Tag Archives: John's Gospel

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

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.

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.”