Monthly Archives: September 2012

Weekend Devotional, September 29-30, 2012: The Well Is Deep…

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep….” – John 4:10-11

 

John tells us that Jesus used his own physical thirst to reveal the spiritual thirst of the woman from Samaria.  He had asked her for a drink when she arrived to draw water from Jacob’s well.  When she expressed surprise that he had engaged her in conversation, Jesus invited her to seek the living water which he alone could provide.  Before acknowledging her spiritual longings, she pushed back Jesus’ offer in a way that revealed both misunderstanding and insight, “You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.”

The Samaritan woman was misguided in her assessment of Jesus’ inability to provide water, for the water he was talking about required no bucket.  “Living water” springs from the heart of those who seek it through Christ Jesus, and it becomes a source of life in them just as a river provides life in a dry land.

The unnamed woman was correct, however, when she remarked that Jacob’s well was deep.  While she was speaking of the physical well, Jesus redirected her thoughts to show just how deep Jacob’s well of faith was – deeper than the divisions between the Jews and the Samaritans, deeper than the social norms that held men and women apart, deeper than the brokenness that brings pain and the sin that brings defeat.  Jesus’ offer to this woman was to drink deep from the well of faith to experience the deep, deep love and grace of God.

Good Father, remind me in the shallowness and limitation of life that your great love runs deep.  Amen.

 

a Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Nathanael, Pure and Simple Patron Saint

blog_icon

No one really knows who Nathanael is.  He appears only in John’s Gospel and only twice there — in the first chapter and the last.  Such a cameo appearance is not totally surprising in John’s Gospel.  John’s chapters are filled with persons, unknown in the synoptics, who make brief but profound appearances — Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind.  These little-known characters serve an important role in the fourth gospel.  They are the straight men.  They ask questions, which set up a teachable moment for Jesus.  The questions, some humorous — some not, continually highlight the difference between the life these people live and the life which Jesus offers.  ”How can a man enter his mother’s womb for a second time?” Nicodemus asked.  ”How can you give me water, you don’t even have a bucket?” the Samaritan woman protested.  And the question of Nathanael, the first straight man in John’s Gospel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

nath

When Nathanael responds to Philip’s simple invitation to “come and see”
and encounters Jesus, he is immediately convinced that he has indeed
found the messiah of God. This meeting, as is nearly every meeting in
John’s Gospel, serves as a clash of two worlds and exposes both how
little Nathanael (and this world) knows about Jesus (in his earlier
dismissal) and how much Jesus knows about Nathanael. “Behold,” Jesus
said of Nathanael, “An Israelite in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47).

What sort of greeting is this? Perhaps Jesus is announcing,
“Here is the true Israelite.” Throughout the Gospel, Jesus spars with
the Jewish leaders, clears the Temple, breaks the rigid legal codes,
exposes religious hypocrisy, challenges institutional authority, and
ultimately triumphs over the leaders’ jealousy and hatred. John seems
to express in the person of Nathanael that Jesus is not rejecting
Judaism, rather he is rejecting the way it has been institutionalized.
Nathanael is the true Jew, the true Israelite, the uncorrupted Jew, “the
Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

Perhaps because of his pure heart (Matthew 5:8), Nathanael immediately recognizes and
confesses Jesus as not only the Son of God, but also as the King of
Israel, the true leader of the Jews. It is interesting to note, that it
was this same title, King of the Jews, which Pilate hand-wrote and
placed on the cross when Jesus was crucified (John 19:19-22), much to
the dismay of the Jewish leaders. It seems that the kingship and
authority of Jesus served as a threat to both the religious and the
political leaders of his day. Not so with Nathanael. With a pure
heart, he can see God, and he both confesses Jesus as his King and
submits gladly to Jesus’ authority. Jesus welcomes Nathanael into God’s
mighty movement, promising him, “You will see heaven opened, and the
angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51)
– the fulfillment of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28.

What happens to Nathanael? Does he see such things? We do not know. He is
not mentioned again in the Bible except in the list of followers who
went fishing with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection (John 21). Some
scholars make the assumption that Nathanael is the same person as
Bartholomew since he and Philip are mentioned together in several places
in the Bible. If Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew, tradition
holds that he preached the Gospel in India and was martyred in Armenia.
His Feast Day has been set as August 24.

On the other hand, perhaps Nathanael is someone altogether different. Perhaps this
straight man is greater than any of the other disciples named in the
Gospels. Perhaps he is the archetype of true followers of Christ, one
whose heart is pure and whose lifestyle is simple. It may be that
Nathanael is not even an historical figure in John’s rendering of the
Gospel, but rather a representative of all persons who respond to the
simple invitation to “come and see,” of all followers whom Christ
foreknew (Romans 8:29), of all seekers who come to Christ Jesus with
simple trust, of all disciples whose hearts are purified by Christ’s
presence, of all believers who confess Jesus as Savior and who submit to
his kingly authority.

It is in that spirit, with that hope,
and toward that end, that Nathanael is adopted as the Patron Saint of
Pure and Simple Lifestyle Christianity. May his witness live on in us.

Friday, September 28, 2012: Caring and Carrying…

7 There came a woman of Samar’ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar’ia?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.   – John 4:7-9

John tells us that while Jesus was resting, a woman came to the well, and Jesus asked her for a drink of water.  It appears that Jesus was not only weary, he was also thirsty.  While these expressions of Jesus’ physiological needs are important, we can’t help imagining that they point to something greater.  Perhaps Jesus was weary of the prejudice and hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans, and maybe he was thirsty for reconciliation, justice, and peace.  On the other hand, perhaps Jesus’ neediness simply served to reveal a greater neediness of this Samaritan woman, who was weary from her hard life of disappointment, brokenness, and shame; and who was thirsty for acceptance, forgiveness, and love.  It could be that Jesus so identified with those who had been hated, mistreated, and cast out that he fully experienced the pain and burden this woman was carrying.

Whatever the back-story, Jesus entered into this woman’s world by expressing his own neediness.  He, a Jewish rabbi, asked this Samaritan woman for a drink of water.  She was shocked by his gentle intrusion into her life.  She had been told all her life that Jews had no dealings with Samaritans.  Jesus’ conversation with this outcast Samaritan woman challenged her worldview and changed her life.  It would have been comforting for Jesus simply to affirm that God cares about Samaritans.  It would have been amazing for her to hear that God cares about outcasts.  It was life-transforming for her to learn that Jesus carries her burden with her, feels her weariness, and knows her thirst for something more.

John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” said late in life as he approached death, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things – that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”

Lord Jesus, thank you for caring about me and for carrying my burdens.  Amen

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” – Isaiah 54:4

 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, September 27, 2012: Rest for the Weary…

5 So he came to a city of Samar’ia, called Sy’char, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.

Jesus rested.  That’s what John tells us about Jesus as he journeyed across Samaria.  He was weary from his travels, and he rested.  Sometimes we can overlook the human side of Jesus, and, quite frankly, the gospels don’t tell us much about Jesus’ humanity.  In John we read that Jesus was tired, that Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, and that Jesus cried out on the cross, “I thirst.”  These are about the only glimpses we see of Jesus’ humanity.  All of this can cause us to consider what it means that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  After all, if Jesus did not feel human emotions or struggle with the aches and pains of life, then surely he could not be like us.  Most of us could negotiate life effectively if we always knew the future, always knew the right answer, and only had to speak a word for a miracle to be performed.

But we read that Jesus grew weary under the noonday sun and he rested.  John tells us that Jesus shared our human experience, but he did so without sharing our human nature.  That is, his orientation was not toward self-advancement or personal pleasure.  His motivation was pure love – love for God and love for others.  It is his nature that makes Jesus divine, and his miraculous powers were simply manifestations of God’s work through him.  Of course, even here we find help for living.  When Jesus was weary from the world, he rested in his father’s care and keeping.  His was not an anxious rest, a fitful rest.  His was more a true Sabbatical rest, resting in God.  Likewise, Jesus rested in faith and trust.  It is not by accident that John tells us that Jesus sat down by Jacob’s Well.  Jesus was resting in the faith of all who had come before.  It is to this same rest that Jesus calls us when he says, “Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Lord Jesus, I know you must grow weary with me.  Continue your work in me that I may live like you, love like you, and even rest like you.  Amen.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Wednesday, September 26, 2012: Breaking Down Walls of Hostility…

4 He had to pass through Samar’ia. 5 So he came to a city of Samar’ia, called Sy’char, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.   – John 4:4-5

 

John tells us that Jesus travelled from Jerusalem to Samaria on his way to Galilee.  Note the geographic progression of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  After his baptism “beyond the Jordan,” he travelled to Cana of Galilee, a city unknown to the other Gospel writers and of uncertain location to scholars today, though many scholars place it close to Jesus’ home of Nazareth.  From there Jesus travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, to the center of Judaism.  He then travelled along the Jordan and came into Samaria.  Now note the implication of the setting.  John writes that Jesus’ performed a transforming miracle (water to wine) in Cana, then tells that he offers just such transformation to Judaism, first by cleansing the Temple, then by offering Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, the life-transforming power of birth “from above” with the Holy Spirit.  Now, John reports that Jesus moves from the center to the fringe with the same offer.

The Gospel tells us that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.”  Such is not necessarily the case, at least not logistically.  It is true that Samaria, home to hated half-breeds who claimed to be descendants of Jacob’s son Joseph, was geographically located between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north.  So great was the division between the Jews and the Samaritans that most pious Jews walked along the east side of the Jordan River to avoid setting foot on Samaritan soil.  John speaks of Jesus and his disciples being at the Jordan River just before they began their travels to Galilee, so it would have been expected that the group would follow the common practice and avoid Samaria altogether.  Not so.  John tells us that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.”  This requirement does not appear to be dictated by geography so much as by purpose, by intent, by commission.  Jesus journeyed on purpose from the center of the Jewish world into the misunderstood, hated, suspect world on the fringe – from Jerusalem to Samaria.

As faith is institutionalized, it is easy – almost natural – for it to spawn division, to create insiders and outsiders.  Even the disciples of John the Baptist and those of Jesus experienced such friction, as John tells us in the previous chapter.  God’s intention in sending Christ Jesus into this divided world was to “break down the dividing wall of hostility,” Paul writes in Ephesians, “so making peace.”  In order for him to do that, Jesus had to travel first to Jerusalem, and after that “he had to pass through Samaria.”

Good Father, in the spirit and power of Jesus, help me to break down walls of hostility and to build bridges of trust.  Amen

“He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…” – Ephesians 2:14

 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Tuesday, September 25, 2012: He must increase…

30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”  – John 3:30

 

It is not surprising that the followers of John wondered about things when Jesus launched his work.  While some people had responded to John, a far greater buzz surrounded Jesus.  John’s disciples didn’t like it that Jesus’ popularity had surpassed John’s.  It must have bothered them that John had been preaching before Jesus, but now Jesus was getting all the attention.

The followers may have wondered about all of this, but neither Jesus nor John did.  They did not view each other as competitors.  Instead, they recognized that each of them was advancing God’s plan.  John expressed to his followers that Jesus’ rising popularity was actually a good thing, a God-directed thing.  “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John said in beautiful humility.  John told his followers that Jesus was the bridegroom, and he was merely the best man.  He knew Jesus to be the Christ, and he understood himself to be the prophet preparing his way.

This saying by John is not merely an expression of humility from the Baptizer, it is also an expression of the essence of coming to faith in Christ.  Entering into a saving relationship with our Lord requires us to subjugate our will to the greater will of God.  And as we grow in grace, we daily find that Christ’s presence grows stronger in our lives.  We are simply transformed by Christ’s presence and power, and we become more like him every day.  “He must increase,” each of us confesses, “but I must decrease.”

Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.  Amen.

 

a Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, September 24, 2012: No Condemnation…

17 ”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”    – John 3:17-18

 

Sometimes people hear bad news when good news is offered.  When the gospel tells us of God’s offer of new life, some people come to the conclusion that God has issued an ultimatum – either they accept God’s gift or God will condemn them to torment.  Such a view makes salvation comparable to spiritual extortion and paints God as a spiritual dictator.  Though widely held, these beliefs could not be farther from the image the scriptures give us of God and his offer of salvation.  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” we read in John 3:17.  God’s purpose was not to bring judgment and condemnation but rather to offer life, hope, and salvation.  And God did this for two reasons – God’s great love for creation and creation’s great need for God.

It is important to note that God doesn’t have to condemn humanity, that’s the natural human state.  We read in John, “Those who do not believe are condemned already.”  The truth offered here is that God comes to us in our state of condemnation.  Both scripture and experience make it clear that humans are born into a sinful nature.  As egoists we naturally pursue our own best interest, often blindly and in ways that show little regard for anyone else.  As hedonists we actively seek personal pleasure and avoid personal pain.

Religious law, moral law, and even the laws of the state serve to constrain sin, to manage sinful nature.  The best the law can do is to transform our self-interest into enlightened self-interest, but the law is powerless to transform our hearts and motives and lives.

It was for that very purpose that God sent his son into the world.  Through the power of God’s grace and through the work of God’s own Holy Spirit, human hearts are changed.  By working deep within us, God’s grace can raise our purposes, our pursuits, and our passions.  No longer bound by natural instincts for survival, we are freed by God’s grace to seek out the highest, the purest, the noblest, and the best.

The Gospel assures us that God comes to us not with a frightening threat of condemnation but with a gracious offer of freedom and life – salvation through Christ Jesus.

 
Just as I am without one plea
but that thy blood was shed for me
and that thou bidst me come to thee.
O Lamb of God, I come.  Amen.

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” – 1 Corinthians 15:22

 

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Weekend Devotional, September 22-23, 2012: Believing in Christ…

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.    - John 3:16-17

 

The great promise of the scripture is summed up in John 3:16.  A promise that God loved at the highest level and God gave the greatest gift, all for the purpose that anyone and everyone could believe and have eternal life.  Many people who don’t know anything else about the scriptures know and lay claim to this passage.

Notice in this familiar passage that there is only one thing that the object of God’s love needs to do to be the recipient of God’s gift – believe.  So, what does it mean to believe in Christ?

Well, perhaps the best way to answer that is to begin by noting what it does not mean to believe in Christ, what it could not mean.

  • It cannot mean that we simply believe that Jesus existed.  The people who despised Jesus and put him to death had no doubt that he existed.
  • It cannot mean that we simply believe that Jesus is the Son of God.  As important as the issue of Jesus’ divinity is, it is not by itself a sufficient condition for the necessary consequent.  The scriptures point out that evil, destructive, demonic spirits believed Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 1:24, 5:7, etc.).
  • It cannot mean simply believing what Jesus said.  We are rationally capable of simultaneously accepting what someone says as truth and dismissing it as being culturally specific or irrelevant in our situation.

The real mystery of faith is not that Jesus lived, not that Jesus was God’s son, not that Jesus told the truth, but that Jesus opens to us eternal life.  By eternal life, the scriptures are not talking about an extension of our bodily functions forevermore.  Eternal life is life on God’s terms, in God’s time, with the fullness of God’s blessings (See Simply Speaking for Wednesday, September 19).  All of Jesus’ miracles offer signs of this life.  This is a life lived in relationship with God through Christ, and we enter into this eternal life not upon death, but rather upon belief, upon denying ourselves and living unto Christ – upon losing our life for Christ’s sake.

I need to give you a warning about eternal life.  It is a free gift, defined by incalculable blessings, but it also comes with impossible demands.  Eternal life is life lived fully on Jesus’ terms – loving the things Jesus loves, caring the way Jesus cares.  It is living on the highest level for the noblest purposes to the greatest glory of God.  It is the grandest, hardest, most glorious, impossible life imaginable.  So, think carefully about it before you accept this gift… do you believe in Christ?

Good Father, I believe, help thou my unbelief.  Amen

 

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 16:25

 

a devotional by Gorman Houston

Friday, September 21, 2012: Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus

9 Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  – John 3:9-15

 

During the long ordeal in the desert wilderness, the newly freed Hebrew slaves found much to complain about, and the scriptures are filled with accounts of their “murmurings.”  Instead of trusting the God who delivered them from the strong and mighty hand of Pharaoh, they remembered fondly their days in captivity and complained continually against their liberator.

Why did God rescue the Israelites from slavery if they were happy in Egypt?  Perhaps it is not that they were happy so much as it is that they were comfortable.  No doubt it was a hard life, but it was predictable – there was food; they were protected by their captors; and while there was heartache and toil, the Hebrew people had learned to accommodate their station in life.  All was well enough in their eyes, but all was not well with God.  God did not create his people to be slaves.  He did not bring forth a mighty nation from childless Abraham and Sarah just so they could be comfortable living as strangers in a foreign land.  God’s plan was greater than their plan.

As God brought deliverance, the Israelites experienced many and various trials, one of which was a series of attacks by poisonous serpents.  Moses interceded for his dying people, and God instructed him to put a fiery serpent on his staff and lift it high, that all who were dying could look to it and find healing.

Jesus told Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, that just as God had a greater plan for the Hebrew people than to be enslaved in Egypt, so too God has a greater plan for his people than to be enslaved in sin.  And just as God had provided a salve to bring healing in the wilderness of Sinaii, so too God has provided salvation to bring healing to a dying world.  And just as the Hebrews were healed as they looked at the serpent which had been “lifted up,” so too healing, wholeness, even eternal life are offered to those who turn to the Christ as he is “lifted up.”  Lifted up on the cross of Calvary, lifted up in ascent to heaven, lifted up as lord of life, Christ offers salvation to all who turn and trust.

Good Father, help me to trust you, to turn my eyes and my life to Jesus, and to follow where he leads.  Amen.

 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8-9

 

a devotional by Gorman Houston

Thursday, September 20, 2012: The Seen and the Unseen…

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” – John 3:5-8

 

When Nicodemus questioned Jesus about being born anew, Jesus responded with a simple truth – “that which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.”  What Jesus was saying is, the insights you have about earthly things grant you insight into heavenly things.  That’s a great concept for us to master, and it’s one that Jesus offers over and again.  “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus told the religious leader, “And you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” We see here and throughout the gospels that the world serves as Jesus’ classroom, for the natural bears witness to the supernatural, the seen to the unseen, the physical to the spiritual, the practical to the unimaginable.

Don’t we see this same pedagogy in the parables which Jesus uses as teaching tools in the other gospels?  “The kingdom of God is like…,” Jesus begins, and then he talks of farming and fishing, of birds and lilies, of strangers and neighbors, of sheep and goats, of family relationships and friends at the midnight hour.  The natural bears witness to the supernatural, the seen to the unseen, the physical to the spiritual, the practical to the unimaginable.

Jesus’ offer is for Nicodemus to move beyond the prevailing understanding of religion as rules and to find faith as fullness of life.  There’s a supernatural, spiritual awakening just waiting to unfold, Jesus teaches.  It’s like the wind, powerful and life-giving.  You cannot control the spirit with rules, nor can you see it, but it’s as real as the wind blowing through the trees.  How do you know?  Behold the witnesses – the natural bears witness to the supernatural, the seen to the unseen, the physical to the spiritual, the practical to the unimaginable.  “…So it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Good Father, open my eyes to behold the world about me with all its wonders, and use what is seen to teach me about your kingdom which is unseen.  Amen

We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:18

 

a devotional by Gorman Houston