30 March 2009

Encountering Jesus - Jesus speaks with the "Jews in Charge..."

Ladies' Bible Study at our Harobanda church met again this past Saturday... I'd struggled all week with preparing for this study, which is not the norm. That preparation time is something I love... I enjoy the time with the Lord, the opportunity to really dig into His Word and the challenge of preparing to share with these ladies from such a different world a lesson that has already touched my heart. This past week, however, it was a struggle the whole way, and I think I finally figured out why on Friday afternoon.

Our last study was about the man who had been sick for 38 years who Jesus healed by the Pools of Bethesda and immediately afterwards, Jesus had a discussion with the "chief Jews." I wasn't sure how to teach that passage to illiterate women - a "story" is much easier to make concrete and memorable - so I planned to just summarize quickly that portion and move on to the feeding of the 5000 in John 6, which I assumed would be a much easier study to prepare. God had other plans, because it became very obvious each time I tried to work on this Bible study that I was working only in my own strength, relying on my own "intellecutalism" and striving. And it wasn't coming together the way it should.

Once I gave up, returned to the second half of John 5 and Jesus' words to the Jews, I immediately sensed the Lord's presence helping me, clarifying things and giving me some ideas. I also discovered that the Lord had two lessons for me in all of this: 1) Trying to prepare to God's work in any other strength than His is pointless; and 2) I have a lot more in common with those chief Jews than I care to admit.

As I began to prepare on Friday afternoon, I read the following words: "

"The purpose of the Bible is not just to convey a message but also to reflect an image. The images of the Bible are presented primarily through the lives of its characters. These images are not only to be hung on the wall like a portrait to show me what I should look like, but also like a mirror, to show me what I actually look like. If I do not see myself reflected in the bible, then its value to me is greatly diminished or lost entirely.... I need to take a closer [look] at the Pharisees [or the chief Jews in John 5] and at myself, but not to ridicule them and pat myself on the back. I think Jesus wanted there to be no mistake about His attitude toward external religiosity. Unfortunately, the Pharisees are often so scathinly caricatured that I cannot bring myself to see myself in them. If I see myself only in the noble or semi-noble characters of the Bible, perhaps I do not really see myself at all. the Spirit of God prevents me from being too harsh on the Pharisees for I am potentially more like them than anyone else in the entire Bible!" (Tom Hovestol, p. 12-13 of Extreme Righteousness, Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees).

And just like that, the Lord gave me a way to approach this abstract and difficult passage of Scripture.

I printed out the following and took it to Bible study to show the ladies. It is a caricature of Tim and I, as well as a "portrait."

After several giggles (Go ahead... we do look pretty silly! *smile*), we discussed the difference between a caricature and a real picture, which is more like what we see in the mirror. If we only take bits and pieces of the people we study in the Bible, we end up with a caricature. If we only compare ourselves to those bits and pieces, we will always end up looking better than that caricature. Thus, we need to see a real picture or portrait of the people we are studying so that when we look in the mirror of our Bibles, we can accurately compare and see where we are doing well, where we are making progress, and where we need to change.

Since we are all familiar with descriptions of the Pharisees and chief Jews as self-righteous, legalists, judgemental, prideful, hypocrites (In fact, if you look up the translation of self-righteous in French, we found the word "Pharasaïsme."), fools, "whitewashed tombs," and "brood of vipers." According to Tom Hovestol (in the fore-mentioned book), if we take a closer look at these men, we also find that they were "trying to reclaim the identity of the Jews as the poeple of God's Word," (p. 26) they believed fervently in one God and one way, they advocated Biblical education, they fought against the Hellenic and sinful culture of their time, much of their doctrine was affirmed by Jesus, they wanted all aspects of their lives brought under the authority of God's Word, they strove to live, work and worship righteously and purely - holding tenaciously to traditional values in a world where lifestyles and social norms were rapidly changing, and many Pharisees were among the notable first Christians (Paul, for example). That second list? I want those things to be said of me. The lesson of the Pharisees is that in our desire for that second group to be true, we often find ourselves falling into the pitfalls of the more commonly known characteristics listed first.

So with this as our background, and knowing that we are to be imitators of Christ, we started looking carefully at the things that Jesus said to the chief Jews in John 5.16-47, and coming up with questions to ask ourselves so that we could hold up the Biblical mirror and see what the Lord wanted for us to see.

1. "For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, 'My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.' " : The Jews were angry with Jesus for breaking their Sabbath traditions - what are different ways that I can keep a day holy and set apart to the Lord, a rest from my regular routine so that my neighbors see the difference? Do I keep the Sabbath rest for selfish reasons, or for God's glory?

2. "...the Son can do nothing of Himself..." : Are there things I try to do of my own initiative, instead of being led by God?

3. "Whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner." : Do I try and imitate God's manner when relating to others... truthfully, lovingly, mercifully, unservingly?

4. "...shows Him all things that He Himself is doing." : Am I transparent with my co-laborers and fellow ministers regarding my goals and plans?

5. "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him." : When I "judge" others - their actions, motivations, etc., I steal honor from Christ; the Father himself limits himself and has given all judgment to the Son so that Jesus will be honored. Do I realize the gravity of what I an doing?

6. "I can do nothing on My own initiative." : Again, am I acting and ministering because it is something I've decided to do, and not because I've been directed by the Father?

7. "I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me." : Are my motives pure, seeking only God's will or is there a hidden agenda?

8. "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; nd you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life." : Do I search the Scriptures looking for revelations of Jesus... or am I searching looking for things I want to find, for reinforcement of my preconceived ideas?

9. "...you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?" : Am I looking for pats on the back and accolades from men, or for God's pleasure in me?

10. And... any honest listener who professed to love, follow and obey God would have to be asking him/herself: "Do I seek to have this same sort of relationship with God that this man Jesus has?"

Pointing the finger at the "Pharisees" and chief Jews is so easy - but maybe so much about this group was included in the Bible so that we could hold up a mirror and look at ourselves ~ and recognize our tendancies to substitue rules and religion for true relationship (after all, relationships get messy), and to warn us of the danger of placing any confidence in our capacity to be righteous and to earn God's favor, outside the power of God.

Painting: "The Pharisees," by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, painted in 1912.
Photo from the 11th hour website.
Cartoon by Dave Walker, www.cartoonchurch.com/content/cc/

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