Sunday, March 26, 2017

The restoration of the fallen disciple, John 21:15-25

This is the last message I will preach in the book of John.  I think, if I counted correctly, today’s sermon is number 70.  I didn’t plan it that way, but if it’s true, I think it’s pretty cool we ended up with 70 exactly.  The number 70 indicates perfection, by the way. (ha, ha)

But seriously, it is with a certain sadness that we finish this book today.  There is no more satisfying sermon series in my estimation, than studying one of the gospels.  I think we will be beginning the gospel of Mark sometime near the beginning of summer. That is the only gospel, in fact the only book in the New Testament, that I have not preached through.  

John however, ends his gospel a little differently than some of the others.  He doesn’t focus on the Savior ascending into heaven as one might expect, but rather he ends with a focus on Peter, the fallen disciple.  He spends this last passage showing us Christ’s compassion and grace towards that disciple that needed restoration.

And I think that John chooses to focus on Peter’s restoration because restoration is really the purpose of the gospel.  And to that purpose Peter is emblematic of all of us.  He is the prototypical disciple. He is in this portrait a failed disciple.  He has fallen, he has failed to live up to his promises, he has denied Christ on three separate occasions.  Yet Peter is beloved by all of us because he is so much like us. He has all the failures that we are so familiar with in our own lives. He overestimates his strengths and underestimates temptation. He thinks he’s more committed than he is. He thinks he loves the Lord more than he does. He thinks he can face any trial triumphantly; but he finds out he can’t. By the time we get to this point, even though he has seen the risen Christ, he is really a broken man.  In fact, it’s possible that even the triumph of Christ’s resurrection has accentuated Peter’s despondency at failing Him in some way.  

So John focuses on Peter’s reconciliation as the last message of his gospel, perhaps because he knows that it will prove invaluable in the ages to come to so many other disciples, who like Peter, find themselves at some point in their lives having failed in their Christian life.  And John wants us to know, that just like Peter, we can find forgiveness, reconciliation and usefulness again through Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to take the time to recap all the events that has brought them to this beach on this particular morning.  But I would like to pick up where we left off last time, with Jesus appearing on the beach after a long night of fruitless fishing, and having breakfast waiting for His disciples, after instructing them how to catch 153 large fish.

Verse 15 picks it up after they have finished eating breakfast, probably lounging on the beach, talking with one another.  And suddenly, Jesus speaks to Peter publicly, in a way to produce a public  restoration, so that the other disciples would know that Peter was reconciled to Christ again.  And this is important.  Luke tells us that Jesus had already appeared earlier to Peter privately. So this is not just for Peter’s benefit, but for the disciples benefit as well, as Peter was their leader.  And furthermore, it is for our benefit, that we might know the desire God has for us to be reconciled with Him, and to restore our usefulness to Him.

We see in this exchange between Peter and the Lord, three questions, three affirmations of love, and three exhortations.  Three as a number, indicates divine completeness.  But more importantly, I believe, three corresponds with the number of times Peter denied the Lord. I think what Jesus is doing here is purposefully asking Peter three times, in order to completely expunge the three denials.  Christ isn’t so much rubbing Peter’s nose in it, as He is giving Peter a chance to fully repent.  True repentance is essential to restoration.  Partial or half hearted repentance will leave a bitter taste in the mouth that if not dealt with, will produce eventual bitterness.  God wants full repentance so there can be full restoration.  

Remember, Judas was also sorry for his betrayal of Christ.  And that betrayal and Peter’s denial are only a handbreadth apart.  The difference is that Judas was sorry and wept bitterly.  Peter was sorry and repented.  One was destroyed, and the other was restored.

I also think that there is an echo of a principle here that Jesus taught in Matthew 18.  Where if a brother sins against you, you speak to him privately.  If he rejects that, you take another person and go to him a second time.  And if he rejects that, you take him before the church.  Three opportunities for repentance.  Because the purpose of church discipline is reconciliation, not punishment.

So Jesus has the opportunity to take Peter to task for his failures. He has the right to disqualify Peter from further office.  But He doesn’t do that. Instead of asking Peter if he is really, really sorry, if he is willing to pay the penalty to be allowed back in good standing, instead of demanding that Peter do some sort of penance, Jesus just wants Peter to come to love Him more than anything else.  That is really the full extent of the law, isn’t it?  To love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, your mind and your strength.  Jesus said in Matt.22 that is the whole law.  So if sin is breaking God’s law, then the solution is to love God more, in order that we might fulfill the law.

So Jesus wants to bring that principle to bear in order to produce restoration.  So He asks Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me more than these?”  Jesus calls Peter by his old name, Simon, which meant shaky.  Jesus had renamed him Peter, which meant Rocky, or the Rock.  But now He calls him by his given name, his full name, Simon, son of Jonas.  He called him by the name that signified his actions.  Peter had gone back on his commitment to the Lord, he had even gone back on his ministry.  He had gone back to his old career.  And so the Lord calls him out in a subtle kind of way, “Simon, do you love me more than these?”

There is a lot of debate as to what is meant by “these.”  I think the most straightforward answer is “more than these” represents the 153 fish laying on the shore.  It was a mountain of fish.  The other disciples were probably oohing and ah-ing over them, counting up how much  a haul like that might be worth at the market.  It probably represented a lot of money.  So do you love Me more than these fish, more than your career, more than your the self sufficiency represented by his boat and nets and the large catch of fish.

But Jesus has also subtly used another word in His question, “do you love Me,” and that is the Greek word agapao, which means the highest degree of love.  It means a sacrificial love - a love of the will.  Simon, are you willing to love me sacrificially, even to the point of giving up this career, this source of income, this self reliance?

Well, Peter is still smarting from the fact that he had failed miserably to measure up to that kind of love as he had boasted of in the Upper Room on the night of Christ’s betrayal.  So his answer, I think, reflects this new found humility.  He says, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”  Peter, however, uses a different word for love, the Greek word “phileo” which means brotherly love, or a familial type of love.  It’s less strident than the sacrificial love Jesus is asking for. And I believe it’s because Peter has lost his confidence in the strength of his love.  He knows that his love failed and so he offers a less strident promise of love.

But Jesus is gracious, and He accepts Peter’s response without rebuke, and gives him an exhortation.  “Tend My lambs.” The emphasis of the word translated lambs indicates a little lamb.  I tend to think it has the quality of helplessness, or innocence.  Feed or tend, my little ones.  The exhortation is to take on the job of a shepherd.  Rather than be a fisherman, it’s a calling to be a shepherd.  That’s what a pastor is, by the way.  He is an under shepherd.  

Peter will say to the elders of the church later on in his epistle in  1Peter 5:2, “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”  

I will say this without any sense of arrogance, the shepherd is not a sheep.  He is given responsibility for the feeding and tending and care of the sheep. He is given responsibility for the safety of the sheep.  It is a serious charge, and one that should not be taken lightly.  God will hold the shepherd to a stricter standard, and a greater condemnation.  “Let not many of you become teachers knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”… says James 3:1.

But what is amazing here is that Jesus takes this broken, failed disciple, and He restores him, not just to reconciliation, but to usefulness. Not just to some behind the scenes position, but Jesus puts Peter at the fore front of His church, to be the leader again, not just  as leader of this motley group of 11 disciples, but of the first church in Jerusalem.  God uses the weak things, and the the foolish things, to shame the wise and the strong.

That offers hope for all of us broken disciples here today.   God has a plan to restore you, to be reconciled to God, and to be used by Him for His kingdom.  No matter how many times you have fallen, or how many times you have failed Him, Jesus stands ready to forgive and restore you.  God loves you so much, He has already punished His own Son so that He might restore you to usefulness.   Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Whatever sin you have committed, Jesus paid for with His life, that you might have everlasting, abundant life, knowing that He loves you and wants to be reconciled to you.  And if you will submit to that, He will use you and give you a purpose that has eternal rewards.

Well, you know the story.  Jesus asks Simon Peter the same question again.  ““Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me?”  Though Jesus accepted Peter’s answer the first time, He isn’t satisfied with Peter’s lesser degree of love. So He asks again if Peter agapao's Him.  Does he sacrificially love Him. Christ wants Peter to love Him with all His heart, all His soul, all His mind and all His strength.  He isn’t satisfied with a sentimental love.  He isn’t even satisfied with a passionate love.  But He wants a love of the will.  A committed love that will endure no matter the cost. 

Why does Jesus make such a big deal out of love?  Because love is the ultimate motivator.  The motivation of money just makes you a marketeer.  The motivation of popularity makes you an entertainer.  But the motivation of love for Christ makes you leave everything, sacrifice anything, for His sake.  And that is what God wants from us.  He wants an unwavering love from His bride that will endure through sickness or in health, in poverty or in wealth, unto death us do part.  He doesn’t want to guilt trip us into serving Him.  He doesn’t want to legally require us to serve Him.  He doesn’t want to force us to love Him.  That isn’t real love.  But real love is it’s own motivation.  It’s a change of heart, a change of desires, and that is to please Him because we love Him.  To die before we bring shame upon Him.

Maybe this time Peter tries to say it with more conviction in his voice, but he ends up saying the same thing.  I am fond of You.  I love you like a brother.  You’re like family.  “Yes Lord, You know that I love you.”

Once again, Jesus accepts Peter’s lesser response and says virtually the same thing He said before;  “Shepherd My sheep.”  Perhaps the emphasis on the commandment is somewhat stronger in this second command of Christ because you will remember that Jesus said if you love me you will keep My commandments.  So maybe Jesus is saying, “Ok, Peter. You SAY you love Me, then keep My commandments, and that command is to shepherd My sheep.  

It’s like Paul said in  1Cor, 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.”  True shepherds are not hirelings.  They have a stewardship, and the love of Christ compels me to fulfill it.  And I think that is what was being impressed on Peter.

A third time Jesus asks the question, ““Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” This time though, Jesus changed the word for love to that which Peter had been using.  Jesus used “phileo”.  He came down to Peter’s level.  God  knows that we can’t meet the level of commitment that we should meet.  And so rather than making us climb up to heaven, God comes down to the level of man.  But John says that Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you phileo Me?”  Peter is grieved, because He knows that Jesus knows his heart - that he is less committed than he should be.  And yet Jesus is merciful and gracious and comes to accommodate his weakness so that he might be reconciled to God.

Peter’s response shows that grief, saying, ““Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”  He still confesses a phileo love for Christ, but he confesses something more important than that; “You know all things.”  The Lord knows our hearts.  He knows our weaknesses.  He knows if we really measure up to what we claim to be.  The Lord knows our hearts and yet He still loves us.  

Peter’s response is an echo of Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  Well, we don’t really know our hearts, I’m afraid.  We think more highly of ourselves than we ought to.  But the Lord knows our hearts, and yet He still loves us.  We are like Hosea’s wife of whoredom; lusting after the world and the things of the world.  Never ceasing to have eyes of adultery.  And yet God loves us, even sometimes from afar, taking us back and caring for us even when we are all used up  and spent and no longer much good for anything anymore. Yet He still loves us, and reconciles us and restores us to usefulness.

Jesus repeats for the third time; “Tend My sheep.”  Take care of that which I love.  If you love Me, you will love your neighbor as yourself.  Tend My sheep.  Whether you are tasked with being a pastor, or a teacher, or just a disciple within the flock, we are all tasked with tending to His sheep.  To love one another.  Love is manifested in service to His church. Jesus said they will know you are My disciples by your love for one another, as you care for one another, and tend to one another.

Well, we could just stop there.  But John makes two quick final points. Jesus not only calls us to love Him, but secondly He calls us to sacrifice and then finally He calls us to obey.  The second point then is found in the exchange starting in vs 18, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He *said to him, “Follow Me!”

Peter had boasted before the crucifixion that he would follow Jesus to the death if necessary.  He would die before denial.  But of course, he failed that test when it came and he denied the Lord three times.  Now after Peter’s confession of love three times, Jesus tells him that he will be called upon to sacrifice his life for the Lord.  

Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down on a cross, at his own request, so that he would not share the same type of death as Christ.  He didn’t feel that he was worthy to die as Christ had died.  But whether or not that is true, we aren’t sure.  But we do know from what Jesus prophesied that Peter would die a martyrs death when he became old.  And I read someone last week that said that he felt Peter would have been glad to hear that.  To know that he would be  given another opportunity to sacrifice everything for the Lord.  I was sort of taken back by that statement, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see it as a possibility.  Peter did love the Lord.  And I believe that he had meant it when he said he would die for Christ.  But when the moment of truth came he failed to follow through.  And I’m sure that he wished he could go back and do it again, this time gladly offering himself as a sacrifice for the sake of the gospel.  Now, Jesus was offering him the chance to make that sacrifice after all.  To claim the victory over fear and selfishness. So I think perhaps it was a more encouraging statement to Peter than what we might think.

I don’t think that martyrdom is something most of us will ever be called on to do.  But I do know that being willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus, regardless of how great the cost, is something all disciples are called to do.  In fact, three times in the gospels it is recorded that Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”  Matt.16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23.  That’s what agapao love is, sacrificial love.  Willing to lay down your life for HIs sake.  

Paul defines such love in Romans 12:1, 2, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The final point John indicates in this passage is that we are called to obey.  Regardless of what we see other’s doing.  Regardless if it seems we are all alone in suffering, or how great the sacrifice.  Just obey.  If you love the Lord, you will obey.  

Vs.20, “Peter, turning around, *saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him *said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus *said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”

A life that is truly dedicated to the Lord is compelled by love for Christ, characterized by sacrifice for Christ, and content with following Christ in obedience.  To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. (1Sam.15:22)  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)  Follow Me.  That’s a pretty simple directive, isn’t it?  Just keep on keeping on.  Satan may get you to stumble, you may be a weak disciple, but if you fall, get up, brush yourself off, repent and keep on following Jesus. You may not have all the love that you know you ought to have for God.  Just love Him with the love you have.  Follow Him with the strength that you have. Jesus will take care of your sin, He will pick you up when you fall, but just keep on following Jesus until Jesus comes back or you go to Him. He is the way, the truth, and the life.  Follow Him.

This is how you show that you love the Lord.  This is how you grow your love for the Lord.  You do as He did.  You go where He went.  You love as He loved.  You imitate Him.  You emulate Him.  You follow in His footsteps. Peter said as much in  1Peter 2:21 saying, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.”  You pattern your life as He lived His.  Follow Him. That’s what produces agapao love.  Not conjuring up some sort of passion or sentimentality.  But just follow Him.  Don’t quit.  Never stop. No matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice.  Just follow Jesus.  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The key to fruitfulness, John 21:1-14

In last week’s sermon, we said that the last section of chapter 20 taught five principles of the gospel.  And one of them was the abiding presence of Christ.  That is an essential doctrine of the gospel; that Jesus Christ is alive, that though He died on the cross, He arose from the dead, and ever lives to make intercession for us.  

That’s an important doctrine, because it reveals that Christ has procured two essential things for the Christian life.  One; that the death of Jesus Christ provided the payment for the penalty of our sins.  But two, His resurrection has provided new life for those who have been forgiven.  Jesus died on the cross that we might die to sin, and that our penalty for our sin would be paid.  But Jesus rose from the grave to show that we have new life, a life free from sin and death, a life of fruitfulness and purpose and eternal reward.

The reason we are given new life is so that we may have a life of fellowship with  God. Our justification is the beginning of spiritual life. But God desires not just that we have the forgiveness of sins, but that we enter into the relationship of communion with him, constant communion with him. True spiritual life is life in communion with God. That is what enables this new life to be the abundant life which Jesus promised.  It’s abundant, because the Lord is with us, in us, and working through us.  You cannot have more abundant life than that.

So that is what John is illustrating in this record of yet another post resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ.  It is obviously additional confirmation of His resurrection, but even more importantly, it serves to teach us the presence and power of Christ that is available to us, even though He has ascended into heaven.

Now notice that John intentionally uses a word to describe Jesus’s appearance which helps us to understand this principle.  Twice in vs.1 and again in vs.14 John uses the word “manifests” to describe Jesus’s appearance.  On the one hand, we might recognize that means He suddenly appeared, as if to say He was instantly there.  But more importantly than that, it means that He simply made what was there already visible.  He made the invisible, visible.  That is the important thing; Jesus is always there.  He is always with us.  We may not see Him, but like Thomas discovered in last week’s message, Jesus was aware of all that he had said to the disciples in Jesus’s physical absence.  So as both Moses and David stated in the OT, the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you. He is always with us, whether we see Him manifested in presence or in power or simply known by faith, He will be with us always.  Jesus said in Matt.28:20, “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Now while it is easy to proclaim such principles in times of peace and plenty, it is another to hold to such belief in times of feeling abandoned, or discouraged, or frightened, or in persecution.  I’m not sure what the disciples were feeling as we catch up to them in vs.2, but I assume it might have been a little bit of all of the above.  The last time Jesus had appeared to the disciples was the second Sunday after His resurrection.  Eight days after the resurrection, on a Sunday evening, Jesus appeared in the locked room to meet with Thomas who was disbelieving the disciples report of the resurrection.  And so Jesus made a divine appointment to reconcile Thomas. 

But now it’s probably been a couple of weeks or more since that day.  Jesus was on the earth for a total of 40 days after His resurrection.  And John tells us in vs.14 that this was the 3rd time that He had appeared to the 11 disciples.  We don’t know how long had transpired between the eighth day and this day.  But we do know that Jesus had told the disciples in Matthew 28 to go to Galilee and that He would meet them there on a particular mountain.  And we can surmise from vs 14 that they had been waiting for Jesus to show up at the mountain as He indicated, but He had not yet appeared.  It might have been a week or more that they had sat on this desolate mountainside waiting for the Lord.  There probably wasn’t much to eat.  It might have  been the same mountain that Jesus fed the 5000.  There were no supermarkets out there.  And the boys managed for a few days, and then they began to get hungry, frustrated and tired of waiting.  

So Peter wakes up one morning, looks down the mountain at the Sea of Tiberius below, also known as the Sea of Galilee, and says, “I’m going fishing.”  And the other six disciples that were there with him said, “We will come with you.”  

By now, we all should realize that Peter was a natural leader.  If Peter said it was a good idea, then everyone else did too.  Peter is always presented first in any list of the disciples.  It was because he was a natural leader.  He was probably a pretty big guy, a strong man. Verse 11 makes it sound like Peter pulled the net to shore all by himself. I’m not sure that’s what it means, but that’s a possibility.  But no doubt he was a big, strong guy.  A courageous man.  He wasn’t afraid of too much.  He hardly ever held up his finger to see which way the wind was blowing. He just jumped in.  And the disciples followed his leadership.

But we also ought to learn a lesson from this. There are a lot of men out there that are natural leaders that have found their way into the pastorate across this country.  They may have a natural talent for communication.  They may be funny, they can tell interesting stories. They may have a natural talent of convincing people to follow them.  They may be exciting to be around.  It’s easy to follow charismatic people. But they may not always be acting on behalf of God.  They may be acting on their ego, or on their appetite, or they may be on a power trip.  And we need to be careful to discern whether or not such men are being led by God or not.

Well, it’s obvious to me that Peter was not being led by God.  He was led by his appetite.  He was led by his desire to do something, to make something happen.  Nothing was happening on that cold mountain.  And down at that lake he knew he had his little fishing boat docked and ready to go fishing.  

Another lesson to be learned is that man’s timing is not always God’s timing.  Peter was ready to get moving.  It had been weeks since the crucifixion, Jesus hadn’t shown up again and Peter was restless.  But to move when God hasn’t told you to move is a foolish thing.  As a pastor, as the leader of this church, I can assure you that I constantly have to check my motivation.  Is it God appointed, or man appointed?  Is it God’s timing, or my timing?  In my opinion, most of the time God seems to move really, really slow.  And sometimes He seems really late.  I hate hearing these self righteous types that always pontificate about how God is always on time.  I don’t doubt that God is always on time.  But I do believe that God has a different time piece than what we use.  Peter said as much in  2Peter 3:8 when he said, “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.”  I think it’s possible Peter learned that valuable lesson on this very fishing expedition.  God’s clock looks a lot different than our clock.  So learning to wait on the Lord’s timing is a difficult thing for us, as it was for Peter and the disciples.

Another lesson to be learned from this is that man’s talent is worthless in the new life of a Christian without God’s authorization.  Peter and all of those guys with him were experienced fishermen.  They were professional fishermen.  They had made a career out of it prior to becoming disciples.  But they were supposed to be fishers of men now.  They left their nets, remember, and followed the Lord.  That occasion was another fishing expedition when Jesus told Peter to cast on the other side of the boat and Peter said, “Lord, we’ve been fishing all night and caught nothing. And we are expert fishermen.  But to show what an understanding guy I am, I will do it at your request.  Just to show you I know what I’m talking about.” And on that occasion, they caught so many fish that the boat started sinking.  So afterwards when Jesus said, “Come and follow Me and I will make you fishers of men,” they left their fishing business and followed the Lord.

But now here they are after the resurrection, obviously still not getting the connection as to what this post resurrection ministry is all about, and so Peter thinks he’s going to take matters into his own hands and get the ball rolling. He decides to go back to his old profession.  After all, they are going to need to eat.  They have to make a living. Jesus isn’t here to feed them, so they have to make a living.  Makes perfect common sense.  If we had of been there, we would all have said, “Wait for us, we’re coming too.”  Especially Nick.  He always wants to fish.(!)

And yet all the natural talent in the world couldn’t fill their boat with fish.  They caught nothing.  And they fished all night long.  Not a bite.  Nothing to show for it.  I think the lesson is pretty clear.  Our talents, our wisdom, our experience, are useless in the Christian life if they are not directed by the Lord as He would have us to work.  I don’t care how much talent some musician may have.  I don’t care how much ability to communicate a person may have.  

You know, there is a worksheet that has found it’s way in many churches where you can supposedly discover your spiritual gift.  And maybe you have done that worksheet.  I did it once.  Let me tell you something.  That’s man’s approach.  God doesn’t use a worksheet.  He doesn’t look at your natural talents or abilities.  He looks at your potential.  He looks at your heart.  He looks at your willingness to be used and to serve.  He looks at what He can do through you, and not what you can do without Him.

Don’t misunderstand a very important distinction.  Natural talents do not equate to spiritual gifts.  Spiritual gifts are things that God wants you to do which you may not have any talent to do naturally.  So God gives you the Holy Spirit to equip you and lead you and develop you to do what He wants you to do. It’s not of the flesh, but of the Spirit.  God doesn’t look at your capability, but your capacity.  Your willingness to be obedient to Him.  Then He will fill you with the power to do it.  A work of God doesn’t come from you, it comes through you from God.

A good illustration of that is found in the last chapter. In John 20:22, it says Jesus breathed on the disciples and *said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  So they received the Holy Spirit then, several weeks before Pentecost.  Then on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2:4, it says that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Holy Spirit was giving them utterance.  See, the principle is having the right capacity, and being yielded to the Lord in obedience, He is able to fill you to fulfill His purposes.  He is able to give you the talent or wisdom or strength to do what He wants you to do.  And as we see in Acts, this unlearned fisherman named Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, stands up and preaches from the word of God and has an unbelievable harvest of 3000 souls.  That’s the secret of fruitfulness that is being taught here in this passage.

So back to our story, they worked all night but were unfruitful. They accomplished nothing because they were relying on their own experience and talent and wisdom.  And then Jesus appears.  He manifests Himself to them, standing a hundred yards away on the shore.  They don’t know it’s Jesus at first.  That’s been the typical response at all Jesus’s appearances.  No one recognizes Him until He is ready to be recognized. But Jesus has been there all night long.  Watching them, listening to them, waiting for them to get tired of doing it their way.  Waiting for them to come to the realization that they had accomplished nothing.  And then Jesus kind of rubs it in, just a little bit.  He calls out to them, “Hey guys, do you have any fish?”  

And the disciples have to say what no fisherman ever wants to admit; they had caught nothing. I’ve asked Nick that very question many times before, and he never gives a straight answer.  He always start talking about the one that got away.  No fisherman likes to admit failure.  So they said, “No.” I bet they said more than what John records for us.  But maybe it’s better he didn’t record it.  I’m sure they had a few choice words to say though when Jesus responded, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.”   But again, discretion being the better part of valor, John simply records that they cast their net on the other side and then were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.

Listen, the point is not fishing on the right side versus the left side. It’s not one method over another method.  It’s not one program over another program. The answer to fruitfulness is not a children’s ministry or a youth ministry or this program or that program.  The point is it’s God’s way or no way.  If you want real fruitfulness in God’s church, you need to do it God’s way.  You may have a lot of activity, you may have a lot of enthusiasm, you may have a nice boat, and a lot of people rowing and shouting commands.  But if it’s God’s church, you better do it God’s way.  God has a blueprint for the church.  And I got to tell you, most churches don’t have a clue what that is.  But if you want your life to count for the kingdom of God, then you better find His blueprint and stick to it.

Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”  So also if we are going to see fruitfulness, we need to make sure we rely not on common sense but on uncommon grace.   1Cor. 1:27, “but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.”  

Now what does fruitfulness look like?  Well, it may not look like what you think.  Let’s notice what happens here when the disciples obey Christ.  First, it produced recognition of Christ.  John immediately recognizes when they start hauling in this load of fish that it has to be the Lord.  He tells Peter, and Peter gets so excited he puts on his clothes and throws himself in the water and starts swimming to shore.  He wants to be first to see Jesus.  I will say that I love Peter’s enthusiasm.  He may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but he was enthusiastic.  And I think this shows how much he loves the Lord.

Listen, when real fruitfulness happens, it produces the realization of Christ likeness in His people.  That is what fruitfulness looks like.  It’s not just converts. It’s not members.  It’s not the size of your building or your congregation. But people recognize Christ in your church. Fruitfulness produces the nature and character of Christ in the church which is recognizable.  And secondly, it produces love for the Lord.  You know how you can tell Peter loved the Lord?  He left his boat, he left his nets, he left this incredible haul of fish.  Peter didn’t care about fishing anymore. He didn’t care about his career anymore. He cared about being with Jesus.

Well, I’m sure some smart guy out there is saying, “Well sure, but fruitfulness is also defined by 153 fish.”  But I would suggest that it isn’t the numbers that we should focus on.  I’m suggesting we focus on the abundance that the Lord provides, and particularly the capacity of the nets.  The text says that even though all those fish were in them, they did not break.  In other words, the Lord increases your capacity.  That’s the true nature of a spiritual gift.  It’s not a natural thing, it’s not according to natural causes, but when you are yielded and  obedient to what God wants you to do, He increases your capacity.  Matt. 13:12, “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

When Peter got to shore, he discovered that the Lord already had a fire going, and fish and bread already cooked ready to eat.  And the Lord told them to come and eat breakfast, and to bring some of their fish as well.  

Listen, we can read a lot of things into this breakfast that aren’t necessarily there if we’re not careful.  But what I can say with certainty is that the Lord wants us to bring to Him our contribution, but it is His grace that provides the resources that we need for our new life in Christ.  He is the provider, He is the means of power, the means of provision.  He wants our contribution, but mainly, I think He wants our fellowship.  He wants communion with us.  Jesus said to the church in Laodicea in Rev. 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”  

We tend to use that verse as an invitation to unbelievers.  But in reality it is an invitation to believers, to a busy, self absorbed church that has no time for real fellowship with the Lord. He is calling us, knocking on our heart’s door, wanting to have intimacy and communion with us.  That is the purpose of the gospel.  To restore us to the relationship man enjoyed with God back in the Garden of Eden.  To restore us to fellowship with Him.  And when we abide with Him in fellowship, we will have fruitfulness in the church.

Jesus talked about this relationship of fruitfulness and fellowship in John 14:15, and I will end with this passage as a summary of the message this morning.  Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper,  that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

The first Sunday service, John 20:19-31

In today’s passage, we are continuing to look at the first day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  He arose early in the morning on the first day of the week, that is, of course, Sunday.  Last week we saw Mary Magdalene and John and Peter’s response to the resurrection.  But in presenting the chronology of the events on this most important of days, John does so in such a way as to teach a lesson.  He is teaching, in this last section of chapter 20, the gospel, and he does so by showcasing for us the first Sunday church service in the New Testament period.  

We meet as 21st century Christians on Sunday’s to celebrate the Lord’s Day, so named because He arose from the dead on the first day of the week.  And so John is showcasing this first church service on Sunday, and he does so by giving us a classic sermon outline, featuring five principles of the gospel, followed by a personal illustration of the gospel, and then a closing synopsis of the gospel.  

As we look at this passage, we see that the disciples are gathered together on Sunday evening, and they have locked the doors for fear of the Jews.  This is a closed door church service.  And John tells us why they have locked the doors, because of the fear of the Jews.  What that means is that the Jewish religious leaders are incensed over Jesus having risen from the tomb, they have paid off the Roman soldiers to lie about it, and they might very well have schemed to arrest or even put to death the disciples so that they might not broadcast Jesus’s resurrection. 

But I think that God has intentionally put the disciples there at such a time to set an example for generations of Christians yet to come that we might meet on Sundays to assemble together for fellowship and to worship the Lord, and to proclaim the gospel.  The gospel, by the way,  meaning simply the good news of God’s plan, the Way of life, the Way of salvation.  

Now there are as I said five principles of the gospel that are being taught here.  The first principle of the gospel being presented is the assurance of the presence of Christ.  The whole premise of the gospel is that Jesus has triumphed over death, so that we might not fear death.  He died on the cross, but He also rose from the dead.  And so as the disciples have heard testimony earlier from Mary that she had seen the Lord, and heard from Peter and John that the tomb was empty, they were certainly talking among themselves as to what to make of all of this.  And as they meet together, behind locked doors, suddenly Jesus appears in their midst.  

Luke’s gospel tells us that the disciples were alarmed.  They thought they were seeing a ghost.  And so Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you.”  And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (vs20).  

This was a direct fulfillment of the Lord’s prophesy in which He said “If you destroy this temple, in three days I will raise it up again.”  But it is also a fulfillment of the promise in Matt. 18:20 which says, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”  And while that was true for the disciples,  that is also a promise for all who believe in the gospel even today.  We believe that the Lord is with us today as we gather in His name.  He is present with us when we have Bible study on Wednesday evening.  He is present wherever and whenever we gather together as a church.  And we can be assured of that because He rose from the dead.

Much is made by theologians over the fact that Jesus appears in a locked room without having to go through a door.  They attribute this ability to the nature of His resurrection body, and offer us the hope that we too will one day have a body that can walk through doors.  But I would say such a view is shortsighted.  Jesus had power to walk through doors before His death.  The fact that He appears in such a way is just further evidence that He is Jesus.  I will say this about His resurrected body.  He does not seem immediately recognizable in any of the post resurrection appearances unless He produces some evidence of who He is.  In this case, He shows His wounds, which are unmistakably those of His crucifixion.  They are convincing proof of His resurrection and identity.  

And as modern day Christians, we are promised of His living presence with us, that He will never leave us nor forsake us.  And we can rely upon that promise because He lives, because He arose from the dead, and was witnessed alive not only by the disciples gathered there, but Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15;6 that He was seen by 500 people at one time after His death.  The great principle of the gospel is that Jesus is alive, and He is with us, and because He lives He can assure for us the benefits and blessings of the gospel, and that one day we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is when we are resurrected even as He was.

The second principle of the gospel presented to us is that He gives us not only His presence, but His peace.  Twice Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  Anytime you see something stated twice in scripture you can rest assured that it is a undeniable promise that will surely come about.  The first peace that Jesus gave was to quiet their fear, to calm their alarm.  The second peace is to assure them of their peace with God.  

This great promise is reiterated in  Romans 5:1 which says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Men are searching today for peace - peace of mind, peace with men, peace from strife and war.  “Peace, peace!” they cry, but there is no peace.  But Jesus said in  John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” 

How can Jesus give this peace?  Because He took the offense of our sin against God upon Himself.  He bore God’s wrath towards our sins upon His shoulders, bearing our sins upon the cross, paying the ultimate price on our behalf.  And His resurrection is evidence that God was satisfied by His sacrifice for sin, that we might be made right with God, justified by faith in Christ, so that we have peace with God. 

So we might know that if God is for us, who can be against us?  If God so loves us that He spared not His only Son, what have we to fear?  We have an Advocate with God, even Jesus Christ our Intercessor, so that we need not be afraid of anything.  God is for us.  We have peace with God.  What a great tenet of the gospel; the peace of God has been established for us through Christ.

Thirdly, we have through the gospel not only the presence of Christ with us, and the peace of God with us, but we are given the same purpose which God gave Christ.  Vs 21, Jesus says, “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  Jesus Christ came to Earth with a specific purpose; that is that He might manifest to the world the truth of God.  Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except by Me.”  Furthermore, He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  

Listen, this is what the world doesn’t understand about the gospel. The gospel is God’s plan for man, to give him life, abundant life.  It is God’s plan to restore man to the innocence of the Garden, to restore man to the joy before the fall.  It is God’s plan for man to have a life of joy and peace and all the blessings which God originally designed man to have but were taken away by man’s fall into sin.  The gospel is not just a list of what you can’t do.  It is a list of promises of what God will do, when man comes under His plan of reconciliation. 

2Cor. 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  

This is our purpose, having been reconciled to God, we become ambassadors of Christ to the world, so that we might announce to all men the promise of reconciliation.  We are ambassadors.  We have the same ministry that Christ had.  We tell the world the truth of God, we tell the world the promise of the gospel, the hope of the gospel.  

Listen, some of you are missing out on your purpose.  And you wonder why your Christian experience seems lacking.  Perhaps it’s because you are not recognizing that just as Jesus was sent to a lost and dying world to tell them the good news, so He has sent us also.  We are not saved just so we may selfishly bask in the love of God for us, and reap all the blessings of God for ourselves, like the lepers in the OT that found the enemy camp deserted and full of food, knowing that their own people were starving.  But it is better to give than to receive. It is better to serve than to be served. There are hundreds of men and women that you come into contact with everyday, and God has sent you to them to tell them the gospel of salvation.  We have a commission to be ambassadors for Christ, to carry on His work, His ministry of reconciliation.  I hope you take that commission seriously. I hope you understand your purpose is that Christ is sending you to tell your lost family, your lost friends, your lost coworkers, your lost neighbors about the good news of the gospel. If we would all take seriously this commission, that Christ is sending you,  I think we would soon have to move to a bigger building to hold all the new converts.  

Fourthly, the principle of the gospel presented here next is the means by which we are able to fulfill this purpose, and that is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  John says in vs.22, And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Someone once said, I think it was Alistair Begg, that the difference between the OT and the NT is that in the OT we were given the law but we couldn’t perform it, but in the NT we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit that we might do the works of God.

It’s interesting that when Jesus gives them the permanent presence of the Holy Spirit to dwell in them, He breathes on them.  There seems to be in the language a deliberate reference to Genesis 2, when God made Adam and breathed in him the breath of life, and man became a living soul.  Paul speaks of this parallel in 1Cor. 15:45, saying “So also it is written, The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”  Jesus breathed on the disciples, giving them the Spirit to dwell permanently in them. 

It’s also interesting in light of what Jesus said earlier about us being sent as He was sent, to notice the parallels between Jesus’s ministry  and the disciples’ ministry.  Jesus you will remember, after coming up from the water of His baptism which symbolized the resurrection, had the Spirit descend upon Him in the form of a dove.  And immediately He went out into the wilderness being led by the Holy Spirit and for 40 days He was tempted.  It’s interesting that the disciples receive the Spirit through Christ breathing on them, and then they will wait for 40 days before receiving power through the filling of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  So again, we have the same benefit for our ministry that Christ had in His.  After the forty days, Luke 4:14 says, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.”  And such power is given to us as well that we might fulfill the ministry of Christ.

The last principle of the gospel presented here is that of authority.  Jesus says in vs.23, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”  What Jesus is saying here is not that we have the power to forgive sins.  The Bible makes it clear in many other places that only God has the power to forgive sins.  But rather He is saying that as we fulfill our ministry of the gospel, to share the good news, that we have the authority to announce the forgiveness of sins for those that confess Jesus as Lord and have faith in Him.  

We have the authority of the gospel to say that if you confess your sins He is faithful and just to forgive you of your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. But there is also the flip side to the gospel. If you reject Jesus as your Lord and God, then we have the authority to tell them that they are still in their sins.

That’s the message that Peter and the apostles had after Pentecost. They spoke with authority.  They spoke with the authority of the Holy Spirit.  They preached with the power of the Spirit, and through the authority of the Word of God.  And we have that same resource.  So many people want to focus on the apostles speaking in tongues as their manifestation of the power of the Spirit.  But I would suggest that more significant was the message of the sermon Peter preached.  Suddenly this backwoods, unlearned fisherman was preaching a message, quoting and interpreting scripture and people’s hearts were cut to the quick under conviction of their sins.  People weren’t saved by hearing someone speak in tongues, they became saved by hearing the gospel preached.  That is power.  The Holy Spirit works through the gospel, works through the scriptures, to bring men under conviction that leads to salvation.  That is edifying to the body, and not just self edification. (Romans 1:16) “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”

So those are the five principles of the gospel that John records for us here as he really begins to finish his gospel.  And like any good preacher, he gives a personal illustration for his message;  he presents the account of Thomas, who had been missing from the first service when Jesus appeared.  And though Thomas knows well these disciples, having been with them constantly for three years or more, yet he rejects their testimony.  When they tell him that they had seen the risen Jesus, he says quite callously that unless he sees the nail prints in His hands, and actually puts his finger in them, and unless he puts his hand into the wound in His side, he will not believe that they have actually seen Jesus alive.  

Well, 8 days later, it’s once again Sunday evening.  And the disciples are having the second Sunday service, and they have locked the doors again. But this time, Thomas is with them.  And Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of them and says to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Thomas is undoubtedly taken aback.  For one because he sees the risen Savior.  But also because he hears the Lord repeat back to him the things he said privately to the disciples.  And so he understands in a special way what it means to have the presence of Christ in his life.  Realizing that Jesus heard him when he said that must have had a major impact on him.  I would to God that we might realize that Jesus hears everything we say.  That He is watching us, and walking among us every day. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matt.12:36 that they would give an account on judgment day for every careless word that they spoke.  And Jesus told the 7 churches in Revelation, “I know your deeds.”  He is described as walking among the churches, watching and hearing all that they have to say and do.  If we truly understood that it would be hard for us to continue living the way we do, wouldn’t it?  We need to realize the presence of Christ 24/7, as we go through our daily lives.

Well, Thomas suddenly doesn’t want to put his finger in the nail holes.  He doesn’t want to put his hand in His side.  Instead, Thomas gives the strongest confession of any of the disciples up to that point.  He says, “My Lord and my God!”  That is the confession that John has been working towards in the gospel up to this point.  It’s to bring the reader to the point of confessing Jesus as our Lord and our God.  That we might come to the place where we are willing to accept Jesus as our Master and Lord, that He has the right to determine for us what we can or can’t do.  Because He is also God.  He is the Creator of all things.  He has formed us for His glory.  

That confession of Thomas is what is meant by believing in Jesus.  It is to declare Him as My Master, and My God.  And therefore, my allegiance and commitment is given completely to Him. And having faith in Him, we are made righteous, we have peace with God.  We are given new life by the Spirit of God.  We are a new creation.  Old things have passed away and all things have become new.  We have new life in Christ, and a new purpose in life.

Jesus accepts Thomas’s confession.  But He gives a rebuke for his lack of faith.  Jesus says, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”  Listen, we need to guard against the fleshly desire of seeking of physical verification of the Lord like that which Thomas exhibited.  We all get discouraged from time to time.  We all may have doubts from time to time.  To do so is human.  But to stubbornly seek that is carnal. It is fleshly.  It is to want special validation from God just for me, according to exactly what I think God needs to do.  Jesus was gracious to Thomas.  But that attitude is not what He desires.

A lot of Christians may feel like we are disadvantaged because we don’t have the physical validation that the early disciples had.  We don’t have the physical signs of power perhaps.  We don’t have the physical presence of the Lord.  But Jesus is saying in this statement that not having Him physically here is not a disadvantage, but it is really a blessing.  Blessed are they who did not see and yet believed.  There is a special blessing for us Christians today that don’t have the physical evidence to validate or prove our faith.  But then if we did, it wouldn’t be such great of faith would it?  And we know that God rewards and blesses great faith.  And that kind of faith is what is required.  We believe the testimony of faithful men, trustworthy witnesses and the record of the scripture. God will bless you for it.  Matt. 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

And that brings us to the conclusion, or synopsis of John’s gospel.  It comes a chapter early.  But it’s really like the conclusion of John’s gospel.  He says in vs.30, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” 

Listen, these truths have been written that you might have life in His name.  Abundant life.  Real life.  A life of joy and blessing.  Jesus did not come to teach philosophy.  He did not come to show us how to be prosperous or successful.  He didn’t come as God in the flesh to make new inventions that would make our lives easier. He didn’t die to make us more comfortable. But He came that we might believe that He has come from God, to teach us the truth of God, that we might be reconciled to God, that we may have the new life which God has designed for us to enjoy, and that we might enjoy fellowship with Him forever.  I hope that you have confessed Jesus as your Lord and your God, that you might have the life which He has died to procure for you.  If you believe in Him,  I announce to you by the authority of Christ that your sins have been forgiven you.  But if you reject Him, I must tell you that you remain dead in your sins and will face the final judgment without Him.  I pray you come to Jesus today and receive all that He has done for you.