1.7.18 - What Is "Belief"? (Kenny Camacho)
January 7, 2018
**The sermon audio is unavailable for this week; however, you can read Kenny's sermon script below!**
The Gospel of John: An Introduction
Good morning! My name is Kenny, and I’m the Executive Pastor here at Revolution Annapolis. This morning, we are starting a new series called Jesus Through John. The objective of this series is to dig deeper into the Gospel of John, which is one of the four Gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus found in the Bible.
Now, for the early church, the four Gospel accounts were central texts, each of which was used to help the early Christians remember the events that had led to the establishment of their religion and to solidify their beliefs about what it meant to be followers of Jesus. And, of course, these texts continue to serve the same purpose for us today: as we come into the community of the Christian church, it is incredibly important for us to be reminded of what, exactly, it means for us to be here: to remember the stories of our own journeys in faith, and to solidify for ourselves what precisely this thing is that we have all grabbed ahold of as an anchor to our existences in the world.
And, to that end, each of these four books--these four accounts of Jesus’s life--tells us something different about who Jesus was, and who He continues to be, so that we might know Him--and know our Purpose--more fully. As we move this morning into a study of John’s Gospel, I want to begin by providing a bit of an overview of the book, and then I want to offer another anchor point for our journey over the next six weeks.
So, who was John, and what do we know about His Gospel?
To start with, we believe that John was one of Jesus’s twelve disciples: that means that He was one of the people who followed Jesus during Jesus’s 3 years of ministry here on Earth in the first half of the first century, and thus, John is someone who can speak about Jesus’s life with authority. The stories he tells right here in this book, which you have the ability to hold in your hands, are stories that the author attests he witnessed, personally, during his lifetime. As people living in 2018, almost 2 millennia later, it is a good thing to be reminded of this: the stories we have in John’s Gospel are first hand accounts of the life of a real human being, written within a generation of the time they actually happened. This is a remarkable Truth, and it’s something we should start with in order to better frame the ways that we read them, and the ways we think about them: John was there.
And even more than that, John attests that he was a disciple Jesus loved. He uses this phrase at several key moments in his narrative, and again, the point seems to be to tell the early church--and to tell us!--that his knowledge of Jesus is personal. This is an important point for a few reasons, but the chief reason, I believe, has to do with the story of this Gospel’s composition. Although it was still written within 40 years of Jesus’s death, it was nonetheless the last of the four Gospels to be copied down in a physical form. Although we have evidence that the stories John is telling had been in continuous rotation among the early churches, the other 3 Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, had all been physically recorded 10-20 years before John’s. Now, for the early church, this didn’t mean that John’s Gospel was less accurate--again, the stories were becoming canon through telling and retelling in the early church already--but it does mean that the purpose of John’s Gospel is different than the purposes of the other 3, and this difference is critical for us to note:
At the time the other Gospels were written--around the year 50, approximately 20 years after Jesus’ death--the most important issue facing the early followers of Jesus was the safe establishment of the church. Christians were a small, heavily-persecuted group, and those 3 Gospels all focus on Jesus’s role at the center of a movement to bring the Kingdom of God here, to Earth. This part of Jesus’s teachings was important to them because it gave the early church hope and direction: their existence--their perseverance through adversity--was tied to their part in God’s plan to rescue all of His Creation from sin and disaster.
But by the time John is written--in the late 70s or early 80s--the church’s mission is well-established...but divisions have begun to emerge around what, exactly, are the most important things to believe about Jesus Himself. There are many questions about who, exactly, Jesus is: is He God, appearing on Earth in human form? Is he a man God possessed? Has He returned to Heaven as a spirit, or is He still human? And although those questions might seem somewhat unimportant to us today, they are crucial questions for the early church, because they have huge implications for what we exist to do: are we waiting out our time on earth before God takes us away, to a glorious life in Heaven? Or are we working, as Jesus said, to bring God’s Kingdom here, on Earth? And is Jesus a distant leader, sitting on a Throne in Heaven, giving directions...or is He a relational person, still living, and still guiding us as we follow Him?
When John says he is the “disciple Jesus loved,” he is making a claim, not about the church, but about Jesus’s followers: he is reminding all of us that Jesus isn’t a distant king, he is an intimate, loving Savior. He loves...He doesn’t just lead.
So, the first major point about John’s Gospel is that it is about a relational Jesus. He is a Jesus who loves, and for the early church, this was an important and inspiring thing to be reminded of!
But, in light of this, what does John’s Gospel say?
Well, I want to end this overview by framing our discussion over the next 6 weeks around a single, challenging, and enormous word: BELIEF. In John’s Gospel, we see this word--belief--over and over and over again. Jesus uses it dozens of times, and John uses it consistently in his many descriptions of how the religious leaders of the day misunderstand Jesus’s ministry. It is the central concept John wants to remind the early church about, and as the descendants of that early church, it is a keyword for us this morning, too.
But what does it really mean...to believe?
In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has an encounter with a religious leader--a Pharisee--named Nicodemus. Afraid of being seen with Jesus in public, Nicodemus arranges an interview with Jesus under cover of darkness. In that interview, he asks Jesus about some of the things He has been teaching about at temple gatherings, chiefly, what Jesus means when He talks about being “born again”. Eventually, Jesus answers Nicodemus with one of the Bible’s most famous verses: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.” But before Jesus tells him this, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of an old story from their shared Jewish past: the story of Moses’s final miracle when he was leading Jesus’s and Nicodemus’s ancestors through the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.
In the story, the Jewish people have been led on a circuitous and difficult road through the wilderness in order to avoid the territory of the Edomites, who were hostile to them, as they journeyed to the Promised Land of Canaan. Throughout this ordeal, the people have been complaining to Moses about God. They said,
Numbers 21: 5--
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
In response, God sends what the Bible calls “fiery serpents” among the people, which bite and poison them, many of them fatally. As they lay languishing and dying, they realize their mistake and they beg Moses to pray to God on their behalf. Moses does, and God gives him a curious instruction: he tells him to make a pole of bronze, with a bronze snake wrapped around it. Then, he tells him to place it in the middle of the camp, and
“everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
Moses does this, and sure enough, when people are bitten...they look at the snake on the pole...and then they live. Almost 1000 years later, an Israelite king named Hezekiah will note that this pole is still with the Israelites, kept in their treasury as a sacred relic, and he will finally give it a name: the Nehushtan, or “brazen thing.” Of course, you and I also know this symbol from hospitals and ambulances today.
But as we return to Jesus and John, I want us to stop for a moment and consider this story, and what it teaches us about belief. God’s instructions for Moses hinge on this one, simple, strange thing: a person must believe in the Nehushtan; they must look...and believe that they will be healed. It seems so small...but the account in the book of Numbers tells us that many of the Israelites fail to do this...and they die. Their salvation is right there, right in front of them...but they can’t bring themselves to trust it. They can’t believe it.
In a sense, I understand them. It feels so silly. It feels so arbitrary. Honestly, it feels so unnecessary: if God can save them with the snake-pole, surely He could just snap His fingers and do it, too! What difference does it make, anyway? What’s the big deal about the Nehushtan? Am I really going to die because I didn’t look at a stick?? What a mean-spirited God God would have to be to punish me for something so ridiculous! I can so easily imagine myself as a skeptic in that camp, refusing to look...and dying in my stubbornness, angry at such a fickle and small God.
But here, in this light, I think I can also see how backwards my view would be. After all, the Nehushtan isn’t the punishment, it’s the rescue. The punishment was the snakebite, and I deserved that! And what would keep me from salvation wouldn’t be God’s capriciousness at all...it would be pride. It would be arrogance. It would be a refusal to submit myself, and my life, to something as seemingly small...as belief. And then to take a step.
To return to Jesus and Nicodemus, just before Jesus tells Nicodemus that famous verse in John 3:16, He says this:
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
In the fullness of this passage, I think we can see our first glimpse into what John wants to teach us about belief. Specifically, I want to suggest that he shows us 2 things:
The first is that beliefs are ideas we have about Truth. Ultimately, whether it’s with the Nehushtan or with our belief in Jesus Himself, there is, in the end, a right answer. The pole with the snake on it either will or will not save us. There is no middle ground. Now, if we looked at it and then got better, we might never know for certain that it was our faith in this symbol that actually did the work of making us well...but whether or not we can be sure is not the same as whether or not there is an answer. A belief is an idea we have about that answer.
The second thing,that I think John is showing us here is about how beliefs live. And the answer is pretty intuitive: beliefs live when they are acted out. For the Israelites, what they believed to be True about the Nehushtan was important only inasmuch as it led to their action: they had to look at the pole. A physical action, based on a belief, was necessary for them to be healed.
For Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus, this is actually the crux of the matter: Jesus, I think rightly, diagnoses that Nicodemus is skeptical of Him. He has said radical things at the Temple about God--He has shared some pretty controversial beliefs--and although Nicodemus wants to know more, he is hesitant to trust these beliefs himself. That’s why he comes to see Jesus at night.
So, when Jesus reminds him of the story of the Nehushtan, He is challenging Nicodemus, not on what he believes, but on whether or not he is willing to act on that belief. Ultimately, asking Moses, or even asking God, about the Nehushtan still wouldn’t have saved anyone. At some point, they had to jump: they had to actually lift their eyes and see the pole. So, when Jesus says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” he is challenging Nicodemus to consider, again, what beliefs are: are they feelings you have, or things you are considering...or are they ideas you have about how things actually are. If it’s really the latter, it can’t help but direct how you live in the world. And here’s the beautiful thing: when we act out the things we believe, we are putting those beliefs to the test. And if our belief fails us--if it doesn’t line up with how things are--then we are right to abandon it. This is why I don’t understand Washington football fans: you never win; you aren’t going to win today! Give up already!
But if a belief sustains you--if you are right about it--then it has become stronger.
Here’s how we can wrap all of these ideas up this morning: when Jesus tells us, through John, that God loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son for us, that whosoever believes in Him won’t perish, but have everlasting life...God isn’t asking for a one-time commitment. He’s not asking for you to tell Him what you believe. He’s challenging you to act it out. To believe, in your body and mind and soul, in this central Truth, every single day: that Jesus, the man who the disciple John, who wrote this book you are holding, knew personally, was the Son of God, and He was lifted up on the cross just as Moses lifted up that pole with the snake on it, so whoever lives out that Truth--whoever believes--in this miracle will be cured of the poison in their hearts and brought back to life with Christ...God is challenging you to step out into this belief.
And for the rest of the Gospel of John, the author is going to be stretching out what, exactly, that might mean. For the next six weeks, we will be looking at the stories John tells about Jesus with that purpose and question in mind: what does this story add to what I think is true about who Jesus was? And our hope is that by exploring the answers to that question each week, our own lives will come to reflect a deeper and deeper understanding of who Jesus is...and what it means to follow after Him.
So, what can we practice this week, as we continue to think about John’s Gospel? Well, first things first, we can read it. Over the next week, I would encourage you all to read the Gospel of John one time through. Try to do it in as few sittings as possible, and even before we get into the deep theology of the book, just try to absorb its stories: what do they really say about who Jesus was, and what it means to follow him?
And second, I would encourage you to write down what you believe about Jesus. This might seem like a simple exercise, but I promise you (from my own experience!), it’s not: start by just trying to finish this sentence, with as many phrases as come to your mind: “I believe Jesus ________.” Write them down somewhere, and keep it handy so you can revisit it at the end of the series. As Josh often says here at Revolution, making up your mind about Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make in your life. So, it’s worth it, I think, to take some time to really consider who this man is who we need to make up our minds about!
And lastly, try to make it a point to be here. I’m really excited for this series over the next six weeks, and I really hope we get a chance to keep experiencing this unfolding story together.
And on that note, I’m glad you’re all here today. Thank you for coming, and before we move on with today’s service, let me pray for us.