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Jesus’ Witness Protection Program

May 16, 2015

IMG_0665Acts 1:15-26            1 John 5:9-13          John 17:6-19

 

Our story begins with Acts 1. Judas has died. This creates an issue. They needed another apostle. Why? Probably, I suspect, because (strange as it may seem) they felt that the number 12 was important. 12 Tribes of Israel… 12 disciples. Twelve represented the people of God. It was symbolic.

 

Whatever the reason they picked two potential replacements… and then threw dice (cast lots) to find a replacement. Matthias got the job … and that’s the last we hear of the man.

 

But what is the deeper issue here? What do the apostles represent? What’s their role? Verse 21 says ‘one of these must become a witness (martyra – from which we get martyr) with us to his resurrection.’

 

But let’s think a little deeper again… Why is ‘witness’ such an important idea for Christianity?

 

Witness is about history… A witness is someone who makes a public declaration about something that has happened. If faith were a matter of private spirituality… a set of principles which each person could learn… or a relationship to God that each could explore in the privacy of their own life… we would not need ‘witnesses’. But at the centre of our faith is the memory that something earth-shattering has happened in history. So witness matters.

 

The apostles were ‘witnesses’ to the resurrection. We are witnesses now. The Bible is a kind of witness. As the apostles were beginning to die out later in the first century they began to gather together their memories and their writings and produced what we call the New Testament. They didn’t throw dice… but they did make a selection. Something has happened that must be remembered and known.

 

Two issues for Christians at the time: (i) How do we preserve the witness of the first Christians and the Apostles (i.e the NT)? and (ii) How do we read and interpret the Scriptures we already have – the Hebrew bible (what we call the OT)?

 

This second issue had been one they had been struggling with since the earliest days of the church… long before they gathered together the New Testament. In fact you can see their answer to the problem of reading the Old Testament if you look closely at the writings of the New Testament.

 

We looked at something like this a fortnight ago when I was preaching about the Eunuch… for a Eunuch reading the OT is not easy. Deuteronomy says God excludes him from the community of faith and Isaiah says God welcomes him. And I commented at the time that the scripture itself is a kind of struggle… it documents, or bears witness to Israel’s struggle to make some sense of God. For Christians this becomes the question… is God really like Jesus? (this week I’ve been listening to a guy called Brad Jersak who’s talking about his book ‘A More Christlike God’ – should be a fantastic resource if you’re thinking about these things, or I could send you a link to his interview). Is God really like Jesus? Because at some points in the OT God is portrayed as commanding things that Jesus forbids … like genocide, like slavery, wiping out children, plundering the women in organised rape… and the passage in Hosea about God commanding people to cut babies out of their mother’s wombs (check it out if you don’t believe me).

 

Of course this is not “the God of the OT”. This is just one strand. We also have Psalm 103 in which the psalmist is persuaded that God is ‘gracious, compassionate, abounding in lovingkindness … hasn’t treated us according to our sins’

 

It matters profoundly for our faith and our politics whether God is like Jesus.

 

Some Christians will tell you that God wrote the Bible. That each verse is kind of equally true… a flat bible. It might be how they read the Bible, but that’s not how the first Christians read the OT. And you can see this if you look at the NT. They didn’t just read the scriptures, they searched the scriptures to find things that pointed to Jesus (remember Philip with the Eunuch). But the writers are quite explicit about this at the beginning of John’s gospel and at the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews…. Listen to this as instruction as to how to read the OT:

The law (Torah – most sacred scripture) indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

 

See how Jesus functions for them to purify the images of God they might get from their own scriptures! Listen to the writer to the Hebrews

God spoke to our ancestors, in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being….

 

If you think about it the contrasts in these two scriptures are incredible!

 

What sort of search of the OT do you do if you want to know what God is like? … you do a search which looks for witnesses… before the event (before Christ) witnesses to a God who is exactly like Jesus, whose character is exactly reflected in Jesus life and words.

 

And today’s Epistle reading weighs into exactly this debate… It begins

If we receive human testimony(witness – martyria), the testimony (witness) of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.

 

So there’s at least 3 dimensions of Christian thinking to this idea of ‘witness’ … the OT is a witness to Jesus from the past, there’s the NT witness of the first Christians, and there’s God’s own witness to Jesus (resurrection and gift of the Spirit) and finally (the fourth dimension if you like) our life is a matter of being witnesses ourselves. We are the bible that other people read!

John’s epistle goes on:

Those who trust themselves to the Son of God have the testimony (witness) in their hearts … And this is the testimony: God gave us the life of the age to come, and this life is in his SonWhoever has the Son has life… I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have the life of the age to come.

 

How do we witness? We witness with our whole lives… because the life of Jesus has got to the very heart of our thinking and emotions. We have what John calls ‘the life of the age to come’ and so both what we do and what we say is a public statement about the historical event which shattered the history of the world and which is, even now, the life of the age to come.

 

I want to finish this morning with Jesus prayer from our Gospel reading…

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 

 I want to call this section of the prayer: Jesus ‘witness protection plan’. Did you notice what Jesus prayed for his disciples? Not protection from flooding. Not protection from war. Not protection from cancer. Protection from the evil one. He wants them to be protected from the force of evil in the world. He wants them to be ‘sanctified’. Made holy, made different. ‘Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth’. He wants their life and witness to be more and more like the word that God has spoken. So if we are to learn to pray from Jesus prayers… as we do every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, let’s not pray for protection from illness or disaster. Let’s take Jesus’ witness protection plan seriously. Let’s focus on ultimately what matters – that the difference that Jesus makes in the world will be seen in us. Let’s pray that our witness will be protected.

 

 

 

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