Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Isaiah 6:1-11 –Isaiah’s Call

Lesson Focus:
True worship always ends with a sending out of God’s people. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that an encounter with God should always elicit praise and worship.
2.     Understand that an encounter with God should move us to confession of our sinfulness.
3.     Understand that as we confess our sinfulness, God will cleanse and forgives us.
4.     Understand that our forgiveness is so that God can send us out to do his work.

Catch up on the story:
The very beginning of the text tells us that Isaiah had this vision of the heavenly throne room the year King Uzziah died.  This places the date for this vision sometime between 742 and 736 BCE.  The death of Uzziah marks a transition for the book of Isaiah and historically for Israel.  Historically, Uzziah’s death marks the end of a period of relative peace and stability.  Assyria’s power and influence has begun to grow and will soon pose a great threat to Israel.  For Isaiah,  this chapter combined with Uzziah’s death, also highlights two different understandings concerning who has ultimate authority in the world.  In chapters 2-4 the prevailing understanding in Israel is that the world is controlled by human activity and agency.  Chapter 5 begins to challenge that assumption.  By the time we get to chapter 6, there can be no doubt that the world works according to God’s rule.[1]

Isaiah 6 is a commissioning or call narrative, similar, in some aspects, to stories we have about Moses and Jeremiah.  At the same time, this vision also functions somewhat as a theophany, or a story relating God’s self-revelation.  The setting for the vision most likely takes place in the context of Isaiah’s worship of God at the temple.  In fact, much of the imagery will reflect that of the Temple mixed with imagery of the heavenly throne room.     
The Text:
The text begins, as we have said, with a historical marker.  It is the year that King Uzziah died and Isaiah is likely in the Temple when he begins to have a vision.  All of the sudden he sees the Lord sitting on a throne that is high and lifted up.  The vision Isaiah has is very fluid and dynamic.  Very soon, Isaiah sees the hem of God’s robe filling the temple.  Then, seraphs, or fiery creatures, appear in the same space.  Traditionally, in surrounding religions, especially in Egypt, creatures like these guarded the entrance to divine throne rooms. The description of these seraphs is different enough as to not be copies of beings from other religions.  Each creature had six wings.  Two of their wings covered their faces, two covered their feet and with two they flew.  Even though these creatures are heavenly beings they cover their faces in respect and protection against the brilliant glory of God.  The seraphs are there not to protect the throne room, but to lead it in unending praise.

We are told next that the seraphs begin to sing a song of praise.  Their song starts with honoring God’s holiness but ends in a declaration of God’s glory.  God’s greatness, literally in Hebrew, his heaviness, his splendor, is not limited to this throne room vision.  Indeed, what the prophet has seen is just a glimpse of what and who God is.  Using the temple imagery, only a portion of the hem of God’s robe fills the space.  God’s holiness and his glory spread out like that robe and fill the whole earth.  This massive seen is overwhelming to Isaiah as we come to compare and contrast his life and that of his normal surroundings with that of his vision. 

The room shakes because of the voice of these angelic beings and the room fills with smoke that adds to an even greater sense of vulnerability and brokenness for the prophet.  This vision and event causes Isaiah to call out in confession of his unworthiness to be there.  Isaiah confesses that he is lost, unclean and his people are unclean.  He is not worthy, nor are the people he comes from, to be in the presence of such a holy and glorious God.

This confession from the heart of Isaiah is not ignored.  One of the seraphs flies over to him with a coal from the altar.  Holding the burning coal in a pair of tongs, the seraph applies the coal to Isaiah’s lips and then pronounces him clean.  Isaiah’s “guilt has departed” and his “sins are blotted out.”  The application of the live coals produces a complete purging of sin and sickness and rehabilitates Isaiah to the point of holiness.[2]  Isaiah’s confession, prompted by an encounter with the holiness and glory of God, is met with God’s response of healing and cleansing. 

Then, for the first time in the passage, we hear the voice of God.  It’s important to keep in mind that the setting of this vision is the throne room of God.  It is the place from which God goes about administering the world.  There is business to be done.  This vision is not just for Isaiah, but it is a part of God’s active engagement in and for the world.  So it is appropriate that God’s words here are active in nature, questioning who it is that will do the work that God wants done. 

“Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”  Notice that even though God has revealed himself to Isaiah in this special way, and that God has cleansed him too, that the call is still placed in the form of a question.  God would have had every right, as he had done with other prophets, to tell Isaiah what he wanted done.  In this case, God asks.  It is up to Isaiah to respond to the call that God now issues.  “Whom shall I send…” There seems to be no hesitation on Isaiah’s part to answer the call.  It is not like those times when we are in a meeting and a boss asks for a volunteer to undertake a particularly unpleasant job and everyone sits there with their eyes turned down.  Isaiah’s response is immediate.  “Here am I; send me!”                             

So What…?
This passage reads like a classic outline for worship.  In verses 1-4 we have unbridled praise of God.  As we gather together, the Holy One comes into our midst and the appropriate response is always praise.  The praise moves from a confession of God’s holiness or his otherness into a declaration of his glory and might.  Our engagement in worship of this holy and glorious God highlights in us our unworthiness to be in his presence.  When confronted with such a great and good God we are compelled to cry out with Isaiah, “Woe is me!  I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips!”  True worship leaves us with the longing to be like the one in whose presence we are gathered.

This longing is not left unfulfilled.  God, in his great grace and mercy, comes to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the fire of the Holy Spirit to blot out our sin.  This fire begins to cleanse us too.  Our response to God’s presence is confession.  God’s response to our confession is forgiveness and cleansing.  Worship does not end with our forgiveness.  If we end with forgiveness we almost entirely miss point. Our forgiveness is part of the means by which we get to participate in God’s mission of love and grace on earth.  In worship, as we are forgiven we are always called, called to proclaim God’s holiness and glory, his grace and forgiveness, his love and mercy.  We have only worshiped properly when we respond to this call in affirmative and tangible ways.  We must echo Isaiah’s “Here am I; send me!” going out into our world in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!  True worship must always end with a sending out of God’s people.    

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God is hard to see.  What Isaiah sees is what God wants him to see and that is but a fraction of his glory.  God is holy and full of glory, which fills the whole earth.  In the context of Isaiah’s book, God is preparing one of his children to proclaim the news that he has for his people.  Isaiah’s call comes in the midst and out of worship.  

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like allowing the fire of the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from all of our sin and unrighteousness.  God forgives us so that he can cleanse us, so that we can be called, so that we can respond and move into our world in mission.  Holiness looks like moving out into our world to proclaim God’s good word, and at times his judgment, as a result of our gathering together to participate in worship.

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. I think this passage should make us stop and think about what we believe about worship.  We should shape our personal and cooperate times of worship so that as we encounter the living God we are moved to confess his holiness and glory, confess our sins and transgressions in the light of this holy God, and allow God to move in us for our forgiveness.  Then we must respond to God’s call, which is ever present in worship, to carry forward the mission he has given us. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Have you ever been in a worship service where you were overwhelmed by God’s holiness? How did you respond to that service?
2.     Why does Isaiah begin with noting that the vision he had took place in the year that King Uzziah died?  Was Uzziah a good king?
3.     The seraphs, literally “fiery creatures,” were part of the heavenly throne room.  What do you think their job was?  What do you make of their song?
4.     In verse 5, why does Isaiah respond to the vision in the way that he does? 
5.     What is God’s response to Isaiah’s words?
6.     God wonders aloud in verse 8, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Why do you think he asks this question and does not just tell Isaiah what to do?
7.     This passage can be used as a basic outline (see below) for our worship. What are some of the ways in which we might do this as we gather together each week and as we seek to worship at home? Is this pattern contrary to how you have understood worship in the past?   
a.     We gather together in the presence of a Holy God. 
b.     Confronted with God’s holiness we proclaim our praise for this Holy God. 
c.     We examine our lives in the light of God’s holiness and realize that we are unclean. 
d.     We allow God to cleanse us through the fire of his Holy Spirit.  We are forgiven.
e.     God calls us to go on mission for him. 
f.      We respond echoing Isaiah’s “Here am I; send me!”

[1] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 55.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah, Vol. 1: Chapters 1-39, (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 59.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Genesis 11:1-9 –The Tower of Babel…

Lesson Focus:
As a church we are called not to make a name for ourselves, but to be fruitful and multiply.  Pentecost is the renewal of the command and an empowering to be fruitful and multiply.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that the scattering which took place at Babel was the nudge given to humanity so that they might multiply as God’s image bearers in creation.
2.     Understand that we are called to make a name for God by bearing his image in creation. 
3.     Understand that Pentecost is another scattering so that we might be fruitful and multiply. 

Catch up on the story:
Noah and his descendants have been saved from the flood and have begun to repopulate the earth.  Directly after Noah and his family get off the Ark, they are given his command, at least twice, "be fruitful and multiply."  It's not a new command.  In fact, it’s the same command that God gave Adam and Eve at the beginning of time.  If the Flood narrative is a reset/restart on creation, then the command to the new fathers and mothers of humanity is the same: reproduce yourselves, your godly selves so that the world that God has created might be filled with the image of God bearing people, people who look and act like the one who created them. 

Noah's descendants have, in one sense, been fruitful and multiplied.  They have had lots of offspring and they are beginning to fill the whole earth.  But, in another sense, they have not been faithful to the command.  Implicit in the command to be fruitful and multiply is the idea they will cover the whole earth, not in a dominant kind of way, but in a diverse kind of way.  In our passage, however, Noah's descendants begin to consolidate their power so that they might make a name for themselves.       

The Text:
Making a Name for Ourselves:
I think there's a natural drive, inside all of us, to want to become something, to want to do something with our lives.  Well, if it's not natural, then its at least a large part of the story we are told about how life works from the very earliest of ages.  We tell our kids things like, "You can grow up and become anything you want to be." 

At least, that's the story we tell ourselves here in America.  It's the American Dream.  The dream is that no matter who you are, where you are from, what your race, gender or religion is, you can become someone or something important.  We tell our kids, if you want to be president, you can be the president.  You just have to work hard enough.  We tell our kids, if you want to be a doctor, you can be a doctor. We tell our kids, if you want to be famous and make a name for yourself, you can! 

In fact, shows like American idol, The Voice and America's Got Talent all thrive off of the American Dream and its hopes of becoming something, of becoming someone.  Some contestants, Im sure, participate in auditioning for shows and competitions like these because they fear obscurity, they fear that one day they will die and their name and everything that it represents will be lost to the world.  No one will care, years after they are dead, who they were or what they did.  They will be lost in obscurity. 

If you've ever watched American Idol, or any of those types of talent shows, you'll notice that each individual who auditions has hopes and dreams about what that opportunity might lead too.  For some of the more promising prospects, we are treated to a montage of what their life has been like so far and the struggles theyve had to overcome and still need to overcome.  Some, who are realistic, realize that they have only a slight chance of becoming famous, or having their name becoming recognizable.  Others, who obviously don't have a good grasp of reality, think that they've got an honest shot.

The show does what it promises, though.  Some of the contestants do actually make a name for themselves.  The winning contestant in American Idol gets a record deal and a good deal of notoriety.  Their names become household names.  In some cases, the runners up become more famous then the winners, going on to make more records and become even more of a household name.  But for every one person that become famous, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, who do not.  Dreams are crushed.  Not everyone gets to make a name for themselves.  But everyone gets to try.  

Making a Name for Themselves:
This is where the stars of our bible story this morning are.  They are trying to make a name for themselves.  They fear obscurity, being lost to history as just another group of people who lived, worked and died with nothing to show for their labor. 

Let's provide a little context for the passage.  Not too long ago—scholars disagreed on how long ago, but I'm not sure it matters all that much—the world and everything in it was destroyed by a giant flood.  Humanity was evil and that continually, to the very core of their being.  God, who had created creation to be good, and it was very good indeed, was sad and sickened by how his good creation was turning out.  There was one man, however, Noah, who was doing his very best to be what God had created and intended everyone to be, a faithful follower of God –a faithful bearer of God’s image in the world. 

Noah, because of his faithfulness, was spared from the destruction.  God commanded him to build an Ark, to stock it with food and with pairs of animals of every kind.  God's intention was to press a giant reset button on the world.  Noah, his family and the animals he saved, would become a new start.  Noah and his descendants would not be like those that had died in the flood.  No, they would be fruitful and multiply (a command that they are given at least three times after the Ark hits dry land).  Their being fruitful and multiplying is more than just being good at making babies. They were to be the kind of person Noah was: God fearing, faithful, image of God reflecting people.  They were to spread throughout the world, bearing God's image, making a name for God as his creation, everywhere they went. 

And, for the most part, they did.  We are told, in the text, that Noah's sons have lots of children.  We are told where they end up living and what nations are birthed from those families.  Nations are formed, languages are created and the image of God is spreading all over the world.  But this wasn't enough for Noah's descendants.  No, they wanted to make a name for themselves, not God. 

The Scattering:
Our text reads like this, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. (verse 4)  Like every contestant on American Idol, Noah's descendants set out to make a name for themselves.  Very clearly they are afraid that they will die in obscurity, no one will know that they ever existed, that they had even walked on the face of the earth.  They want, desperately, to make a name for themselves.  

Just how are they going to do this you ask?  By building a monument to their own strength and abilities.  They are going to take the normal stuff of building and creation and form it into a city and a tower that will touch the heavens.  This tower will keep them from being scattered; it will be a testament to their greatness for years, decades and perhaps millennia to come.  It will be a monument to them. 

We all know about monuments.  They are valuable aids in remembrance.  As society, anytime we want to remember a person or an event, or a generation of people, we build a monument out of materials that will last a very long time.  Monuments help us remember; they immortalize people and events.  They center our attention on the greatness of certain individuals or groups.  But very rarely do they point beyond a person or group of people. 

This quality of monuments to immortalize is precisely the problem with the tower that Noah's descendants set about to build.  God, who is always watching, decides to come down and take a closer look at what his creation is doing.  Upon further inspection God declares, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one anothers speech."  v. 6-7 
It isn't out of fear that God decides to do something about Noah's descendants ambitious building plans; rather it is out of a desire for Gods creation to engage in the task of being fruitful and multiplying that God decides to act.  You see, making a name for themselves, monument building if you will, is directly contrary to the command to be fruitful and multiply.  It takes the focus away from being and becoming who they were supposed to be as God's created beings, as people who were to take the image of God into their world and make it known.  They were to be fruitful and multiply so that God's name might be spread throughout the world, not theirs.

So God comes down and acts.  He acts, not to destroy, but to nudge, to guide his creation to do what they were created to be, God-fearing, image of God bearing people just like Noah had been.
God confuses their language.  Really, the force of the words means that God made it impossible for them to hear and understand each other.  Communication becomes impossible, and their fears are realized, they are scattered.     

Our Scattering/Hearing, Speaking, Being, Doing...
But today is Pentecost, and God is doing a new thing.  Well, not really a new thing, but an old thing in a new way.  In the passage from Acts 2, a passage we are all very familiar with, God breathes his Holy Spirit on his followers 40 days after his resurrection and ascension.  

They were all gathered together in the upper room.  They have been waiting and praying because Jesus told them to.  Suddenly, the room begins to shake and the wind begins to blow.  Tongues of fire begin to settle on each of their heads representing the Holy Spirit.  This mighty wind blows them out of the room, out of the building and they begin to proclaim everything that they have seen and heard.  There are people from all over the world living in Jerusalem and they begin to hear the disciples talk, in their native language! The confusion, the inability to hear and communicate that happens at Babel, is undone.  Scattering takes place.  Only this time it is a scattering that isnt the consequence of disobedience, of trying to make a name for oneself; its a scattering that is the fulfillment of the command to be fruitful and multiply.  It is the sending of those who are bearing the image of Christ to the world, so that those in our world might become like them as they are becoming like Christ.  It is the undoing of Babel. 

So What…?
What does this mean for us? It is a call to quit trying to make a name for ourselves.  It is call to not fear that if we havent done anything in life, if we havent built a monument to ourselves, then we will be left to die in obscurity.  It is a call to attend to the command that God has given us from the very beginning, the call to be fruitful and multiply.  It is a call to be Holy Spirit filled people who are scattered throughout our world to make a name for Christ. It is the call to evaluate our individual actions to answer this question: Does this make Christ known, or does this make a name for me?  

What does this look like for our church?  There is always a choice, when thinking and planning for the work of the church.  It is the same choice that those at Babel had.  We can make a name for ourselves. We can build a monument to ourselves, a legacy to the work that we have done, so that the Webster Groves Church of the Nazarene might be someone. 

Or, we can be fruitful and multiply.  We can work to be image-bearers of Christ, seeking to make a name for him, not for ourselves.  This choice needs to be the lens through which we view each and every decision about programming and activities.  Does this make a name for us? Or does this make Christ known?  Does this feed the hungry?  Does this clothe the naked, does this work to take care of the widow, the orphan and the poor?  Does this proclaim the Good News in all of its forms, spiritual and physical?  Is this motivated by self-giving love, the love that Christ has for us, or is it motivated by self gratification?

This struggle between these two questions is nothing new.  Its been happening since the beginning of time.  It is with confidence, however, that we celebrate this day: God is faithful and will help us to be fruitful and multiply!

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God has give creation a mission and that mission is to bear his image in creation so that he might receive glory through us.  Our attempts to make a name for ourselves keep glory from being given to God.  God, in this narrative, is nudging creation to be faithful to the command to be fruitful across the whole earth. 
    2. At Pentecost God is renewing the command for us to go throughout the earth and bear his image to creation.  Only this time, we are to tell the story of the love and faithfulness of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God scatters us in the power of the Spirit, translating for us his message into the words of the people who need to hear the gospel.   

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness means allowing ourselves to be sent, through the power of the Spirit, so that we might bear God’s image in the world.  It means that our own name and notoriety take a back seat as we are used to tell the story of God’s love and faithfulness.  In short, it is ceasing to seek a name for ourselves and allowing ourselves to be scattered in our community and world so that God’s love and glory may be displayed. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. All our decisions concerning life and church should be filtered through this question, “Does this make a name for myself?  Or does it make a name for God?”  As we reflect on this question it should help us make career decisions, life decisions, and decisions regarding the church’s events and programs.  The story of Babel and of Pentecost is a reminder that we are not building the church for our sakes, or even the church’s sake, but for God’s sake, and for the world that God loves. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Look back at the previous chapters.  What is the context for this story about the Tower of Babel?  What command has God given Noah and his descendants after the flood?
2.     Why did the people at Babel want to build a tower?  What was their motivation? 
3.     What was God’s response?  Why does God choose to act as he did?  Is God scared of what the people might now be able to do?
4.     Why would God confuse their language?  How might that help them fulfill God’s earlier command to be fruitful and multiply, filling the whole earth? 
5.     Today is the Day of Pentecost.  Read Acts 2:1-13.  What similarities might there be between the Tower of Babel story and the one in Acts? How is God using human language to further his mission?
6.     Reflecting on our personal lives and our church: are we more like the people at Babel before God confuses their language, or are we like the disciples on the Day of Pentecost?  Are we trying to make a name for ourselves or are we allowing ourselves to be scattered? 

Monday, May 11, 2015

1 John 5:13-21 –Boldness in Prayer

Lesson Focus:
Because our right belief has led us to live rightly we have assurance that we are children of God.  This assurance leads us to have boldness in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they might resist sin. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Know that our eternal life begins now.
2.     Gain a boldness in our prayer for others regarding sin.
3.     Be encouraged to take concrete steps toward prayer and accountability with others. 

Catch up on the story:
John has just finished up a rather lengthy segment in which he affirms the importance of the divinity and the humanity of Jesus.  Right belief and right practice belong inseparably together.  In fact, one cannot act properly Christian apart from a right belief about who Jesus is.  The proper practice of faith is the way in which we testify to our right belief.  Through the course of the letter, John has defended the faith against those who would either deny Jesus’ humanity or his divinity.  Those who do either are not children of God.  Those who are children of God are those who believe correctly and allow that belief to shape and give energy to their love for God and for neighbor.  If you have Jesus, then you have life.     

The Text:
John begins the final section of his letter with a brief one line explanation of why he has written. Verse 13 is the only explicit explanation we get regarding the reason for John’s writing.  The reason is simple, and one that we have surmised throughout the work.  John wants those to whom he is writing to have the assurance that they have eternal life. 

As we have said at the outset of our study of First John, John has been writing to those who already believe, not as one who has been trying to convert those who do not believe.  Here he explicitly notes that he is writing to those “who believe in the name of the Son of God.”  We have also said that, in the context in which these addressees live, there has arisen a group of individuals and teachers that have brought the faith of the church into doubt.  The primary issue has revolved around the nature of Jesus.  John’s desire is that those who read this letter, after hearing his argument defining what marks a child of God and what doesn’t, would find rest and peace in the fact that they are, indeed, children of God.  Because they have latched onto and confessed their belief in the incarnate Son of God and because their belief has found expression in love and care for their neighbor, they are currently in possession of eternal life. 

It should be noted here that John’s audience is currently in the experience of eternal life.  The language of the text is present and active in nature.  It is not in the future tense.  They have eternal life.  So often we talk about eternal life as something that begins in the future.  This belief is a bit of a misnomer.  As much as the phrase eternal life is quantitative, in that it goes on forever, it is also just as much qualitative.  Eternal life, to a large degree, is about the nature and quality of life here and now.  So, when John says in the previous verse, to have the Son of God is to have life, he means that they have life now, a full, rich and abundant life of love and grace and peace.  If we identify ourselves with John’s audience, and I hope that we do, then you and I have eternal life here and now as well. 

John moves on.  This assurance that we have that we are children of God now gives us a boldness in prayer.  Those who are children of God can have confidence that when we ask according to God’s will, in prayer, it will be heard favorably.  God will answer our prayers.  Some use this kind of language to their advantage, thinking that if they are true believers, if they have enough faith, that God will answer their every prayer.  At times, this kind of verse gets taken out of context by those who peddle a prosperity gospel.  This is not what John is saying.  Our prayers must be offered in Jesus’ name and according to his will. 

Our experience has taught us that our prayers, at least seemingly so, often go unanswered.  Jesus himself offers a prayer, the night before his death, that he might not have to experience the suffering that was coming his way.  What we see from Jesus, though, should be a model for us as he prays, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)  We do not always know what God’s will is, yet we can know with confidence that God always hears and is always working things according to his will. 

We might ask then, if we should only pray according to God’s will then why pray at all?  If God’s will is going to be done if we pray or not, why do it?  One commentator offers this explanation,

To speak in such terms is to assume that God’s will must be understood in a static kind of way, as if God has made a detailed plan beforehand of all that is going to happen –including the fact that we are going to pray in a particular way and at a particular time.  But while the Bible does speak of God’s plan and purpose for the world, to speak in such deterministic terms is inconsistent with the freedom which the Bible itself assigns to God’s children, and it wreaks havoc upon the biblical idea of the personal relationship which exist between God and his children.  The point is rather that the believer must seek to submit his will to God’s by saying, “Your will be done” (Mt. 6:10).  It is as we freely yielded ourselves to God that he is able to accomplish his will through us and our prayers…Through prayer we make ourselves instruments of God’s will, and at the same time, in a manner that lies beyond human comprehension, he is able to act powerfully to answer our prayers.[1]

This confidence in prayer, for John, concerns one area specifically, and that is prayer for a brother or sister in Christ who has fallen into sin.  Here, John advises, that if you see a brother or sister sin, you should pray for that one that God would give life to the offender.  Our prayers, it seems, should be specifically concerned with helping other refrain from sin and to recover from sin.

Verse 16 gets a little tricky, however, as John makes mention of “mortal sins” (the NIV renders it, “sin that leads to death”), and those that are not mortal.  What does he mean by this?  Does not all sin ultimately lead to death?  Indeed it does, but John is probably referring to the kinds of sin which are committed by those who are not children of God and those that are. 

Let’s clarify for a moment.  When John refers to “what is not a mortal sin” he is referring to sins that are committed by individuals who are considered children of God.  They have confessed rightly about the nature of Jesus Christ.  They have born out their confession about Jesus through their constant love and concern for their brothers and sisters in the faith as well as their neighbors.  They have a desire to be obedient but yet have fallen into some kind of sin, either deliberate or not.  As we have noted in an earlier lesson, this kind of sin happens when we do not, as Wesley said, “keep ourselves” in God –breathing in God’s love and grace and constantly exhaling it as well.  John is concerned that we pray for this type of person so that they may confess their sin, repent, and so that they can continue to walk in newness of life.  This sin, which is not mortal sin, according to John, can lead to death, but it does not have to.  The praying community of faith can help in this regard.

What then is the mortal sin?  If the non-mortal sin is committed by those who have a desire to be and remain children of God, then the mortal sin is committed by those who consciously and deliberately choose to deny God and walk in the way that leads to death.  For John, this way that leads to death is rooted in a denial of Jesus Christ and a consistent failure to love one’s brothers and sisters.  If Jesus is the only one in whom real life can be found, there can be no life for those who deny him.  We may guess, that those whom John is warning his hearers against in this letter, are those who are guilty of committing this mortal sin.  Notice that we have not identified one individual sin that ultimately leads to death.  To try and do so would be unfruitful.   

We may be troubled by John’s statement that we should not pray about those mortal sins.  I do not believe that John wishes that we should not pray for those people.  How can our refusal to pray for those who are consciously against God and his Son be an expression of our love for our neighbor?  Quite simply, it cannot be.  Keeping in mind John’s primary audience and concern, those who are already children of God, it makes sense that he would emphasize prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Also keeping in mind the tone of the rest of the letter, love requires of us concrete action for others.  Prayer, while seemingly not a concrete action, is a good and proper response for those who are far from God, especially for those who might seem to be too far-gone.

In verse 18 John begins to wrap up the letter by reiterating that those who have been born of God do not sin.  God protects them from the evil one.  At the same time, however, that the children of God are under the power of God, the rest of the world seems to be under the power of the evil one.  It is precisely because the world is so pervasively under the influence of the evil one that we should approach God in confident prayer.  We know the nature of the world, and the battle that rages in it, because God has revealed himself to us, giving us understanding about who Jesus is and who we are in the light of that understanding. 

Verse 20 acts as a confession and summary of what has gone before in the letter.  We know that the Son of God has come.  We have heard, and seen and felt him.  He was from the beginning.  He has given us understanding, he has revealed himself to us so that we might know him and enjoy fellowship with him.  He is truth and light, in him is no darkness, no sin.  Jesus is God’s Son, the true God and it is through him that we are now enjoying eternal life.               

So What…?
As much as John in concerned with our right belief about who Jesus is, he is just as concerned about our constant care for our brothers and sisters in the faith.  As we have said before, John believes, and so do we, that right belief shapes our daily life and practice of faith.  The letter closes with a concern for prayer.  Notice, however, that the concern for prayer is not individually or selfishly focused, even though one might be able to read it that way.  John’s concern regarding prayer is that it be used to accomplish the will of God and that will is that those who believe might not fall prey to sin. 

You and I are children of God!  We have an assurance that we have, at this very moment and in this very place, eternal life.  Because we have this assurance that our faith and action gives us we now can approach God in prayer with boldness interceding for our brothers and sisters that they might grow in Christlikeness avoiding sin.  When they do fall into sin, we pray with boldness that the one who is in us who is greater than the one who is in the world will rescue them from that sin, restoring them to wholeness.

We are in this thing together.  It is our job, as a community of faith that confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to help each other grow in our understanding of right belief.  If we do not struggle together in our attempts to rightfully articulate and live our beliefs then we will not be able to struggle with one another, in prayer and in accountability through the power of the Spirit, to avoid sin.  We confess our orthodox faith in the fully human and fully divine Jesus Christ through our constant love and care for our neighbor and brother and sister in Christ.  This faith leads us to pray with boldness for our brother and sisters in Christ.

Practically speaking, entering into a relationship with a few select individuals to pray for one another is one of the best ways to live out the faith that John is describing. Discuss our Spiritual Formation groups with your group.  You can find a list of questions that will guide you in prayer for one another at wgcn.org/discipleship.     

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God, in his wisdom, knew that it would be impossible for us to live out our faith merely as individuals.  So, God has given us the gift of his Church so that we might help each other recover from and remain free from sin.  In doing so, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the sin that could lead to our death does not have to lead to our death!  

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Our holiness, our continual growth in Christlikeness, is tied up with our care for and actions toward our brothers and sisters in the faith.  We cannot claim to be children of God if our love does not find concrete expressions of care for those around us.  One of these expressions is our constant prayer for those who struggle with sin.  We pray with boldness because we know that it is God’s will that none of us remain a slave to sin. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. This passage should clarify some of our reasons for prayer.  Yes, prayer is part of the way in which we draw close to God.  We pray for physical healing.  But our constant concern should be for our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they might remain free from sin.  This prayer, while it can be general in nature, should compel us to dive deep into each other’s lives, so that we can pray specifically for the sins that each of us struggle with.  Praying, “Lord, help so and so remain free from sin” is good.  Asking of that person, “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” is better.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     John begins his epilogue stating that he writes all of these things so that they might “know that you have eternal life.”   Why might John’s hearers doubt the fact that they have eternal life?
2.     The language of the phrase “know that you have eternal life” is present and active, not future.  What does it mean that we currently have eternal life?  How might this be different than you’ve previously understood it?
3.     Because we are children of God we have assurance that we have eternal life.  John says this gives us boldness in prayer.  How do our prayers have to be offered in order for them to be favorably heard? 
4.     John’s main concern regarding prayer is our prayers for our brothers and sisters so that they might resist and recover from sin.  What are the two types of sin John mentions?  How do they differ?  John does not offer a list of sins that are mortal and those that are not.  Why doesn’t he give us a list?
5.     Why is John so concerned with our prayer for others to resist sin?  What kind of role do we have in helping each other resist and recover from sin?  What specific things might we do?
6.     Often our prayers center on physical needs. How often do you prayer for others’ spiritual needs? 

[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 244-245.