicly. Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds.

Did Thomas do so? Imagine his shame not only for what he did when Jesus was betrayed, but for doubting his friends’ testimony all week! Yet also imagine his joy as evidence of what he most wanted to believe appeared before him.

John does not say that Thomas indeed touched Jesus. He may have, or he may have been ashamed to. John also does not say that Thomas knelt in worship, either, but how could he not? He called Jesus “My Lord and my God.”

Significantly, when Jesus appeared he did not simply say, “Hello,” or “Greetings,” or any number of possible perfunctory salutations. He said, “Peace be with you.” That may have been a common enough greeting, but surely everyone remembered that he had said, “Peace I leave with you” on the night he was betrayed.

He told them they would all fall away. They did. Then he told them about his peace. He met them with that peace the next time he saw them, right after their greatest failures. Over the coming month, he would say things that would make them uncomfortable. He would scold them later. But not now.

Martin Luther took his sin so much to heart that he tried to atone for it by strict religious devotion. Of course, he failed. As a result, he hated the very concept of the righteousness of Christ. Then he discovered in Romans that God did not intend for him to atone for his own sin. All he needed to do was confess failure, accept Jesus’ sacrifice for it, and he would receive the righteousness of Christ as a gift.

What Luther learned from Scripture, the disciples learned from this early encounter with the risen Lord. God chooses to deal with sin not by punishing it and rejecting the sinner, but by accepting the sinner and offering peace. Sin has consequences, but rejection by God is not among them.

Peace be with you

Next words of Jesus: What’s bothering you?

“What are you discussing together as you walk along?” Luke 24:17 (NIV)

After Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other women, he turned up on the road to Emmaus, where he met two men not otherwise mentioned in Scripture. They had been following Jesus and had hoped he was the promised Messiah. Even though they had indirectly heard about the women’s report, they walked in discouragement.

So Jesus asked them what they were talking about–not as an idle question, but as a means of getting them to open up so he could minister to them. I find two noteworthy statements close by. Verse 16 says they were kept from recognizing him, and in verse 25, after they answered his question, he called them foolish and slow of heart.

In this response, Jesus spoke more gently to these men than he did later to the Eleven: he rebuked and upbraided them (Mark 16:14, KJV) for responding to the women’s testimony with unbelief and hardness of heart.

We can certainly draw comfort from Jesus’ appearance to two men, one nameless, whom the Bible mentions nowhere else. They’re among the nobodies of the New Testament. If he spoke to them, he will surely speak to us, and for the same reason.

Unfortunately, we are likely not to recognize his presence, again for the same reason. They were not kept from recognizing him because Jesus didn’t want them to. They had effectively blinded themselves.

First, they were going the wrong way. All of the people who had known Jesus were in Jerusalem. They needed fellowship with other believers, but chose to walk away from them.

Second, their preoccupation with their own problems kept them from seeing Jesus. They did not expect to see Jesus, and so when he turned up, they did not recognize  him. Surely they must have heard, or at least heard about, his promise to rise again after death. Like the rest of Jesus’ followers, they failed to believe it.

Third, they had consistently misinterpreted Scripture, focusing attention on what they wanted it to mean and then their disappointment when it didn’t turn out that way. Like all other observant Jews, they expected the Messiah to drive the Romans out and restore a Jewish state and therefore missed scriptures that pointed to Jesus’ true ministry.

If we shun fellowship in times of stress, we lose out on the chance to experience Jesus through the love and wisdom of other believers. If we focus attention on everything that’s wrong, our negative thoughts will drown out any still small voice that tries to encourage us with the hope of the gospel. If we become fully persuaded in the truth of our own theological viewpoint, we will be deaf to any word that could correct our blunders.

We are probably all guilty of those errors at one time or another and therefore kept from recognizing Jesus. Praise be to God that he doesn’t give up on us.  Jesus went to minister to believers who had missed the truth. He bluntly called them foolish. And at that, they did something right; they did not become offended, but  humbly listened.

And so they finally recognized him. Did they see the scars in his hand? Did they recognize the familiar gesture of Jesus breaking bread? Did they recognize his habit of acting like the host even when he was their guest? No matter. They recognized him, and their encouragement turned to joy. They rushed back to join the fellowship they had walked away from.

Expect Jesus to do the same for you.

Next words of Jesus: Do not be afraid

“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly, Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They cam to  him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'” — Matthew 28:8-10 (NIV)

Matthew’s account of the first resurrection appearance is very different from John’s. We need not try to harmonize them or make them fit together, as they each have a different message for us to learn.

“Do not be afraid” is probably one of the most frequent commands in the whole Bible. Did any angel appear in the Old Testament without saying that? Jesus himself said it in various contexts throughout all of the gospels.

What about the well known necessity to fear God? Reverential awe is never the same as being afraid. Reverence makes us want to draw near even though we have an acute sense of unworthiness. Being afraid make us want to flee or want what we’re afraid of to go away.

Sometimes, we become afraid not of what something or someone might do to us, but afraid of some task we must do. Sometimes we fear to pick up the phone and ask a favor or confront a problem. Fear can cause paralysis if we become afraid of what someone else will think  or of what kind of rejection or other upset might occur.

In verse 5, an angel had already told the women not to be afraid and to go tell the disciples that Jesus had risen. They were on their way to obey the angel, but still afraid, when Jesus met them. Were they afraid that they would seem like fools? After all, men of that time universally considered a woman’s testimony worthless. Were they afraid that perhaps their report would indeed turn out untrue?

So Jesus met them, and they not only fell at  his feet to worship him, they clasped on to his feet. Were they afraid he was not real? Were they afraid if they let go, he would vanish and they’d never see him again? No matter. Jesus told them exactly what the angel had told them, and once again they got up to obey.

What does it mean not to be afraid? It certainly does not mean, “screw your courage to the sticking point.” It does not mean for us to work up courage or work up anything else. And it does not mean that outward circumstances do not threaten some kind of harm.

It means to rest in the Lord, to trust him to do the heavy lifting while we do whatever part he has assigned to us. It means that we are responsible for living as he commands, but not for the final outcome. It means that if we obey, he will take care of us.

If the women feared ridicule, they got it. None of the disciples believed their testimony–until, of course, Jesus appeared to them, too. The women did not even have to defend themselves or say, “We told you so.” According to Mark 16:14, Jesus “upbraided them [the disciples] with their unbelief and hardness of heart” (KJV) because they had not believed the women’s testimony.

So it is with us. If we act in obedience, not being afraid means that even if something unpleasant happens as a result, we can trust that it will do us no permanent harm. Jesus will take care of those who trust him enough not to act against his instructions.

Next words of Jesus: Who is it you looking for?

“Woman, who is it you looking for?” — John 20:15a (NIV)

Everyone knows about the seven last words of Christ on the cross. Many churches probably offered musical settings of them some time during Holy Week. Of course, as I wrote in the immediately previous post, Jesus violated everyone’s expectations by his resurrection from the dead. And then he had more to say. Easter Sunday has passed, but not Easter season. It’s a great time to look at the next words of Christ after the cross.

[I recently came across a book by Shane Stanford, The Seven Next Words of Christ: Finding Hope in the Resurrection Sayings (Abingdon Press, ©2006), and acknowledge my debt to it.]

We probably can’t reconcile the four surviving accounts of what happened on that chaotic Easter morning, but all agree that Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ. In John’s account, when she saw the empty tomb, she ran to tell Peter and John. In Luke, she reported having seen Jesus. In both cases, Peter saw the empty tomb and didn’t stick around long enough to find out what happened.

John reports that Mary returned to the tomb, saw two angels, and said the same words she had spoken to Peter. They asked why she was crying. In other accounts they asked why she was looking for the living where the dead belong. Since she expected only to finish preparing a corpse for burial, what she saw and heard did not compute.

Like Peter, she was without a clue, even when she turned around and saw Jesus. Supposing him to be the gardener, she said exactly the same thing to Jesus she had said to Peter and the angels. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him.

Today, we still find a world that obstinately refuses to conform to our expectations. In times of crisis, if we don’t act like Mary, we act more like Peter or John or Thomas,  or Cleophas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. That is, one way or another, we go into shock and it takes a long time for us to get our bearings.

In other words, no matter what we know in the spirit, no matter what we believe or how strongly we believe it, we easily miss the clues all around us that God intends what happened for our good, and not for calamity.

As Jesus came to Mary, so he came to all his other disciples, either singly or in groups. He always spoke the words or asked the question they most needed to hear in order to regain their trust and belief in him–and not only that, but to raise it to a previously unimaginable level.

I am still trying to recover from a shock that overturned my life more than two years ago, but I am no longer reeling. Jesus came to me. Look for him. Listen to his voice. He will come to you, too.

Holy Saturday and dashed expectations

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his admirers expected that he would eventually be crowned king and begin the process of freeing the land from Roman occupation. His disciples expected to occupy important cabinet ministries in the kingdom .

Jesus didn’t behave much like a king. By the end of the week, it no longer looked like he planned to live up to expectations. Perhaps Judas acted as he did trying to force Jesus’ hand.

On Thursday night, Jesus hosted a pre-Passover meal and behaved very strangely and started talking somberly about death. All of the disciples’ expectations and hopes were dashed when Judas led soldiers to capture him. Any remaining hope in the honesty of Jewish leaders and any vestige of trust in Roman justice suffered a fatal blow as the illegal trial resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus died on Friday, the day of preparation for the sabbath. All anyone could do was drag  his corpse to a nearby tomb and begin the process of embalming. So what did anyone expect on that sabbath (Saturday)?

The women who loved Jesus expected to get up Sunday morning and finish preparing the corpse for burial. The disciples cowered in the upper room, expecting to be arrested and tortured themselves. Those a little farther from the center (Cleopas and his friend, for example) considered what to do next after the death of their hope.

The Jewish leaders expected trickery and feared that Jesus could become as dangerous dead as he was alive. They requested a guard from Pilate. The guards expected a fairly routine and possibly boring three days. Once they exposed any attempt to steal the body and claim a resurrection, the leaders expected things quickly to get back to normal.

As Sunday dawned, everyone acted on these new expectations–that is, until a few at a time, they saw him. That dashed everything again. No wonder they had so much trouble believing that Jesus lived once again.

Jesus had a different set of expectations all along. He expected to suffer humiliation and great physical pain. He expected to die, descend into hell, and rise victoriously.

More than that, he expected that his disciples would eventually understand what he had spent three years trying to show them. He expected they would accomplish many things after his resurrection that they could never have envisioned before his death. He expected the church to come together and transform the world as a result of their new understanding and bold commitment.

Things turned out exactly as Jesus expected. Today, we all expect all kinds of things. Hardly anything actually turns out quite as we expect. Jesus still has different expectations. He will not be disappointed.

Jesus, the towel, and us

“The night before Jesus was betrayed, he took the bread. . .” We have probably heard that every time we take communion, but what about, “The night before Jesus was betrayed, Jesus took a towel. . .”? Why is that towel not as much a symbol of Christianity as the cross or the communion elements?

Jesus always surprises because he refuses to act like the rest of us. Before the feast of the Passover, when he knew he would be seized, tried, and executed illegally, he remained calm. He knew that Judas would betray him, but he remained loving. He chose an especially dramatic way to demonstrate  his love. He washed his disciples’ feet.

The disciples acknowledged Jesus as their leader and master, but among themselves, they behaved full of self-importance and desired nothing more than to be acknowledged as great and significant. What impels anyone to do that? Nothing but insecurity.

Jesus took off his outer garments. He removed everything that defined his surface appearance, everything by which anyone could and judge and divide one person from another.

Today, if we see one man wearing bib overalls, another a suit, and another cut-off shorts and a tee-shirt, do we not immediately make assumptions about them? We may not all make the same assumptions, but we make them none-the-less.

Now suppose these same men all go to the gym and come out of the locker room in indistinguishable gym attire. Unless we recognize them from before, we can no longer assume the same kinds of distinctions.

So here’s Jesus, stripping down as much as he dared. He knew and was secure in his true identity. He had nothing to prove to anyone. In that security and confidence, he had the freedom to choose service over making an impression. He took the towel and filled a basin with water.

The insecure disciples found that very troubling. Here was their acknowledged master acting like a common servant. Here was the man with the highest position among them acting less than the lowest.

Had they even noticed the towel and the water basin when they entered the room? Scripture never records that they had servants! If they saw it, did it mean anything to them?

But when Jesus took it up, it upset their entire notion of propriety, based as it was on the  notion that some in society are inherently inferior to others. That, it turns out, was the whole point.

Peter still tried to set the agenda. First he refused to have Jesus wash his feet at all. Then he said, all right, then wash the rest of me, too.

How much of our own communication with Jesus–our prayer life–likewise results from trying to maintain control? From responding with utter incomprehension of his ways? From attempting to look and feel good to the self-concept that Jesus wants to destroy?

In my own insecurity, I am not worthy to hammer this point home, but isn’t it obvious? Jesus wants us to follow his example, not Peter’s.

True spiritual leadership

Christians today find it easy to  hold the scribes and pharisees of Jesus’ day in contempt. If Jesus was so critical, then they must have been evil religious hypocrites, right?

We forget that they were among the most highly respected people in their society. Most of them, at least, must have been sincere and  honorable. Alas, too many modern Christian leaders take after the ones Jesus scolded. (One, of course, is one too many.) When they come under criticism, many of their followers go to great lengths to defend them.

Indeed, religious leaders who live less than godly lives have always presented a quandary.  Jesus’ message, essentially “do what they tell you, not what they do,” means that we cannot make any kind of snap judgment. We must use some discernment.

In recent decades, an alarming number of prominent Christian leaders (and probably many more known only locally) have fallen into some kind of sexual sin. Many people find it scandalous when some of them choose to keep on ministering as if nothing happened. At best, do what they tell you, not what they do.

That, however, is not the problem Jesus dealt with, and that problem remains common today, too. False leaders, trying to seem important, often try to make everyone’s decisions for them. Even preaching from the New Testament, some of them can manage to turn following Jesus into following them. That requires multiplication of man-made rules and distinctions.

True spiritual leaders demonstrate greater concern for service than for titles or position or reputation. Those who get it backwards eventually come to judgment as infected by the world.

Unfortunately, since all have sinned and nearly all of the worst abusers have some spark of anointing, it takes discernment to tell the difference. The best of Christian leaders want recognition, and the worst of them, on some level, care about the work of the gospel.

Godly preaching can come out of an ungodly lifestyle. If you discern an ungodly lifestyle, stop following that person. Why go to the trouble of separating the wheat from the chaff? But if worldliness does not rise to such an obvious level, determine to learn Scripture well enough to be able to rightly judge the teaching. Follow that, but follow what a leader does only to the extent that he or she follows Christ.