“Knowing me, knowing me…”: on knowing ourselves

Gnothi_seauton
‘Gnothi seauton’ – ancient Greek for ‘Know Thyself’

Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. What do you think about that? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s park that there, I’ll come back to it in just a moment.

At church yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus’ famous words from John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

As I was preparing the passage, one thing which really struck me about it was the idea of knowing ourselves. How do you know yourself? Do we know ourselves truly, just by virtue of being ourselves, or are there still things about us which are unknown even to us? I apologise if that sounds a bit weird and abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete. Have you ever been in a situation where you discover something about yourself that you didn’t realise? I think it happens sometimes under pressure – we discover who we really are, in a way which we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Someone who sees a child drowning in a river discovers that actually their instinct is to dive in and help. Someone faced with a difficult situation realises they are less patient and forgiving than they thought they were.

Or perhaps you’ve seen or read stories where the protagonist goes on a ‘journey of self discovery’. People sometimes use the expression “finding myself” – implying that they needed to discover who they were, their purpose, and so on. It seems to me that we are a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. How do we find our way through the fog?

As I was looking at Jesus’ words, I realised that true identity – true knowledge of ourselves – can only come when we see ourselves in the light of Christ. All of us by nature, as Jesus says, “walk in darkness”. This is a big theme in John – see especially John 3:19-21:

This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

By contrast, God does not walk in darkness. Many people know John’s famous statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but I think fewer people know his statement from the beginning of the same book: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In other words, not only does God not walk in darkness, but God is himself light. So, as Jesus, says, if we want to walk in the light we need to see ourselves in God’s light. It turns out that true knowledge of ourselves is bound up with true knowledge of God.

In a strange kind of way, I think Aristotle was onto something when he said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”: the book of Proverbs famously says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7) – perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know ourselves when we know God, when we see ourselves in his light.

But what does it mean to see ourselves in God’s light? In John 7:7, Jesus says “[the world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” Jesus is the one who bears witness to the world that its deeds are evil. In the passage from John 3 I’ve already quoted, it says: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, what Jesus does is expose evil for what it is. You and I, without the light of Christ, could get on perfectly happily in sin, in evil – all the time thinking that there was nothing wrong. But as soon as we bring the light of Christ into the picture, it bursts our bubble (to mix metaphors a little). We can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong anymore.

Fingerprints_Dirty-Glass-Windows-House_IMG_5872-320x480
Source: publicphoto.org

Think about dirty windows: In our house we have a toddler running around. Toddlers, it hardly needs saying, love to put their sticky hands all over your nice clean windows. You end up with the glass covered with hand prints. The thing is, for the majority of the time you don’t really notice: on a typical day – grey and cloudy at this time of year – the glass looks fairly clean. You can’t see the hand prints. But as soon as the sun comes out, as soon as the light streams through the windows, they show up clearly.

This is how it is with the relationship between us and Christ: when we walk in the darkness, we look pretty clean. But as soon as we come towards the light, it exposes all our flaws. It exposes the fact that we walk in darkness. It exposes the fact that we are actually living a lie about ourselves: we are not the people who we kid ourselves that we are.

What this means is, we do not have true knowledge about ourselves until we see ourselves in Jesus’ light. Unless we can see ourselves as sinners, we do not know ourselves truly. And, the real problem: if we do not see ourselves as sinners, we cannot seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” If we don’t acknowledge that we are ‘ill’ to begin with, we won’t bother to seek a doctor. Think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – instead of admitting defeat at any point, he simply denies that he has any injuries at all. It’s an absurd picture, but I think it’s akin to what Jesus is saying people do by nature: denying the obvious fact that there is something wrong with us!

Why is any of this an issue? Why does it really matter? Back in John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (v24). Dying in sin – this is the fate for anyone who does not believe that Jesus is the one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin separates us from God; sin incurs God’s righteous wrath and judgement. To die in our sins is not a good thing. As Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And so the key question for us all is: will we let Christ expose us for who we are? Will we come to the one who exposes our darkness, and yet is the only one who can take away our darkness? It is literally a matter of life and death.

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Water into wine: what’s going on?!

Marriage at CanaYesterday at church the theme was ‘Jesus turns water into wine’, from John 2:1-11. It’s a well-known story – if you’ve ever been to a wedding in an Anglican church, for example, you will have heard it mentioned in the introduction – but the story is nonetheless quite puzzling. To be honest with you, I’ve never really understood it properly: does Mary force Jesus into doing something he didn’t want to do? Did Jesus basically provide people with a load of decent plonk for free, for no reason other than the fact that he was asked to by his Mum? What was the point? Does that really sound like something Jesus would do?

I don’t know about you, but these kind of questions have always plagued my mind – even when I was studying John at college a couple of years ago, it was still difficult. However, as I was listening to the passage and sermon I had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d write them up in case they’re useful for anyone else. Obviously there are many things you could say about this passage, and I will only be able to pick up a few of them, but hopefully this will help to shed some light.

Jesus’ mother and the disciples

Notice in the first couple of verses, John writes “Jesus’ mother” – twice – as if he wants to stress the fact that Mary is here acting as Jesus’ mother. In contrast, Jesus “and his disciples” were invited to the wedding – note that Mary is specified separately to the disciples. Mary is not included as a disciple here.

And I think this leads on to Jesus’ reply to Mary: “Woman, why do you involve me?” Why doesn’t Jesus call Mary his mother? Even if, as the NIV footnote points out, ‘woman’ was not a disrespectful term – in the normal way, wouldn’t Jesus have said ‘Mother’? I think this is significant: Jesus is highlighting the fact that Mary does not have maternal authority over him. In a sense, Mary is not Jesus’ mother in the same way that the Father is Jesus’ father. In John 19:25-27, Jesus essentially hands over the mother/son relationship to the beloved disciple – I wonder if that is him providing for his mother in the way he was unable to as an ordinary son would. (In this place, too, Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’).

Either way, it seems that the point of this is that if Mary is to have a relationship with Jesus, it should be the relationship of a disciple. At this point in Jesus’ life, the need for Mary was to believe in Jesus along with the rest of his disciples – not to be a mother to him. Throughout the whole gospel John gives us little pictures of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, and here – as in many other places – he is showing us that what we all need to do is put our faith in Jesus.

My hour has not yet come

Another puzzling aspect of this story: does Mary force Jesus into doing something which he didn’t want to do? When Jesus says, “my hour has not yet come” – why does he then go ahead and perform the miracle? If you read through John, Jesus talks a lot about his ‘hour’ of glorification coming. This culminates in 12:23, where Jesus says “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” – referring to his own death. In other words, the hour of Jesus’ glorification is the cross: for John, the cross is the place where Jesus’ glory is revealed.

In 2:11, we see that “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory”. So this sign, the turning of the water into wine, should say something about Jesus’ glory – it should say something about the cross. It’s not just a simple miracle, it is a sign. But what sign is it?

The miracle

I think here, as with what we have already seen, the clue is in the details: Jesus doesn’t just turn water into wine in an unspecified container. He turns water into wine, John tells us, in “six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing”. The kind used for ceremonial washing, i.e. the kind of jars that were used in the context of ritual purification and worship. And Jesus doesn’t just turn the water into any old cheap plonk – he turns it into the finest wine, wine which causes the master of the banquet to exclaim “you have saved the best till now”.

What’s the significance of wine? We know from Matthew 26:28 and elsewhere that wine is used in communion as a representative of Jesus’ blood. Although John in his gospel doesn’t include the last supper per se, Jesus does say in John 6, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” So I think it’s quite likely that the wine in this story here is symbolic of Jesus’ blood – the blood which will bring ultimate purification, the blood of the new covenant which cleanses from sin once for all.

Hebrews talks about Jesus’ blood:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, so obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Summary

So what can we say about this passage? As with many things in John, I think there is an element of misunderstanding and irony going on: Mary thinks that she is doing one thing – compelling Jesus to provide wine for a wedding feast – whereas Jesus is actually showing a sign which illustrates what he has come to do. We see that Mary attempts to assert her authority as Jesus’ mother, but in actuality what she needs to do – as we all do – is turn to Jesus as a disciple. And we see that Jesus came to turn the imperfect nature of purifying with water into the blood that cleanses from every stain of sin.

This is my fourth post on John’s gospel – if you enjoyed it, you might like previous thoughts I’ve had on John: the woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus, and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

Sermon: The Witness of John the Baptist (John 1:19-34)

This is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday morning at Christ Church Cockfosters. The audio isn’t available on the website (which means it may not have been recorded) – if it does appear I will update this post.

The theme was a traditional one for the third Sunday in Advent – “John the Baptist”. I chose to preach from John 1:19-34.

John the Baptist – John 1v19-34 – PDF.

The Story of the Jews

One of the things which interests me about modern-day Judaism is how different it is from my understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Jewish Bible or the Christian Old Testament). Given that Christians and Jews have so much shared Scripture (most of the Bible – 75% or thereabouts – is the Hebrew Scriptures) – how have they ended up in such different places? In particular, modern-day Jews do not offer sacrifices and there seems to be no atonement for sin – the focus seems to be rather on the observance of the law. So I was interested to see that Simon Schama has created a new documentary called “The Story of the Jews” recently (Sunday evenings on BBC2 – at the time of writing there are another couple of episodes remaining in the series). Mrs Phil and I have been watching it, and it’s fascinating. What’s particularly interesting to me is how Judaism has changed and adapted over the years.

It’s fascinating to see how Simon Schama – and others – interpret the parts of the Scriptures which I am familiar with, and yet put a slant on them which I would be quite unfamiliar with. Present-day Jews have much more history to look back on, and have much more to explain. In a particularly poignant moment at the end of the last programme, for example, Simon Schama talked about the building anti-Semitism in Europe at the end of the 19th century before finishing up at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Continue reading

John 19: Jesus’ Trial and Crucifixion

crossAs alert readers will no doubt be aware, I have been studying John recently (you can read my previous blog posts on the subject here and here). I promised in my last post that I would blog about John 19, and I thought this would be as good a time as any – particularly while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory. I’m not going to spend much time on context here, because frankly – we’d be here all day. So I’m just going to say this post would be most profitable if you’ve read John 19 before we begin (and preferably have it open in front of you, or in another tab, or whatever it is you kids do these days.)

Note that in this post I’ll only be able to touch on a fraction of what’s there, it truly is an amazingly rich gospel. I’ll just pull out some of the things which really struck me this time.

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The Raising of Lazarus

LazarusAs I mentioned in my post on the woman at the well, I’ve been doing a class on John’s Gospel the past couple of months. It’s probably been my favourite class of this year, which is no small feat! John is such a rich gospel, and it’s been a real privilege to spend some time in it this year.

Today we reached John 11, which is all about the raising of Lazarus. This is a key chapter in John’s gospel: it seems to mark some kind of a shift. Some people talk about the ‘Book of Signs’, which culminates with the sign of Lazarus, and the ‘Book of Glory’ which talks about Jesus’ glorification as he is lifted high on the cross. Others talk about his public and private ministry (after this point Jesus’ ministry and teaching seems to move to just his disciples). It seems there there aren’t hard and fast distinctions, but however you look at it this chapter is the catalyst for the changes.

What I’d like to do in this blog post is just draw out a few thoughts on various aspects of the chapter. I’m going to skip over a lot – there’s so much here, I don’t want the blog post to become massive! – but I hope to draw out one or two key or even surprising aspects.

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The Woman at the Well

Photo by moregoodfoundation on  Flickr.
Picture by moregoodfoundation on Flickr.

And by ‘the woman at the well’ I mean the ‘woman of Samaria’ of John 4. You know, the fattest woman in the Bible (the “woman of some area”… geddit? GEDDIT? HAHAHAHA! Sorry.)

Anyway, we were studying John 4 in our class a couple of weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it. In our class on John, each of us has been assigned a commentary to look at and every week we look at it and write a couple of sheets summary on what it says, any exegetical issues and questions we have etc. I’ve really benefited from it – I’ve been using Andrew Lincoln’s commentary, which I’ve found to be excellent. Although I don’t agree with everything – he probably takes a more ‘open’ evangelical line on certain issues, and if you don’t know what that means don’t worry – but in general his exegetical insight and theological grasp of the text have been very helpful to me.

This chapter is a case in point. As with virtually every chapter in John, it is theologically rich and there is much you could say about it.  I’m going to restrict myself to one topic though, something which I don’t think the ‘blessed Don’ (as our tutor describes Don Carson) picks up in his commentary: the idea of this passage being a betrothal scene. When I say ‘betrothal scene’, I mean an Old Testament betrothal scene like that described in Genesis 24.

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