Can our prayers really produce miracles?

Of course our prayers produce miracles, because Jesus said they would.

In John 14:12 Jesus said, “I declare to you that whoever puts his trust in me shall do the same things that I have done.” And that included miracles, because in verse 11 the evidence Jesus gave of the Father living and working in him was the miracles he was doing. Jesus then promises in verse 12 that those who trust him “will do what I have been doing,” and “even greater things than these.”

So we’ve got Jesus’ clear guarantee that our prayers will produce miracles, but what was the purpose of Jesus’ miracles in the first place? It was to provide proof, verse 11, that “I (Jesus) am in the Father and the Father is in me,” meaning, verse 10, that “the Father, living in me, is doing his work.” And that was Jesus’ reason for everything he said and did, including the miracles, to prove the Father was the power behind him so that, verse 13, “the Son may bring glory to the Father.”

And that reason still stands for Jesus now answering our prayers with miracles, because verse 13 in full says, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” So what miracles does Jesus do now in our lives that bring glory to the Father?

Jesus answers that for us in John 15:8 – “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” We bring glory to the Father by being fruitful disciples of Christ. And Jesus tells us how we do that in verse 10: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love.” A much loved disciple of Christ obeys his commands, and that’s how Jesus now lives and works in us to bring glory to the Father, just as Jesus obeyed his Father’s commands and the Father lived and worked in him.

Jesus then emphasized one command in particular in verse 12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

So that’s the miracle we’re after most, then, isn’t it? Obey that command and Jesus lives and works in us to the Father’s glory. And what makes that miracle so important is John 13:35, that “All men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” That’s the miracle that has the most impact on people. And it’s people worldwide too (“all men”), meaning it’s even “greater” in its scope (14:12) than the miracles Jesus did.

To pray for that, then, guarantees an answer, because that’s how we now bring glory to the Father.


Mental health/illness from God’s point of view (pt 3)

Defeating the monster in our heads

Paul admits to a monster in his head messing up his mind. But he’d also made an amazing discovery in Romans 8:2, that “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”

He discovered there are two laws operating in the human brain. The first one, the ‘law of sin and death’, helped explain the cause of his mental problems, but the second law, the ‘law of the Spirit of life’, actually offered him a solution. And this was a revelation for Paul, because it’s clear from his candid comments in Romans 7 that Paul is talking as a man who’d been struggling with some serious mental issues, and he was desperate, because he had no idea how to deal with them.

Fortunately, for anyone else who wonders what on earth is going on inside his or her head, Paul explains in verse 5 what was doing his mind in. It was this ‘law of sin and death’, or “living according to the sinful nature” – or, to be more precise – having his mind fixated “on what the sinful nature desires.”

Inside his head, then, Paul discovered there was this hugely powerful force bending his mind into one way of thinking. And it was always toward evil thoughts, or the opposite of what he knew to be good and right. It was totally crazy, because every time he wanted to do something good, this other law in his head automatically kicked in to make him want to do the opposite. It would send Paul into another suicidal tailspin of guilt and self-loathing, until he was crying out for the pain in his head to end (Romans 7:24).

And isn’t that the cry of anyone with mental illness, that awful, crazy things are going round and round in his (or her) head, and they won’t stop? And it takes so little to trigger them, like the toddler reaching out to the hot saucepan he’s just been told not to touch, because he can’t resist touching it. All it took was telling him not to touch it, and the monster in his head gleefully released its evil juices in response without a moment’s concern for the damage, or even possible lifelong disfigurement, that it might cause the child. And Paul experienced this horror too; and it drove him nuts.

But such is the law of sin and death. It has enormous power over the mind, and it doesn’t care a hoot about the human it inhabits. It will take a beautiful innocent child and scar him or her for life, give reason to a teenager to hate herself so much she’ll inflict even more pain on herself by cutting herself with a knife, and it will twist an adult mind into committing a stupid crime or say something in the heat of the moment that ruins a relationship and a reputation.

So why does such a power exist? No reason really. It just does. But because it does we’re all stuck with having to learn from personal experience what it takes to deal with it – AND come to realize it is so powerful it even twisted the mind of the most beautiful creature God ever created into marshalling a host of hate-filled, eyes-blazing angels into a head-on attack against God to kick and pummel the one who created them and loved them. It was total madness, but somehow, awfully and crazily, it happened.

And what made things even worse for this great and beautiful cherub was the monster releasing its evil juices inside his head actually justifying his insanity, and making it seem right, just like millions of soldiers felt it was right and justified going to war to kill and maim and hate their neighbours, including their fellow Christians.

What we are learning from personal experience, therefore, and from the tragedy of wrecked human lives all around us, including members of our own family, is that we are dealing with powers well outside our ability to control.

At what point in our lives, then, do we finally acknowledge that what Paul said in Romans 8:6 was spot on, that “The mind of sinful man is death”? Without the counteracting antidote of God’s mind, the natural human mind is dedicated to one gigantic ‘selfie’ from cradle to grave. Self is the centre of the universe around which all else revolves. But that spells disaster and death, because what happens if self is denied or thwarted in any way? It spits and fumes, blames God, blames the government, goes to war, and like teenagers it kicks those who can best help them. But guess who gets hurt the most? SELF does. It always backfires on self. But in a suicidal leap over the cliff edge like lemmings, we don’t care. When the law of sin and death is the dominant force in our lives we are numb, we are sick, and we are mad. And Paul readily admits he was all of those too.

He even got it in his head to hound Christians and have them put to death, but fortunately for all of us, Jesus soon had enough of that and confronted Paul with – guess what – what Paul was doing to himself.

This was Jesus’ starting point. He doesn’t beat about the bush, he goes right for the jugular: You’re an idiot, Paul. And why is Paul an idiot? Well, let’s hear it from Jesus in Acts 26:14 – “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” In other words, why on earth are you turning your guns on me, Paul, when the only one getting hurt here is you? It must be a hellishly hard life for you stamping your feet in blazing rage against me and banging your tender ankles like some dumb ox kicking against its owner’s iron-tipped prod. So, come on Paul, wake up, I’ve come to rescue you from all that self-destructive nonsense (17) – SO THAT, verse 18, you can write a Manual for humanity on how others with your mental illness can be rescued.

So that’s what Paul did, he wrote a Manual – and what makes it so real is that he wrote it from personal experience. “I was completely bonkers,” he writes in Romans 7, and then in Romans 8 he explains why, and what changed him.

And Paul doesn’t beat about the bush either. All humans are bonkers, he says, because of the power of “the sinful nature,” Romans 8:3. And it’s so powerful that even God’s perfect law, enforced with penalties of death, banishment, captivity, slavery, disease, invasion by vicious maniacs, and a time-consuming, in-your-face every morning and evening gory sacrificial system, didn’t make the slightest dent in the Israelites’ mental state. They complained, they blamed, they thumbed their noses at God by chasing after other idols, made alliances with pagan nations instead of trusting God, made a mockery of God’s name, and made God so furious he wanted to eradicate them forever. Even Jesus was ready to chop the Jews into little pieces because of their stinking, uncaring, unremorseful, obstinate, hypocritical, totally self-oriented, rebellious attitude (Matthew 24:51).

Adam and Eve were just the same. They somehow got it in their heads that the world existed for them. So if a tree looked good to them, that’s all that counted. And when God faced them with their downright disobedience, they fought back: It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t do anything wrong. You can’t blame us. And look at Cain’s attitude too, just after he’d killed his brother in a jealous rage. When God punished him for it, Cain’s only response was, “My punishment is more than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13). He’d just committed cold-blooded murder and he thinks God’s overdoing the punishment a bit. In Cain’s mind, in other words, God was the one with the mental problems, not him.

“Get the picture?” says Paul in Romans 8. We are dealing with a monster in our heads that is truly insane, and it is impossible to tame.

Forget about taming it, then; the only way of dealing with the monster is to destroy it. Which is exactly what God did, but it took the most drastic action possible on God’s part. He sent his Son, Romans 8:3, “in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.” In other words, he would allow Evil (with a capital ‘E’) to unleash all its power and cunning on his own Son. He was, in effect, handing his Son over to the monster to release every bit of evil juice it had into Jesus’ head to destroy him. It was a battle to the death, with only one winner.

And much to Evil’s surprise, I imagine, it won the battle. It twisted the minds of the Jews against Jesus, and they handed him over to the Romans, who killed him. Imagine Evil, like a cackling hyena, savouring its victory, and slobbering foam and spit in its blood-curdling screams of triumph.

What Evil had blissfully ignored, however, was the outcome of the battle that had already been predicted in the Old Testament, pictured by, of all things, the death of a tiny lamb. Well, frankly, evil (with a small ‘e’ from now on) should have known better, especially after Abel had sacrificed some little lambs from his flock and “The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering” (Genesis 4:4).

Evil didn’t get the hint at all in that verse, that the sacrifice of a lamb was the first thing humans ever did that really pleased God. And where did Abel get the idea of sacrificing a lamb in the first place, unless God had explained what a lamb pictured? And do you think evil didn’t know that too?

Evil may have been cunning, then, but it wasn’t very bright. A little Bible study on its part would have saved it a lot of embarrassment. But embarrassed it would be when it gambled all its eternal power and influence over humans in its battle with Jesus, because, horror of horrors, Jesus turned out to be that tiny lamb.

And what happened when tiny lambs were sacrificed in Israel? The law of sin and death was annulled. How? By Israel’s sins being transferred onto the lamb, so when the lamb was killed so were Israel’s sins. And evil didn’t see the significance of that? Well, it certainly found out the significance, because the sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament was, in fact, picturing Jesus all along, and the sacrifice he would make that would destroy the law of sin and death forever.

It was all there in the Old Testament, and evil missed it. It missed the fact that a lamb’s death putting sin to death actually pictured the day when Jesus’ death “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3).

It must have been a huge shock for evil, because instead of a triumphant victory over God and wrecking God’s plan for humans, it found itself flat on its back with a spear in its chest. But again, it should have known better and bowed out of the battle a lot sooner, because it had thrown everything it had at Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime, and pummeled every nook and cranny in Jesus’ brain – which in any other human being would have reduced him to a weepy mush of self-flagellating guilt and self-hatred – but Jesus had stood firm.

Evil couldn’t get a foothold in Jesus’ brain. It was like chucking wooden sticks at a knight in armour, or bottles at a tank. They did a lot of banging and clanging and a great deal of bruising in Jesus’ head, but never, even once, did Jesus succumb to evil’s influence.

Evil was a fool, then, not backing out sooner. Surely it realized, after Jesus resisted the devil’s cleverest temptations in Matthew 4, that Jesus was impervious to evil. But it didn’t. How shocking it must have been, then, when evil realized it had ben nullified, neutralized, and torpedoed at the water line by a mere human being. And that same human being had then, in the most humiliating and triumphant gesture, taken evil’s top weapon in its arsenal – the law of sin and death that had messed up every human mind up to that point – and nailed it to his cross for the entire angelic realm to see. The worst possible thing for evil had happened. The Lamb had taken the sins of the world into himself and killed them.

And that’s when there was a ‘Great Pause’, as the entire heavenly realm, including evil’s first recruit and top henchman, Satan the devil, came to terms with what had just happened. The law of sin and death had just been wiped out and eradicated forever, and there it was thrashing around in its death throes, making awful gurgling sounds, and evil juice soaked the ground under its writhing body. So now evil had nothing left to fight with. It had gambled all and lost.

For three days The Great Pause lasted, as the heavenly realm hovered in anticipation of Jesus’ promise being fulfilled. And then in triumph Jesus rose from the dead, ascended to his Father, taking evil’s power over humans with him, and on arrival in heaven he takes everything that evil has done to humans and like a dangly piece of rotting cabbage he dumps it in the trash. At which point, a new era begins, Romans 8:4, in which human beings would no longer have to “live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”

With evil defeated the obstruction messing up the human mind had been removed, and the healing of damaged minds by the Spirit could now begin. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it only took a few years for the Spirit to come up with a Manual on mental health and illness, the first of its kind, in which not only was the cause of mental illness identified, but also, at last, its solution.

The Manual was put together by Paul, and it now exists for any human who comes to the same startling realization Paul did (that got him started on writing the Manual in the first place) – that we are all, in truth, quite bonkers.

But that shouldn’t be the case, surely, because didn’t Jesus chop the head off the law of sin and death? Why, then, do we still have a massive problem with people being mentally unstable, and in many cases completely mad? Shouldn’t there be increasing evidence of minds being healed and people becoming more balanced and sensible?

Yes, there should be, but Satan the devil is still allowed to be “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and he very cleverly blinds people to what Jesus accomplished. He promotes himself as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), by recruiting people from among “those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2), who sound very wise and spiritual, but they’re “masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “preaching a Jesus other than the Jesus” Paul preached (11:4).

Paul preached Jesus as the only solution to human ills, but we still live in a world with its own ‘angels of light’ and god-like apostles, that churn out all sorts of impressive and authoritative ways of defining and treating mental illness offering relief for damaged minds, and people look to them instead.

But it’s the blind leading the blind: People who are completely blind to Jesus having already dealt with the cause of damaged human minds, are trying to treat people who are completely blind too. No wonder mental illness continues. It’s like a laboratory discovering the remedy for malaria, but when people find out about it they resist it, and insist that everyone stick to their old, traditional treatments, even though they don’t work. It’s total madness, because it means millions of people will continue to die from malaria, even though the solution has been found.

And likewise, the solution to the monstrous law of sin and death has been found too, in Jesus’ death – but who’s interested, or even knows about it?

But that’s the whole point of the gospel. It’s belting out the message that mental illness has been solved, but what if people don’t believe they are sick in their heads in the first place, and they are deeply offended that anyone – and especially Christians – would dare to imply that they are? It means, then, that mental illness and madness, just like malaria, will continue, until things get so bad in the world, or in a person’s own life, that some people may at last cry out to God – just as Paul did – for relief.

Or that God, as he did with Paul, directly intervenes. And that’s encouraging because Paul was a real mental case. He was “blasphemous, and a persecutor, and a violent man,” 1 Timothy 1:13, until, that is, Jesus said “Enough,” knocked Paul off his high horse, and made an example of him.

Made Paul an example of what, though? In verse 16, Paul was an example of God’s “unlimited patience.” From Paul’s life we learn that God can wait while we thrash around in our blindness and obstinacy, but one day he intervenes, and when the time is right, as it was in Paul’s case, God very gently, or quite forcefully, says, “That’s enough of your nonsense, it’s time you saw what you are really like, and what it took to rescue you from it.” And he introduces, through the preaching of the gospel, the Manual that Paul wrote on mental illness.

And here’s where the gospel can be preached in such practical terms, because what the whole world is suffering from is a severe case of blindness caused by the devil hiding what Jesus accomplished in his death. The clear and obvious result of that can be seen all over the world, as people struggle with mental problems, and madmen rule entire countries wrecking people’s lives. But as things get worse, do people realize, at last, that humanity is a mess and we have no solutions? Is the world gradually having its resistance to God and its snotty, superior, we-are-gods attitude softened?

In other words, are people’s eyes being opened to reality, and in some people there’s a desperate search for help too? If so, do we ourselves as Christians understand the Manual Paul wrote that offers these desperate people exactly what they’re looking for, and in terms they can easily grasp?

In Chapter One of Paul’s Manual, for instance, the title is: “We’re all bonkers, but don’t panic, Jesus dealt with the monster causing it.” It’s blunt, but that’s what desperate people need. It’s what Paul needed when he cried out, “What’s happening to me, and why? Tell me, before I go completely mad.”

And that’s just Chapter One, and yet it’s already explained the cause of mental illness – and that it’s been dealt with. That’s something the entire thumb-their-noses-at-God Mental Health community hasn’t discovered yet. They haven’t even figured out what makes us mad in the first place. They rattle off a list of possible causes, yes, but not the cause behind all those causes. In the meantime, therefore, people struggle on thinking the world has solutions, when it doesn’t. It is tragic, and here we are as Christians holding a Manual that explains everything.

And that’s just Chapter One. Chapter Two is just as blunt and just as practical. The title is: “You don’t use a screwdriver to fix a broken heart.” To heal a broken mind, in other words, you need the right tools.

Paul put it this way, in Romans 8:2, that it was only by “the law of the Spirit of life” that he, personally, was “set free from the law of sin and death.” To free his own mind from evil, there was only one tool for the job – the Spirit. The tools used by the Mental Health establishment, therefore, can never heal mental illness, because the forces affecting and controlling the human mind are made of spirit, not chemicals – or emotions.

The only way, then, that we are not controlled by the spirit influence of the devil, is by the counteracting spirit influence of the Holy Spirit. It’s a spiritual battle in our heads, not a physical or biological one. But the Holy Spirit is amazing, because ever since Jesus’ death neutralized the power of evil, the Spirit that “raised Jesus from the dead is living in you,” verse 11, enabling us to crush evil in our OWN heads. We now have a tool at our disposal we can use at any time to “put to death the misdeeds of the body“ (13). With the Spirit of Christ, or Christ’s own mind, living in us (9), we can become impervious to the evil that makes us do really stupid things with our bodies, in both word or action. Chapter Two, then, reveals the key to mental health: It’s the Holy Spirit.

In just two chapters of Paul’s Manual, therefore, we have the whole story of the monster in our minds that made us all mad in the first place, how that monster was then dealt a crushing blow by Jesus’ death, how that same monster tried to resurrect itself by blinding people to what Jesus accomplished for us, how God, though, intervenes in our lives to wake us up to the monster and what Jesus did to deal with it, and how God now supplies the Spirit and mind of Christ to counteract the evil monster and make us impervious to it.

This is the Good News we preach, and in terms, hopefully, that make sense to people in our world as they wake up to how bad mental illness really is.

(continues in part 4 on April 24/18…)

Why did Jesus want us praying in his name?

Actually, it’s the Father who wants us praying in Jesus’ name, because, John 3:35, “The Father loves the Son, and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life…”

When praying to the Father, therefore, we see through his eyes. And his eyes are focused on his Son. In the Father’s eyes everything comes down to his Son. According to that verse there is nothing in the lives of us humans that doesn’t come from his Son, including our eternal life. The most important fact of life the Father would like us humans to understand, therefore, is his love for his Son. That’s the starting point.

That’s where our race through life for us humans begins. As we kneel at the starting blocks what we see looking down the track are the words of Jesus in John 16:27 when he said, “the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”

Jesus knew how important it was that we grasp who he is to the Father, that he came as the Father’s very own special emissary to this planet to fulfill every need and hope we humans have. It was him and him alone that the Father chose for that job – the big question then being, “Do we believe it?” And that to Jesus is the most important question, because if we acknowledge and recognize that the Father sent him to be the source and reason for everything in our lives, the Father loves us for it.

The Father loves us because we love his Son. He also loves us for the reason we love his Son, which is our belief that he “came from God.” To believe that Jesus came from God is simply acknowledging that Jesus, and that name alone, is both the source and reason for everything in our lives. And once we grasp that the Father loves us to pieces for it.

And Jesus understood that, which is why he got the point across again in John 14:21 that “He who loves me will be loved by my Father.” Acknowledge Jesus as the source and reason for everything in our lives, it automatically means that the Father loves us, and because the Father loves us it means he answers our requests, just like he answered Jesus’ requests when Jesus acknowledged him (the Father) as the source and reason for everything in his life.

Jesus boils all this down for us by saying, “just pray in my name,” because he knows what his name means to the Father, and when it means the same to us, the Father loves us too.

In the beginning….(part 1)

Part 1 – Explaining God from Genesis is where Paul began with the best brains in Athens… 

Imagine being Paul in Athens in Acts 17:19-20, and having a group of high and mighty Greek philosophers challenge you in public to explain “what this new teaching is that you are presenting,” and being told that “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”

These Athenians were usually open-minded about “the latest ideas” (21), but Paul’s preaching “about Jesus and the resurrection” had not gone down well with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who accused Paul of being a “babbler advocating foreign gods,” verse 18. So they managed to get Paul hauled up before the high Council of the Areopagus to explain himself.

So there was Paul standing before the most authoritative court of judges and noblemen in Athens with the opportunity handed to him on a plate to explain the gospel. On a smaller scale it would be like one of us being asked at the dinner table, with all the family present, to explain what it is we believe, or what a strange idea like the Trinity means, or as one member of my family asked me at a family gathering in earshot of everyone, “What is your religious capacity?”

That was exactly what the Greek philosophers wanted to know about Paul. What religious right, or capacity, did Paul have to teach and talk about another god in a sophisticated city like Athens that already had 30,000 gods? The city was “full of idols” (16), including an altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD to make sure they had every god covered and they hadn’t missed one, so what did Paul’s God have to offer that they hadn’t already got? And likewise, what right or capacity did I have to promote my version of God, when the world is already full of religions and churches that are fully convinced their version of God is the best? Who’s to say what I believe and teach is any better?

I was facing a similar challenge to the one Paul faced. Could what I say to my family member make the God I believe in stand out as being any better than the ideas about God he already had in his head, or that my God was worth looking into compared to all the other versions of ‘God’ out there? Like Paul, I’d been landed with the chance to say something, but what?

I look back and wish I’d remembered how Paul dealt with those Athenians, taking into account that Athens was a culture just like ours today. It had all sorts of “objects of worship” that made it appear “very religious,” Acts 17:22. And it’s typical in our culture too for people to think of themselves as being “very spiritual.” People get all tingly about music, art, ancient philosophy, eastern religions and all sorts of other human-devised stuff, believing they’ve tapped into hidden powers or discovered the divine within themselves.

So we understand the Athenians. They believed they were bringing the spiritual to life in their gods, idols and great temples, just as people today think they’re bringing their spirituality to life in drug-induced altered states of consciousness, or in mystical experiences while watching sunsets, or meditating like Buddhists, or going on pilgrimages, or in visions of heaven. So in a confused, jumbled mess of a culture just like ours, believing it’s discovered ‘God’ and ‘the spiritual’ in all sorts of things, where did Paul start in making HIS God stand out as different?

He took his cue from the Athenians themselves, Acts 17:23, “For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God.” Despite all their religiosity and spirituality there was still an element of doubt in their minds, that maybe they were still missing something. And that exists today as well, when people ask, “Why does a loving God let innocent people suffer?” In other words, they accept the possibility that God exists, and maybe they even want to believe he exists, but it’s hard making sense of him, so can somebody please help them out? And that was the situation Paul found himself in, that despite the Athenians coming across as very religious they were still open to someone making sense of God.

So in front of some of the best brains in Athens Paul talks about God, and in such basic terms too. In verse 24 he sounds almost like a Grandpa telling a bedtime story to his grandkids, because he starts off with, “The God who made the world and everything in it.” He starts off with the first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning, God…”

It’s so basic, but this is the picture Paul cements in their minds first of all, that in the beginning there was ONE God who made everything, and that this one Creator God was also “the Lord of heaven and earth.” In the beginning, therefore, there was one God who made the universe – and, take note – he’s also in charge of it and in complete control.

There were no yells of resistance from the Athenians at this point either – despite the Greeks believing the world did NOT begin with a Creator God. To them it began with what they called chaos and somehow gods and goddesses were produced in this chaos, most of which were completely bonkers – including their top god, Zeus, whose entire family was certifiably insane and should have been locked up. They abused women, ate children, and did amazingly sickening things in their craze for supreme rulership over the gods’ HQ on Mount Olympus. A warning to parents, therefore: Greek mythology does not make for happy reading at bedtime for children. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

But even the mighty Zeus was subject to fate, or The Three Fates as they were called, pictured in Greek mythology as three old women (wonderfully displayed in all their nuttiness in the Disney movie, Hercules). So Paul is really putting out a challenge here, to compare the infighting, immoral, insane mess of Greek gods, whose divine will and power could be overruled by three old women, to his one Creator God who planned everything from the beginning, controls every aspect of human life and death, and was on course to making his plan for creation work out exactly as he purposed.

In Paul’s mind this is where it all began. He doesn’t start off with “God loves you,” or “Are you saved?” or “Have you repented of your sins?” Nor does he give a detailed explanation of the Trinity. What he starts off with instead is where the Bible starts in the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

So there you are with your family round the dinner table with their forks poised in midair waiting for your answer to what you believe, and you say, “Well, I believe God made the universe and he’s doing a jolly good job of running it.” And with a casual wave of your own fork you add, “It’s all there in the book of Genesis,” and you stab a carrot and carry on eating.

And amazingly this is where Paul began with some of the best brains in Athens. He talked about God, just like Genesis talked about God. He then went a bold step further too, that God doesn’t “live in temples built by human hands” – which must have raised a few Athenian eyebrows, because looming over Athens was the Parthenon, an architectural gem of white marble built for the goddess Athena to dwell in. But Paul’s God needed no such edifice. In fact, Paul says in verse 25, God doesn’t need anything from humans, “because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

Imagine telling that to your family at the dinner table, that the God you believe in doesn’t need massive cathedrals or any building dedicated to his glory. In fact, he doesn’t need anything from us that costs money, nor does he require sacrifices, rituals, gifts, or human service of any kind, because he’s already got everything he needs. It’s an insult to God to even think he needs something from us, when he was the one who gave US existence and life in the first place.

And why not go one step further while your family is waiting for dessert, and add that God is nothing like the gods OUR ridiculous world creates and worships either, like the gods of fame, security and body image, that demand we serve them with huge dollops of our time and money – but for what, pray tell, when one day we all die?

Paul, therefore, is presenting a God that’s nothing like the gods we create today, nor was his God like any god the Athenians knew either. And what a relief that should have been for them, because their gods were a pain in the neck. They demanded all sorts of rituals and sacrifices, and temples and statues (like the massive golden statue of the goddess Athena in the Parthenon) to keep them happy and placated. The Greeks also lived in fear of their gods every day, because the gods would severely punish any human who stepped out of line.

The hypocrisy of the Greek gods, therefore, was staggering, because their OWN behaviour on the most part was deplorable. If you think movies today are stepping way over the line of human decency, the lives of the Greek gods were ten times worse. Their morals and ethics were far worse than the humans they demanded service and worship from.

The Greek gods also showed little interest in humans – beyond abusing them or punishing them – and they deliberately hid themselves from people too. Any human who dared venture too close to Mount Olympus where the gods dwelt and ruled from was sent packing, like poor old Bellerophon on his trusty steed Pegasus, who was sent hurtling back to earth by the lunatic Zeus to spend the rest of his life as a crippled wreck.

But Paul paints a completely different picture of his God as being intimately involved with humanity all through our history, as he explains in Acts 17:26, how “From one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth, and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

Here was a God who actually chose where nations and races of people would live, and was personally involved in when nations and empires would rise and fall. And Paul’s God was never hiding from people either, because as Paul explains in Acts 17:27, “God’s purpose in populating the Earth and creating nations was to get a response from people, that they seek him out and find him, because that’s when they discover he’s not that far away at all.” And anyone could discover that too, that no matter who he was or where on the planet he lived he could get in personal touch with the Creator God at any time.

And this, Paul is saying, is what God designed this Earth and all that happens on it for, which – as an aside – helps explain why bad things happen too.

And this again is where Paul’s God differed, because with the Greek gods bad things happened to people as punishment, but with Paul’s God everything, good and bad, was designed to stir people to seek him. It explains why there are wars between the tribes, nations and empires that God set up. All these unstoppable horrors teach us, as one Christian minister wrote, that “It is ridiculous, absurd, nothing but a self-delusive, deceitful trick, and dishonest in the extreme, to think that anyone can operate, as a man or a woman, without God.”

The Greeks were soaked in this self-delusion too, because their entire system did not start with God. It began where most people today begin, with no idea why evil exists, or why we can never stop people of different nations, races and genders attacking each other. It’s all so horribly confusing, but our world has always been in a state of chaos, with endless tragedies happening to innocent people and helpless children, and we still have no answers. And at some point that chaos hits close to home as well, when a marriage falls apart, or a tragedy happens to a family member, or a natural disaster wrecks the family home, and suddenly you wonder, “What’s the point of it all? What is there to hope for?” and it dawns on you that if God does not exist life is completely pointless.

But that’s what human history exists for, Paul says, so that God in some way or other can reveal himself through our human circumstances to stir us to seek him. It could be out of desperation that eventually we seek him, or out of anger, or depression, or curiosity, or from frustration at our helplessness, but one thing God has designed into his creation for ALL of us is the gradual or sudden realization in verse 28 that “in him we live and move and have our being,” because, Paul writes – quoting a Greek poet from his own hometown – we are in fact God’s “offspring.”

The poem Paul quotes from was written by Aratus, a well-known Stoic, so Paul is tapping into what the Stoics in his audience believed, the first few lines of the poem being:

“Let us begin with Zeus, for every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.

Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.

Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.

For we are indeed his offspring…”

In other words, everything exists because of Zeus. He’s the father of all creation; we are his offspring. It’s in him, therefore, that we humans live and move and have our being. So Paul simply takes their Stoic belief about Zeus being the reason for life and existence in all things – which must’ve surprised his audience that he even knew what Aratus wrote – and he applies it to God. John did the same thing in his gospel when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word,” the Word being Logos in the Greek, Logos also being the term used as the reason for life and existence of all things. John simply takes the Logos and applies it to Jesus. Paul takes Zeus and applies it to God.

In both cases God is being revealed in terms a Greek audience would understand. It’s also telling them that such a God exists, that there really is a Creator who is the cause and reason for life and existence in all things. It is true, then, that “in him we live and move and have our being,” and therefore we are truly his offspring as well.

So in one way the Greeks got it right, that we are the offspring of a great God. But they had no idea that this one great God was calling out to his children through his creation and through their circumstances, nor did they believe that God was there for them any time they needed him. They were open to all sorts of other ideas and philosophies offering an explanation for the sad, mad world they were living in, but they’d never heard of the explanation Paul was presenting.

But here’s your family at the dining room table living in exactly the same kind of world as those Athenians. Our world is sad and mad too, and it too is chock full of theories on how to explain this chaos we live in, and how to live in hope when there are no solutions to evil and no guarantees of anybody’s life being lived happily ever after. But here WE are, armed with what Paul has just said in Acts 17, that there really is a God who made everything, and the reason he made everything the way he did is because we are his offspring, he’d like us to get in touch with him, and we’ll soon discover HE ISN’T hiding too.

Well, imagine the excuses leaping into your family members’ minds for NOT getting in touch with him, like having to join some church or religion, and having to go along with all their rituals and weird doctrines, and putting up with horribly self-righteous, religious-sounding people.

Paul has an immediate answer for that too, though, in Acts 17:29, “Therefore since we are God’s children (and HE created us), why do we think he’s like something that WE would create?” We’ve created temples, statues, religions, works of art, icons, rituals and rules, all focused on our ideas of what God is like and what God wants, when all God is really interested in is his human children realizing they’re his kids and getting in touch with him.

In other words, all this paraphernalia that religions churn out, all based on “an image of God made by man’s design and skill,” verse 29, is actually a complete waste of time and money. So tell that to your family members and watch their reaction, including the Christians in the group, who’ve probably been loaded up to the gills with their own denominational rituals, icons and weird ideas about heaven and hell, and when the Earth was created, and should we drink alcohol or not, and is the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday, and is the Holy Spirit a power or a person, and is Jesus God or not, and how do you fit three days and three nights between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and should baptism be by sprinkling or immersion, and why do we need unpronounceable Greek words to explain the Trinity? And on an on it goes.

Paul, meanwhile, has just taken a large broom and swept the lot of it into a big pile and said, “Let’s put all that aside for a minute, shall we? And let’s go back to the beginning and ask the question, that if there truly is a God who created this world of ours – and we include in that the evil and the chaos too – then what on earth did he have in mind, and why on earth did he do it this way?”

And isn’t that the question your family members would like answered too, as to why bad things happen, and why innocent children suffer at the hands of predators, and why, if God is truly loving and all-wise he lets brutally selfish people get away with their greed and exploitation of the poor? And wouldn’t they like to know why bad things happen in their own lives too, like accidents, natural disasters, the tragic death of a child, or dementia in a loved one?

But to what – or to whom – are they looking for answers? Do they think the answer is in something of their own creation, or in the God who created them?

And this was the question facing those Athenians too, because up to this point in their lives (in Acts 17) they’d been looking for answers in the gods of their own creation. The Greeks had thousands of gods covering every aspect of life, but how could intelligent people like themselves think there were solutions in these gods when they’d actually made these gods up in their own imaginations?

It’s time, then, Paul says, to grow up – or as he phrases it in Acts 17:30, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

Enough of this nonsense, let’s get back to basics: In the beginning there was a Creator God who made humans to be his children, and he created a world that would enable and encourage his children to seek him and find him. What we humans have done in response to that is ignorant, stupid, and as dumb as the gods we’ve created, because what have the gods of our creation and imagination done for us instead? The world hasn’t changed one bit for the better because of them; and we still live without solutions to evil and awful things happening too.

So we can either persist with our nonsense or consider Paul’s alternative – that there is a Creator, we are his children, and he hasn’t given up on us. And to prove how much he hasn’t given up on us, verse 31, he’s “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”

Oh no, that dreaded phrase Judgment Day and all the negative things it brings to mind, right? But where is the negativity in the word “justice”? Isn’t that exactly what we all want? We’d love to have justice done, where evil gets it just desserts, and so do the people who are bent on evil too. So, yes, the Creator God who loves his children is going to sort this mess out, because he can and wants to. But notice HOW he sorts it out. It’s not by a group of insane Greek gods unleashing their vicious anger and revenge on humans, it’s by A MAN who understands humans, who can dispense justice correctly and appropriately.

This was radical, because the Greek gods would never trust a man. The gods loved power, and any threat to their power by humans was crushed. The idea, then, that a HUMAN had been appointed by the Creator God to do the judging was staggering, because it did away with all the Greek gods and their nonsense. And isn’t that what we’d love our family to know as well, that the solution to all our ills isn’t religion, nor is it joining a church or trying to be spiritual; it’s about a man, a human like ourselves, who has the power to put things to rights.

It’s like a great big broom sweeping away all our human religiosity and so-called spirituality, and in the empty space where that huge pile of confusion about God stood, there is a sign that says, “It all comes down to that man.” And the reason it comes down to that man, and why he’s so special and credible, is God “raising him from the dead,” Acts 17:31.

And in God raising him from the dead, we’ve got a man who can now take us right back to the beginning to start all over again with what God created us for, which is exactly what Paul is telling these Athenians. Paul has gone right back to Genesis and what God intended for humans from the start, because that’s what God appointed his man to do, to straighten out the whole sordid story of what has happened to his children and to his creation since the Garden of Eden.

And that’s what makes our God different and better than anything this world has to offer with all its human-inspired religiosity and spirituality and its many idols and gods. Our God raised a man from the dead as proof that a great Creator God really does exist, and as proof that he cares, as proof he is in charge, as proof he has a plan, and as proof he’s working that plan out through humans who clue in to what he’s up to, who then repent of their ignorance and want a part with God’s appointed man in straightening out this mess of a world we live in.

It’s interesting to see, then, what those Athenians objected to most of all in Paul’s presentation, as a clue to what our family members might object to most of all as well. It wasn’t about there being one Creator God, or that he’s intimately involved in everything that happens on this planet, or that we’re his offspring who can contact him at any time. None of those things were the issue for the Athenians.

What they objected to most of all, verse 32, was “the resurrection of the dead” – a human coming back to life again as a human. But that’s totally understandable, because like most people today, including probably our family members too, the Greeks thought the future of dead humans was life in some other world, or some other existence, not life as humans back here on the Earth.

But what our God has done in resurrecting Jesus is give us hope, that this mess we’ve made of his purpose for us can be repaired and we can try again, thanks to him not only resurrecting a man capable of straightening out the mess, but also offering us the chance to join him as humans now and as resurrected humans later. And with his help and wisdom we can begin to experience for ourselves what God made us and his creation for – in the beginning.

(Part 2 is on April 7/18)

What’s the point of praying? Nothing is guaranteed

Nothing is guaranteed when we pray, eh? But that’s not what Jesus said.

He said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” John 14:13, and in verse 14, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

And if that isn’t guarantee enough, Jesus said it again in John 15:7, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you,” and again in verse 16, “the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” 

And if that still isn’t guarantee enough, he said it yet again in John 16:23, “my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” and in verse 24, “Ask and you shall receive.”

What more could Jesus say to hammer home that our requests in prayer come with a guaranteed answer? Which sounds great – but – we live in a world where warranties always have conditions attached. The warranty on a new fridge, for instance, only applies if we use the fridge for what it was made for, and any hint of misuse or improper care cancels the warranty entirely. So is that how it is with prayer too, that conditions apply as well?

Yes, but the conditions make total sense, like John 15:7 that says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, etc.” So, yes, there’s an “if,” a condition attached, but it makes the same obvious sense as not using a new fridge as a boat. Obviously we won’t ask for anything that doesn’t tie in with Jesus’ teachings, right? And obviously we’d only ask for something we know would please him.

And exactly the same conditions applied to Jesus in his prayers too. “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me,” John 5:30, and everything he prayed for was to bring “glory to the Father,” John 14:13 and 15:8, by Jesus always saying and doing only what the Father wanted said and done, John 5:19 and 7:16. In other words, Jesus stuck like glue to his Father’s teachings to please his Father because he loved him, just like we stick like glue to Jesus’ teachings to please him because we love him too. And with Jesus as our example, we know that’s what gets prayers answered. There are conditions, yes, but they are just as obvious in their reasons as the conditions attached to the use of a new fridge.

And all Jesus needs from us after that is John 14:12 – “I tell you the truth (it’s guaranteed, in other words) that anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” Trust him, and that’s that, an answer to our request is guaranteed.

The bread and wine (part 2)

Part 2 – The “hard teaching” of John chapter 6

In Part 1, we dived back in Scripture to look for a precedent to the bread and wine to help explain what Jesus was getting at when he gave bread and wine to his disciples in Luke 22. And tucked away in Genesis 14 was an intriguing possibility, when the priest king Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine” for Abram after Abram’s exhausting campaign to rescue his nephew from the clutches of the tyrant king Kedorlaomer.

So we looked into who Melchizedek was and what he brought out bread and wine to Abram for, and out of that emerged a picture of Jesus’ ministry and what he gave bread and wine to his disciples for.

In Part 2, we now jump forward in Scripture to see if it confirms that picture and develops it. And what better spot to land than John chapter 6, where Jesus drops a real bombshell in John 6:54 when he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” and he mentions it three more times too, in verses 53, 55 and 56. It’s not surprising, then, that Christians have zoomed in on these verses, and especially because of their obvious connection to Jesus’ body and blood pictured by the bread and wine in Luke 22, but do these verses connect in any way to the bread and wine in Genesis 14? Or put the other way round, does Genesis 14 give us a great introduction to John 6?

Well, to make any sense of what Jesus meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we’ve got to head back into the Old Testament again, because Jesus was talking to Jews in John 6 using terms from scriptures they were familiar with to get his point across. So, what scriptures would likely pop into a Jewish mind when Jesus mentions drinking his blood?

An obvious verse would be Leviticus 17:14, which states: “the life of every creature is its blood. That’s why you must NOT eat the blood of any creature…. anyone who eats it must be cut off.” The last thing a Jew would want to do, then, is eat – or drink – blood. But in John 6 Jesus seems to be saying the absolute opposite by encouraging them to drink his blood. No wonder “many of his disciples said (in verse 60): ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

But why was it hard to accept? Jesus was obviously getting an extremely important point across, so why would he use terms that were difficult to understand? On the other hand, did he phrase it that way to startle those Jews into diving back into their scriptures for an explanation, out of which would emerge a better picture of him? Well, we face the same challenge today with these verses, so let’s see what happens when we seek an explanation too.

The first clear point that bounces out of “the life of every creature is its blood” in Leviticus 17:14 is the direct connection between blood and life. Our life as humans is in our blood, and without blood we are dead. By God’s design, then, blood is the PROVIDER of physical life, and there’s nothing like a body lying in a pool of deep red blood slowly oozing from a wound that vividly gets that point across. So moviemakers make sure there’s ample blood in the scene when the villain is finally killed, because we want blood to prove he’s dead.

So, blood is the provider of life, but did God have anything else in mind for blood? Yes he did, because in verse 10 he says, “I will set my face against that person (Israelite or foreigner, verse 12) who eats blood.”

Now that could send a shiver through someone who’s been wolfing down blood sausage since the day he was born, but, fortunately, as we’ll see, it’s the picture these verses give of Christ that we now focus on as Christians. But it still begs the question, “Why was eating blood such a serious offence to God?” Why would God disown a person, want nothing more to do with him, “cut him off from his people” (verse 10), and leave him out in the cold as far as any further contact or relationship – just for eating blood?

God’s answer in Leviticus 17:11 is that he meant the lifeblood of a creature to be “given to you (Israelites) to make atonement for yourselves,” because “it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”

The next thing we learn from Scripture about blood, then, is that God designed it to be a PRESERVER of life too. The Israelites had better not treat blood as mere food, therefore, because as food it would only preserve their lives for a few hours at most, but blood for atonement, on the other hand, would save and preserve “one’s life.” Bring in the subject of atonement and blood became a life preserver. And how it became a life preserver is explained in Leviticus 16:30, when once a year an actual “day of atonement” was set aside for Israel “to cleanse you (so that) before the Lord you will be clean from all your sins.”

By God’s design again, the blood of a bull and a goat (27) on the “day of atonement” cleansed the Israelites from all the sins they’d accumulated over the past year. Whatever mess the Israelites had made of their lives was forgiven, meaning they could happily enter their new year – that began on Rosh Hashanah a few days earlier – with a guilt-free conscience and a clean slate. To quote a present-day Jewish website: “Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest day of the year….for on this day God will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before him.”

So Jews today still deeply value the Day of Atonement, because it explains how God enables physical life to continue in humans who sin. For the Israelites it meant they would not die out as individuals or as a people, even though they were still sinners. Blood, then, was the great preserver of life for them. But it also taught them what it took to make that possible. It took blood. And since blood was the life of a creature, then the shocking realization for any sinning Israelite was the cost involved in their physical lives being able to continue. It cost life. A living creature had to lose its life for their sake. To “save a life requires a life” was well understood by the Israelites.

And God made the animal’s death dramatic too. The throat was slit and bright red blood spurted out of the gaping wound into a bowl, which the High Priest carried very carefully into the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle (27). How precious that blood was, therefore, because without that blood their sins would not be forgiven and they would not survive as God’s people.

So blood had given them physical life in the first place, but now blood became a second great gift from God, the gift of CONTINUING physical life through forgiveness. So “life was in the blood” at that level too, as a preserver of life.

For an Israelite to deliberately eat an animal’s blood, then, would be using what God gave as the provider and preserver of human life for his own purpose instead, much like people today use their God-given lives for anything but what God gave humans life for.

And that deeply offended God, because it totally ignored that life at every level for those Israelites was a gift from him. Without his gifts of life they didn’t have a life. And that was as basic as the blood flowing through their bodies to provide them with life, and the blood of animals on the Day of Atonement to preserve their lives through forgiveness of their sins.

So the Jews in John 6 were well aware that without those two gifts of blood from God they had no life. But Jesus then gave them a real shock in John 6:53 when he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you….drink his blood you have no life in you.”

It was now their turn to be offended, and confused, because for centuries the Jews believed they DID ‘have a life’. It was all right there in Leviticus 16:34, that “Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites” meaning all their sins were forgiven by the sacrifice of animal blood, and their lives were secure. But here was Jesus saying their lives weren’t secure – and in fact they had “NO LIFE” at all – unless they ate his flesh and drank his blood.

You mean all those sacrifices and cleansings on the Day of Atonement every year going back centuries, and all those gallons of lifeblood pouring out of the sacrificial animals’ throats year after year didn’t mean a thing?

Well, face the facts. All those blood sacrifices on the Day of Atonement forgave their sins which gave them a lease on life for another year, yes, but only for a year, and then the whole messy business of cleansing by animal blood had to be done all over again on the Day of Atonement next year. In reality it all seemed rather pointless, because the moment they began sinning again they were stuck with having to repeat the gory process of atonement by animal sacrifice next year. And there was no escape from it while sin existed.

It kept them ticking over year to year physically, yes, but at what cost and for what purpose, other than extending their physical lives for another year, and only until they died too? Maybe they had a point in wanting to “eat” blood, therefore, because what “life” was blood giving them instead?

They did have a point too, because Hebrews 10:4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” So all those blood sacrifices never actually got rid of sin. The blood of animals forgave sin, yes, but it didn’t eradicate sin or stop it. So the Israelites were stuck in this never-ending cycle of the Day of Atonement to cleanse them of their sins. But for what, pray tell, when sin would just dirty them up again?

It begs the question: “Why on earth would God set up an entire system of blood and sacrifices if it had no purpose to it beyond just preserving their physical lives until they died?”

You could ask a similar question, of course, as to why God allows billions of people all over the world to live for no other purpose than surviving until they die. All that struggle making enough money to have a home and family, pay for your children’s education, go on exotic holidays and buy impressive Christmas gifts, and for what, pray tell, when it all turns into nothingness at death?

A funeral clearly tells us that life is only temporary. We tread water until we can’t tread it any longer and we slip below the waves and die – and there’s nothing we can do about it either. Uncle George is in that casket as dead as a doornail, no matter how good or noble he was, or how loving and kind, or how generous and community spirited he was, or how wise and sophisticated he became, or how brave and courageous he was in war, or how charming and funny he was, or that he kept himself fit enough to live until he was one hundred and twenty three. It still all came to nothing when he died.

We all have this wonderful gift of life, then, but it isn’t permanent – which makes no sense at all, right? Why have life if it just fizzles out to nothing? But it certainly adds weight to what Jesus said in John 6:54, that “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” and in verse 57, “the one who feeds on me will live,” and he means live ‘forever’ (in verse 58), because Jesus is talking about life being permanent, not temporary, and isn’t that exactly what we humans would love more than anything else, to have a life that never ends?

But here is Jesus offering exactly that, a permanent, never-ending life. There’s a problem, though; it’s the condition attached. Permanent life is ours, yes – BUT – only if we “drink his blood,” and that’s the difficult bit, isn’t it? But it shouldn’t be difficult when Scripture has already told us “blood is life,” so drinking Jesus’ blood simply means drinking his life. And drinking HIS life makes sense because what his life has to offer is eternal, permanent and never-ending. By God’s design, then, drinking Jesus’ blood means drinking in the permanent life that Jesus provides, because only he can provide it.

If all this sounds a bit strange, it’s not surprising, because it also sounded strange to the Jews who first heard it. And they already knew that “blood was life” too, but so far it had only meant life on the physical level. They knew that blood was the provider of physical life, yes – and they knew that blood had also preserved their physical lives as Israelites for another year on the Day of Atonement – but never had blood offered them life eternal and permanent, and never in the blood of a man.

They had to wrap their minds round Jesus and his blood now being the provider and preserver of life, and not just physical life either. He meant eternal life. And to them this was totally new, but Jesus told it to these Jews first because God had already prepared the ground beautifully for them through all those blood sacrifices. The Jews knew through those sacrifices that blood was the provider and preserver of life, so all they had to do was transfer that understanding to Jesus, that through the sacrifice of his blood he now became the provider and preserver of their lives eternally. It was a simple jump.

And the encouraging part to that was, it meant that all those blood sacrifices hadn’t been a waste after all, because they all made sense of what Jesus’ blood would do. And the same goes for all those billions of people who spend their lives chasing dreams that end in nothing. None of that is wasted either. The endless cycle of human lifetimes all fizzling out in death primes us Gentiles perfectly for accepting the “hard teaching” of John 6, that “unless we drink Jesus’ blood we have no life in us.” We understand the “no life in us” bit, because all those graveyards we drive by and funerals we attend prove there is no lasting life in anything physical. It all dies out into nothing eventually.

So God prepared the ground for both Jews and Gentiles alike to make it easy for us to see that life on the physical level doesn’t last. He also made it easy for us to see how a life that DOES last requires blood sacrifice. For the Jews that understanding came through the sacrifice of animal blood to save and preserve their lives. And for us Gentiles it has come through blood sacrifice too. Every year on Remembrance Day we honour those who died in war, because, we say, if they hadn’t given their lives in sacrifice for us we wouldn’t have the life of freedom we have today. So God has had both Jews and Gentiles learn the need for blood sacrifice to save and preserve life.

But again, the encouraging part to this is, it means that all the horrible mess and sacrifice in war hasn’t been wasted either, because it’s primed us perfectly from our own experience that blood must be sacrificed to save and preserve life, which makes it just a small jump for us too, to see how Jesus’ blood becomes the provider and preserver of eternal life.

Nothing, therefore, in this life is wasted, including all those lives lost in war, because it all fills in the picture of why Jesus’ blood had to be sacrificed as the cost to be paid to give us a life of freedom from death and evil. Now we can see how his blood was necessary to open up life eternal to us.

But how does Jesus’ life open up eternal life to us? Well, Jesus clued us in on that too, in his use of the term the Son of Man in John 6:53. It meant he was both man and God. And that’s important to know, because if Jesus was only a man, then his blood sacrifice could only save us physically. His life would accomplish no more than a man dying in war or dying to save a person from a burning car. It would only save another person’s physical life. But Jesus called himself the Son of Man when saying we need to drink his blood, because in his blood flowed the life of God too, so when his life was sacrificed it meant he could save and preserve our lives eternally.

So when Jesus says, “drink my blood,” he means “drink up” on what the sacrifice of HIS life and blood made possible, because it’s the stuff of eternity. It’s so much more than animal sacrifices and the sacrifice of human lives in war. Those sacrifices picture his sacrifice, yes, and like his sacrifice they save and preserve human life too, but only for a year on the Day of Atonement, and only to give us freedom in this country of ours until we die. His sacrifice, by contrast, is the “real drink” as he called it in John 6:55, because it opens up eternal life to us.

But how does it open up eternal life to us? If we truly believe that only by his sacrifice and by his life in us can we experience eternal life, how and when does that eternal life kick in for us personally?

The “when” part is explained in verse 54: “Whoever drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” To the Jews the “last day” was the resurrection at some distant time in the future, but Jesus made it clear in John 5:24 that a person has already “crossed over from death to life” – and he means “eternal life” (same verse) – when he “hears my word and believes him who sent me.” Eternal life began, then, when a person believed Jesus was the source of it. All that was required after that was the death of Jesus to seal it. The “last day” for those Jews he was talking to, therefore, became the day he would be raised up on the cross, because in context that’s what he’s talking about here, his death making eternal life possible. It’s on the cross, then, that he will raise them up with him to start experiencing their eternal life right away. For us Gentiles now it’s the moment we hear his word and believe it.

The “how” part is explained in verses 56-57: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of my Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” So Jesus now feeds his life into us just like the Father fed his life into him.

It’s like having a tube down which his life and all its resources pass through to us, and our life needs flow through to him. And it’s a constant process that “remains” – as Jesus calls it in John 6:56 – between him and us. It’s going on all the time, so that there isn’t a moment when we’re not experiencing his life in us, and not a moment when he’s not aware of our need. And that’s the experience Jesus has made possible. We have no idea what “life” as he experiences it is like, but he supplied the tubing down which it can flow.

But how does all this tie in with what Melchizedek did for Abram, and Jesus giving bread and wine to his disciples? Well, in Luke 22 the two things Jesus gave to his disciples to remember him by were bread and wine. He doesn’t give each of them a little wooden cross or a tiny vial of his blood. He gives them something to eat and drink, something to feed on, which ties in exactly with John 6:56-57, that “the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

To experience eternal life, then, involves the simple act of feeding on Jesus to meet our need, pictured by eating the bread and drinking the wine. And that ties in nicely with Melchizedek giving bread and wine to Abram to meet Abram’s need. The difference is that Melchizedek was providing for Abram’s immediate physical need, whereas Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine to picture him providing for their eternal needs.

So in giving us bread and wine Jesus very much confirms what Melchizedek did for Abram in Genesis 14, but Jesus expands it hugely, because in HIS priestly office of Melchizedek he’s providing for our eternal life needs.

But what eternal life needs do we have? Well, how about being able to do all the things Jesus was able to do in his life – like loving someone who isn’t being very lovely, or being patient with people when we’re irritated, or being kind when all we want is people to get out of our lives and leave us alone?

Well, every time we take the bread and wine it’s a reminder that he is feeding his life through to us all the time. And every time we look to him to feed his life through to us in a difficult circumstance, we are drinking his blood, meaning we’re tapping into what he made possible by his blood, which is HIS life now flowing through us as the provider and preserver of eternal life.

For now we live in a physical laboratory to learn these things, but clearly that’s the way God designed it so that “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” is not a hard teaching, but a very easy and wonderful one.

(Part 1, March 6)

The bread and wine (part 1)

Part 1 – Looking into history for a precedent to the bread and wine

This is the first in a series on what Jesus was getting at in Luke 22:19-20, when “he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”

So, where does one begin? Well, diving back into history seemed like a good idea, to seek out the roots of why Jesus chose bread and wine. But how far back in Scripture do you go to find those roots?

There’s a clue in Genesis 14, in a story not long after Noah’s Flood, when empires are building and wars between competing groups of kings are raging. Genesis 14 lists their names too, many of which are written on monuments we can see today. There was Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, all of whom had joined forces against a second group of kings, Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Zoar. And the reason for this great clash of kings was the bully boy king Kedorlaomer who for 12 years had kept the second group of kings under his thumb, and eventually they’d had enough of him and rebelled.

Kedorlaomer was a force to be reckoned with, however, because he’d already smashed the Rephaites, Zuzites, Emites, Horites, Amalekites and the Amorites (verses 5-8). He was a tough old bird and well on the way to building himself a sizable empire, so the second group of kings thought they’d better put a stop to this brute before his quest for power and glory sucked them all in.

So they took the fight to him in the Valley of Siddim at the south end of the Dead Sea. They couldn’t have chosen a worse place, however, because Kedorlaomer soon had them on the run and drove them back into an area full of sulfur tar pits, into which many of them fell. Kedorlaomer then ransacked Sodom and Gomorrah, took all their valuables and food, and their people too, among whom was a man vital to what happened next.

The man’s name was Lot, the nephew of God’s chosen man Abram, and when Abram got wind of what bully boy Kedorlaomer had done to his nephew, and how he’d stolen everything Lot owned in the city of Sodom, he got thoroughly steamed up.

Now Abram was not the kind of chap you’d want to get steamed up, because he’d returned from Egypt a wealthy and powerful man. He’d made his money in livestock and invested much of it in silver and gold (Genesis 13:2), and with his wealth and influence he’d built up a mini-empire of his own. He had powerful allies among the Amorites (14:13), but purely from the men born in his own household Abram could muster up an army of over 300 trained soldiers (14) – all in fighting trim and ready for battle at a moment’s notice.

Abram was like a typical baron in Medieval England. He owned a huge estate, his own private army, and the money to defend himself against a stroppy neighbour. So when a member of his family was dragged off by that lout Kedorlaomer, Abram put out the call to arms and stormed out of the castle and went after Kedorlaomer, chasing him all the way up north to Damascus, about 250 kilometres or 160 miles away. Abram was no wilting wallflower. He was ready for a fight with the biggest bully in the land – and a bully who hadn’t lost a fight yet too.

When he found Kedorlaomer’s camp, Abram waited until nighttime, and then launched his attack. And with less than 400 men he sent Kedorlaomer’s much larger coalition army packing. Abram pursued them even further north until he’d rescued his nephew, and got all Lot’s family, servants and possessions back, and all the other prisoners taken from Sodom and their possessions too.

And if you’re wondering how all this ties in with the bread and wine, the mystery will soon be over, because it’s on the way back to his hometown of Hebron that Abram is met by the very thankful king of Sodom. We’re now down to Genesis 14:17.

But in verse 18 there is another king who comes out to meet Abram as well, the Canaanite king of Salem, the shortened name of Jerusalem. All three men, the kings of Sodom and Jerusalem and Abram then meet together in “the King’s Valley” (17), the Kidron Valley on the east side of Jerusalem. The name of the king of Jerusalem is Melchizedek – from the words malki and sedeq, meaning “king of righteousness.”

Abram, meanwhile, is exhausted. He’d marched his men 160 miles north at top speed, fought the largest army and the most powerful king in the entire country, and chased him even further north to get back everything the king had stolen. Abram then arranges for the long journey home, including women, children, animals and cartloads of goods, and marches them all, including his exhausted army, back south for another 200 miles or so. And now in his dog-tired state he’s in a meeting with two kings.

And in response to all this, what does the king of Salem do? It’s mentioned in Genesis 14:18. He “brought out bread and wine.” He doesn’t pester Abram with questions, or want to hear the whole story of what happened. Instead, he has Abram sit down, and he serves him bread and wine.

It’s the first mention in Scripture of bread and wine being served, and the reason for it being Abram’s immediate need. He is completely done in, so the king of Salem has Abram sit down and put his feet up, and he brings Abram bread and wine to get his strength back. And nothing more would need to be said of this incident, other than Melchizedek obviously being a good man.

But it’s the next sentence in verse 18 that hints at there being something more going on here, because this thoughtful king meeting the exhausted Abram’s need to get his strength back through bread and wine is also “priest of God Most High.” And the way it’s phrased like that – as just “priest,” and not “a priest” – suggests he’s the only priest of God Most High. And he’s the only king to hold that title too, because none of the other kings mentioned in Genesis 14 do.

So in this one man we’ve got both titles of king and priest. He’s also the king of Jerusalem, meaning “city of peace,” a title it got long before any Israelite arrived, so was it Melchizedek who gave Jerusalem that title, because peace was his focus, rather than war like the other kings? And then we have his name too, meaning “king of righteousness.” So here we have a king of righteousness and king of Peace City handing out bread and wine in his office of priest of God Most High to bring some life back into a man who’s dead on his feet.

It’s an interesting setting for the first mention of bread and wine in Scripture, but does it help us in our quest to find out what Jesus meant when he handed out bread and wine to his disciples too? Well, the story hasn’t finished yet, because In Genesis 14:19 the priest of God Most High is about to pronounce a blessing on Abram as well.

So it’s not just bread and wine Melchizedek gives to Abram to enable him to recover; it’s a blessing too. But both are for the same purpose, to meet Abram’s need, as we’ll see, because Abram at this point in time isn’t just exhausted he’s also scared.

And we know that from the first verse in the next chapter when God in a vision tells Abram, “Don’t be afraid.” But why would Abram be afraid? Well, for a start, he’s just taken on the biggest bully and the only king with an undefeated record of smashing anyone who dares oppose him – and Abram has just humiliated him by catching him napping at night and sent the king and his army packing with less than 400 men. Well, is Mr. Bully Boy Kedorlaomer going to take that lying down? Not likely. He’ll be stomping down south again at any minute, fuelled with such rage and revenge that he won’t stop until every member of Abram and his clan are strung from the highest tree. You don’t mess with psychopaths.

Can you blame Abram for thinking, “Oh boy, what have I done?” Does he start to question himself and worry that maybe this campaign of his was a really stupid decision based purely on runaway emotions, and now he’s put his whole family in danger, perhaps with fatal consequences? What must God think of him now?

But Melchizedek is sensitive to that too, because in his blessing in Genesis 14:19-20 he says, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be (or ‘praise be to’) God Most High who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Imagine being Abram hearing that. You’re worrying about old Bully Boy turning up thirsting for revenge – and you’re probably thinking you deserve what he dishes out too, because of your rash actions – but to greet you on your return is none other than the priest of the one great God who confers on you a blessing that’s totally in tune with what you’re worrying about. Melchizedek looks you in the eye and says, “The Creator of everything is on your side, Abram, because it was he who gave you the resounding victory over your enemy. So, calm down and let him take care of things,” which God himself backs up a few verses later in Genesis 15:1, when he says, “Don’t be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward.”

So here we’ve got God’s own priest zeroing in on Abram to meet Abram’s needs exactly. The timing is exquisite, and the bread and wine and the blessing are perfectly tailored to easing Abram’s exhaustion and worries.

But the story doesn’t end here either, because in Genesis 14:21, “The king of Sodom says to Abram, ‘Give me the people, but keep the goods for yourself.’”

Well, that was tempting, because charging after Kedorlaomer had cost Abram a great deal. He’d had to feed his army for a week while marching up north, then spend another week up there fighting, chasing and gathering prisoners and carts for transportation back home, and another two weeks trekking home with a huge crowd of women and children and animals in tow. Add all that to the usual losses suffered in battle, and a huge chunk had been knocked out of Abram’s savings.

So that was another worry for him. But along comes the king of Sodom offering a quick and easy solution: “Whatever goodies Kedorlaomer took from my city, Abram, you can have them. Just let me have my people back.”

But ringing in Abram’s ears is the blessing he’d just been given by Melchizedek, that God had – and obviously would in future – provide everything that Abram needed, no matter what life threw at him. That’s what a “blessing” meant. It meant God would take care of all his needs, so have absolute confidence in God and trust him.

Immediately after the priest’s blessing, though, the king of Sodom approaches Abram with a human solution to his financial problems. So Abram is tested right off the bat. Will he take the offer or trust God to take care of his expenses? Well, In verse 22, Abram tells the king, “I have raised my hand (sworn) to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’”

So even if this campaign had been a terrible mistake, and Abram had stupidly blown his budget because of it, he wasn’t going to resort to human means to solve it, like lottery tickets, or a risky investment, or a handout from someone who might then get to thinking he was Abram’s saviour. It must have been tempting to accept the offer, though, just like it was in one church area I was in when a rich man starting attending church and was very generous with his money. Members flocked to him for help and he helped them, so people looked to him as their provider, and he became their saviour. And that’s what Abram wanted to avoid – for the king’s sake – that the king would not get to thinking he was Abram’s saviour, rather than God. So Abram refused any money or goods from the king for himself.

It was Melchizedek’s blessing that had given Abram the confidence to trust God with his needs, and not resort to quick and easy human solutions. But how does all this help us understand Jesus and the bread and wine in Luke 22?

Well, what we’ve got at the end of Genesis 14 is a revived Abram trusting God to meet his needs. And was that important? Oh yes, because the future of the entire world revolved around Abram. There was no more important man on the face of the planet than Abram, because through him “all peoples of the earth would be blessed,” God said.

So how did God help Abram with his worries and needs? It was through the ministry of Melchizedek, and what that man did for Abram and said to him. So who on earth was this chap? Well, according to Genesis 14 Melchizedek was a typical king of that time and ruler of a city. He was special in that he was a priest as well, and that he believed in the same God Abram believed in, but what really sets him apart in Scripture is that he was there just when Abram needed him, and he provided exactly what Abram needed.

Is it any surprise, then, that a direct parallel is made between Jesus and Melchizedek in Psalm 110? In verse 1 we have “the Lord saying to my Lord. ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet,’” which is clearly referring to Jesus, who is then described in verse 4, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” It’s clear, then, that whoever and whatever Melchizedek was, his place in Scripture was to be a type of – and a forerunner of – Jesus’ ministry.

We now have a clear picture of Jesus’ ministry, therefore, in the ministry of Melchizedek. And where do we have a clear picture of Melchizedek’s ministry? It’s in what he does for Abram in Genesis 14.

But why would Jesus’ ministry need to be like Melchizedek’s ministry? Because the same need would exist. Abram, for instance, has just been faced with the daunting proposition in chapter 12:3 that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” but it’s clear here in Genesis 14, only two chapters later, that he is totally unprepared for such a job. He flies off the handle when Lot is kidnapped, charges off with his own private army to take on the biggest bully in the region without even considering the cost in life or money, and nor is there any mention that he consulted God before he left either. The man is a loose cannon.

Now jump ahead to when Jesus arrives. The same daunting proposition of all peoples on earth being blessed still exists, and who is given the job this time? It’s given to Jesus’ disciples, who, take note, wanted to bring down fire from heaven to destroy those who opposed them (Luke 9:54), and they were jolly happy when Jesus told them to trade in their coats for swords later on too. In other words, they were just like Abram. They reacted emotionally, flew off the handle, charged into things without thinking – like Peter lopping the ear off the high priest’s servant – and again, like Abram, they preferred violence to trusting in God.

But it’s on the shoulders of these disciples, as it was on the shoulders of Abram, that the future of the world depends. In fact, the blessing of all nations was about to begin in earnest from that point on, with the gospel going to the whole world, but it’s going to be done through a group of twelve disciples who are just as unprepared for the job as Abram was.

So what does God do? He provides another Melchizedek in the person of Jesus, who, just like the original Melchizedek in Genesis 14 is also a king and priest, and a king of peace and righteousness too. It is this new Melchizedek, therefore, from the priestly order of Melchizedek predicted by David in Psalm 110, who will now do for the disciples what the original Melchizedek did for Abram. So let’s go back, then, to what Melchizedek did for Abram in Genesis 14.

The first thing he does is give the exhausted, scared, and muddle-headed Abram bread and wine. The king of Sodom, meanwhile, didn’t think to do that, even though Abram had just knocked himself out recovering everything the king had lost. The king’s first concern was getting his people back; it wasn’t the exhausted Abram. But Abram was Melchizedek’s first concern, just as the first concern of Jesus in Luke 22 was his disciples, because in giving them bread and wine he said, “this is my body and blood which I give and pour out FOR YOU.”

Jesus’ primary concern in the bread and wine was his disciples, to prepare them for his death, because he knew they’d feel lost and utterly shattered. So he reassures them that what he’s about to do is for them. Jesus is also looking into the future knowing his disciples will have their share of big bully Kedorlaomers and exhausting battles too. They too will face endless temptations to trust in human solutions and human emotions, rather than trust in God. And they too will doubt themselves when things they think God wanted them to do leave them exhausted and discouraged. All the things that happened to Abram, in other words, will happen to them too.

Which is why Jesus told his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of him. It would focus their minds on him, because he would now be for them what Melchizedek was for Abram. So when life for them became exhausting and worrying, just like it was for Abram, Jesus himself would be the bread and wine to meet their need.

But notice too, that Jesus also “gave thanks” to God in Luke 22 when giving his disciples the bread and wine. Well, so did Melchizedek in Genesis 14:20 when he blessed Abram, saying, “Praise be to God Most High” – but look what it was praise and thanks to God for. It was for delivering Abram’s enemies into his hand. And how practical is that for us today as Jesus’ disciples too?

It’s practical because we face the same enemies today as Abram and Jesus’ twelve disciples faced. We live in a culture full of Kedorlaomers trying to bully us Christians into going along with their political agendas, so many of which are in total opposition to God and his ways. And the constant pressure and stupidity of our cultures’ nonsense exhausts us, just like the bullies of Abram’s day exhausted him. So we too will be tempted to charge in all guns blazing like Abram, and resort to typical human anger and emotion, rather than trust in God.

But that just makes us into loose cannons like Abram. We’re no good to God or to the job he’s given us of blessing all peoples with his ways instead. So what does God do for us? He has us remember Jesus in the bread and wine, that Jesus now does for us exactly what his predecessor did for Abram in Genesis 14.

And that’s important, because like Abram, we too need to be immune to the world’s fears and temptations, and not be overwhelmed by our own personal worries and problems either. But how in this world are we going to do that, when we’ve got a whole ton of Kedorlaomers to deal with too, like the scary world of climate change and financial collapse, and the rapid destruction of everything we Christians believe in? And how on earth, with our health and circumstances, can we stay positive and not get discouraged? And how can we not doubt our usefulness to God when it seems like we’re accomplishing absolutely nothing?

But Melchizedek also blessed Abram, and look what that blessing did for him. Abram’s confidence soared, enabling him to resist the king of Sodom’s human solution to his financial problem, and instead of worrying about money Abram gave Melchizedek “a tenth of everything.” A blessing was meant to produce confidence and trust in God, and it certainly did that for Abram.

It’s not surprising, then, that in Luke 22 Jesus “gave thanks” – a blessing – with both the bread and the wine too, because the one thing his disciples needed more than anything else was trust and confidence in him, that he would now deliver all their enemies into their hands, just as God had for Abram. And it certainly did that for them too, because Jesus’ disciples weren’t intimated by anybody, and their trust in God never wavered.

And that same blessing is there for all Jesus’ disciples, because our need is exactly the same. We too, just like Abram and the twelve disciples, need our sagging spirits revived, our fears calmed, our confidence restored, our trust strengthened, and our resistance to temptation and human solutions to our problems built up and bolstered.

And, fortunately, we have a precedent for Jesus doing all those things for us. It’s back there in Genesis 14, when the original Melchizedek “brought out bread and wine” for Abram and gave a blessing.

(Part 2, March 10)