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A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 5: “Problem” Texts–John 14.1-3

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Today’s post is the third focused specifically on dealing with “problem” passages that are frequently brought up as evidence that the Bible does not teach that creation will be renewed when Jesus returns. My contention is that these texts are really not “problems” after all—when properly understood, they either argue for the NHNE perspective, or at least, do not argue against it.

Previously, we have discussed 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 and 2 Peter 3.1-13, and today, we will look at John 14.1-3. There are, certainly, other texts that people use to argue against the NHNE perspective, but these are the “Big 3” in my experience, and next week, we will move on and begin looking at various arguments for the renewed creation perspective.[1]

I will be clear up front: I do not believe that John 14.1-3 clearly teaches the NHNE position, but neither do I believe that it is a problem for that position.

Here is the passage in question:

1 Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

Why is this text considered to be a “problem”? Frequently, this passage is read to mean that Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven and so when He returns, He will take us back with Him to heaven. 

Is this the only way to read it? Well, certainly not. Let’s take a closer look.

The Harmony of Scripture

First off, at this point, it is helpful for us to remember some of what we have studied in previous posts, because it is important for us to consider these passages in relation to one another.

I do not believe that the New Testament presents a bunch of contradictory ideas about what happens when Jesus returns (or anything else, for that matter), where one text presents a certain idea and another text says something completely different. Instead, I believe the teaching of Scripture is consistent and unified and that various passages harmonize with one another to provide a fuller picture on a given subject.

So, if we have 1 Thessalonians 4 in mind, we know from the historical background and use of imperial language in that passage that we are going to meet Jesus and then return here (whatever “here” is like at that point). Thus, we should already be skeptical about any interpretation of John 14 that indicates that when Jesus returns we will leave here to go somewhere else with Him.

Looking at the Passage in Context

In context, what is Jesus trying to do in this passage? John 14.1 gives us the answer as Jesus tells His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Jesus is providing comfort to His disciples.

If we go up a few verses (remember, chapter additions were added much later; this is all part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”), we see that there is plenty that Jesus has told them that would have been distressing to them: one of the disciples will betray Him, Jesus will not be with them much longer, and Peter will deny Jesus repeatedly. With all of this in their minds, it makes sense that the disciples would be troubled!

But Jesus tells them not to be troubled, but to trust in God and in Himself. We then have the famous verse, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (v.2).


I want to look at the two crucial words/phrases in this verse—“Father’s house” and “rooms”—in reverse order.

The word translated as “rooms” or “dwelling places” is the Greek word μοναι/monai, which can mean something like “temporary lodging place”.[2] Because of this, it has been argued that this is a reference to the intermediate state and that Jesus is preparing an interim resting place for His disciples when they die,  prior to the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.

This seems unlikely, though, because John 14.3 focuses on when Jesus comes again and not on when the disciples will die.[3]

Father’s House

Generally speaking, “Father’s house” is temple language. Think of the story of Jesus as a boy when His parents find Him in the temple and He says, “Did you not now that I must be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2.49), or Jesus cleansing the temple in John 2.16 and saying, “Do not make my Father’s house a den of trade.”[4]

When Jesus talks about His Father’s house in John 14.2, He isn’t referring to the literal temple, but rather, is using this language as a shorthand for “where God is”—in ancient understanding, temples were places where God dwells, and we see this throughout the story of Scripture. 

We referenced this idea when we discussed the relationship between Heaven and Earth in the first post of this series. Heaven is God’s domain, the earth is humanity’s domain, and we see throughout the biblical story that there are times and places where heaven and earth overlap[5]—where God dwells with humanity in a special way:

  • At creation, God constructed a cosmic temple[6] where God was able to dwell with humans and walked with them in the garden.
  • With the tabernacle (and later, its more permanent counterpart, the temple), God created a means to dwell within the midst of the nation of Israel.
  • In the incarnation, the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us. Jesus Himself was a walking temple, as God dwelt among us in an unprecedented way. 
  • Through the giving of the Spirit, God’s presence was multiplied exponentially. God’s Spirit lives within believers, and Paul says that we are temples of God’s Spirit, individually (1 Corinthians 3.16) and collectively (1 Corinthians 6.19-20).
  • In eternity, God will make His dwelling (tabernacle) with humanity in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21.1-5).

Throughout Scripture, we can see how temple language is used to indicate spaces where God’s presence can dwell with humanity. Here, in John 14, when Jesus talks about His “Father’s house”, this is the background against which we need to hear His statement. And the emphasis of what Jesus says here is not the where of His Father’s house, but its expansiveness: there is plenty of room for everyone: many dwelling places. Remember, this is a passage of comfort.

Jesus will go and prepare a place for His disciples in His Father’s house, and will come again so they can dwell together.

But When Will This Happen?

In my discussion of the Greek word μοναι/monai above, I argued that this passage can’t really be a reference to the intermediate state, because the emphasis is on when Jesus comes again, not on when the disciples themselves die. So, what does Jesus mean when He says, “I will come again”? When will this happen?

It is easy for us to read these words and immediately think of the Second Coming, but I am not sure that does justice to the context of this passage. This is the night that Jesus is betrayed. In a matter of hours, Jesus will “go away”. He will be forcibly removed from their presence, tried, scourged, and crucified, ultimately leaving them at His death. He would then “come again” to be with them following His resurrection. 

Thus, in one sense, I think we can say that the most straightforward way of reading this passage is in light of what was about to happen to Jesus and the disciples. This reading makes sense from a theological perspective as well: when Jesus “goes away” to be crucified, He absorbs the sins of the world upon Himself and makes it possible for all people to have a relationship with the Father. 

A little later in John 14.23, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The word “home” in this passage is μονὴν/monen, the same word Jesus used in 14.2, and I think we see this happening in a powerful way at Pentecost, with the sending of God’s Spirit to live among God’s people and make his home among us.[7]

However, once we have acknowledged the immediate context of Jesus’ words in John 14.1-3, I think there is also a fuller meaning to which this passage points, just as the current indwelling of the Spirit is a guarantee or down payment that points to our future inheritance (2 Corinthians 1.22, 5.5; Ephesians 1.13-14).[8] As Jesus’ work on the cross and His defeat of sin and death make it possible for the Spirit to come and dwell among us, so also it makes possible God’s ultimate dwelling with His people in the new creation—He prepares this for us.

When Jesus returns, we will go to be with Him (1 Thessalonians 4.17; John 14.3).[9] Revelation 21.2 describes that time of God’s ultimate dwelling with His people by saying that “the holy city, new Jerusalem” will come “down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”, and the word “prepared” is the same word that Jesus uses in John 14.3.

Or, as Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson describe it in Embracing Creation:

“Jesus goes away to complete the construction (preparation) of God’s new house, the new creation. When Jesus returns, the heavenly Jerusalem will descend—with Jesus—to the new earth under the new heavens. Jesus will receive us, and we will dwell with Jesus within the Father’s house forever.”[10]

With all of that in mind, I think there is a two-fold answer to the question of when the things that Jesus describes in John 14.1-3 will happen. First, Jesus is going away to be crucified, but He will return to His disciples after the resurrection, and what He accomplishes in the meantime will change everything and will make it possible for God to dwell with His people in an unprecedented way. But beyond that, this points ahead to eternity, where Jesus will return again take us to Himself, and the Father will fully and eternally dwell with us in His house—a new heaven and a new earth.


It is important to remember that the focus of John 14.1-3 is really not on what happens when Jesus returns; it is that Jesus’ disciples can be comforted in the knowledge that when He returns, they can be with Him forever (wherever that may be). 

Thus, this passage doesn’t really come down on the NHNE issue one way or the other. It does, however, fit nicely with other texts such as 1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 21 in a way that the traditional view does not.

[1]J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 179-237, has an excellent, lengthy discussion of various texts that could be construed as presenting a perspective contrary to renewed eschatology.

[2]The King James Version erroneously translates this word as “mansions,” which is the source of old songs like “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and “An Empty Mansion.” The theological point of this verse is the comfort of dwelling with God, not on the magnificent opulence of that dwelling.

[3]Middleton, 228-29; Ian Paul, “Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14”,

[4]Technically, the word for “house” does not occur in the Greek of the Luke 2 passage, but the fact that Jesus is in the temple and that it is widely translated this way illustrates the point I am making: “Father’s house” is temple language.

[5]See Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins, When Heaven Meets Earth: A 12-Part Biblical Study on Heaven (Portland: The Bible Project, 2017). This resource is available for download on The Bible Project website here.

[6]The notion that God is depicted as creating a cosmic temple and setting it in order in Genesis 1-2 and setting it in order is a widespread understanding in biblical studies. For helpful summaries of this, see John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 33-45; Middleton, 46-49, 163-65, 168-72.

[7] I am indebted to Stephen Scaggs for his thoughts in helping me to understand this reading of the text. 

Embracing Creation, 195: “In one sense, Jesus comes even now in the presence of the Spirit to live within us and make his home among us. This is his promise in John 14:23, the only place where Jesus uses this word other than John 14:2. In the coming of the Spirit, the Father and Son, Jesus said, will “make our home [dwelling place] with them.”

See also Middleton, 229.

[8]Embracing Creation, 196, discusses the “fuller experience” to which this passage refers beyond the immediate context. 

[9]To me, the language of 1 Thessalonians 4.17 and John 14. 3 are strikingly similar. In 1 Thessalonians 4.17, we will be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air; in John 14.3, Jesus says, “I will take you to myself.” These are forceful actions, initiated by Jesus, that result in our dwelling with Him.

[10]Embracing Creation, 196.

Pardon, Not Acquittal: Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery


One of my favorite stories in Scripture is found in our modern Bibles in John 8, and is generally referred to as something like “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery.” I love this story because it is a good example of how Jesus was so different from what people expected, and how He always did the right thing in any given situation.

Maybe you are like me: there are so many times in life when I find myself in a situation where I simply do not know what to do. Maybe I don’t know how to answer a certain question, or respond to a problem that someone is having, or face a crisis in my own life. I want to do the right thing, I want to do the thing that honors God, but sometimes, in the moment, it can be hard to have the wisdom to know what that thing is.

But not with Jesus. He often had people intentionally trying to put Him in impossible situations, but He would always know the right thing to do or say.

And that is certainly the case in this story.

Does This Story Belong In the Bible?

Before we launch into examining the story itself, we first need to answer the question, “Does this belong in the Bible?” And that might seem like a crazy question at first, because, after all, it is in our Bibles, so surely it belongs there…right?

We don’t have the original editions of the Bible. Instead, what we have are thousands and thousands of handwritten copies called manuscripts. We have fragments that date back to the early second century, but the best comprehensive manuscripts we have that contain most or all of the New Testament date back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

Compared to other ancient works, this is incredible. There are some ancient works of famous philosophers or poets of which we may only have a handful of copies, but there are thousands and thousands of biblical manuscripts. There are a lot of differences between the different manuscripts because they were copied down by hand, but since there are so many copies, we can compare them and with a very high degree of accuracy, determine what the original text said.

The study of these manuscripts is called textual criticism, and the earlier manuscripts are better, because they are closer to the original copies of the books of the New Testament, and thus give us a more accurate picture of what the original documents said.

The vast majority of differences between manuscripts are differences in things like spelling (basically the modern equivalent of a typo) where it is still very obvious what is supposed to be said. There are only a handful of places in the New Testament where there is a whole verse or verses that we are not sure about, and even in those, there is no point of doctrine that is compromised either way. So the biblical text that we have is very reliable.

But the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, found in John 7.53-8.11, is one of those instances where different manuscripts disagree with one another. In most modern Bibles, John 7.53-8.11 will be included in brackets with a note next to it that says something like, “the earliest manuscripts do not include John 7.53-8.11.” What’s going on here?

The problem is that the earliest and best manuscripts we have do not put this story after John 7.52. Some do not contain the story at all, other manuscripts place it after John 21.25, one manuscript puts it after John 7.36, and some actually put it in the Gospel of Luke, after 21.38 (keep that in mind). So in this case, textual criticism tells us that this story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery was almost certainly not originally at the end of John 7 and beginning of John 8.

But just because we don’t think this story is in the right place doesn’t mean that it isn’t a true story. It seems authentic; it certainly seems in keeping with the character of Jesus as we read in other places. It is referred to in other writings outside of the New Testament, so we know that it was a very early story, known in the second century.[1]

Some have suggested that this was preserved as a true story about Jesus, but wasn’t attached to a specific gospel, so different scribes who copied the manuscripts by hand added it at different places.

I think there is pretty good evidence that it was originally written by Luke. If you remember, earlier I mentioned that this story is included in some manuscripts of Luke, after Luke 21.38 (and if you look, it actually fits quite well there). But also, the theme, vocabulary, and style of writing in this story are more common to the books of Luke-Acts than they are the rest of John.[2] Luke’s gospel reflects a special interest on women, as this story obviously does, and there are various words and expressions used in this story that don’t appear elsewhere in John, but appear multiple times in Luke-Acts.[3]

But if Luke wrote this, why is it not in the earliest and most comprehensive manuscripts?

Well, Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel (Luke 1.1-3) that he compiled his account of the life of Jesus based on the testimony of eyewitness accounts and that he took what he had collected and wrote it down. Luke would have compiled notes that he later collected and collated into a full text, sort of like if you can imagine having a folder with all of these stories of miracles and teachings of Jesus that you take and then compile together on one scroll.

This particular story fits in very well after Luke 21.38 (where it is in some manuscripts) but this point in Luke’s Gospel is also right before his telling of the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus—the central elements of the Jesus story.

Luke’s Gospel in its current form is just about the right size for a typical ancient scroll, so it’s possible that Luke removed this story from his Gospel simply for the practical reason that he saw that he was running out of writing room, and he wanted to make sure that he covered the most important stuff.[4]

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in adultery was still preserved as important and authentic, and was apparently widespread, which is how it got added to so many manuscripts in different places. None of this should make us uncomfortable or worried about the accuracy of our Bibles, but it should remind us that while the Bible is inspired by God, it is also a human product that God uses to reveal Himself to us.

The True Colors of the Pharisees

So while this story doesn’t really fit in the Gospel of John, I feel very confident that it is authentic, and that it fits in our Bibles. Let’s examine it more closely:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Here the Pharisees, the supposed keepers of the Law, slip up and show themselves to be less concerned with the integrity of the Law than they are in trapping Jesus in a difficult situation. You see, the Law of Moses did require that a woman caught in adultery be put to death, but it also required the same punishment for the man (Leviticus 20.10; Deuteronomy 22.22). Since the woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” the Pharisees clearly knew who the other guilty party was, and by not bringing him forward for punishment, showed that they weren’t too concerned with what the Law said.

Furthermore, despite what the Law said, “there is little evidence that it was carried out very often in first-century Palestine, especially in urban areas.”[5] Part of the reason for this is that the Jews were under Roman authority, and didn’t have the legal authority to execute people on their own (we see this again in the execution of Jesus).

So the Pharisees likely had no intention of executing the woman and weren’t really concerned about the Law of Moses. Instead, they were trying to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place, forcing Him to either disregard the Law of Moses, or be the one who pronounced the woman’s death sentence (and thus, likely cause problems for him with the Roman authorities).

Jesus has been placed in a hard situation; out of nowhere, He is surrounded by an angry mob, asking Him to perform some on-the-spot biblical interpretation with massive implications. What is the right thing to do? How will He respond?

Writing on the Ground

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

Twice in this passage, it specifically mentions Jesus stooping down to write with His finger on the ground. It’s an interesting detail that is included, and helps the scene come to life for the reader. It is also one of the little characteristics of this story that make it seem genuine. Seeing that Jesus wrote on the ground but not necessarily knowing what it is that He wrote—this is the sort of detail that an eyewitness would remember and share.

Scholars and commentators have pounced on this little detail over the years and offered various interpretations of it:

  • Some have suggested that Jesus was writing out the 10 Commandments.
  • Some have argued that this was a direct reference to Jeremiah 17.13, where those who forsake God are “written in the dust”, and that Jesus is making a specific judgment against the Pharisees.
  • Some have proposed that the words Jesus writes are actually the specific sins of the scribes and Pharisees who have brought the adulterous woman before Him.

All of these suggestions (and others have been made as well) are interesting and, I guess, possible, but ultimately, we aren’t told what it is that Jesus writes on the ground. Personally, I’ve always been inclined to think that perhaps Jesus didn’t write anything of consequence on the ground at all, but just the act itself and the pause it produced helped to diffuse the energy and volatility of the situation and made the Pharisees more prepared to hear and respond to what Jesus says.

Sometimes when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, or perhaps when someone says something to us that just sets us off and makes our blood boil, the most important thing that we can do is to do nothing right then. Instead, the wise course of action is to take a deep breath and slow our heart rate before we respond (if we respond at all!).

Jesus says that He who is without sin is to cast the first stone. This is a reference to Deuteronomy 13.9 and 17.7—it is the witnesses of the crime who must be the first to throw the stones, and they cannot have been participants in the crime itself.[6]

So Jesus puts it back on those who were trying to trap Him: which of the woman’s accusers felt confident enough in their own sinlessness that they would take up the stone and begin the execution?

Pardon vs. Acquittal

But none of them do.

But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

The story of Jesus and the Woman caught in Adultery ends on a high note, as Jesus’ response to the Pharisees leaves them speechless. Seemingly, He awakens their consciences, and in shame, the slink away, realizing that they are in no place to pronounce judgment upon the woman.

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, Lord.”

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Of course, Jesus is the One who is without sin, and is the One who actually has the right and authority to pronounce judgment. But He doesn’t condemn her. In fact, this is in keeping with the reason Jesus came into the world:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

(John 3.17)

Jesus came on a rescue mission to seek and save those who were lost.

And what Jesus says here is incredibly important—Jesus pardons the woman, but He doesn’t say that her sin doesn’t matter or that it isn’t a big deal. Instead, He specifically addresses the sin—by telling her to “sin no more,” He indicates that He knew that she was indeed guilty of adultery and that she needed to change her life.

Which leads to an important idea that is central to the Gospel—Jesus offers us pardon, not acquittal:

  • If someone is acquitted of a crime, then they are declared to be “not guilty.” No punishment is due that person, because no sentence of guilt was passed.
  • If someone is pardoned of a crime, then they have been found guilty, but the punishment for the crime is taken away.

This is a central element to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t come to us and say, “Your sin is not a big deal; no crime has been committed, you are innocent.” Instead, He says, “Your sin is significant; it must be paid for, but you don’t have to pay the price.

Our sin is such a big deal that Jesus paid the price for it on the cross; because of that sacrifice, pardon can be offered to the adulterous woman, and to the rest of us as well. And when we receive that pardon for our sins and appreciate it, we should be motivated, as Jesus told the woman, to go and sin no more.


The story of the woman caught in adultery is an interesting one. It presents textual problems, and we may be unsure of exactly where it fits in Scripture. But what a powerful story it is, and what important lessons it teaches us.

It teaches us about the nature of Jesus’ enemies. They were less interested in keeping God’s word than they were in trying to entrap Him. And in a similar way, we may find ourselves at times in difficult situations not because other people are trying to do the right thing, but because they are actively trying to cause problems for us.

This passage also teaches us something about how to respond to difficult situations. Jesus, the wisest of all men, doesn’t explode or react impulsively. Instead, He takes His time and calmly responds, diffusing the situation while applying biblical truth with clarity and grace.

And perhaps most of all, it shows us something about the kind of judge that Jesus, the Judge of all the World, is: He is looking to save, not to condemn. I think many people have an idea of God where He is distant and removed, watching us closely and just waiting for us to mess up so He can zap us. But this is not the picture of God that the Bible repeatedly offers. God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. God does not wink at sin or pretend that it doesn’t matter, but He is eager to pardon it, and He paid the price for it, Himself.

Each of us stands guilty in the sense that we have been convicted of sin in our lives. That is unquestionable. So the only real question is, have we received the pardon that God offers?

[1]Frank Pack, The Gospel According to John, Part I, The Living Word Commentary (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1975), 136.

[2]Ibid., 136; D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 334;

[3]“Mount of Olives”, “scribes and Pharisees,” “eldest,” “accusers,” “early,” “all of the people”


[5]Carson, 335.

[6]Ibid., 336.

Jesus, Christmas, and Hanukkah

Christmas can be a controversial subject in Christian circles.

In our modern climate of culture wars, the battle of Christmas creeps up every year. You know what I’m talking about: the debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” as the appropriate seasonal greeting. Secular extremists claim that being wished “Merry Christmas” forces Christianity upon them, and Christian extremists claim to be persecuted by political correctness if any other greeting is used. As I have written before, I refuse to take offense about such things, so this particular controversy is not a great concern to me. I sympathize with the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd, but it is not a banner I regularly wave. I cheerfully wish “Merry Christmas” to people without a second thought or any ulterior motive.

If you are not part of the fellowship of Churches of Christ, you might be unaware that some Christians actually have the opposite concern: they want to keep Christ out of Christmas. At first glance this may seem unbelievable, but traditionally, members of Churches of Christ have been uncomfortable with celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday (i.e. the birth of Jesus). To my knowledge, there are three reasons for this.

First, historically, Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25. The Bible does not tell us exactly when Jesus was born. He was born at a time when shepherds were out in the fields with their sheep, and although it is possible that sheep would be grazing in the outskirts of Bethlehem in the middle of winter, it is not prime sheep-grazing time. Since we don’t know when Jesus was born but do know that he most likely was not born on December 25, some people are uncomfortable with seeming to support a factual error. I understand that concern, but I think it is possible to observe the holiday while also maintaining historical accuracy.

Second, many people claim that Christmas has pagan origins. This is a common and generally-accepted claim, but it is also historically inaccurate. As far as I can tell, there may be specific aspects of the ways that people celebrate Christmas that have some pagan connections, but the origins of the holiday itself are not pagan. And even if they were, the reality is that there are a lot of things in our culture that have roots in paganism that don’t bother us today. For example, the names of many of our months and days have roots in paganism, but I don’t ever remember anyone rising up in arms about how terrible it is that we celebrate the god Thor every Thursday. Regardless, the historical reality that Christmas was not co-opted from pagan celebrations should render this argument irrelevant.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the argument that the Scriptures do not command us to celebrate the birth of Jesus and thus, do not authorize us to do so. We do celebrate the death and the resurrection of Jesus through the Lord’s Supper and are commanded to do so, but we have no similar command to observe Jesus’ birth, so the argument goes.

Here’s the problem with that third argument: Jesus’ own behavior illustrates that it is permissible to observe religious holidays that are not prescribed in Scripture.

In the Gospel of John, one of the recurring themes that John uses to describe the life of Jesus is Jewish religious feasts. Frequently he will describe how Jesus went up to Jerusalem to attend one feast or another, and when He does, exciting things tend to happen:

  • In John 2.13ff., Jesus goes to Jerusalem to attend the Passover and cleanses the temple.
  • In John 5, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to observe an (unnamed) “feast of the Jews” and heals an invalid on the Sabbath.
  • In John 6, while the Passover is at hand, Jesus feeds the 5,000.
  • In John 7, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to for the Feast of Tabernacles and begins teaching in the temple, leading to sharp arguments about who He is and where He comes from.

In this list of feasts that Jesus attends, we should also include John 10.22-23:

“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.”

Again, His appearance at a Jewish religious feast leads to excitement: Jesus tells the Jews who gather around Him, “I and the Father are one,” and as a result, they want to stone Him to death. But what I really want to emphasize is the part about the “Feast of Dedication”. You won’t find that feast described and commanded in the Old Testament along with Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost.

The Feast of Dedication came about many years later, and we know it better by a different name: Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. It was instituted during the Maccabean revolt in 164/163 B.C. and celebrates the rededication of the temple after it had been defiled under Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire.

So John 10 tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem, walking in the temple, during a holiday celebrating the rededication of the temple. In other words, Jesus was celebrating a religious holiday that was not commanded by the Hebrew Bible. Based on His example, I think we are on safe grounds to do the same thing today. 

I am certainly not arguing that the birth of Jesus is more important than His death or resurrection, but it is significant: it was God putting on flesh and becoming a human, and fully identifying with the trials and temptation of the human experience. It was the beginning stage of the prerequisite process that enabled Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. It was God establishing a beachhead in the realm of Satan and beginning the frontal assault that would ultimately result in the defeat of sin and death.

And thus, it is worth celebrating. The Bible doesn’t command that we do so, but the example of Jesus certainly shows that the Bible doesn’t forbid us from doing so, either. Besides, as Christians, we should celebrate Jesus—His birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension—each and every day of the year, Christmas included.

Ultimately, I think this whole discussion falls squarely into Romans 14.1-12, where Paul talks about how Christian brothers and sisters should avoid passing judgment on one another over disputable matters.

At the end of the day, if a Christian brother or sister wants to celebrate the birth of Jesus and what it represents as a part of Christmas, you are not to pass judgment that person. And if a Christian brother or sister decides that it is inappropriate to celebrate Christmas in a religious fashion, you are not to pass judgment on that person either. In matters such as these, Paul says that we are to respect the beliefs of one another, rather than forcing our beliefs on others in a way that causes them to stumble.

Reaching Your Spiritual Potential: Introduction

Misunderstanding the Spiritual

The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I took a course on it in undergrad and a second one in grad school. I’m also now teaching it for the second time.

One of the repeated themes in John’s Gospel, something that you see over and over, is the idea of misunderstanding—Jesus presents some form of teaching, and His audience completely fails to understand what He is talking about.

  • This is very apparent in John 3, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus can’t understand Him because he’s trying to imagine a physical rebirth—re-entering his mother’s womb to be born again (which, admittedly, would be pretty difficult).
  • We see it again in John 4, when Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well; Jesus talks about “living water”, referring to something spiritual, but the woman assumes that He is talking about a special kind of water which can be seen, touched, and drunk.
  • Later on in John 6, Jesus says that He is the bread of life, and that those who eat His flesh and drink His blood have eternal life. This turns off a lot of the people, because they think He is literally talking about eating Him.

There are more examples that we could give, but I think you can see the point—over and over again in John’s Gospel, people misunderstand what Jesus is saying, and the reason for this is that Jesus is focused on spiritual teachings while His audience is locked in on the physical side of things.

You know, I think we have a very similar problem today.

Oftentimes I think we struggle to do the things that Jesus calls us to do and to live the way He expects us to live because we are so focused on the physical—what we can see and touch—that we tend to neglect the spiritual.

“Reaching your Potential”

There’s a lot of talk in our world today about “reaching your potential”.

You hear it a lot in the context of athletes and sports teams. A coach might talk about how his team has a lot of talent, but how they have to work to reach their full potential. You also hear it in the context of education—a particular student may have a lot of natural ability, but a lot of work is involved to be the best student he or she can be.

Potential involves raw talent and ability, but getting the most out of it requires hard work! No Hall of Fame athlete achieved that success without committing himself to long hours of exercise and practice. No Rhodes Scholar ever achieved that honor without committing herself to long hours of study and review.

I think the same thing is true in regards to spiritual potential.

For those of us who have committed our lives to Christ and have put Him on in the waters of baptism, it is our responsibility to mature and develop spiritually, to work to follow Jesus more closely and live increasingly holy lives. Another way of saying that is that it is our duty to reach our spiritual potential![1]

But how do we do that? I’d like to spend a few posts looking at practical ways in which we can develop our spiritual potential. These aren’t new or flashy ideas; they are simple steps which require hard work and diligence. But if followed, they are practices which will help us to reach our spiritual potential and serve God more effectively.

[1]Some readers will likely feel uncomfortable by some of the language in this paragraph which emphasizes our role in our spiritual growth and development. Isn’t it God’s work (though Christ) which saves us? Isn’t it God’s work (though the Spirit) which sanctifies us? Certainly. But neither of those truths eliminates the fact that we also have a role to play. Your own personal efforts can’t make you holy, but at the same time, the work of the Spirit won’t happen without your willingness and cooperation.

Jesus as the New Bethel

“Jacob’s Dream at Bethel,” 5th Century, Unknown Artist

The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible, and one of its special characteristics is that, more than any other, it emphasizes the divinity of Jesus. This is done over and over again and in many different ways, but one interesting way it does so is through an allusion in John 1.47-52.

Here, Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and then Philip subsequently goes and recruits a man named Nathanael as well. Nathanael is skeptical that Jesus, from the lowly town of Nazareth, could be the Messiah whom Moses and the prophets had proclaimed, and so Philip invites him to go and see Jesus for himself:

“Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’’ 

Although Nathanael was really impressed that Jesus knew what he had been doing before they had even met, Jesus basically told him that he hadn’t seen anything yet:

“Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’”

If you know your Old Testament, then the imagery of heaven opening up and angels ascending and descending is probably very familiar to you, and it almost certainly would have been familiar to Nathanael. It likely was an allusion to Genesis 28, where Jacob, while on a journey to Haran to stay with his uncle Laban (and ultimately get married), stops to sleep for the night, using a stone for a pillow:

“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”

At the top of the ladder, the Lord appears, and basically reaffirms to Jacob the same promises that He had previously made to Abraham and Isaac. When Jacob awakens from his sleep, he realizes that something significant has happened:

“‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”

The next morning Jacob takes his stone pillow and sets it up as a monument, naming the place “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

The language of Genesis 28.12 and John 1.51 is so similar that it seems clear that Jesus was intentionally alluding to Jacob’s dream. So what does the connection mean?

In Jacob’s dream, a ladder connected earth (where Jacob is) and heaven (where the Lord is), and angels ascend and descend upon the ladder. Jacob is awed by what he sees. In John 1, Jesus paints a similar picture for Nathanael: the heavens open, and the angels of God are ascending and descending. The difference is that now, instead of ascending and descending upon a ladder, the angels are doing so upon the Son of Man—Jesus himself.

The implication is that Jesus is the New Bethel. This is the greater thing that Nathanael will get to see: just as Bethel was the place where the heavens were connected to earth, so Jesus is the medium through which heaven and earth, and God and man, are brought together.1

The Gospel of John affirms here as it does elsewhere that Jesus was unique—as the Son of God, his roots were in heaven, but as a human, he also put down roots on earth. This enabled him to carry out the work of reconciling the world to its Creator (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.18-19).

• • •
1F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 62: “In this application of Jacob’s vision, however, the union between earth and heaven is effected by the Son of Man: he is the mediator between God and the human race.”
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