The abundant life

I preached this message at Dawlish Methodist Hall on 7th January 2018 and at Hebron Gospel Hall, Torquay, on 4th February 2018.

I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”

John 10:10-11 (NKJV)

At least three times in John’s gospel, Jesus talks about similar things: the abundance of the life He intends for us or the completeness of that life and joy we can have in Him. That first is from Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees; the other two appear in Jesus’ words to His disciples shortly before His arrest.

As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.

These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.”

John 15:9-17 (NKJV)

A woman, when she is in labour, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.

And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

John 16:21-24 (NKJV)

I want to spend some time unpicking these promises of abundance and completeness Jesus promises us, in relation to other scriptures and Jesus’ ministry.

First, know that it is God’s plan for your life to have that abundant life, complete in joy. This is the same God who told Jeremiah

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.   Before you were born, I sanctified you.’

Jeremiah 1:5 (WEB)

For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

Jeremiah 29:11 (NIVUK)

I believe that God wants you to want more of Him – He wants you to think bigger in terms of your relationship with Him. For the Christian, Jesus first and foremost, represents renewal and points us to that deeper more intimate relationship with God that He wants for us.

The first passage, representing Jesus as the Good Shepherd foretells His sacrifice for our sins, dying on the cross on Good Friday, and through His resurrection on Easter Sunday giving us eternal hope for our future and our relationship with God. In effecting this renewal, it is important that Jesus is both sinless (so as not needing to atone for us own sins) and divine, so as to be able to pay an infinite price exceeding even the penalty for my sins, your sins, and the sins of everyone else past, present and future. Jesus Himself says to His disciples and to us

Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Luke 10:20 (NIVUK)

That is an amazing promise, but it can also blind us to the further truth about Jesus’ sacrifice if we are not careful. That eternal life, that right relationship with God is not just about our destiny after we die, but is also about the here and now.

The Jewish sacrificial system that foreshadowed Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice was not really about one’s eternal destination – it was about putting our relationship with God right on that day, so that the transgressor could start afresh and continue in right relationship with God from that moment onwards. It was a serious, onerous task to bring a new sacrifice to God as an atonement for each sin. So it is also with Jesus’ sacrifice for us – we are called into right relationship with God today and each day and we shouldn’t think of it as a credit we have banked solely for the day of judgement.

If this was all Jesus came to do, then He took a long time about doing it. Jesus came not only as a sacrifice, but also to teach us about God and what it means to be in perfect relationship with God. Jesus teachings were (and some might say still are) controversial and are challenging. Probably we know many of them, but to what extent do we actually live them out in our own lives?

I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Matthew 5:20 (NIVUK)

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.’

Matthew 5:21-24 (NIVUK)

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’

Matthew 5:38-42 (NIVUK)

 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (NIVUK)

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Matthew 7:1-2 (NIVUK)

 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name, drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NIVUK)

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

Matthew 7:24-27 (NIVUK)

That’s just a tiny fraction of Jesus’ teaching about what it means to love God and to love people. That’s difficult, challenging stuff to live out. Jesus Himself affirms that He comes not to condemn but to save, but He also leaves us in no doubt that He expects us to put His commands into practice. That is the content of the second passage we read about the “abundant life”, summarised by Jesus’ command to love one another.

However imperfectly we might achieve those standards, however many times we have to repent for our failings and be washed again in Jesus’ cleansing blood, putting Jesus’ words into action in our own lives is part of our journey of discipleship, it is part and parcel of living in right relationship in the here and now with God and all those people on earth who are made in His image – that is everyone!

Jesus may have reminded us of how we are to live our lives, but our responsibilities to God and to others are themes that run throughout scripture.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him.

Deuteronomy 10:12-20 (NIVUK)

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! ‘The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?

Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.’ For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 1:10-20 (NIVUK)

God’s plan remains for us to live in right relationship with Him and with others. Jesus’ sacrifice clears the way for that to happen now and every time we fail, and Jesus’ teachings remind us of what that right relationship means in practice.

But Jesus came also to show us in the example of His own life how we are to live in perfect relationship with God and others. I think it is important here to understand precisely in what manner Jesus lived his earthly life. Philippians 2 declares that

Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8 (NIVUK)

The Revised Standard Version reads “emptied Himself” and the New Living Translation has “gave up His divine privileges”. The church has long argued over exactly how this can be reconciled with Jesus being fully God and fully human and I don’t intend to go into the detail of that debate. But what seems clear to me is that Jesus lived His life on earth without the use of His divine powers or privileges.

This has important consequences for our interpretation of scripture and implications for our own walk with God. Jesus’ miracles, His teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven do not stem from His divine power – they stem from His perfect relationship with God. Jesus Himself says

Truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’

John 5:19 (NIVUK)

In His earthly life, Jesus is continually being shown what the Father wants Him to say and do and He is equipped with the wisdom, power and abilities to do so through the Holy Spirit. There are times when Jesus cannot do something or does not know something precisely because He is not using His own divine powers but is utterly dependent on His relationship with His heavenly Father who shows Jesus what He needs to know and what He needs to do at that moment:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few people who were ill and heal them.

Mark 6:5 (NIVUK)

But about that day or hour [of the end times] no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Mark 13:32 (NIVUK)

In case you need further convincing, miracles and powerful teaching are not the sole preserve of Jesus throughout scripture – they are also features of the ministry of the prophets and apostles and many others empowered through their relationship with God. Jesus Himself affirms

It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:10-12 (NIVUK)

The key message for us is that we too can do all the things that Jesus did in His earthly ministry – and more – if we live in right relationship with God. That is the essential message also in the third passage we considered about the “abundant life”: “ask and receive that your joy may be complete”. Precisely because Jesus lived His earthly life as a human without His divine privileges and powers and dependent solely on His relationship with God the Father, aspiring to do the same in our own lives is not some fantasy on a par with pretending we are Superman – rather it is the call to discipleship of every Christian believer.

I believe that God is calling us to think bigger, to desire a deeper relationship with Him and to aspire to that perfect relationship and abundant life that Jesus leads us to through His sacrifice, His teaching and the example of His own life.