Open Study Discussion

For this study, please read the book of Ephesians, chapters 1-4. Here are some questions for discussion:
1:9-10 What does “the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure” refer to?

1:4-5 & 11 speak of predestination. What is your understanding of Paul’s meaning in using this term?

1:17 In verse 15, Paul had just stated that those he was writing to had been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, so why would he then continue to pray that God would give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation? Wouldn’t someone with the Spirit of God dwelling in them already possess these things?

1:19-21 What is the relevance of this discussion of power to the preceding verses?

What is Paul’s purpose in writing this first chapter? Summarize and paraphrase his main points.

2:1 Why do you think Paul is drawing attention to this fact? Is there a connection to anything he said in the first chapter? If so, what is the point he is making?

2:3 Why are those who are without God’s Spirit “objects of wrath” by nature?

2:10 In what way are we God’s workmanship? What does it mean that God prepared good works in Christ Jesus for us to do? What works are we to do? And if we have works to do, how is it that we are saved by grace?

2:11 What is the reason Paul told the Gentiles to remember that there was a time when they were separate from Christ — without hope and without God in the world?

2:14 Explain the meaning of “he himself is our peace.” Who does the “two” made one refer to? What was the “dividing wall of hostility”?

3:2 This verse begins an interjection into what Paul was starting to say in verse one. Where does the interjection end? What was the purpose of the interjection? In other words, why did Paul feel it was important to include these verses before finishing his thought from 3:1?

3:17 What does it mean to have Christ dwelling in your heart?

3:18-21 These verses discuss again the power that should be at work in us, which links back to the prayer from 1:18-23.  Why is this given such emphasis?

4:1 I consider this verse to be the key focal point of the whole book — Paul’s main purpose for writing the Ephesians — the discussion of which is also my motivation for sharing this study. Because of the length, it may take two studies to get here but, if possible, I wanted to maintain the continuity of thought that brought us to this point. The question I’ll conclude with, then, is:

What would a life worthy of the calling we have received be like?

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“Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me…”

A few days before he was to be crucified, Jesus declared:

 

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour (John 12:‬23‭-‬27).”

 

Jesus was that kernel of wheat falling to the ground. He accomplished what no one else could, and through the death he died his name was glorified forever. If he had not died he would have remained a single seed, a solitary Son of God, and the family of God would not have grown to include anyone other than him and the Father. Think about that: all of the patriarchs and prophets who came before him would have lived their lives in vain. If he had not died, it would have been pointless for his disciples to have left everything behind to follow him. Abraham and Moses, who were referred to as God’s friends, would not be merely sleeping now, they would be dead, forever, with no hope for resurrection. Jesus died so that they might join him in eternal life. He died to offer you the same opportunity. But, as is true with every opportunity, there is a cost. The passage above shows that sacrifice is required of all, whether a person believes in God, or not. It is only a question of whether you choose to sacrifice the now, or the later. If you place the greatest value on the things which you can gain from the material world, your life, along with everything you acquire in it, will inevitably be lost. But those who would willingly give up their life to follow the Lord will inherit all things, for all eternity. According to the Lord’s own words, then, where are would-be disciples obligated to follow him to? What was the way to the place where he was going? Luke 9:18-23 is a Scripture which shares the theme of this passage in John, and it makes it clear that Jesus meant his disciples must be willing to figuratively follow him to the cross, so let’s read together what it says:

 

“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.””

 

The interaction began with two questions, and was followed by two statements of fact. The first question (“Who do the crowds say I am?”) encompassed the world at large, in Christ’s day. The general populace regarded Jesus as a noteworthy person, someone on par with John the Baptist, Elijah, or a resurrected prophet — important, perhaps — but still just a man. As a side point, it’s worth mentioning that this whole interaction recorded in verses 18-23 occurred sometime shortly after the twelve disciples had returned from being sent out to the people to preach the kingdom of God, raise the dead, heal the sick and cast out demons. Having just recently returned from that mission, the disciples would have certainly been well qualified to report on the public’s estimation of Jesus. So Jesus then directs the same question to his disciples, as if to say, [Having now seen all that you have just seen, and having now done all that you have just done,] “who do you say I am?” Peter’s response was that Jesus was not just a man, he was the Savior of Man, sent from God. His response establishes a fundamental difference between the viewpoint and belief of the followers of Christ in contrast to that of the rest of the world. Those who believe without any reservation that Jesus is the Messiah, the only way of salvation, and who also believe that the reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom is greater than anything that can be obtained in this world, willingly forsake everything to follow him. Those who doubt hesitate to do so. Having thus established this key difference, Jesus proceeds with the first statement, disclosing the imminent reality that, as the Son of God, he was going to suffer many things, be killed, and then be resurrected. Which brings me to his follow-up statement, the second of the two realities — one that is on-going, and perpetually current — and the focal point of this message:

 

“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

 

How much time have you spent reflecting upon what that means? I ask because the answer to that question leads to a more penetrating one: how much do you really want to know, and fully understand, what it means? To deny yourself means losing sight of your own interests; it means forsaking your very nature. But, even with the help of the spirit of God, that is not something that is easy to do. By nature, people prefer personal comfort over sacrifice, and yet the more a person understands about the sacrifice that is expected of them, the more they become responsible for offering it. So it is perhaps not unusual for people to read over the command to take up their cross without really thinking too deeply about what obeying it entails: and therefore there are few people who ever commit themself to serving God to the degree the Lord requires. To those who would say that I am being uncharitable when I state that there are few people who will fully commit themself to taking up their cross daily, I refer you to Luke 10:1‭-‬2, which states:

 

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

 

To paraphrase the Lord’s words, there’s a whole world out there ignorant of the true nature of God, and His Kingdom — no shortage of brothers and sisters in need of salvation — but where are the servants who are qualified and willing to do the work? Oftentimes the problem isn’t that we don’t want the kingdom of God to arrive — most people would like to reap the benefits and blessing of its peace and unity — the problem is that we don’t want it enough now to sacrifice our own desires in order to dedicate ourselves completely to its work. We hesitate to make laboring to serve God our primary purpose. But read what the apostle Paul willingly endured in order to do the work of God. It’s recorded in 2 Cor. 11:23-29. Based upon what he suffered, and how he lived his life, how confident would you be that his desire to serve God was genuine? Did his deeds reveal his faith — did they prove that his convictions about the kingdom of God were real to him? It’s easy to say ”I want to serve God,” but do your actions, does your life, supply credibility to those words? If they do not, a re-evaluation of priorities is called for. Think of everything you are currently striving for in your life, and everything you hope to gain from your efforts, in the context of Jesus’s question from Luke 9:25:

 

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

 

Are any of the things you’re currently working for worth more to you than your soul — than eternal life? If your answer is no, are you then living like the kingdom of God is the ultimate reality, or is your life indistinguishable from that of a citizen of this world? Jesus willingly gave his life to show that there is a greater life beyond this one, so that through faith in him we might be encouraged and inspired to follow him to that Promised Land, despite the fact that in this life “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).” And as we read in John 12:27, his death was the culmination of his entire life’s purpose. Therefore, if you are called a Christian, as his follower, what is your purpose? Why were you called? Individual answers as to purpose may vary, but the word of God supplies answers which apply to every believer, every true Christian. One such answer is found in 2 Corinthians 5:15:

 

“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

 

Anyone whom the Father calls is called to live a life of service to the Son. What, then, are the aspects of a life lived for him? One example of what the Lord’s service entails is found in 1 Peter 2:20‭-‬21:

 

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

 

Peter plainly states that part of the work a Christian is called to do is to be willing to suffer for doing good and to endure it for the cause of advancing the gospel of the kingdom of God. Doing so is part of taking up your cross, daily, to follow the Lord. Continuing on with verses 22-24 he provides a more specific example of how Christ suffered for the sake of righteousness:

 

“He [Jesus] committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

 

The Greek word translated here as healed means “made whole.” A person who is ”whole” can be considered to be fully integrated — they have no internal division, no disconnected or uncoordinated aspects to their personality — everything in them is working in “oneness” for a unified purpose. Consider that in light of Peter’s statement here about the Lord: ”When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” If someone insults a person, what prompts the other to retaliate? Is it not because their pride has been injured, and they feel a need to answer the injury? How natural it is for us to mirror back to others the ill treatment we receive from them! But when Jesus was insulted, although he may have been grieved by the unwarranted accusations of men, he never responded in kind because he trusted fully in the just judgment of God, and was completely secure in the love his Father has for him. It is not that he did not care about what others said of him, it is more that the esteem he knew his Father had for him made him whole, and rendered every other opinion of little consequence. Now consider that passage again, not as it applied to the Christ, but in regards to yourself. Has the love of God made you whole? Are you so secure in your knowledge of the Father’s and the Son’s love for you that insults and threats no longer unsettle you, so that you cannot be goaded into retaliation? Because that is how Jesus walked, and it is the example we are to follow: as it is written, ”This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (John 2:5-6). The loftiness of that standard does not negate it’s reality. Instead, that standard should inspire a desire for the type of inner peace that the Lord himself possessed, the type that can only be obtained through intimate communion and fellowship with God, our Father; because it is only the peace of God which enables a person to endure in the face of suffering, and to do so without sinning. And whenever we fail to live according to the Lord’s example, those failures should only drive us to our knees all the more, feeling fervently the words of the psalmist: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1‭-‬2)”

 

Continuing on now with the discussion of the type of work which comprises a Christian’s purpose, if we skip forward to 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3, we read:

 

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

 

The exhortation that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ indicates that we must make a conscious resolution that no amount of suffering in the body will cause us to turn away from continuing to seek to serve God’s will. A willingness to endure suffering for the sake of advancing the gospel is something that we must maintain as a point of focus because we know it is in unity with our Father’s will. But on its own, a willing spirit is not enough to succeed, because the flesh is weak, and human focus and will lacks the constancy of an eternal perspective. Our carnal nature continually wars against the spirit of God for supremacy within us, testing us to see what we desire most.

 

What is our human, carnal nature, then? One answer is that it is our unexamined life, those things we do naturally, instinctively. And, instinctively, in order to preserve life, we work first to satisfy our physical needs. But we also have wants, which extend beyond our needs — and we can exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of them — due to the nature passed down to us from our common parents. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had all their needs supplied, and were denied only one thing — the Tree of Knowledge — but once the seed of “want” for that one thing was sown in the heart of Eve, she yielded to it. She desired instant gratification of what she would have otherwise been given in time (knowledge), and because she believed the lie that she would not die, she consumed the fruit, which, in a spiritual sense, also consumed her: since once she ate, death entered the world. The fact that Adam was not deceived implies that he discerned her fallen state and therefore, recognizing that the cost of his continued obedience to God’s command would now eventually lead to him being deprived of her companionship, he willfully disobeyed God, consciously choosing to die with her instead, because he did not want his life without her in it. And yet they had been created perfect, whereas we are born into sin. So if our common parents, who were superior to us in every way, and who were given but a few commands to obey, could not submit their “wants” to the will of God in an environment where only one thing was withheld from them, how could it ever be natural for us to do what they could not? Through Adam and Eve, Satan prompted mankind to question the perfection of God’s will and, collectively, we have all eaten of the same fruit as they did. Their choice to follow their own will above God’s has become our nature.

 

The purpose behind that brief discussion of human nature was to help illustrate that it is impossible for anyone to “take up their cross daily” to follow the Lord by their own strength. Indeed, if it were natural for man to sacrifice for others in the way that Jesus did, the world would be a vastly different place than it is now. No one accomplishes anything for God apart from the work of His spirit. I think there is a proof of that intended in the fact that, due to the beatings he had endured, in a purely physical sense even the Lord himself was not able to carry his cross to its end destination under his own strength (Matt. 27:32). But if the exhortation from 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3 (along with other similar scriptures), that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ, indicates that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just do all the work, or completely change us overnight, what role does the spirit of God then have in our life? How does the spirit of God work in you to change your base nature?

 

First, it is a witness to the truth. Because we lack knowledge, and can therefore be too easily led to believe things that are harmful and false, it provides testimony as to what is true, calling to our minds the words which God has spoken on a given matter. The spirit of God is our counsellor and teacher, both informing us of what is good and bad, and providing wisdom and understanding as to why it is so. More than that, it provides the motivation to respond to and act upon the newly discerned truth by providing an awareness of greater things to come. As it supplies us with a glimpse of future perfection, our faith in that vision works to alter our values and desires, reshaping them from an inclination for temporary things to a longing for what is faultless and eternal. We begin to want bad/transient things less and less, and good/permanent things more and more, because we see them for what they are, as God himself sees them: because the spirit of God gives access to the perspective of God. The end result of this process is that we are to lose our desire to eat from the tree of knowledge because we come to know with certainty that self-reliance leads to death. It is only absolute trust in God, fostered by the spirit of God, that leads us to reject its fruit and what it produces, thereby making a different choice than our parents did. Could oneness ever be obtained through any other means than complete trust in God? What is it that prevents Satan from repenting and being restored to a right relationship with God? Is it not his unyielding belief in his “right-ness” — that he knows better than God? Is it not a similar pride within us, that by nature causes us to reach for the Tree of Knowledge, and bars access to the Tree of Life?

 

Returning now to the question of how the spirit of God works in us to convert us from being physically-minded to spiritually-minded beings, consider how, in the Scriptures, water symbolically represents baptism and cleansing, while the holy spirit is described as a refining fire (John 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, Matt. 3:11, Acts 2:3, Numbers 31:23, 2 Peter 3:3-7). Baptism is a figurative acknowledgement of our willingness to die to ourself, submerging our human nature in a watery grave to become immersed in a new life of obedience to God’s will. When we emerge from the water, through the laying on of hands we are symbolically touched by God, and we receive an earnest of the fire of God, burning within. The fire represents our new nature, a nature that enables us to live a new life governed by the power of God. In this sense, the Holy Spirit provides a power that far surpasses human limits, to enable a person to overcome their inherent weakness. The water represents our old nature; and it is important to note that water and fire oppose each other, they do not merge. In this symbolism, fire is pictured arising out of water, to be separate and distinct from it. And, by nature, if they mingle, when fire preponderates over water, the water evaporates; but if the volume of water is greater than the flames, the fire is extinguished. Similarly, the spirit of God within you will either work to burn away your old nature, or your human nature will douse the Holy Spirit’s flame. The principle is discussed in the parable Jesus told, recorded in Matthew 13:33:

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”


The parable indicates that the spark of God’s spirit, which is kindled through baptism and the laying on of hands, is intended to grow within, like yeast working in dough, until our old nature is fully consumed by it. But if it is true that it is also possible for our old nature to quench the holy spirit, it is then important to know how that occurs. The apostle Paul spoke regarding this when he was inspired to write:

 

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. (Romans 8:5)”

 

A “set” mind is one where thoughts are fixed on something, to the exclusion of considering things that are contrary to it, so that it cannot be moved. Such a mind maintains an unchanging position. So if our mind is set on what the flesh desires it ceases to be attuned to the voice of the Spirit — it will not hear or entertain what it has to say. Conversely, living in accordance with the Spirit means having a lack of preoccupation with physical concerns. It means that a person’s foremost interest and focus is both to discern and do the will of God. But fixing our minds on what the Spirit desires requires that an effort be made on our part — God doesn’t just do it all for us —

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble … (2 Peter 1:5‭-‬7‭, ‬10)”


Making an effort to add those attributes is not a  is not a one time action, it is a continuous practice. A single action does not establish a pattern. An action must be performed repeatedly before it becomes a behavior; and the character that God desires to build in us goes even beyond behaviors. God is love, which indicates a state of being. Everything He does is motivated by love, and He would be disavowing himself if He ever behaved in any other manner. If we are to grow to be like our Father, practicing His love, and the right behaviors associated with it, is what we are to work toward, until it becomes a state of being. That is the process of how we become transformed.

 

But why doesn’t God just do all this work for you? If He did, how would you show Him how much you value holy character? God tests us all to bring our values and priorities into the light. How you use your time is one of those tests. Has the thought ever occurred to you, that any and every day you do not willingly take up your cross to follow the Lord, you are quenching the work of the holy spirit? We have been instructed to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Reflect on how you used your time this week/month/year. Was seeking to advance the interests of the kingdom of God your first pursuit? The second? What were the thoughts that most occupied your mind? Do you want to serve God more than you want to have fun and enjoy yourself, or is taking up your cross a mere afterthought, buried under a mountain of self interests?

 

All of us will one day stand before God’s judgment seat, and each of us will give an account of ourselves to Him (Romans 14:10‭-‬12). If honest reflection on the questions I have just posed prompts anyone to acknowledge that they have been living more for self than for God, know that I have not asked them as anyone’s judge. Instead, my hope is that you will take encouragement from those questions — because it is far better to consider such things now, while you still have time left to choose to live differently, if need be, than it is to stand ashamed before the Lord after our account has been given. If your life thus far has only been lived as a hearer of the Word, my prayer is that you become a doer as well. My prayer is that God will indeed send workers into the harvest. I pray that God will supply every one of us with what we need in order to truly take up our crosses and follow Christ, and that these words may inspire every one of you to join me in that prayer. I’ve said before that I believe all service to God begins with humility, and that’s really what the essence of taking up your cross is: humility. So I’ll conclude with the apostle Paul’s words about the humility of our Lord and Savior, and its end result:

 

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life (Philippians 2:1‭-‬16).”

 

The “Mark” of a Christian

The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively.  I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further.  Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God.  In John 15:18-21, he said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you:  ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.

Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”

The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them.  The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own.  For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world).  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that point important?  Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that?  Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower?  Absolutely not!  Even pagans are capable of human love.  It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian!  A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love.  Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  

We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”

Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant.  Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore.  To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene.  Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””

We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here.  Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?  

Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God!  He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s!  He is the Only Begotten Son of God!  All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth?  No.  Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will.  He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified.  He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.  

But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow.  It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.

Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”.  If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it.  But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose.  Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own.  No one asks or cares about what they would like.  That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet.  And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children.  With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”?  We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world.  How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach?  What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?  

Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard?  In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us.  So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?

Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.

In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him?  The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.”  So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter).  Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty.  What was Peter missing?  When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition?  Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond?  Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice!  Take those questions a step further now.  Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him?  Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make?  I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly.  What phenomenon was at work here, then?  This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”

Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31).   He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully.  He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41)   It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter.  What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against?  I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.

The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead.  Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter.  He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him.  And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment.  He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.     

Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him!  Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).  God is love and God is spirit.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love.  But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply.  Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us.  In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold.  I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God.  Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.   

The Vision of Prophets

When Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses, the LORD said to them, “If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.” (Num. 12:6)

The Hebrew word mar’âh  is used in this passage, and transliterated into English as ‘a vision’.  It means ‘a mode of revelation; in the sense of a mirror’.  Mar’âh can refer to anything, either literal or figurative, that is seen or perceived, which reveals and reflects back a message from, and/or a characteristic or attribute of, God.

‘Vision’, in English, means ‘the act or power of seeing with the eyes’.  The term ‘a vision’, however, relates only to that which was seen, not the action itself.  vision is an experience of the mind that naturally begins with sight — for whether the vision’s image or scene is transmitted via the eyes, or is simply registered directly in the mind — of necessity something must first be seen.

In that context, consider the phrase frequently uttered by the prophets of the Old Testament: ‘and the word of the Lord came to me’.  It would be consistent with God’s statement in Numbers 12:6 to assume that the ‘word of the Lord’ often came in the form of pictorial representations (visions and dreams) of the message God wanted to convey.  Pictures are the simplest form of communication, and they precede words: because when learning a language, we are first shown pictures of objects, then we are given the word(s) that is/are associated with them.  Pictures and words both express meaning, but pictures are superior in that they can be understood universally, while words are language specific.  And to a certain degree, a prophet receiving a vision in this manner can be made analogous to a person watching a video presentation; so the value of this method of communication is readily apparent.

However, there are also instances of God sending an angel as a messenger to speak for him; and Hebrews 1:1 informs that God disclosed his thoughts to the prophets in many ways, at different times.  So, with all of the various ways that God can communicate, why are there seemingly no prophets among the Lord’s followers today?  Does Christianity have no need for prophecy anymore?  This can by no means be the case, for Romans 12:6 states, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.”  Furthermore, we are told, “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.”  (1 Cor. 12:28)  Paul ranks prophecy as the second highest function within the body of Christ!!  He also says we ought to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy, and that he wishes everyone in the church prophesied. (1 Cor 14:1&5)  Should anyone reasonably assume then that a need for so important a role no longer exists?!  God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so if the manifestation of prophesy is nearly extinct today, it is a reflection of our own failure and inadequacy — but that is a different subject that cannot be explored here, so I will simply draw attention to the implication of the words “earnestly desire” and move on.

At this point, it would be remiss to not return to and conclude the rest of the thought from Hebrews 1:1.  Picking back up in verse 2, “…but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”  This indicates that the means by which the Father communicates with man has changed.  Prior to the Lord’s first advent, communication from God came in diverse forms.  When Jesus was on the earth, God was then speaking directly through his Son, who was the preexistent Word.  Now that he has been resurrected, God speaks via the gift of the Holy Spirit, in combination with the revealed word of Scripture.  This change in the manner by which God communicates does not bring the need for prophecy to an end in the present day, it merely changes how prophecy is conveyed.

The Father’s disclosure of his plan for the salvation of man through his Son was completed with the Book of Revelation.   It would seem that all He intends to reveal regarding the end of days has already been spoken.  It would appear that visions and dreams have had their end — perhaps not on an isolated, individual basis — but at least as far they concern any messages intended to be delivered on a national or worldwide scale.  Yet although there are no new revelations regarding salvation, in the general sense of those conveyed by visions, it is still true that not all of the revelations from Scripture have been made clear: and this is why the gift of prophecy is still essential today.

Prophecy is not only predictive, it is also interpretive.  This can be shown by the statement found in Dan. 9:1-2, which says: “In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes… I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.”   The prophecy he refers to is from Jer. 29:1-24.  Its message was for the all of the exiles who lived in that time, and it retained its relevance to its intended audience up until the command to return to Jerusalem was given.  But a prophecy, whether it be given for guidance and instruction, or to serve as a warning, is without value unless it is understood — just like the gift of tongues is only useful when it is interpreted.  Therefore, Daniel, a prophet himself, was given understanding by God so that he could act in accordance to the dictates of a prophecy that had been given previously to another of God’s servants.

As a prophet, he was also given the power to interpret: as when he translated the king’s dark dreams.  Likewise, he received visions himself, that spoke of events far into the future — and angelic beings supplied the explanations in an obscure manner — not for his own benefit, but for the sake of those who would live during the age when the visions would attain their relevance and fulfillment.  That which was veiled would only be made plain at the appropriate time.  Since the events to which some prophecies allude have not yet occurred, and since all of their meanings have not been fully understood, it stands to reason that the interpretive component of prophecy still has relevance today.

The interpretive aspect of prophecy is essentially a process of converting something hidden — a meaning that is unseen and incomprehensible –into something that is now clear and readily understood.  This idea evokes a further discussion of sight, because understanding how light converts the invisible into the visible can aid in comprehending how the phenomenon of understanding a vision is made possible.  The eye sees, the mind reasons, and the heart understands, as stated in Isaiah 6:10 and elsewhere.  Sight is the action whereby the eyes take in whatever is reflected back and revealed by light.  The information the eyes receive is processed in the mind, and the brain then attempts to define what was seen, provide context from past experience, and attach meaning to it.  The mind then relays its analysis to the heart, submitting its conclusions for judgement.  The heart then renders its verdict as to whether the mind has determined accurately, or falsely — and the communication continues until the two are of one accord.

This process is common to all, both the believer and the unbeliever alike, but it is important to note that definitude of the heart’s judgment can only be had when it is given in the presence of the holy spirit, since God alone sees all things as they truly are — and it is only by His spirit that man can know the mind of God, and see as He sees.  The Lord Jesus, the Christ, is both the Word, who spoke in days past to the prophets in the light of visions and dreams, and the present Light of the world, who reveals the hidden things contained in the word of scripture.  He is the one who sends forth the holy spirit, which teaches righteous judgment to the hearts of all those into whom it is sent; and it is by this same spirit that the prophecies of old were uttered.  It should not be imagined that the passage of time has rendered the Lord’s spirit mute.

Based on the meaning of mar’âh, a prophet of the Old Testament would reflect back to the people what God had revealed by the vision.  The vision itself was always sharply impressed upon the prophet’s mind, even when its meaning was obscure.  It was rendered in such a way that it appeared to their mind with the same clarity and distinctness as that which is visible to the eye, so that they could speak with certainty and conviction.   In a sense, the vision acted as a light to the prophet’s mind, revealing the things of God that would have been otherwise imperceptible; since vision is impossible in the absence of light.  So, one could say the Old Testament prophet received the spiritual word by physical sight.  The prophet then functioned as a mirror, reflecting the light of that vision back to the people.  This is fitting because the Word of God had not yet been sent, and God’s word (Scripture) had not been completed.

Before the promised Messiah was revealed, visions and dreams served in his stead, but today the Lord is the Light of the world, by whom we are made to see.  A prophet of the modern era, therefore, is the beneficiary of revelation his predecessors did not have access to.  Therefore, they receive insight by the Light of the Word (as Christ dwells in them).  In contrast to the previous era, this would be a case of spiritual sight coming through the physical word of Scripture.

The prophets of old had faith in what they saw — they believed the vision — and thereby communicated new revelations to the people.  Today, the prophet must believe the word — and have faith in the unseen things of God — depending upon the Lord to provide insight into prophesies which are still not fully understood, though they were spoken of long ago.

The ability to see in a physical capacity is a gift given by God, which he provides to all but a few.  The ability to see in the spiritual sense — that which can be called insight, discernment, or wisdom — is also a gift of God, but its dispensation is far more rare.  Its treasures are only discovered by those who eagerly desire and earnestly seek them.  Those who truly ‘seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness’ will have such things added to them, and more.  The need for spiritual insight is more urgent today then ever.  Remember that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.  (Rev. 19:10)  May God inspire the hearts of all those who love Him to set aside their concerns for the things of this life, and may He fill more of His children with an earnest desire to be granted the greatest spiritual gifts — which He makes readily available to those who seek.