Category Archives: John's Gospel

Tellus the answer Mother

Long before any of us were born, before we ever had a thought or asked a question, a civilisation had been born, grown, conquered the known world and then died. In this society the great questions of life were asked by the philosophers, portrayed by the plays and idolised by the poets. An intricate web of personalities stood behind the cause and effect of the visible and invisible world. The civilisation was the Roman Empire, and the personalities were their pagan gods.

In chapter 7 of the City of God, Augustine dissects as an expert surgeon the layers upon layers of these gods. A complex hierarchy determined the degree of control or influence of each god. He again goes back to Varro to use one of their own philosophers to ensure he represents their position accurately. Augustine asks basic questions like, is there a logical reason why some gods have more important responsibilities or are given a greater degree of worship? After a lengthy analysis of these so-called principal or select gods, Augustine concludes that there is no logical system to explain the hierarchy, but “simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown of the general public”.

So far, so good. We, as a modern, sophisticated reader, can look back at these times as naive and easily discard their superstition. Maybe. This is when the chapter gets really interesting! For Augustine pushes on to the deeper question behind and beyond the pagan rituals, to ask, to what purpose was all this constructed? Why did all of this appear? According to Varro, all the images and attributes and ornaments were created in order that those initiated “could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their minds the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and it’s manifestations”.

Don’t miss the significance of this, one of the leading experts and advocates of the Roman gods is saying that these hundreds of gods were created because there is something else that is indescribable, there is something Other that is untouchable. It is this that he calls the Soul of the World, this essence that is not human, or any created thing, that is beyond our senses but we can hear it’s echo in our lives.

What is this essence? Varro describes it using the three degrees of the soul (borrowed from Aristotle): the most basic level is the material body; the next is sensibility, the ability to experience sensation; the highest level is intelligence, “a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man”. Augustine then goes on to say that “it is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro is God; in man he calls it genius“. This genius connects all things together, and expresses itself as the god of the earth, Tellus, the Great Mother, and the god of the sea Neptune.

An essence within but beyond the created world? Something intelligent, like a person but not human? We may say we have left all of this superstition behind hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but when I went to see The Last Jedi at Christmas this could have been the script for Ray’s island training (a story that mirrors the sentiments of many who feel there must be something out there). Feel the force Ray, find the genius Varro. Why are we aching, reaching, yearning to find what is just out of reach? To describe something indescribable? To find a unifying purpose to make sense of all of life? We may have dropped the pagan gods, yet the human heart remains the same…looking for a way to explain our sense of unaloneness in the universe.

The seeking is good, the longing is innate, but the answer is wrong. For what Varro called the World-Soul, what the modern spirit-seekers may call the Force, what the Greeks called the logos, has been revealed once and for all. Not as a thing, or a system, but as a person. The mistake has been to look inside the created order for the answer, when all the signs pointed to the answer being outside of the natural order of things. “In the beginning was the logos (Word)” says John the apostle. And who is this Word? “And the word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.

All of the ancient pagan system was man’s Herculean attempt to explain the personality behind the planets. Years before Augustine another church father told us that “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33). It is the breath of God that we can see on our rear view mirror, the word of the Lord that we can hear echoing across our our conscience. It is the call of Jesus, the Word made flesh, calling to our lost world to come home.

Are you a daffodil or a pea?

I asked the kids at Carnoustie Community Church yesterday how many of them live in the countryside? What are the crops you see growing in the field? Some said potatoes, others carrots and oil seed rape and many others. What was there about a month or so ago? Daffodils! Fields and fields of them are grown by us.

PeasThen I asked them to identify the plants I pulled out of my bag? What were these? Smell them. No, not weeds, they are actually pea plants. Are any of the adults growing peas in their garden? What do you need for the peas in the garden? Support branches or poles to keep them upright. But do you know how the farmers keep all the peas in the field up? One kid answered, “they have something to hold onto” – yes, that’s right – each other! The farmer sows them so close together that as they grow they support each other. These tendrils that reach out on every direction and wind around their fellow plants until they are totally interwoven with each other and help each other grow higher.

The peas remind me of Christians and the church. Some Christians want to be daffodils – always saying “look at me how pretty I am and how important I am”. Daffodils need no support from their fellow plants; God has not made us to be daffodils, but peas. God wants us to grow close to each other so we can mutually support each other – interwoven in each other’s lives. This is what the church is meant to look like – each plant helping those around it to grow.  It is hard to take one of those plants away without tearing the tendrils. As you grow as Christians it is important that you find other Christians to support you and for you to support. That is why church is so important, so that you are supported as you grow.

Jesus spoke about this in his prayer in John 17. 20-26. Jesus wants his people to be one as he and the Father are one. Jesus is saying that he is one of those pea plants, he wants to be so united with each of us that our lives are interwoven with him, just as they are with each other. Are we a church of peas, where love and mutual support fosters growth? Or are we a church of daffodils, each seeking our own interests? May God grant that we would see the beauty of peas and open our hearts to each other to love and encourage each other.

There is no wrong, there is no right

Moments after entering a darkened room you are disoriented and lose your bearings, particularly if it is an unfamiliar place. Slowly, your eyes become accustomed to the shadows and you begin to pick out the shades of grey. Eventually your eyes can see the frame of the room and you can walk around without falling over. This process is called adaptation and has been something of my experience in encountering Augustine’s City of God. It is a foreign world, an alien land. All of Augustine’s arguments in Book 2 make sense, logically. But there is a disconnect between his world and mine that jars and stops me in my tracks, waiting for my mind to become accustomed to his train of thought. In fact, as my theological eyes have become accustomed to the surroundings I see three disconnects in particular that separate our worlds:

  1. Augustine’s world assumes the existence and central importance of Truth, Morality and Virtue. 
  2. Augustine is able to appeal to a common foundation for, and understanding of morality.
  3. Augustine is able to appeal to his critics to use morality as a barometer of truth.

Each of these presuppositions has been destroyed during the last two millenia. The idea of absolute or ultimate truth has died, to be replaced by Travis’ anthem “there is no wrong, there is no right, the circle only has one side”. Thus, in the UK today there is no shared concept in public life of a virtuous or moral life.  It has been replaced by the utilitarian principle – whatever makes the most people happy most of the time. And so yesterday David Cameron appealed against the scandal of our booze culture that is epidemic in the UK. But what does he give as the motivation for us to change our behaviour? Is it because this is a shameful way to treat our own bodies? Is it because it opens us up to degrading acts against ourselves and other people? No, it’s because it’s costing the NHS too much money!! How ridiculous. There is no appeal to what is right or wrong, just what a vague sense of duty, which ultimately comes from what is helpful or harmful to others. He says in effect “all this drunkenness is wasting lots of taxpayers money on the NHS that could be used for treatment – please grow up and realise how irresponsible this is.”

So I am left to wonder how this parallel universe was created. When was the moment when Augustine’s world and ours detached? Or perhaps it is more like The Picture of Dorian Gray, where each small act of defiance left an indelible mark that over time created a beast.

The sad thing is that this type of change is ultimately futile for it tries to motivate change for the sake of other people. For real change to happen a person must seek to be virtuous for its own sake – because it is the right thing to do, not because it has a positive impact on other people. Although this sounds selfish (to be more concerned with our own behaviour), it is paradoxically self-effacing. No longer is everyone out to claim their rights, as happens in a utilitarian society where each voice is equally right or wrong and only the loudest voice get their views accepted. Instead, a powerful new centre of morality and virtue emanates from within an individual, independent of whether society at large requires such behaviour of them. Thus, individuals are able to rise above their surroundings and the moral milieu of their day to live as they themselves demand, not because of external laws or peer pressure.

This is what Augustine was arguing for in Book 2. That there is a source of all good in the world and truth and morality are objective realities. As a result he argues that those forces which lift us above our savage lusts and restrain our appetites are reflected beams from the source of all goodness. That those things which raise our character to new heights should be recognised as indicators of ultimate truth. These are his presuppositions that he doesn’t seek to defend – rather he argues from this standpoint that the disgusting religious rites of the pagan gods reflect the demonic nature of their origin. How can they be true when they require such behaviour from their followers and make men more depraved, not less? He sees Christianity as providing a moral standard to aspire to, lifting us above what we are by nature. While we may say there are alternative moral teachings from Buddha and Mohammed these days, the questions remain “Why should we be good? Where does morality come from? Can what is created be more virtuous that the creator? Where do honour, respect and virtue come from?”

Although not directly addressing it, in his assumptions Augustine demonstrates his belief in the relationship between truth, goodness and morality. The source of all truth is also the most moral being in the universe. The highest truth should lead to the highest good. Virtue and Enlightenment together – truth is the ultimate virtue. We are far too inclined to see truth as an abstract 2-D binary quality that is independent of any moral component e.g. “Is it true that you were there that night?” Whereas Augustine wants us to consider truth in three dimensions, with a moral quality. Jesus himself does this in John 8.32 – “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Truth brings the freedom to live as we were made to live. To live a life pleasing to God. This dynamic was ultimately revealed in the one who is “the way, the truth and the life” – beautifully uniting the source of truth and the pattern for living in one person. For the Christian this means that the more we get to know the source of truth, the more our lives will reflect this pattern. There is no debate, if our lives don’t reflect this pattern then we don’t know the truth (1 John 2.9).

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4.8

You asked: how can I know I am elect?

Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?

Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?

Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?

I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.

I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).

Dear reader,

Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.

As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.

It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.

It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.

I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:

1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.

2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).

3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.

4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).

5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).

6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.

Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.

Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.

Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.

But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.

I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn

PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:

The Talk – John 21.15-25

Study 28 – John 21v15-25  – The Talk.

(For CBC house groups on 1st Sep 2010 – for word doc download click here)

In our final study in John’s gospel the focus turns to Peter. He has been a strong character throughout John’s gospel, but critically at his time of testing he denied evening knowing his Saviour and Lord. Now Jesus confronts him directly with his failure – is this the end of Peter’s ministry before it has even begun or would Jesus find a way to reinstate his most enthusiastic disciple?

1.     Jim began by asking us to remember a significant conversation we have had that was hard at the time, but we appreciated later. Can you think of such a conversation? What was done well, and not so well? Are there lessons we can learn from how we have been spoken to in the past?

2.     Jim said “Jesus loved Peter too much to leave him alone” – how do we decide when, and when not to, rebuke one another (compare Mat 18.15, 1 Tim 5.1 & 1 Peter 4.8)? How do we strike the balance between love & truth, covering over & exposing?

3.     What does Jesus’ response to Peter’s three confessions say about his priorities for the apostles? What is the connection between our love for Jesus and our love for the church? (1 John 2.9-10, Ephesians 5.25-27).  How can we grow in our love for the church despite the frustrations and failings we experience?

4.     We see in v15-17 that our love for Jesus is the defining criteria for service in the church. How does love for Christ inevitably lead to service of others? Do we come to church to serve or be served? What does this say about our own spiritual health?

5.     Peter’s appointment as an elder and spiritual overseer has been a rocky road. One commentator says: “each shepherd of the flock of God…is to mirror both authority and a certain brokenness that is utterly exemplary (his emphasis).”  How should this temper our enthusiasm for seeking this responsibility (1 Tim 3.1)? How should this inform our appointing of elders?

6.     Peter had always been keen to follow Jesus, yet in v18-19 he learns that his discipleship would end in martyrdom. Peter laboured for many years waiting for this prophecy to be fulfilled; rather than crippling him, it liberated him. How would we respond to such a call to sacrifice?

7.     In v20-24 the beloved disciple comes into view. Although both are called to spiritual leadership, one of them is “called to strategic pastoral ministry and a martyr’s crown, the other to a long life and to strategic historical-theological witness, in written form.” Jesus refuses to compare the two callings for Peter and John – how does their different ministries encourage us to labour in our area of service? How does it help us not to esteem certain ministries over others?

Through his humiliation and subsequent reinstation Peter is now ready to be a true servant of the church. No longer the brash, confident leader, he has learnt the frailty of his own nature and will from now on tread carefully as he grows in spiritual maturity. His self-righteousness has been replaced with tenderness and compassion, and he will show by his fruitful ministry over three decades that he has become a wise and loving Shepard. As he encourage the scattered flock:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow-elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed. Be shepherd’s of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5.1-3)

A Prayer for Glory

John 17v1 -5 – Jesus Prays – (1) For His Glory.

We come now to the first in three studies in Jesus’ prayer recorded in John chapter 17 (click here for word doc download). It is a startling prayer for a man who knew he was about to die. Others have crumbled in the face of death, but not Jesus. This is the most intimate and detailed prayer of Jesus that we have recorded in the gospels. It is a beautiful expression of confidence and trust in his Father to bring to fulfilment his eternal plan for humanity. 

  1. In the very next chapter Jesus will be betrayed, arrested and ultimately crucified. If you had only one prayer to pray what would your prayer be? Share with the group some of the themes you would touch on. How does this compare with Jesus’ concerns?
  2. How would you define “glory” to someone unfamiliar with biblical language? Describe the flow of glory occurring in this passage between the Father and the Son. How is glory displayed through Jesus’ humiliation (Phil 2.8-11)?
  3. Who can and cannot see this glory (John 1.14, 2 Corinthians 4.3-4)? Share with the group how God opened your eyes to see this glory.
  4. One commentator says of verse 3: “Eternal life is not so much everlasting life as personal knowledge of the Everlasting One”. Describe the difference between simply existing forever and having eternal life with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  5. If eternal life is the possession of a deep knowledge of God, what would you say to someone who sees their faith only as “a ticket to heaven when they die”? If life in all its fullness is available here and now, what extra is awaiting us in heaven?
  6. Once someone has this relationship with God it can never be taken away, even through death (Romans 8.38-39). How does this bring us comfort us in the face of death?
  7. Jim summed up this passage as Jesus saying “Not keep out, but come in”. How can we participate in this glory-feast (think back to our studies in John cp 15.1-17)? Have you responded to this invitation to see Jesus’ glory?

Throughout these verses Jesus’ overriding concern is for the final completion of his earthly mission. As our Mediator and Saviour, his primary concern is for the ones he has come to save rather than himself. He desires glory for himself, not for selfish reasons, but only so that he may in return glorify his Father and grant eternal life to all those who will believe. This eternal life is the restoration of the relationship with God that brings a quality and depth to life that begins now and lasts for evermore.

Father show us more of your glory and deepen our understanding of who you are. May we know that eternal life which is more precious than physical life and deeper than any human love, Amen.

In a Little While…

Here is my latest study on John’s gospel that our house groups are using tonight. It provides a encouraging reminder that even though we will face hard times in the days to come, in a little while we will finally see Him face to face, and that will make it all worthwhile.

John 16v16-33; Full On.

As Jesus closes in upon the cross he seeks to encourage his disciples that although painful, the trial that is coming will be short. A new day will dawn and their grief will one day turn to joy. But for now they must prepare themselves for his going away and the sorrow soon to arrive.

  1. Jesus’ approach of not holding back difficult teaching is in stark contrast to our own politicians – particular at this election time. They would rather be popular than transparent. What would happen if the political parties adopted this strategy? Why does Jesus not fear being unpopular?  
  2. Jesus warns them that he is going away – where is he going and why can’t they see him? Do you think verse 16b refers to his death and resurrection or the second coming? Why?
  3. What is the event that will turn their grief to joy (v20)? Compare John 20.20, how does this sudden change in outlook support the historical truth of the resurrection? 
  4. What is the connection between the birth pains of verse 22 and the prayer requests of verse 23? What has changed following the cross (Luke 23.45)? 
  5. How does verse 22 and Romans 8.18 help us when we go through hard trials? What is our hope, which like the disciples, we have to wait for (1 John 3.2b)? 
  6. Over and over again Jesus speaks of timing – “in a little while” (v16-19), “her time” (v21), “your time” (v22), “that day” (v23, 26), “time is coming” (v32). What does this emphasis teach us about the importance of waiting and timing to God? What can we learn from God’s Providence to encourage us in our waiting?  
  7. In light of this passage, we could also say that “in a little while” we will see Jesus. How does what Jesus says to his disciples encourage us while we wait? According to Romans 8.23-25 what are we ultimately waiting for? 
  8. Why did Jesus use figures of speech (v25 & 29) when his hearers so often failed to understand them? Compare Matthew 13.10-17, what purpose are the parables and figurative language serving?

Even though Jesus would be the one who would be betrayed, deserted, beaten, mocked and crucified, he focuses on the disciples’ forthcoming grief at his suffering, rather than their failure. His aim in giving them this stark warning is that when it arrives they will know it is part of his plan and be at peace (v33). In Jesus’ opinion peace comes from walking with him through life’s difficulties rather than naively offering false promises. God is ultimately in control through all of life’s dark days.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

John 16v4-15; The Work of the Holy Spirit

As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples he promises them that they will not be left alone, the Counsellor will come to be with them. This promised outpouring of the Spirit will fulfil the dual purposes of bringing conviction and comfort. He will expose sin and explain Christ. The third person of the trinity would be poured out in a dramatic way on the day of Pentecost, and he would change these fearful followers into empowered apostles.

1. How would you describe how the Holy Spirit works in your life to someone who has never been to church? Share a time with the group when you experienced his work in your life.

2. What are some of the images that scripture uses to explain the Holy Spirit to us? (e.g. Mark 1.10, Acts 2.3, Proverbs 9.1-6, Isaiah 30.21) What do these images reveal about his work and person?

3. If the Holy Spirit is “a person and not a power”, as Jim said, what difference does this make in how we relate to him? Jesus also compared the work of the Spirit to the wind (John 3.8), how does this illustration help to explain His personhood?

4. Jesus describes the work of the Holy Spirit as bringing conviction for sin, revealing unrighteousness and warning of judgement. Pick one of these three activities and describe in your own words how the Spirit does this practically in your life and the world.

5. Galatians 5.22 describes the fruits of the Spirit’s work in our lives, how do we reconcile these characteristics of growth with the more disciplinary aspects of the Spirit’s work in the previous question?

6. What impact does this understanding of the Spirit’s work have on our evangelism? How do we balance bringing a message that the world needs to hear with the one it wants to hear? How does it influence our message to others about the love of God?

7. When preaching in the open air to the miners, it is said that John Wesley would preach on the law until he saw the streaks of white down their cheeks (from their tears) and then he would preach grace. Why do you think our society responds differently today when they hear of their sin and a coming judgement? What does this change mean for how we reach them today?

8. Jim mentioned in his sermon, “the Holy Spirit is the best preacher we will ever hear”. How can we allow the Preacher more influence over what we say and do?

The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives brings peace, joy and assurance. But he also lets us know when we are thinking, saying and doing things that grieve him. Through it all his aim is to be our ever-present encourager and guide to help us “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5.10). Take some time to invite him to speak to you and teach you this week more about living in the Spirit.


Here is my second study in John chapter 15, you can find the first one by scrolling down or on the new page I have added to the blog.

John 15v18-6v4 Testify.

In our last study on the opening verses of John 15 we were confronted with Jesus’ challenge to be ready for the pruning that is an essential part of our union with him. He now increases the challenge by preparing us for the inevitable persecution that will accompany all those who follow him. As the full cost of our discipleship is gradually revealed to us, Jesus encourages us that the result of our faithfulness will be the proclamation of the gospel and the perseverance of our faith.

  1. In Jim’s sermon he mentioned a time when he came face to face with the hatred some people have for Christians, when someone said to him “death will take care of people like you”. Have you ever had a similar experience? What should be our reaction to such experiences? (Mat 5.11)
  2. What would you say to someone who said “most Christians in the UK would do anything they can to avoid ridicule and rejection” – do you think this is a fair assessment? How can we know if we worship comfort more than Christ?
  3. In an attempt to make Christianity more appealing some leave out this hard teaching about the cost of following Christ. What happens to our discipleship when we leave out this aspect of the cost? How can we help those who have lost this understanding?
  4. “When the revelation of God is made it will evoke a reaction” – why do some people respond with hatred when they don’t know anything about us personally? What reaction are we evoking in daily lives? How can we balance this expectation of rejection with Proverbs 16.7?
  5. What is our responsibility in the face of persecution (1 Peter 4.14-16)? What is our confidence (Mat 10.19-20, Rom 8.35-38)? Share an encouragement of how you have grown through testing.
  6. In Acts 9.5 Jesus is effectively saying “if they are persecuting you, they are persecuting me”. Why does God allow his son to be persecuted? Would God ever deliberately lead us into persecution (Acts 20.22-24)? How does this challenge a shallow understanding of God’s love?
  7. If the message of suffering is not what people want to hear, and if the cost is so great, why does the church grow so quickly in times of persecution? Do we generally make it too easy or too hard for people to become Christians in our presentation of the gospel? What is our confidence in saying these hard truths to those outside the faith?

Even though we know the truth of these passages, the reality is that we are often far from living this way in our outlook on life. Why is this? Take a moment to reflect on the full cost of following Christ and ask God that he would give us all the strength to withstand persecution when we are tested.

Father would you break us and free us from our love of comfort and enable us to give our lives as sacrificial offerings for your purposes, whatever they may be. For Jesus’ sake, Amen

The True Vine

I am going to be posting bible study questions that I am producing for our church’s house groups. We are working our way through John’s gospel on Sunday mornings and have reached chapter 15. My first study guide is listed below:

John 15v1-17 The True Vine.

This passage brings us to the heart of Jesus’ relationship to his disciples. These verses express the nature of the relationship between the Trinity and the church – the Father working as the master gardener, the Son being the fruitful & faithful vine and the Spirit indwelling and filling the branches, that is, the church. The church is invigorated by the life-giving sap and in return displays the characteristics or “vital signs” of spiritual life – fruitfulness.

  1. The vine was a common feature of life in first century Israel, what image might Jesus have used today in 21st century Scotland to communicate the truths of this passage to a modern audience? What does it say to our instant communication & permanently online society?
  2. What are the benefits of remaining in the vine? What are the results? Think of a time when you were particularly aware of this connection to Jesus – how did this make you feel? How do these experiences help us in the hard times?
  3. If “a Christian is someone who is united to Christ, and reveals it in a fruitful life”, how can we know that we are connected to the vine? How does this challenge a shallow understanding of what is means to be a Christian? What does it mean for those times in our lives when we struggle to see our fruit?
  4. What role do we play and what role does God play in growing more fruit in us? (see Philippians 2.12-13 & Matthew 7.24-27)
  5. What does it mean to “remain” or “abide” in Christ? How can we ensure that Jesus’ words (v 7), remain in us?  What would we say to someone who understood this to mean a purely intellectual belief in the truth of Christ’s teachings?
  6. How do we maintain a healthy approach to discipline in our daily devotions? How can we avoid legalism and stale routine whilst maintaining a close walk with God? Share some practical pointers that have helped you personally.
  7. Have we felt the pruning of the gardener? How can we turn this painful pruning into an opportunity for growth? What is the difference between pruning and punishment (see Hebrews 12.4-11)? Why is it worth the pain? (see Romans 8.18)

The call to fruitful, loving, joyful union with Christ “is simultaneously a mandate to Christ’s followers and a summons to those who do not yet know him. That is why the union of love that joins believers with Jesus can never become a comfortable, exclusivistic huddle that only they can share” (Don Carson). Take some time to pray for those who are not yet joined to the vine and ask God that we would always have this outward-looking, open-handed enjoyment of his love. Renew your commitment to the vine in the words of Frances Havergal in his hymn Take My Life:

“Take my love, my Lord, I pour, at Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.”