The question of whether we get in to heaven based on what we do (works) or what we think (belief) is as old as the bible itself, and passages like today’s only help to muddy those waters.

in John 5:28ff, Jesus talks about the resurrection, and He says, “…a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”  This small sentence is filled with assumptions that rock the typical evangelical worldview.  First, the entire view of resurrection throws our “getting in to heaven” idea for a loop.  Notice the dead are not raised to heaven or hell, but to life or condemnation.  Unless “life” is a code word for heaven, which it is not anywhere else in scripture (though “eternal life” is assumed to be), our resurrection doesn’t take us to heaven but to a renewed, perfected, sanctified life here on earth.

Second, the idea that our entrance into heaven is based solely on our belief in Jesus Christ gets rocked here as well.  Jesus doesn’t define Good and Bad people based on what they believe but on what they have done.  “Those who have done what is good” is hard to misinterpret, and even harder to interpret as just a relationship.  So, do we get in to heaven because of what we’ve done or because of Who we know?

I believe the problem with this thought is not about how we get into heaven, but about our preoccupation with our own eternity.  If we are only doing good, only avoiding doing evil, or building a relationship with Jesus solely because we want to get in to heaven, then we are doing these things for the wrong reason.  I’ve asked before whether you would follow Jesus is you could be convinced that He taught that life ends at death.  In other words, would you still follow Jesus if you weren’t promised a great reward (heaven) if you did?  Here is where bearing your cross becomes difficult.  Here is where self-sacrifice for Jesus’ sake becomes costly.  Here is where the rubber hits the road.

Yes, we have been promised eternal life with Jesus if we follow Him.  Yes, our following of Jesus is what determines if we live with Him forever or not.  But is our faith ultimately self-serving (“I’ll do whatever it takes to get in to heaven”) or God-serving?

John leaves his section dealing with Jesus superseding the symbols of Judaism and moves on to the next section which deals with the Jewish feasts.  There are a number of these feasts and Jesus takes on 4 of them before the middle of John’s gospel.  The first is Sabbath.

Every week, the Jews celebrated work and rest with Shabbat, or Sabbath.  Based on the fact that during creation, God rested on the seventh day and commanded us to as well (oops), Sabbath was the most common and most celebrated feast of the Jewish calendar year.  On it, you did no work but rested from your labors.  Imagine having a whole day each week that by law was set aside from work to celebrate family, rest, and God.

But as with any command of God, humans began to try to find loopholes and ways around it.  So the Pharisees invented a whole set of rules to determine what was work and what wasn’t, what could be done on the sabbath and what couldn’t.  And so what began as a wonderful day of rest, peace, family, and worship soon became a day of duty, law, and judgement.  One of these rules had to do with carrying your bed around.

Side Note: it is always fascinating to think about what was going on when a rule was originated.  For example, when parking your elephant at a meter in Orlando Florida, be sure to deposit the same amount of change as you would for a regular motor vehicle.  And if you stop for a beer in North Dakota, don’t expect to get any pretzels with your beverage. It’s against the law in that state to serve beer and pretzels at the same time.  Now what circumstances had to happen for anyone to even think up rules like these?

Back to the text.  Jesus heals a man from his lameness, and tells him to take his bed home since he didn’t need it at the “healing pool” anymore.  He does and is confronted by the Jewish leaders who accuse him of breaking their Sabbath Law about carrying your bed around.  And Jesus uses this opportunity to tell them that he is doing God’s work, and God is always working, even on the Sabbath.  Jesus, doing God’s work, will follow God’s rules, not theirs.  God’s work is more important than their sabbath laws.

Do you take a sabbath?  If so, do you do it out of worship, rest, and peace, or out of duty and regulation?  A good habit if done for the right reason.

Yesterday Jesus showed Himself to be more than the sacred well where He met the woman in Samaria.  While the water from this well that Jacob dug generations ago will leave you thirsty again, Jesus said, the water I give you (meaning a relationship with God lived through the Holy Spirit) will not only never leave you thirsty again but will overflow so you can share it with others.

Today, in the same setting and the same time but with a different audience, the disciples in this case, Jesus uses a similar metaphor for a different point.  Rather than water which the woman was coming to draw, He uses food which the disciples urged Him to eat.  And rather than a gift given to us from God, Living Water, Jesus shares with His disciples a gift they can give to God, harvesting the food God has produced.

Which of these two gifts do you need today for your own spiritual growth?  Sometimes we are in need of a reminder that we have received the Living Water, the Holy Spirit, which overflows in us, satisfying our thirst for God and giving us all we need to share God with others.  Sometimes we are in need of a mission, a good hard day’s work in the harvest field, so that we don’t become lazy Christians, or selfish Christians, or nominal Christians.

Take some time today and ask God to supply what you need, water or food, gift or mission, and then receive with thanksgiving.  And be sure that you never go too long only quenching your thirst and not harvesting the crops – that’s one of the greatest temptations in our suburban culture.

Yesterday Jesus showed Himself to be more than the sacred well where He met the woman in Samaria.  While the water from this well that Jacob dug generations ago will leave you thirsty again, Jesus said, the water I give you (meaning a relationship with God lived through the Holy Spirit) will not only never leave you thirsty again but will overflow so you can share it with others.

Today, in the same setting and the same time but with a different audience, the disciples in this case, Jesus uses a similar metaphor for a different point.  Rather than water which the woman was coming to draw, He uses food which the disciples urged Him to eat.  And rather than a gift given to us from God, Living Water, Jesus shares with His disciples a gift they can give to God, harvesting the food God has produced.

Which of these two gifts do you need today for your own spiritual growth?  Sometimes we are in need of a reminder that we have received the Living Water, the Holy Spirit, which overflows in us, satisfying our thirst for God and giving us all we need to share God with others.  Sometimes we are in need of a mission, a good hard day’s work in the harvest field, so that we don’t become lazy Christians, or selfish Christians, or nominal Christians.

Take some time today and ask God to supply what you need, water or food, gift or mission, and then receive with thanksgiving.  And be sure that you never go too long only quenching your thirst and not harvesting the crops – that’s one of the greatest temptations in our suburban culture.

John continues to show that Jesus is greater than the symbols of Israel today when He meets the Samaritan woman at the Sacred Well.  Having traveled through Samaria, the center of worship for Israel back in the days of Ahab, He stops at one of the sacred wells that Jacob dug.  Here He meets a woman and teaches us through her His supremacy over this powerful symbol of God’s provision.

In an arid land where water is hard to come by, the wells dug by the Patriarchs were not just watering holes for people and livestock but were symbols of God’s provision.  Jesus comes to this sacred well and tells the woman He meets there that she can drink from this well and will thirst again.  However, if she drinks from the water Jesus can give her then she will not only never thirst again, but will herself become a stream of living water.  This intrigues her and so she presses on the conversation.

This image of water is a fitting one for Jesus.  When we are spiritually thirsty, we try to quench that thirst with all sorts of things.  We try to ignore it with distractions like media or busyness or addictions.  We try to find other water that will quench it in things like human wisdom, philosophies, unhelpful relationships, “religion” or “spirituality”.  But Jesus makes it clear that none of these things will work.  The only thing that meets our spiritual thirst is a relationship with Jesus Himself.  But more than that, He will not only quench our thirst but will give us all we need to help others find this solution to their thirst as well.

Jesus is enough for us, and a relationship with Him is the only cure for our thirsty souls.

Taking a break today from John’s gospel, we turn to another of my favorite stories of the Old Testament, that of Hezekiah and the Assyrian invasion.  Hezekiah is one of the true heroes of the bible, yet is little known.  He is king of Judah, the most southern of the two kingdoms into which God’s People divided when Rehoboam and Jeroboam were both proclaimed king.

Israel, the Northern Kingdom, has turned away from God and been sacked by the Assyrian Empire from the north, but now the Assyrians are setting their eyes on Judah as well.  With Israel out of the way, Assyria takes over city after city and finally comes to Jerusalem.  As the Assyrian commander taunts the people of Jerusalem, he gives us one of the most crucial questions Hezekiah, and in fact we ourselves, face in this world:  “On what are you basing this confidence of yours?”  His point is that Assyria has defeated every nation who relied on their god to protect them.  Those gods are now ash heaps or piles of rubble.  What, he asks, makes your God any different?  How can one city stand against the might of the Assyrian Empire?

Hezekiah begins by trying to appease Assyria, stripping the city of its wealth (including the temple of God) and sending it off, but Assyria is not appeased and continues the assault.

We face foes today who as us the same question:  “On what are you basing this confidence of yours?”  When we trust in God against all odds, like one small city against a vast and proven empire, our enemies will work hard to shake our confidence in God.  And usually, our best response is that of Hezekiah’s people:  silence.  Trust does not require us to win arguments with others, or convince them that we are correct.  As we’ve seen again and again, this fight, whatever it may be, is not ours anyway.  It is God’s, and as we will see tomorrow, God will come through and save us from our enemies if we simply follow and trust in Him.  If not, then our fate will be like that of Israel.

As John continues his teachings that Jesus is greater than the symbols of the Jewish culture (yesterday it was Ritual Cleansing and the Temple), today he takes on the Pharisees.  But when John takes on the Pharisees, he doesn’t do it the way we usually see it, with Jesus attacking them as His enemies.  Instead, we find a Pharisee coming to Jesus for help.  Rather than trying to trap Jesus in His own words, Nicodemus tries to understand what Jesus is teaching.

Granted he came at night, probably out of fear his counterparts, but he comes with a legitimate desire to learn.  And in the midst of this exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee, we get one of the ultimate explanations of the Christian faith, “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”  This statement of faith has defined the Christian faith for centuries.

But equally important is the next phrase, one that is much less well known, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”  As “born again” Christians, another catchy phrase that comes from this exchange, we proclaim these truths of God’s love to everyone in every way.

And so John shows Jesus as wiser, smarter, and more able to teach than the very Pharisees who proclaim themselves the best at all three.

The book of John is laid out theologically instead of chronologically, and this is desperately important as we read it.  Again and again I’ve heard people dispute the truth of the bible by arguing that John is in a different order than the other three gospels, an argument that doesn’t realize John’s purpose in writing.  He states it quite plainly at the end of the book (John 20:31): “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

According to Dr. Gary Burge, the layout of this gospel story is done in such a way as to show Jesus superseding everything the Jews hold as powerful, righteous, or important.  And so John begins with ceremonial cleanness.  The large jars holding the water during the Canaanite Wedding of today’s reading were reserved for the ceremonial cleansing that was required regularly of every practicing Jew.  But instead of honoring the need for ritual cleanness, Jesus turns that water from dutiful obedience to the law into a means of celebrating relationship.

The temple itself was Jesus’ next target.  The idea that God was present in Jesus Himself instead of in the temple is widespread through all the gospels, but in John it is made most clear here.  As Jesus comes to the temple, He does so to reform it and show His authority over it.  He drives out those selling the sacrifices from the Court of the Gentiles, for the buying and selling, the bleating of animals, and the general ruckus is disrupting the Gentiles from their worship in the only place they are allowed to worship by Jewish law.  He then makes His usurpation of the temple obvious.  “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” is a foretelling of His resurrection of course, but also acts as His final replacement of the temple when it comes to God dwelling with us.

So, with the first two symbols that Jesus is superseding, ritual cleanness and the temple itself, John begins his explanation of just how important Jesus is to our life, our worship, and our eternity.

Sometimes the God about whom we read in the Old Testament seems like a completely different God than He whom we worship today.  It is readings like today’s that make us believe the great heresy that the Old Testament God is a god of wrath and vengeance while the New Testament God is a god of grace and love.  The truth is that God doesn’t change and has never changed – He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

But as we read about so much death and killing, children and women, soldiers and servants, it is hard to believe that God sanctioned these actions.  Yet Jehu, who carried out the murder of the entire family of King Ahab, is praised by God for his righteousness and faithfulness.

What does the bible mean to you?  How does your interpretation go – from the bible to you, or from your own experience and belief into the text?  The first is called “exegesis”, where we seek answers in the bible.  The second is called “eisegesis”, where we read our own opinions, experiences, and beliefs back into the bible.  The first begins with God and His Word and then travels out to and through us.  The second begins with us and then travels back into the text.

Far too many people today are experts at eisegesis, able to find a verse to back up any belief they may have come to.  Want to get drunk?  Find verses that suggest a glass of wine before bed.  The NRA, the ACLU, and even Westboro Baptist people have verses to back up their desired message.  But if you read the scriptures as a whole, you find a God with His own agenda, beliefs, behaviors, and theology.  And He’s a God who expects us to follow His path, not the other way around.

As you read hard texts like this one, it is right to struggle with it, even to question it.  But ultimately we have to remember that God is not subject to our opinions or desires.  He acts as He acts, differently in each generation and across cultures.  And we dare not call Him false, or liar, or mean because He doesn’t follow our game plan.  He never said He would.