Greater Works

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 31

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).

This verse connects our faith to a stunning promise of Jesus.  Jesus says that if we believe in Him, we will do works such as His and in fact do even greater works.  How is this even possible?

The first prerequisite to “greater works” is our faith; “he who believes in Me.”  The second prerequisite is Jesus going to the Father.  Because Jesus is going to the Father, His followers will do greater works than He.  The fulfillment of the promise is clear to us now, but its first utterance had to be confusing to the disciples.  Looking back, we see that it did not take long to be fulfilled.

Following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, His band of followers numbered around 120 people.  On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit – only available now because Jesus went to the Father (John 16:7) – fell as a rushing wind and indwelt Jesus’ disciples.  A Spirit filled Peter preached a message of repentance and forgiveness in the person and work of Jesus and 3000 souls were saved.  The church was born.

Jesus’ work on earth was limited to a specific time and place and reach that one man, even the Son of God, “could” (or more accurately “chose”) to accomplish.  This was part of God’s plan when He sent His Son in the form of a man.  But now, on the day of Pentecost and hereafter, God was no longer working on earth through one man, Jesus.  God was actually indwelling and working through 12 apostles, and 120 people, and 3000 new believers, and by today in the millions.

God can be a lot of places and be doing “greater works” when He lives and works through a billion believers.  Jesus said, “The works that I do shall you do also.”  These “greater works” are still the work of Jesus.  But they are no longer accomplished by His physical presence among us.  They are accomplished by His Spirit within us.

The indwelling Spirit is a major theme in this upper room message.  And we are going to explore the implications of the Spirit coming to live in us in the next several posts.

So take courage.  God is still at work in this world.  And you are a part of that work.  You are a recipient of the work of God and an agent of the work of God.  His work is all around and in you.  You are part of God’s “greater works”.

Knowing the Father

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 30

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”  Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.  11Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; otherwise believe on account of the works themselves.” (John 14:7-11).

Jesus makes clear in this passage that He and the Father are one.  He goes so far to say that if you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father.  Or course, with only a hint at the concept of the Trinity, the disciples are scratching their collective heads.  Philip speaks for the group with what sounds like a reasonable request, “Show us the Father.”

Jesus states more than once in these verses that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him; that if you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father.  So the answer to Philip’s inquiry “Show us the Father” is the Jesus standing right in front of them.

And that is still the picture for us today.  We see the Father in the face of Jesus.  “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).

But there is a requirement to see the Father in face of Jesus; faith in Christ.  Jesus said, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? … Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me.”  Faith is required to see the Father in the face of the Son.

Jesus goes on to give the disciples two avenues to exercise their faith.  They are to believe Jesus’ words about who He is; He is in the Father and the Father in Him.  But as they try to process what these words exactly mean, Jesus gives them an alternative path, “Believe on account of the works themselves.”

Jesus gives the disciples some space to come to grips with His statements.  “Look at the works” Jesus says.  “You will see that the Father abiding in Me is doing His work.  The works I do are the works of God.”  To extend Jesus’ thought, I think He is saying, “Only God can do the works you have witnessed.  And these works testify that I and the Father are working in unison and it is the work of God that you have seen in these three years of miracles.  These signs and wonders can only be the work of God the Father; working through Me because I and the Father are one.”

I love the compassion in Jesus’ words.  He is essentially saying to His friends, “If this concept of I am in the Father and the Father is in Me has your head spinning, focus on the works themselves.  They testify to who I am.  They testify that I am the divine Son of God.  I am doing works that only God can do.”

The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 29

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me“ (John 14:6).

John 14:6 is one of the most succinct descriptions of who Jesus is in the entire gospels.  There is so much depth in each of these descriptions that Jesus applies to Himself; “the way, the truth, and the life.”

The Way:  The disciples quizzed Jesus regarding where He was going and the way to get there.  Of course, we understand this “Jesus is the way” much better than the disciples ever could have at this point because we are looking back to the cross.  We are looking back to exactly what Jesus meant by Him being the way.  His death, burial, and resurrection are the way to eternal life.  He is the way to the Father.  Jesus is the way to a right relationship with God.  Jesus is the way to heaven.  Jesus is the only way to dwelling forever with the Father and the Son.

The Truth:  Jesus made clear throughout His earthly teaching that some things are true and others are false.  Jesus’ words were always true.  Jesus’ message was always true.  In fact, Jesus was so much the epitome of truth that He could simply be called The Truth.

Jesus, in His own words, is the truth.  There is no falsehood in Him.  We can trust what Jesus says to be true.  So when Jesus speaks of Himself as the Way, the way to eternal life, I know He is telling us the truth.

The Life:  This is such a prolific message throughout the gospel of John.  Jesus came to bring us life.  Abundant life in the here and now (John 10:10), resurrection life (John 11:25) in the here and hereafter, and eternal life in His presence (John 6:40, 14:3).

Jesus’ ministry was consumed by bringing what Peter called “words of eternal life” to situations and places and people who were “dead”.  Life in place of death is a gift that Jesus brought to His time on the earth and continues to give to people all over the world.  Jesus is life.  Jesus is The Life.  And as we will learn in our upcoming posts, Jesus gave us His life.

The Way, The Truth, The Life; an all-encompassing description of Jesus.  God, the Son, come to earth to show us the way, the truth, and the life.

The Sermon in the Upper Room

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 28

On the night He was betrayed, Jesus Christ introduced us to a new covenant, a new arrangement, between God and man.  This new arrangement would be made available to us through the precious blood of Christ Himself.  “And in the same way Jesus took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’ “ (Luke 22:20).  Jesus followed up this proclamation with a beautiful message of what life under this new covenant would look like for you and me.

This upper room message, recorded in John chapters 13 through 17, is 100% new covenant.  It is 100% for you and me living under our new arrangement with God as His forgiven and beloved children.  This IS a Christian manifesto, if you will.  This IS where we turn to learn what life under the new covenant is like.

Jesus began his discourse with a new command for a new covenant.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).  I have talked about this selfless love in several previous posts.  It is a love that is unconditional, without grievance, forgiving, welcoming, and gracious.  It is loving as Christ loves us.

What we will learn in Jesus’ upper room message is that we can only love this way because Christ is loving through us.  How?  By literally living His life through us.  Christ in us, His Holy Spirit in us, is a revolutionary and recurring theme in these chapters.  And it is a theme completely absent from the Sermon on the Mount.  The paramount, and might I say only, power to live the Christian life is the Spirit of Christ living in us.  The Sermon on the Mount does not include this vital good news of the gospel.

But Jesus’ upper room message does just that.  “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper [the Holy Spirit], that He may be with you forever … you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you(John 14:16-17).  “In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you(John 14:20).  “I have made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them(John 17:26).

And this is just the start.  There is so much more about our new covenant life in these chapters of John’s gospel.  Jesus now calls us His friends, not servants or slaves.  Jesus says that He will give us His glory.  Is it possible for us to be glorious?  I thought that word is only reserved for God.  Jesus says that we will do “greater works” that He did.  Again, how is that possible?  He also says it is to our advantage that He goes away.  I don’t see how that works.  Jesus says that if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.  OK, now that is something that I can start to grasp.

In these chapters, Jesus promises us His peace, His fullness of joy, His power, His answers to our prayers, His friendship, His presence, and His life; a life that is supernatural at its core.

Jesus’ most complete and concise description of life under the new covenant is in John chapters 13 through 17.  And He answers all of our questions above and many more in these red letters.  We will cover several of these topics in the days ahead.

I have such a love for this message, that I wrote a book about these chapters from John’s gospel.  The book, Abiding in the Father’s Love, is available from Amazon.  Pick up a copy if you would like a more thorough discussion than we will be having here.  It will be an encouragement to you.  Click here for a link to the book.

The Sermon on the Mount is NOT a Guide to Christian Living

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 27

(6 minute read)

Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is one of the most preached-through passages in the gospels.  In a variety of church settings, I often find myself in a sermon series from the Sermon on the Mount.  And let me say at the outset, as politely as I can, this section of the gospels is NOT a guide to living the Christian life.  So how are we to understand the Sermon on the Mount?  What is Jesus teaching in these verses?

Please follow closely as I seek to give a concise but thorough summary of the Sermon on the Mount in this short space.  Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, Jesus is teaching at least three intertwined messages to His Jewish audience.  Jesus is preaching old covenant Law, Jesus is preaching Law 2.0 (an updated version of the Law), and last, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of life under the new covenant.  What makes these chapters confusing is that there is no set order as to when Jesus is speaking which of these three emphases.  We can only understand it properly when we look back through the lens of the new covenant.  And when we do that, we see that not everything in this sermon applies to believers today.  Let me give you some examples.

Let’s start with Law and old covenant.  We are all familiar with the Golden Rule.  “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).  Remember, “the Law and the Prophets” is used by Jesus several times in the gospels to refer to the old covenant.  The Golden Rule is an old covenant concept.

Or how about Matthew 6:14, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”?  This message is clearly old covenant.  Forgiving others in order to be forgiven by God was a transactional arrangement with God, an arrangement that ended at the cross.  It ended at the end of the old covenant.  This verse is the exact opposite of the promise of our complete forgiveness in Christ given to us under the new covenant, under our new arrangement with God.  After the cross, we are to forgive others – not as a prerequisite for God to forgive us – but because we have already been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13).

The old covenant has ended (Hebrews 8:13) for you and I.  The old covenant messages in the Sermon on the Mount do not apply to new covenant believers.

Next, let’s look at Law 2.0.  Jesus told the gathered crowd, “Unless your righteousness SURPASSES that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  Every Jew in the audience that day would have thought to themselves, “It is impossible to out-righteous the scribes and Pharisees.  They are the poster children for righteousness according to the Law.”  So how is this done?  Is there a higher Law you can keep, say Law 2.0?  Jesus then launches in to what Law 2.0 looks like.

“You think you are keeping the Law if you do not commit adultery.  But I say that if you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you are already guilty of adultery” (Matthew 5:27-28).  Did Jesus just raise the standard for “guilty of adultery”?  Or, “If you are angry at your brother and call him a fool, you deserve to go to hell” (Matthew 5:22).  That is an awfully severe punishment for anger.  Or, “The only way to really keep from sinning is to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand” (Matthew 5:29-30).  Huh?  Do you see where this is going?

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus starts several sections with, “You have heard that it was said …” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).  Then Jesus states some part of the Law that they would have been familiar with.  He follows this with “But I say to you …”  and turns each of these commands up a notch with an even harder command to follow.

This is Law 2.0.  This is perfection.  Jesus summarizes this section with, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  I think the whole point of Matthew chapter 5 is, “Perfection is required to be right with God.  Knowing that you cannot live the required perfect life should lead you to your need for a Savior.”

Of course, at this early stage of Jesus’ ministry, no one would have known that the Savior is Him!  No one would have known that Jesus came to rescue them and us from the perfection requirement.  These chapters are long before Jesus explained to the crowds that salvation and eternal life would come through Him.  Looking back, we can see that our righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees, our perfection, our justification will all come to us through Jesus’ death in our place.  Law 2.0 has nothing for us as new covenant believers.

But there are also some glimpses of our new covenant life in this sermon.  I believe that the beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12 are prophetic, speaking about the future us.  These verses are not character qualities to aspire to.  They are describing who you will be under the new covenant.  For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8).  When you believe the gospel, Jesus will give you a new pure heart.  This is forward looking.  This is not, “You need to constantly work at keeping your heart pure.”  No, your pure heart will be a one-time gift of grace.  And with your pure heart, you will see God and be blessed.

Or how about, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6)?  We often hear this preached that we need to keep a high level of hunger and thirst for righteousness at all times.  I have even heard a radio preacher question our salvation if we do not have an adequate hunger for righteousness.  This completely flips the promise around and puts the shame on us if we are not hungry enough.  How much hunger is enough?

At the risk of sounding crass, my “hunger and thirst” is now zero.  It has been completely satisfied in Jesus.  “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’ ” (John 6:35).  Did you hear the “never”?  Jesus completely satisfies our hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Matthew 5:6 is a forward-looking promise that will be fulfilled in all future believers under the gift of the new covenant.

In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus assures us that the same God of the old covenant will be our provider under the new.  We can trust God for our needs.  Our focus will move away from money and things and possessions and onto His kingdom (Matthew 6:33) as we enter into our new life.  Again, no one had a clue at this point what Jesus’ kingdom would involve.  Only in looking back can we see our place in the kingdom as a beloved and cared for child of God.

Finally, check out this preview of the new covenant, “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

The Old Testament included a deadly run-in with snakes (Numbers 21).  The old covenant was written on tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12), stones that Paul called a ministry of death (II Corinthians 3:7).  By contrast, the new covenant will be good gifts of bread and fish.  Jesus is the promised Bread of Life (John 6:35); a gift to us who believe the gospel.  And remember the ichthys, the fish symbol that identified the early Christians?  I don’t think it is an accident that Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 with bread and fish.  Bread and fish would become symbols of the new covenant.

Of course, no one in the Sermon on the Mount crowd would have had the slightest idea about what all this meant and what was coming.  Jesus’ ministry that followed was brand new and completely unexpected.  We see these things more clearly now because we are looking backward at Jesus’ words.  We have the rest of Scripture to explain the fuller picture to us, and to see where the Sermon on the Mount fits into the two covenants.

The Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is NOT a “Christian Manifesto” as we have been taught.  Looking back through the lens of the rest of the gospel, we see these chapters as Jesus preaching old covenant Law, Jesus preaching Law 2.0, and Jesus giving us a glimpse of life under the coming new covenant.  It is NOT a prescription for living the Christian life.  And when we teach that it is, we place a heavy yoke of guilt, shame, and condemnation on believers who struggle with the perfection commands of Law 2.0.

Jesus became our perfection.  We are fully justified, not by living up to the commands of the Law or Law 2.0.  We are justified wholly and fully by Jesus’ death in our place on the cross and by our belief that He did this for us; by believing the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  And our Christian walk is energized by the indwelling Christ living His life through us, NOT by keeping to the letter of the Law, a letter emphasized in various ways and in various parts of the Sermon on the Mount.  We live, move, and walk under a new covenant.  The Sermon on the Mount is NOT a Guide to Christian Living.

Now ironically, the gospels do contain a multi-chapter message from Jesus that IS a Christian manifesto.  We have a message in the red letters that is 100% new covenant.  We have a message that describes what life under the new covenant will look like.  For some reason, it does not seem to be as popular of a preaching topic.  Where can we turn for an incredible life-affirming message of joy and freedom from the mouth of Jesus?  We will talk about it next time.