Stones to Overcome Obstacles

Up until now, we have seen Israel cross the Jordan, destroy Jericho, get beaten at Ai, stone Achan and his family, then destroy Ai, and recommitting themselves to the commandments of the LORD; and all of that in eight chapters. If you simply look at it, in eight chapters they have crossed the Jordan and conquered two cities in the Promised Land. That’s all. In other words, they have a long way to go to be done conquering.

But God is good, and God has a plan, and Israel is conquering the Promised Land according to God’s plan, not theirs; according to His ways, not theirs. We have seen this so far as well, right? Crossing the Jordan on dry ground because the priests were standing in the midst of the Jordan, holding the Ark of the Covenant. Defeating Jericho by walking around the city for seven days and then giving a shout. Not really ways the Israelites would have chosen, right? And we see this when they try to defeat Ai in their own ways. What happens? They lose because of Achan. And after they purge the sin from their midst, and follow His ways, they win. So we see that God is good, and God has a plan for Israel to conquer the Promised Land. But although it is His plan, Israel does have to be involved, in their own imperfect and sometimes sinful way.

Joshua 9-10 is a beautiful picture of God’s grace, His goodness towards not only Israel, but also the Gibeonites, in the midst of sin.

 

THE GIBEONITE DECEPTION (Joshua 9:16)
The news of Israel’s conquering march has reached the southern parts of Canaan. By the way this is strange, because it seems that Israel was moving towards the north, not the south. But, like the people of Jericho before them, the southern kings were scared. And what we see is two totally different strategies of dealing with this threat, this opposition of Israel. The southern kings gather together against Israel and are planning a full frontal attack. They do not acknowledge that God is on Israel’s side fighting for them, and believe they can defeat the Israelites by sheer strength. But the Gibeonites, a city of the Hivites in the south, were choosing a different approach. They were going to lie and deceive Israel by claiming they were from a distant country and heard about Israel’s victories, and that they wanted to make a covenant with them. Yet we can read in the next chapter that “Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, […] because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors” (Jos. 10:2). So why did they surrender? “… because of the name of the Lord your God” (Jos. 9:9). Because God fights for Israel, they know it would be useless to oppose Israel. They acknowledge God, but approach Him in the wrong way though, by lying and deceiving.

The Gibeonite deception was clever, and therefore powerful. Israel falls for it. Why? Things went well. They had defeated two huge cities. They were on a roll. Watch out when things go well! We tend to lower our guard and don’t notice potential dangers. Gibeon was a huge city, and yet Israel was not suspicious at all when they “just” surrendered. Israel had lowered their guard. Joshua and the leaders never sought the LORD, but thought they’d had this figured out by themselves. It was their strength that made Gibeon surrender. They trusted in their own senses… “Look at this bread. Feel and taste how stale it is. Surely, they must have come a long way.” In other words, they walked by sight, not by faith. How much trouble do we find ourselves in for this very reason? Not asking the LORD’s counsel. Our life is seems to be going well. We are comfortable with where things are at. On the surface it looks like we are in control. We set the course. And bit-by-bit we involve God less and less in our decision-making. Bit by bit we create for ourselves an environment in which we do not have to walk by faith, because walking by sight will do. We have it figured out by ourselves.

 

KEEPING THE OATH, NO MATTER WHAT (Joshua 9:16:20; 10:1-8)
Only a couple of days later the Israelites find out that they had been deceived. And even though all the congregation murmured against the leaders, the leaders still knew they had to do what was right and honorable before God: keep their oath, even if it was a bad oath. The rulers of Israel were wise in not allowing one sin (wiping out the Gibeonites) follow another sin (making the oath without seeking the Lord), especially in light of public pressure to do otherwise. And I think it is refreshing to see that going back on their word was not even really a possibility for the rulers of Israel. It was simply not even up for debate.

The enemies of Israel feared greatly, but they did not retreat when they were afraid, but launched a bold attack. Afraid to attack Israel directly, they attacked their former ally, the Gibeonites, who were now servants of Israel. We saw earlier that, Joshua, the leaders of Israel, and all the people of Israel knew they made a bad vow to the Gibeonites, yet they did not turn their backs on that vow. But here, we see Joshua and the leaders of Israel even going a step further. Allowing these Canaanite kings to wipe out the Gibeonites would have been a convenient way to get out of a vow that should not have been made, but they will have none of it. Though Joshua was only bound to not kill the Gibeonites himself (Joshua 9:15), he goes on to fulfill the spirit of the vow he made to the Gibeonites. And what does God do? He commands Joshua to not fear them. Though Joshua has reason to fear because Israel faces a confederation of five kings, God commands Joshua to not fear his enemies. But, the command is coupled with a promise that Israel will be victorious. Having the assurance of God’s promise, Joshua did not sit back to passively watch God work without his participation. He went to great effort to participate with the work and will of God. This took hard work and initiative on Joshua’s part. God does His work, but He draws us into working with Him. The result? God’s work, and the partnership of Joshua’s work with the Lord, accomplished something great. We read in the remainder of chapter ten that Israel not only defeats the five armies in this battle, with some amazing feats from God might I add, but it sets Israel up for defeating all these other cities in Canaan, thereby conquering all the southern Canaanite kingdoms. The victory was won one at a time. God knew what He was doing in selecting which particular battles to fight, and when they needed to be fought. Most importantly, the key to victory was that the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel.

 

GRACE ABOUNDS!
Let’s look at the story again and at the amazing grace of God towards both the Israelites and the Gibeonites.

Israel messed up big time. They did not seek God’s counsel when the Gibeonites approached them, which resulted in making a covenant, a treaty with them. But even so they already knew what His answer would be, for by law Israel was forbidden to make peace with any of the tribes of Canaan (Ex. 23:23-24). And what does God do? He allows Israel to make their mistake, and does not punish them for it (God’s mercy). But look what it results in: through their mistake, God gives them the Gibeonites (thus enlarging the nation Israel) and He gives them the five other cities, and ultimately the whole southern region, as a result of their sin (God’s grace)

Gibeon messed up big time. They deceived Israel by misrepresenting themselves, providing false evidence for their deception, and simply lied. And this while they displayed a proper admiration and honor for the God of Israel, they approach Him in completely the wrong way. What does God do? He arranges that the Israelites do not kill the Gibeonites for the lying and deceiving (God’s mercy). But on top of that, the Gibeonites are taken up into Israel (you could say they are transferred from the kingdom of the enemy into the kingdom of God – Col 1:13-14) where they became servants for the tabernacle services (God’s grace)

This is so counter-intuitive, so mind-blowing and simply destroys our conditional world and thinking. Which is exactly what grace does. Grace is unconditional, which is why we struggle with it so much because we are conditional people. You see, we read this and think that God is not only condoning sin, He is actually blessing it, right? The Israelites sin, and God gives them the southern part of the Promised Land into their hands. The Gibeonites sin, and God makes them sons of God, just like the Israelites. And we think: that cannot be! How can God do that? That’s not fair; sin must be punished. And it makes us say, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). But here’s the thing: God is always fair, because He is good. And He has a plan, and it’s a good plan. And His plan always operates on the basis of grace. Pure, unconditional grace. And where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20). This is a beautiful picture of what the grace of God does. He turns liars, deceivers, and lawbreakers into His victorious children. But although grace is unconditional, we are not without responsibility.

 

STONES TO OVERCOME OBSTACLES
Earlier on in Joshua 7 with the story of Achan, Israel had to deal with internal obstacles. How sin affects those around you. How if one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor. 12:26). Here in this story we read how to deal with external obstacles. Although Israel as a whole is sinning by making a treaty with the Gibeonites, the story is really about how Israel responded to the Gibeonites after they acknowledged their mistake. So, here are three ways (three “stones”) on how to overcome external obstacles, and all three are based on how Israel responded after they found out they had been deceived by the Gibeonites.

Courage
After they found out, the people went out to Gibeon, but did not attack them because the leaders had sworn an oath. “Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders.” (Jos. 9:18), but the leaders did not come back on their oath. Here we see courage working in two directions. The leaders showed a lot of courage in keeping their oath, while the entire congregation murmured. But also the congregation shows a lot of courage by not attacking Gibeon and trusting their leaders’ decision although they did not agree with them. And courage is really the keyword of the whole book isn’t it? “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Jos. 1:9)

Repentance
After they found out, the Israelites own up to their mistake. They did not deny it or blame-shifted, but they took full responsibility for it. They did not only feel bad about it, but they changed their hearts. We see that because later on when they were asked by the Gibeonites to help them out, they joyfully did so, and thereby went way beyond what they were bound to by the oath. In other words, they repented. Repentance is not only a turning from sin, but also a turning to God by pursuing righteousness out of obedience to Him and a love for Him. As Paul said, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4)

Integrity
After they found out, the Israelites did not come back on the oath they had made. They welcomed the Gibeonites into their midst, and when it became difficult when they were asked to help the Gibeonites, it would have been the perfect opportunity to get rid of the Gibeonites and thus the oath, but instead they sucked it up and suffered the consequences of their sin and helped them out. It is a mark of godliness to hold to an oath, even when it’s difficult. Their ‘yes’ was simply ‘yes’. And isn’t that what James says as well: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (Jam. 5:12)

And while I was dwelling on these themes in this text, my thoughts went to Jesus being in the Garden of Gethsemane, and how we really see all three of these aspects being perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, when He simply said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luk. 22:42). The courage He had in that moment to press on in the face of the most intense opposition. It says that He was in such agony that He prayed more earnestly and that His sweat became drops of blood. And although He did not have to repent of any sin, He did perfectly turned to God and pursued righteousness out of obedience to and love for His Father. And how beautifully is Jesus’ integrity on display when He said, “not my will, but yours, be done”. His ‘yes’ truly was ‘yes’. He completed what He said He would.

And while I was dwelling on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I thought: “I do not have the strength to show such courage, such repentance, and such integrity. It is too much for me.” And the beauty is that I don’t have to, we don’t have to, but He already did. Jesus already did for us what God is asking us to do. His death and resurrection is the only basis upon which we can do this. In Him, we already are victorious. As I said earlier, He turns sinners into victorious children. Such grace! God is good, and God has a plan, and it is a good plan. We see in this story that all things work together for good for those who love God (Rom. 8:28). All we have to do is dwell in what Jesus already has done, and we can overcome any obstacles, because He already has.

Seven Lessons From Israel Crossing The Jordan

Last week I preached on Joshua 1-4 where Israel after 40 years wandering through the wilderness finally crosses the Jordan River into the Promised Land. It was the first big act of leadership for Joshua. Reading through this wonderful event I see seven great leadership transition principles that we can draw from this which we can learn from and apply within our own context.

  1. Trust your leaders. Why did Israel follow Joshua across the Jordan? They followed Joshua just as they followed Moses, because Moses had laid his hands on him. The text doesn’t say whether or not they trusted Joshua, but they trusted Moses, and that was enough for them. In any leadership transition it is vitally important to trust the current leaders in the decisions they make.
  2. Leaders trust in God. Right from the start we see Joshua going to God for all his instructions, listening to His every word, and obeying them without delay. As leaders especially, we need to stay in tune with God, and seek His will not only for our own lives, but also for that of the church.
  3. Be strong and courageous.  The book of Joshua starts off with God telling Joshua twice to be strong and courageous (Jos. 1:6-9), but then we read at the end of the first chapter that the people told Joshua that they will follow him, but that he needs to be strong and courageous. Pray for them for sure, but encourage them as well.
  4. Unity is essential.  All throughout this story, but also the rest of Joshua, we see that Israel as a nation is united. As one they follow Joshua. As one they follow God. As one they cross the Jordan. As one they remember what God has done. Unity is essential.
  5. Keep our eyes on God.  The priests, representing God, were walking up front, leading the way. The nation was to keep their eyes on God, have Him lead the way (even when it seems impossible or crazy, like crossing the Jordan when it overflows most with over a million people). Focusing your eyes on God will keep our focus off of your own circumstances.
  6. Big challenges will come. Even with keeping your eyes on God, big challenges will come. When Israel crossed the Jordan they were faced with many enemies and much bigger challenges than the crossing itself. Big challenges will come, and these challenges can be hard and difficult work, but keeping your eyes on God will make all the difference.
  7. Remember what God has done. When Israel crossed the Jordan, they set up these twelve stones, these foundational stones, as a remembrance for themselves and generations to come. Remembering what God has done is a great way of keeping your focus on Him and to recognize and realize these big milestones in your past and how God has come through on His promises. This builds faith for what’s to come.

 

A Sign of His Commission

To fully appreciate what John is trying to portray in John 21:1-14, we need to have a good picture of where we are in story John is telling us. Just like they had done in previous years, Jesus and the disciples were in Jerusalem for the celebration of the yearly Passover feast. I am sure, as they had also done in previous years they celebrated the Passover feast together. But this time was different. The first signs that their lives would soon radically going to be changed forever were showing. Something was up. The Passover meal turning out different than the disciples expected. It started with Jesus telling them that one of the disciples, Judas, was going to betray Jesus. That must have been quite a shock! They lived life together for the last three years, spending each day together. It must have been unthinkable for them to consider that one was about to betray Jesus. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, after Judas left when Jesus pointed him out, Jesus tells Peter, the leader, the spokesman, the brave one, that before the night is over he will deny Jesus three times. Again, unthinkable! I am sure this must caused them feeling unsettled and confused, anxious for what was going on and about to happen. But then He tells them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1). OK, things settle down…

But then Jesus launches off into a huge monologue, telling them about a Helper who will come and dwell with them, and that He needs to go away otherwise this Helper cannot come. Then He tells them about bearing fruit by abiding in Him, and that the world will hate them. Again He tells them about this Helper who will come and lead them into all truth. In all of this, Jesus is really saying things the disciples do not understand, like “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16), and that they all will scatter and leave Him alone. And He closes off with a huge enigmatic prayer to the Father. If they weren’t unsettled or confused before I bet they were now. What was Jesus all saying? Were these things really going to happen? But there was no more time to think about this or ask some clarifying questions to Jesus, because all that Jesus had foretold them was about to come true. Judas came to betray Jesus and soldiers came to arrest Him. And during the trial that happened that same night, the disciples scattered, and indeed Peter denies Jesus three times while He warms himself up by a fire near the place where they question Jesus. And to top it off, Jesus gets crucified. He dies, and gets buried. Where they were confused and unsettled and anxious, now deep sadness set in. They lost their best friend, their teacher. How could He save them when He was dead?

But the story doesn’t end there, right? Three days later, Jesus rose from dead. John and Peter see the empty grave, but where is Jesus? Well, first He showed Himself to Mary Magdalene, who told the rest of the disciples that she saw Jesus. What! He has truly risen from dead? Is it really true? Sadness makes place for hope. Then on that same evening, Jesus appears a second time, now to all the disciples. Oh the joy that must have been! And He says to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) He is giving them a mission, and then He disappeared again.

Responding to the Heat
After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side
of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
” (John 21:1-8)

So we have seven of the disciples getting together one evening, and they go fishing. Now we don’t know why. It doesn’t say in the text. Yet when looking at the other gospels, we could draw some conclusions. Both Mark and Luke end with the Great Commission and the immediate taking up in heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-51), so it seems that the Great Commission really came at the end of their time together, meaning that the story here in John 21 happened before they received the Great Commission. So was this a return to the old life? Or were they just providing for themselves and those near to them until Jesus told them what to do next. Well, there is this verse in John 20 where Jesus tells them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) But I guess Jesus by now knew that the disciples usually didn’t get it the first time around, and so what we see here is that the way that the disciples respond to what’s been happening over the last couple of days is that they do what they know best. They do what they are most comfortable with: fishing.

But as is often with us, we see that when the disciples worked on their own strength, their efforts were futile. So, Jesus gives them a little reminder. When after a full night of not catching anything, Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. This definitely got their attention, because it happened before. In Luke 5, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we read of the first time when the disciples after catching nothing for a whole night they were asked by Jesus to casts their net again, and caught so many fish that their net broke. Jesus was reminding them that He called them to be fishers of men, to be on mission for Him. As the Father had sent Jesus, so Jesus is sending them, and through them the good news of Jesus will spread. The good news that Jesus has come to fill our dead hearts with the living water of the Holy Spirit, that He came to live the life we should have lived, and die the death we should have died, and that because of His resurrection we can walk in newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit. And both in Luke 5 as well as here, Peter was the first to respond, recognizing the magnitude of the miracle. In Luke 5, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, clearly making a full-time commitment to Jesus. Here in John 21, we see Peter responding by getting to Jesus as fast as possible, for as soon as he heard it was the Lord the ship could not hold him, nor could he stay till the bringing of it to shore, but into the sea he throws himself, that he might come first to Christ. Could it be that Peter already had in mind
that Jesus was about to ask him to again make a full-time commitment?

It’s All About Fellowship With Jesus
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (John 21:9-14)

This story is famous for the fact that it mentions that they caught exactly 153 fish. And every since everyone has had a field day speculating what this number means. I have read through many different reasons, some very amusing, but none were even remotely satisfactory. On the one side the number is specific enough that I presume for the disciples it had significance, but since nowhere else in the Bible the number is used or explained I presume that for us it is not important to know. When reading the story I would say that the breakfast rather is what we need to focus on.

It is beautiful to read that Jesus invited them to have breakfast with Him. He says, “come”. Throughout the Bible a meal is a picture of intimate fellowship. And that is also what Jesus came to do; a method to connect and draw people in. In Luke 7:34 it is even said that Jesus “came eating and drinking.” And throughout the gospels we see Jesus eating with tax collectors, feeding the 5,000, eating at the home of Mary and Martha, inviting Himself to dinner with Zacchaeus, etc. Jesus did evangelism and discipleship round a table with some grilled fish, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine. Meals represent friendship and community; and so also here. It’s Jesus who invites His disciples, His friends, and the ones for which He laid down His life, and He invites them for a meal. He invites them into fellowship with Him, because that is what it is all about: fellowship with Jesus.

And so, John paints for us a final picture. It all started with a picture of Jesus’ mission, and now, at the end, we have a picture of Jesus’ commission. Just like the disciples, we all have a need to be constantly reminded of the mission that Jesus gave us, and that we are sent into the world so that we “may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), and to be fishers of men. Because just like the disciples we have a tendency to fall back into our old habits, and slip into our comfort zone. But Jesus calls us in whatever situation we are and says, “come, dine with me, have fellowship with me, be in communion with me, for although I sent you I am also with you, to the end of the age. I will never leave you or forsake you. We are in this together.” And that is a beautiful picture that John leaves us with; a picture of our God who invites us and welcomes us with open arms.

A Sign of His Work

“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’” (John 5:1-17)

We Find Jesus in a Hospital
So, what’s the story here? We have Jesus going to Jerusalem for a feast. Now there are three feasts each year in which the Jews were obligated to celebrate and go to Jerusalem for. But John doesn’t tell us whether this is the Feast of Passover or the Feast of Pentecost in the spring, or whether this is the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall. And it is not important either. But what is important to note is that although Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate and remember Israel’s history through this feast, He took the time to be with the sick and the needy. You could even say He deemed it more important than the feast. So, while all of Israel is feasting and rejoicing, we find Jesus walking among the poor whom He loved so much. Can you imagine spending your New Year’s Eve at a nursing home helping an old man or woman eat or play a game with or just provide a listening ear? Is it wrong to party? Not at all, but what a beautiful picture Jesus paints here for us as an alternative for doing what everyone else is doing.

And so when Jesus was in Jerusalem, we find Him at Bethesda, or house of mercy. It was a poor provision for the city’s abounding sickness. You could call it a hospital perhaps. It was a place at the north side of Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate. Now you may recall that when Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem some 450 years earlier after the Babylonians had destroyed it in 586 BC, the Sheep Gate was the first gate they built (Neh. 3:1) and called that way because that’s were the sheep were brought into the temple for the sacrifice. And five covered colonnades or porticos surrounded this house of mercy. Now it was told that an angel sometimes stirred the pool, and whoever was in the pool first when this happened was healed. So I am guessing this place was packed with the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, sitting on the cold steps or lying on their wretched pallets, waiting for the moving of the waters. While the whole city was feasting, these people were in deep physical pain, forgotten by society; but not by Jesus. Our Lord was at home amid this mercy, for here there was room for His tender heart and healing hands to work
miracles. When we are full of health and strength, let us remember those to whom these privileges are denied. This is a difficult lesson for me to be reminded of because I don’t like hospitals. I’ve been a patient in one myself before, when I got operated on my Achilles tendon when I was seven years old, and afterward went many times for regular checkups (which is never fun when you are young). But I also have many footsteps in a nursing home in Amstelveen, one that has recently been
torn down. In the late 80s and early 90s (so in my late teens), both my Grandma and Grandpa were in a nursing home until they passed away. My Grandma even for as long as five years. My Grandpa was in there because of multiple strokes and he simply wasn’t able to take care of himself anymore. And my Grandma suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And when you come in a nursing home that often you just see terribly sad things and are confronted with unavoidable tragedy of sickness and
death. I remember at the closed wing my Grandma was at, there was this one old woman who just kept on circling the block within the wing, the whole day through. It probably took her up to an hour to circle it once, but that’s just what she did all day. And I can also remember this one woman who lay in bed and was always wailing at the top of her lungs, and you could hear it throughout the whole wing. It was just terrible. But this was all in my late teens when I wasn’t a Christian yet.

But two years ago, in 2009, my Dad spent the last five months of his life in that same nursing home, also because of Alzheimer’s disease. Now I am in my thirties, I am a Christian, and it’s my Dad. There is just no comparison to your grandparents being in a nursing home and your own Dad being in a nursing home. Such sadness. And although I loved my Dad and wanted to spend as much time as possible with him in his final days, it was really difficult to go the nursing home and just be confronted with all this sickness and death. And yet Spurgeon once said, “I venture to say that the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness.” That is a strange saying, right? But I guess what he means to say that since sin is in the world, sickness is a good thing. Although it is very unpleasant, it is a friend to man’s soul for it reminds us of the inevitably approaching end of life, and hopefully humbles us, and makes us think seriously about God and His goodness. But also being among the sick can invoke these thoughts and feelings, and soften our heart to reach out to those who are sick. Which is why reading this text is a difficult reminder because I really struggle being among the sick, like Jesus is here.

We Are Hopeless Without Christ
Now coming into the hospital, Jesus noticed this one particular man. There were many painful cases there, but He singled out this one man who had been bound to a stretcher for 38 years, a victim of rheumatism or paralysis. Let us hope there no worse case on all Bethesda’s porches! Now this man had never managed to get into the pool. He had never been able to win a friend or find a helper to get him into the pool in all the long years he had been there. And Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Now God doesn’t ask us questions because He lacks information. The question is a gift to lead our thoughts in the right direction. And the man’s answer reveals much. This man had been at the edge of the pool daily as a matter of habit, so you would imagine that when finally there is a man asking him if he wanted to be healed, finally there was a man possibly willing to carry him in the pool when the water was stirred up, that he would grab the opportunity with both hands, right? Not so. His answer shows what a poor creature he was, for there was not a sparkle of hope in him. And he had not only ceased to hope, he had also ceased to wish, for he said to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” It is one thing the man doesn’t know that this is Jesus and/or that He is a miracle worker (how could he for he had been lying at the pool all the time), but the man doesn’t even consider the possibility that Jesus is willing and able to carry him into the pool. Wow! Consider the hopeless state this man is in! And is this not the same state we are all in without Jesus? The same state we were all in before we knew Jesus? Or worse even! I mean this man is very much aware of the miserable state he is in, and very much aware that he cannot get himself out of it, and even he doesn’t have any hope to get out of that situation. Yet most of us are completely blinded to the miserable state we are in to the point we don’t even consider we need any rescuing. And even if so, we look to ourselves for the solution; we look to ourselves for the cure; we look to ourselves for the hope. Don’t we? We do not naturally look to Jesus to be healed, to be made well, right? “No, no, I am not an impatient person,” you say to yourself while you are at the bus stop while you keep looking at your watch and start tapping with your feet, anxiously looking if the bus is coming. “No, no, I am not a proud person,” as you in that moment start thinking “doesn’t that bus driver know that I have important things to do today. How inconsiderate of him to be so late.” And even when we do think in those moments that we are impatient and proud, do we look to Jesus or to ourselves? To ourselves, right? “Oh, I need to just calm down, find my inner peace, think happy thoughts…” Let’s face it; we are worse off than this man at the pool.

Justification: Jesus Makes Us Whole
Ah, but look at what Jesus does. At the moment of complete and utter despair and hope, He comes to us and says, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” Christ died for those that are without strength. Christ died for the hopeless. He is the hope of the hopeless. He is the Savior not of those partly lost, but of the wholly lost. We don’t come to Him. He comes to us. And He comes to make us whole. And just as He spoke creation into existence with words of divine power, He speaks to us, and we are healed, just like this man was, for the next verse says, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” One moment you are paralyzed by sin, completely unable to help yourself and get out of your miserable situation, and Jesus acts, and the next moment you are able to stand upright and walk in His ways. What a beautiful picture of our justification! Jesus acts, and at once Jesus sees us standing upright, and we are on equal standing with Him. And it is all His work. We cannot work ourselves into this standing. Jesus did this work for us. And just as it was for this man so it is for us, Jesus completed (finished) this work for us. Our standing has been accomplished for us, and it is there. Jesus sees us standing upright.

Sanctification: Now Go and Sin No More
So far so good, right? But now we come to the tricky part of the story. The question we have to answer is what does the man do now that he has been healed? He goes to the temple, where Jesus finds him again, and then says to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Now, I have read through a whole bunch of commentaries, and they all say the same thing. And that is that the man went to the temple to thank God for His mercy for healing him. And that when Jesus said to him to sin no more that nothing worse happen to him, Jesus warns Him not go back and do the sins which resulted in his paralyzed condition for 38 years in the first place. And this could well be what the text means, but I don’t think it’s the point of the text.

These Jewish leaders took no notice of the glorious healing of the man (he must have been “famous” having been there for 38 years). They willfully ignore Christ, but spent all their energy on telling the man he broke some man-made rule, carrying his bed on the Sabbath. Later, Jesus finds the man again in the temple. What was he doing there? It is save to assume that he was there praising God for healing him, but on the other side it could also have been that the man went to the temple making amends for violating the Sabbath law. Regardless which it is, we can say that the man is trying to obey the law by going to the temple. But Jesus came to fulfill the law. Didn’t He say in John 2, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) And didn’t He say to the Samaritan woman in John 4, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:21, 23). In both these verses Jesus is referring to the fact that He is the object of worship. He is the ultimate temple through which and by which to worship God.

Now, I believe that when Jesus sees the man in the temple and says to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more” that He is referring to the fact that Jesus had just healed him; Jesus had just done this miraculous work for Him, changing his standing before Him; Mercy had just been given, that He is now giving him a warning not to go back to observing the law, but to exhort him to continue in the mercy shown to him.

You see, when the man was healed there was an inherent obedience that flowed out from that. It is unthinkable that after the man was healed he would have just continued lying on that stretcher. No! The obedience to “get up and walk” was part of the miracle. We see this play out a couple of verses later in verses 10-11 when the Jewish leaders ask the man about it, and he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” He saying, “Hey, I just did what He told me to do” He simply obeyed Jesus.

And I believe Jesus is saying here “Well, great that you obeyed, but I gave you mercy, so now continue in this mercy. I released you from the law for I fulfilled it for you, so don’t go back to the law now.” Does that make sense? Jesus is saying that He has made us whole (that He did a completed work for us), and that the result, the outflow of this work for us is obedience in us; an obedience based on His completed work.

When Jesus says, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” what is the issue? The issue is holiness, not health. “I have healed you to make you holy. My aim in healing your body is the healing of your soul. I have given you a gift. It’s free. It came first, before my command. You didn’t earn it. You weren’t good enough for it. I chose you freely. And I healed you. Now, live in this power. Let the gift of healing, the gift of my free grace, be a means to your holiness.” And Jesus warns him that if he turns away and mocks the gift, he will perish. In other words, “I have healed you that you may be holy, that you may stop doing evil, and that you may not rise to the resurrection of judgment, but to the resurrection of life. I have pointed you to myself as a life-giver. Don’t turn from me to a life of sin.”

What a wonderful story this is! Jesus not only shows us His compassion and mercy in healing the lame man, but He gives us a beautiful picture that we all are in desperate need of His compassion and mercy, and that, incapable of coming to Him, He not only comes to us but also does all the work for us by making us whole, and then calls us out of the life we have been living and into a new life that is based on His continued work in and through us, which is based on obedience to the Spirit He has given us.

A Sign of His Mission

Setting Up the Scene
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” (John 2:1-5)

I can remember my own wedding like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful fall day in mid October five years ago. I remember arriving at Christchurch with Eric and Tim, and since we weren’t allowed in the church yet, Benjamin, our photographer, thought it be a nice idea to climb into a small and very unstable old boat that was docked there, which had water in it, and take some pictures. Great idea, and some good pictures, but I can remember almost falling in the water getting into the boat and
being terrified that this boat would old boat would not hold us and that I wouldn’t make it dry to my own wedding. I can remember that the whole day I hadn’t been nervous, but when I heard the music starting and knowing that Heidi was about to come in and walk down the aisle, the sheer anticipation of getting to see my bride was absolutely nerve-wrecking, and beautiful at the same time. I can remember the photo shoot afterward, walking from Christchurch to café Dwaze Zaken, and having our picture taken by Japanese tourists and people shouting ‘congratulations’ from their windows. I can remember a great reception, dinner, and party. And I especially can remember our taxi ride home, where the taxi driver must have thought that we were really anxious to get home that I never been so afraid in a car, literally fearing for my life.

In other words, weddings are beautiful and memorable events, and not only for the bride and groom, but also for all the guests. And our story today, the setting for Jesus’ miracle, happens at a wedding. Now Jewish weddings are very elaborate and rich in ritual and meaning, and quite different from how we celebrate a wedding. After the official ceremony, the bride and groom would lock themselves in a room to consummate the marriage while the guests are all assembled, ready to celebrate the new marriage. Once the marriage was consummated the friend of the bridegroom, the best man, would announce the good news to all the guests and the celebration would begin, lasting for an entire week! Only at the end of the week, the bride and groom would make their long awaited appearance and there would be a joyous meal, a marriage supper to honor the new couple. So, our story begins telling us that Jesus, His mother, and His disciples Peter, Andrew, John, Philip, and Nathanael were at a wedding and the wine ran out. Now in those days, wine was the only drink other than water, so to fail in providing adequately for the guests would involve social disgrace, an error that would probably never be forgotten, and would haunt the newly married couple all their lives. On top of that, wine was a symbol of joy, and so not providing enough wine on a wedding feast implies a lack of joy of the married couple. I can remember at our wedding that during the feast in the evening I was afraid that they had forgotten all about the champagne because it was already a lot later than when it was planned to do the toast, and so I went to check in. Luckily they hadn’t forgotten about it; it just took them much longer than expected to get everything ready. I mean I guess most married couples will have a story of something that went wrong on their wedding day, but to run out of drinks all together while everyone is still feasting is quite embarrassing.

And so Jesus’ mother Mary tells Jesus there is no more wine. Now, Jesus’ response has puzzled many smart people over the years, but it is good to realize that although Jesus is sort of rebuking His mother here He is not being disrespectful. It does seem that his mother expected Him to do something. We are not told what she expected, but we are told that Jesus did not approve of what she said. Jesus’ response of “what does this have to do with me?” seems to be saying “You shouldn’t be coming to me like this. This is not your affair.” What makes this so significant is that Jesus goes right ahead and takes care of the problem by doing a miracle. If you are going to do what your mother has in mind anyway, why don’t you simply agree with her and then do it? And I think the answer is that Jesus wants to make clear that although Mary is His mother, it is not by His mother’s will that He acts, but by His Father’s will. Later on in this gospel, Jesus says, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28). His mother and His physical family would have no special advantage to guide His ministry. And His mother and physical family would have no special advantage to receive His salvation. Jesus is saying to His mother: your relationship with me as mother has no special weight here. You are a woman like every other woman. My Father in heaven, not any human being, determines what miracles I perform. You, like every one else, come to me by faith, not by family.

And then Jesus also says that His hour has not yet come. What is this hour? All throughout this gospel, John is using this term to anticipate the hour of His death when He will die for sinners and make purification for sins. In John 12, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23-24). And so while here in chapter 2 indeed the hour of His death has not yet come, He goes right ahead and does the miracle. Why? It seems like He wants to give us a sign of what’s coming; a sign of His upcoming mission; what He is come to do here on earth which will ultimately beautifully climax in His death.

The Best Wine: An Act of Faith
We don’t know what exactly happened between Mary telling the servants to do whatever Jesus says, and Jesus actually asking them, but I think that Jesus got up from His table and sort of unnoticed went to the back where the servants were to instruct them what to do. And He asked them to completely fill up these six stone water jars with water. Now this must have been a very strange request to the servants as these jars were normally used for cleansing and ritual purification. You see, daily life, and especially contact with Gentiles and the secular world made a Jew ceremonially unclean. Therefore, Jews poured water over their hands before eating and so on. But the feast was already ongoing; this was not the time for that. There was a wine problem, not a cleansing problem, right? But as Mary asked the servants to do whatever Jesus asked them, they obeyed without question, filling them up till they almost overflowed. Can you imagine if these servants were lazy and only filled up the jars halfway? There would have been only half the amount of wine, and thus only half the blessing for the bridegroom and all the guests. And since it says that this miracle manifested His glory, Jesus would have been way less glorified. And then He tells them to take some of the water and bring it to the master of the feast. This took a lot of faith. Can you imagine how angry the master of the feast would be if the servants brought him water to taste! Yet in faith, they obeyed the word of Jesus. And what happened? The water had become wine. Good wine. I am guessing the best wine they every tasted! And lots of it! 20-30 gallons * 6 jars = 120-180 gallons (450-680 liters of wine = 337- 510 bottles of wine). Jesus performed miracles in many different ways. Here, Jesus did not say a word or blink an eye. He merely exercised His will and the miracle was done.

Can you imagine what a huge blessing this must have been for the married couple, which are completely unaware as to where all this awesome wine came from! One moment this marriage feast would have been remembered for a long time as the feast that ran out of wine, and the married couple probably scarred for life in their community. And the next moment this marriage feast is now remembered as the feast with an abundance of the best wine ever, and the married couple probably praised for life in their community (as no one knew where the wine came from). But the disciples knew, and they believed in Jesus. Of course they believed before, but now their belief was deepened and re-expressed. This is typical in our Christian lives. God does something great in our lives, and we believe in Him all over again.

So, What’s Really Going On?
Now, let’s take a step back and see what really happened, because although I am sure Jesus took great pleasure in blessing the married couple with an abundance of wine, I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here. Like I said earlier it seems like He wants to give us a sign of what’s coming; a sign of His upcoming mission; what He is come to do here on earth. And not only a sign, He wanted to manifest His glory! But how then did He do that?

First, we see that Jesus uses these six stone jars that are normally used for ritual purification. You see, what they did in the Old Testament is take a very rare and valuable red heifer, a red cow which had never been pregnant, that was without blemish or defect, and completely burn it (skin, flesh, blood, even its dung). And the priest would add three things (which all point to Jesus): he would add some precious cedar wood (pointing to the preciousness of the cross), hyssop (pointing to the cleansing of sin), and scarlet (pointing to the cleansing by His blood). And afterwards they would gather all the ashes and sprinkle it in water bit by bit to make the water fit for purification. And to be cleansed you would be sprinkled with this water mixed with ashes. We read in Hebrews 9:13-14, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13-14) And so we have Jesus manifesting His glory by giving us a sign, an acted out parable, of how His hour, His own death, will be the final, decisive, ultimate purification of sins. There is no ritual any more for cleansing. There is one way to be clean before God. Coming to Jesus to be cleansed by His blood.

Secondly, we see that Jesus fills these six empty stone jars, and fill them with water to brim all the way full, and then once the servants in faith use the water the water has turned into wine, the best wine ever. No, again, there is a lot of symbolism here. These empty stone jars are a picture of our dead, unregenerated and empty hearts before God. The water is a picture of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Word of God. And wine is a picture of joy and new life. We read in Ezekiel 36:26, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) And so we have Jesus manifesting His glory by giving us a sign, an acted out parable, of how He has come to fill our dead empty hearts with the living water of the Holy Spirit, and that when we step out in faith, we will experience His abundant joy and life. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

And thirdly, we see that Jesus performs this miracle at a wedding, and we have read that because of His work, there was an abundance of wine and joy. And I believe this wedding is a picture of the ultimately wedding supper of the lamb at the end of all things. And what a feast it will be! We read in Isaiah 25:6, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” (Isaiah 25:6) And so we have Jesus manifesting His glory by giving us a sign, an acted out parable, of a greater marriage feast than that of Cana that one day will be held, when Christ Himself will be the bridegroom and all believers together will be the bride. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:9)

So, here in the beginning of the gospel of John as a first miracle, as a first sign, we have a three-fold revealing and manifestation of His glory, a three-fold display of His grace. As the ultimate purifier, He gracefully shows us that there is but one way to come to God, and that is to be cleansed by the blood sacrifice of Jesus. As the ultimate live-giver, He gracefully shows us that by faith we can have our stone hearts regenerated and experience an abundant and joyful life. And as the
ultimate bridegroom, He gracefully shows us the true wedding feast that He is preparing for us, the church, wherein we will forever be joined in holy matrimony to Jesus, our perfect husband. “And his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)