It is a term that appears only twice in the New Testament but has become one of several terms used by self-appointed “prophecy experts” to describe the ultimate end times villain. Synonymous with “the Antichrist,” “the Beast,” and “the man of lawlessness” is “the son of destruction” [or “perdition,” depending on your translation]. Based on the actual textual evidence, however, only the latter term, “the man of lawlessness,” is truly a synonym, for Paul uses the terms interchangeably in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The only other reference to “the son of destruction” is John 17:12, a very obvious reference to Judas Iscariot, the Lord’s betrayer, during Jesus’ high priestly prayer. Paul’s reference seems much more obscure, leading many to create imaginative scenarios whereby an evil world dictator emerges and inflicts untold suffering on the world before finally being defeated by the returning Christ.
Kept in their proper context, however, both references to “the son of destruction” bear remarkable similarities. Jesus refers to Judas as “the son of destruction” in recognition of the fact that Judas will be the only one of the Twelve who is “lost” in order “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” He will commit an act of rebellion, betraying Jesus into the hands of his enemies, setting in motion a series of events which culminate, after a period of suffering, in the vindication of Jesus and the undoing of his enemies.
The scenario John lays out in his Gospel, with Judas in the role of “the son of destruction,” is much the same as that laid out by Paul in 2 Thessalonians. Here, “the son of destruction,” also called “the man of lawlessness” and “the lawless one,” serves the same function as Judas. He commits an act of rebellion, setting in motion a series of events which culminate, after a period of suffering, in the vindication of “the Lord Jesus” who “will kill [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2:8).
In both instances, “the son of destruction” plays a pivotal role in setting in motion the classic biblical scenario of “the Day of the Lord,” a decisive moment in which God acts in the midst of human history, making plain the choice between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. It is the scenario that was first played out in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve committed an act of rebellion and set in motion the catastrophic series of events which could ultimately find resolution only in the coming of God’s Anointed One.
Both John and Paul were immersed in the apocalyptic worldview of first century Judaism. They were well acquainted with the numerous Old Testament references to “the Day of the Lord.” They were very intentional in connecting the events surrounding Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection with that promised decisive act of God in the midst of human history. God was, indeed, making all things new, reconciling the world to himself in Christ. But this glorious act of new creation was not yet complete. Paul is very careful to remind the Thessalonians of the tenuous time in which they were living. Just as he had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and with Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, “the son of destruction” would raise his ugly head yet again. Whenever, wherever, and however that happens, though, the victorious Son of God and Son of Man will, as he did at Calvary, decisively crush him.
Among the most pugnacious and disagreeable of Paul’s opponents were the so-called “super apostles,” those who claimed a superior knowledge of the mysteries of God and derided Paul as a novice. Two of the worst offenders were Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were propagating the outlandish claim “that the resurrection has already happened.” Paul disowned these men and their claims, noting that “They are upsetting the faith of some.”
The claim by Hymenaeus and Philetus “that the resurrection has already happened” was “upsetting” to some because it was self-serving and self-glorifying. It set these “super apostles” above those, like Paul, who humbly and freely admitted that “the resurrection from the dead” was a goal which they had “not yet attained” (Philippians 3:12-16).
The resurrection is the outcome of a life lived in obedience to Christ. Paul was correct in his attitude of humility, knowing that the closer he got to the goal, the less he should think of himself. Union with Christ was, for Paul, a lifelong journey which required dying to self in order to be fully realized. This side of eternity, he knew that he could never confidently claim to have reached this ultimate outcome without calling attention to himself instead of Christ.
The resurrection, after all, is all about Christ. Inasmuch as we experience Christ working in our lives to transform us out of a life of sin and into a life of obedience, we can experience something of the benefits of the resurrection now. But the full implications of the resurrection will not be realized until the final consummation at the last day. In Christ, the last day is brought into the present from the future. But by claiming “that the resurrection has already happened,” Hymenaeus and Philetus were projecting themselves from the present into the future, thus “upsetting the faith of some” by setting themselves above all accountability and discipline. They were free to “live and let live,” indulge every carnal passion, and look down upon those pitiful souls who had not yet realized such “freedom.”
Paul warns Timothy to avoid such persons and to go about his work faithfully, not quarreling about words but “rightly handling the word of truth.” For the truth, spoken humbly yet unashamedly, will expose every lie for what it is.
In Christ, we can do all things to the glory of the Father. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing and, in fact, are nothing. At the end of the day, there is no middle ground. We are either in Christ or apart from Christ. We cannot pretend to live partially in Christ and partially in the world. To abide in the world is to be apart from Christ; a fruitless branch to be taken away by the vindedresser and tossed into the fire. To abide in Christ is to shun the world and its enticements and bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
To abide in Christ, to have his life in us, is to participate in the very life of God. “Abide in me, and I in you,” Jesus says (John 15:4). This is union with Christ which makes us one, also, with the Father through the Holy Spirit. The one who so abides in Christ cannot help but bear fruit to the glory of the Father because the same Spirit which is in Christ is also in everyone who abides in Christ. It is for this reason that we were created in the image and likeness of God, that God might be glorified through us. But the fall has cut us off from a perfect relationship with God. The only way to restoration is through Christ.
To seek a relationship with God apart from Christ is sheer foolishness. In fact, it is impossible. The only “god” we can seek apart from Christ is one we make in our own image to satisfy our own carnal desires. Whenever we think we can make the first move toward God, we inevitably end up with a god of our own making.
Here is the difference between the Christian faith and all others. In Christ, God is making the first move toward us. We are not seeking him; he is seeking us. We do not choose him; he chooses us. We are not called to strive under our own strength to find a god of our own imagination. We are called, instead, simply to abide in him whom God the Father has sent to draw us back to him. The God who seeks us is the God who created us to bear fruit for his kingdom and glorify his name. Our sins have cut us off from him, but he desires to restore us and make us whole again.
All he asks of us is that we abide in the life-giving, sacrificial love of his Son and keep his commandments. To do this is truly to live the life that pleases God and glorifies his name. To live such a life is true, full, and complete joy.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” writes John in his first epistle (5:1). Faith, according to John, is the fruit of the new birth; a spiritual re-orientation of our whole being that enables us to love the Father and all his children, obey his commandments, and overcome the world (vv. 2-5).
True faith, faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, is not a natural human inclination. To have faith, we must be “born of God,” that is, “born again,” to use Peter’s words, “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). For God alone is able to create faith within us, graciously drawing us away from our sins and toward his merciful, loving embrace; and it is God alone, revealed in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the beginning and the end of our faith.
It is only when we place our faith in God and God alone that our faith becomes real. A faith placed in the things of this world is no faith at all. You are not truly born of God if you still rely on your own strength, your own mind, and your own will. Neither are you truly born of God if you look to human institutions for security, protection, and livelihood. It is easy to fall prey to the temptation to trust in those things which are visible and tangible. Faith in a God we cannot see is indeed wrought with many uncertainties. But it is precisely those uncertainties which make a constant and abiding faith in the God who created the heavens and the earth so vibrant, so alive, and so utterly necessary.
One common characteristic of prophetic leaders in Israel—from Moses to John the Baptist—is their reluctance to take on a task which promised little in the way of comfort and much in the way of hardship. Moses, having grown comfortable tending his father-in-law’s sheep, tried to negotiate his way out of his call to be Israel’s deliverer. Amos, also, would have been content to remain “a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Jonah had to spend three days in the belly of a fish before being convinced to go to Ninevah. Jeremiah thought himself too young to be taken seriously. Even Isaiah, before saying, “Here am I. Send me,” was overwhelmed by his unworthiness to stand in the presence of God.
The reluctance of the biblical prophets stands in stark contrast to present-day wannabes who seem quite eager to claim the prophetic mantle, regardless of whether or not God actually called them to take it up. . .
The biblical prophets did not constantly go around telling people, much less viruses, to listen to them because they were “standing in the office of the prophet of God.” Their sole purpose was to proclaim the Word of God, not to call attention to themselves. Jesus could identify John the Baptist as Elijah (Matthew 11:14), but he who said he was unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals would never make such a claim on his own (John 1:21).
The gift of prophecy ought to be readily apparent to a community endued with the spirit of discernment. If someone is constantly boasting that he is “standing in the office of the prophet of God,” it is a near certainty that he is merely falling for his own egotistical machinations.
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
The fruits, or lack thereof, of Kenneth Copeland’s over-the-top theatrics in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis are plain for all to see. So much so, in fact, that to call him a false prophet is giving him too much credit. One imagines that even the most nefarious of false prophets would be embarrassed to be included in the same company with this buffoonish charlatan.
Yesterday afternoon, it was necessary for me to make a brief trip to the parish office. My intention was to get in and out as quickly as possible. However, I had not been inside but a few minutes when a raggedly dressed gentleman came knocking on the door.
“Can you give me some help with my light bill?” he asked.
I had seen this fellow before. He frequently drops by, making the same request.
“Sir,” I said to him, “no one is going to be turning off your lights right now.”
I went on to explain to him that, because of the present circumstances, utilities companies are pretty much giving everyone a break. After a minute or two, the gentleman left, apparently satisfied but still with a look of disappointment.
It goes without saying that I have to be very discerning and judicious in dispensing aid from my benevolent fund at the moment. However, this encounter has caused me to ponder a very sobering reality. Most of us probably assume that the ones who are intent on continuing life as usual during this coronavirus crisis are the privileged few who arrogantly ignore all the warnings, believing themselves to be somehow invincible. This poor soul hardly fits that category. Yet, his life is continuing as usual, quite possibly because he is entirely unaware of the fact that we are in the midst of a global pandemic and he, being of advanced age and considerably diminished physical capacity, is among those at greatest risk.
This gentleman is not alone. There are so many more just like him. Their life as usual means continuing to make the monthly sojourn to the church down the street (or, more likely, several churches throughout the neighborhood), repeating the same story they’ve told many times before, and begging for some small gesture of charity. They don’t live for it. They merely exist for it — and that is the tragedy of it all. Giving such persons a small financial donation, ostensibly to help them pay off an insurmountable accumulated debt, is not a gesture of charity. It’s just a way of getting them out of our hair. What they need is something of greater value than a few measly bucks to pay off a light bill. They need to know they can have a life that is far more fulfilling than mere existence. They need to hear the Good News that they are precious in the sight of God, who created them in his image and sent his Son to die for their sins.
“How can we tell them,” we ask ourselves, “when they are not willing to give us the time?”
Perhaps the question should be, “How much time are willing to give them?”
We don’t learn much from Jesus about how to conduct a funeral. Every time Jesus shows up at a funeral, he has the peculiar habit of bringing the deceased back to life. What began as a funeral ends as a wedding feast.
That, in fact, would appear to be the point John is trying to make. He structures the first half of his Gospel around the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. He begins with a wedding in Cana and then comes full circle with a funeral in Bethany (John 11:1-44, this week’s Gospel text). Jesus has been setting the stage for the raising of Lazarus ever since he turned water to wine.
To fully understand the story, however, we have to go back further, much further, to the day when the Israelites languished in exile in Babylon. During that dark period of Israel’s history, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision: a vision that looked at first like a gloomy vision of death, but was transformed by the Word and the Spirit of God into a glorious vision of new life. This week’s Old Testament text describes what Ezekiel envisioned.
Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.
The images seen and described by Ezekiel so many years before literally reverberate in the words of Jesus throughout the first half of John’s Gospel.
“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
The language of Ezekiel and the language of Jesus are one and the same. For the Israelites in Babylon, Ezekiel’s vision was symbolic of their return from exile. They were at the time “dead” in Babylon, but God promised that the day was coming when they would be “alive” again; restored to their homeland. Ezekiel had spoken, in previous chapters, about the renewal of the covenant, of cleansing from sin, of God gathering his sheep as when a shepherd seeks them out when they are scattered, and, finally, of giving Israel a new heart and a new spirit. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the sake of his holy name, God was going to act to rescue and vindicate his people, and thus vindicate his holiness for all to see.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
The language here is that of restoration, of gaining back that which was lost. God himself, who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils in the beginning, was going to do so again. The renewal of the covenant would mean the new creation. The word that came to be used to describe this great reworking was resurrection!
After their return from exile, the Israelites whose hearts were truly seeking after God knew that Ezekiel’s vision was more than a metaphor. There was a deeper meaning behind all the symbolic language. No exile would be permanent. Even death itself would be swallowed up by life in the great and glorious day when God would act to restore all things.
As John writes his Gospel, he brings together this long history of hope and expectation. From the wedding at Cana to the funeral at Bethany, everything Jesus has said and every sign he has performed has been leading up to this moment.
“You must be born again.”
“I am the light of the world.”
“I will raise them up on the last day.”
“[He] who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. . . The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
“I am the good shepherd.”
“Before Abraham was, I AM.”
But every time Jesus opens his mouth or performs some sign, somebody somewhere wants to kill him. The people are so bound up in their sins, so enslaved by their human traditions, that they cannot receive the Word of God, but instead reject the Word made flesh as a blasphemer.
By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus is in no mood for sentimentality. The Greek term politely translated, “deeply moved,” means, literally, “indignant.” Even his disciples appear clueless. When he tells them they are going back to Judea, they try to stop him.
“Lord, last time you were there, they tried to kill you.”
When it is obvious they cannot prevail, they seem resigned to a tragic end. As Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.”
What are they expecting?
What was Mary expecting?
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
What were the people expecting?
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Among the cast of characters in this story, Martha stands out as the one who seems to hold on to a glimmer of hope. She confesses her belief in “the resurrection at the last day.” She even confesses her belief in Jesus as the Savior of the world. But all of this only compounds her grief, because even her expectations are clouded by the shadow of death. Like her sister Mary, she complains . . .
“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The disciples, Mary and Martha, the crowd: their focus is uniformly on DEATH. It is the valley of dry bones all over again.
Martha is right about one thing.
“Lord, by now there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”
Death does have a way of stinking up the place, of casting a long shadow over the hopes and expectations of a people. Death has a way of closing their eyes in blindness, of shutting them off in a cold, dark, smelly tomb. But against this dark backdrop, the light of the world is about to shine. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means it literally. “You believe in the resurrection on the last day? Woman, you are looking at the resurrection. Open your eyes and behold the living end!”
In Jesus, the end has come, but life goes on.
“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”
“Did I not tell you a time was coming when the dead would hear my voice and come out of their tombs?”
“Did I not tell you that everyone who believes in me has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day?”
“Did I not tell you I am the good shepherd, that I call my own by name and lead them out?”
“Lazarus, come out!”
This is a pivotal moment in John’s Gospel. Here begins the unfolding of the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, seen thus far in tiny glimpses through the signs Jesus has performed, but only revealed fully and completely in Jesus himself. Here is the turning point, the radical re-orientation, whereby we begin to understand that Christ draws us to himself not by what he does, but by who he is: the Bread of Life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life.
The challenge faced by some churches last week will undoubtedly be faced by many more this week. As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and government leaders are urging a period of “social distancing” in an attempt to contain the spread, most churches are having to curtail their on campus activities, including regular worship services.
If you are like me, you shudder at the phrase, “worship services cancelled.” Only extreme occurrences of inclement weather, which made it literally impossible even to walk, much less drive, to church have forced such a measure in the past. Fear of contracting an infectious disease while worshiping in the house of God is not something to be countenanced by persons who take their faith in Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, seriously.
Nevertheless, the continued shifting of the goal posts with regard to how large or small a group of people are permitted to gather in one place, has finally forced most churches to make the difficult decision to suspend normal operations until the coronavirus threat is contained. It would be a mistake, however, to say most churches are “cancelling” their services. The availability of a variety of social media platforms affords them the opportunity to offer services online via livestreaming. Many churches, of course, have been livestreaming for some time but those webcasts were of actual in person worship services. The challenge even those churches now face is creating a meaningful worship experience for a congregation that is entirely virtual.
Those of us charged with the proclamation of the Word face perhaps an even greater challenge. We are going to have to reconfigure our homiletical approach, as we will be speaking, from our vantage point, either to a nave full of empty pews or a computer screen in our study. As is so often the case, through the providence of God, this Sunday’s lessons offer us a unique opportunity to address the unusual circumstances that we and our parishioners now face.
In the Gospel text (John 9:1-13, 28-41), John gives the account of the man born blind whom Jesus healed by rubbing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam (“sent”). This miraculous sign is not met with great enthusiasm by the Pharisees who, after some considerable back and forth with the man, “cast him out” of the synagogue. Jesus, hearing of the man’s expulsion, seeks him out and reveals his identity to him. Believing that Jesus is “the Son of Man” who has healed him of his blindness, the man responds by worshiping him.
The contrast John has drawn is stark. The man has been cast out of the synagogue, that is, the place of worship, by those who would claim to be the true worshipers of God by virtue of their being “disciples of Moses.” He is subsequently found by Jesus and, upon declaring his faith in him as “the Son of Man,” he worships him, not in the place from which he has been “cast out,” but right at the very feet of the One who gave him his sight.
As with last week’s account of Jesus and the woman at the well, the message conveyed here is that worship is not, indeed cannot, be confined to any particular place. For those of us who believe, the “place” of worship is wherever we may be; for whenever we worship God “in spirit and truth” (to borrow again from last week), we know that God is with us.
For the third Sunday in Lent, Thomas Cranmer assigned a collect from the Sacramentary of Gregory that consisted of a simple yet earnest plea to God for protection against enemies.
We beseech thee, almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy majesty, to be our defense against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
For Anglicans in North America, this remained the collect appointed for Lent 3 until the wholesale revisions of the 1979 Prayer Book. The collect traditionally appointed for Lent 2 was moved to Lent 3 while the remaining traditional collects were replaced with more contemporary prayers.
The 2019 ACNA Prayer Book has taken quite a creative step. It has appointed for Lent 3 a collect that is traditional, in that it restores some of the language of the original, but also introduces new language that directly confronts an egregious societal evil that is directly challenging the contemporary church. The result is a moving prayer, crafted from sources most ancient, yet powerfully relevant for the present day.
Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The opening ascription is borrowed directly from Augustine’s Confessions. It is an acknowledgement that God, our Heavenly Father, made (created) us for himself, that we might worship and serve him. Until they rest in the unspeakable joy of communion with the Father, our hearts will be restless. Consistent with the language of last week’s collect, this is an acknowledgment “that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Our loving and merciful heavenly Father who made us for himself also calls us to himself that, in him, we may find rest at last.
The term, “disordered affections,” is borrowed from The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. A simple definition would be any thing or person that becomes the object of our desire, at the expense of our relationship with God. In other words, “disordered affections” is a most grievous form of idolatry. The most obvious example of its manifestation in contemporary society is homosexuality, a subject directly addressed in this week’s Epistle lesson (Romans 1:16-32). Such a coupling of collect and pericope is a bold, but very welcome, move. Here is the church confronting evil in the most appropriate manner, through the Word of God and prayer.
When “disordered affections” pollute our “heartfelt desires,” we have no recourse but to call out to God to “purify” us in order “that we may behold [his] eternal glory in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The original collect asked God to “be our defense against all our enemies,” an apparent plea for protection against outward and visible forces that seek to do us harm. In its new form, the collect appears to expand the idea of “enemies” to include those inward forces, those “disordered affections,” that would lead us down the path of destruction and death, were it not for the gracious intervention of God through his Son Jesus Christ.
To any good Jew in Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were a people who had, to borrow the words of the late, great John Facenda, little character but many characters. They were people with whom Jews were not to consort. They were people to whom Jews were not to speak. They were to be ignored, shunned, cast aside. They were the half-breeds, the compromisers, the unwanted step-children: some Hebrew blood, perhaps, but hopelessly watered down through generations of intermarriage with the surrounding peoples. They could not worship in the temple, so they could not claim to be a part of God’s chosen.
So, it should seem more than a little odd that Jesus would so much as even acknowledge the presence of the woman at the well (John 4:5-42), much less ask her for a drink of water.
Jesus was all about defying social conventions. We know that, but we have the advantage of 2,000 years of hindsight. The Samaritan woman did not have that advantage. She did not come to the well expecting to meet any man, much less a Jewish man, and much less than that, the Word made flesh. She expected this trip to the well to be no different than the dozens of other such trips she had taken there.
As we know, however, this trip turned out to be quite different. What we do not know, or perhaps do not understand, is precisely why this trip to the well turned out to be so different.
It is an interesting story, just on the surface: Jesus probing further and further into the woman’s soul, the woman constantly trying to change the subject, and Jesus finally just saying flat out, “Hey woman, who do you think you’re talking to?”
There is much humor in the exchange. Underneath the surface, however, there is much more that is easy to miss—and by missing it, we miss the whole point of the story.
The place was Jacob’s well.
The dispute, as far as the woman was concerned, was over water rights.
The issue that finally came to the surface was true worship.
Who are the true “Jews,” that is the true “worshipers of God?”
That question is resolved not by where you worship or when you worship. It comes down, instead, to who you worship.
Who you worship defines who you are. Who you worship shapes and forms your life, your identity, and your character.
“But the hour is coming, and is now here,” Jesus says, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”