Clever Stories or Eyewitness Accounts? (2 Peter 1:16-21)

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In our home we have a few bookshelves which are overflowing of books. On one particular set of shelves I have a variety of different kinds of book. Of course, being a pastor, there are theology books, but I also have books on philosophy, history, some graphic novels as well as classical and more contemporary novels.

There are many people I know who would place the Bible in the fictional literature part of my bookshelves. The popular perception of the Bible among many people in our time and place is that it is more like a novel than a record of actual historical events. That might be because many of the stories in the Bible don’t seem to connect with people’s experiences today. Maybe it’s because we are so used to books about superheroes, wizards or other mythical characters that the stories in the Bible seem to be more like fantasy than reality. People might possibly see the Bible as a fictional piece of writing because the promises it communicates seem too good to be true.

There are some significant differences between the Bible and other books on my shelves. For example, the Bible wasn’t written by just one person, but by many people over thousands of years. The Bible doesn’t just tell a nice story but contains different genres of literature such as historical stories, poems, legal writings, and personal letters. I can read a novel a couple of times and still enjoy it, but I’ve been reading the Bible my entire adult life and I still find something new and helpful in it for my life. Most of the authors of the books on my shelf made money from their work, but a lot of the authors of the books in the Bible paid for what they wrote with their lives.

From what we read in 2 Peter 1:16-21 it seems like there were people in the earliest days of the Christian movement who were questioning whether the stories Jesus’ followers were telling could be trusted. In their day, too, these stories seemed to some people to be made-up works of fiction. However, in these verses Peter stated that what he was sharing with the believers weren’t ‘clever stories’ (v16 NLT) like a fictional novel. Instead, Peter had witnessed the ‘powerful coming’ of Jesus and ‘saw his majestic splendour’ with their own eyes.

We have an example of what Peter witnessed in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). When Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James and John, he gave them a glimpse of his heavenly glory as the Son of God while he talked with Moses and Elijah, two of the most important Old Testament prophets. The story sounds like it belongs in a fantasy novel. We don’t normally see people’s faces shine like the sun and their clothes become as white as light while they talk with people who had lived more than a thousand years ago (Matthew 17:2). So when the disciples started telling people about what they saw, I can understand why their audience would be skeptical about what they were being told and question its truth.

That’s why this verse is so important for us, not only in verifying the story of Jesus’ transfiguration but validating the whole Bible. These are not stories people made up for fun. They didn’t make any money out of what they wrote like a modern novelist. Instead, the authors of the biblical books were so convinced about what they saw that they put their lives on the line for it. They were so convinced about the truth of what they had seen and the difference it can make in people’s lives that they would rather die than retract what they had written. That’s what is different about the Bible – it was written by people who had seen the events they had written about, or had talked with people who had witnessed them first-hand, and they were willing to die for the truth of what they had written. Can you imagine any author of a modern best-selling novel being willing to do that?

Not only were the writers of the Bible convinced of the historical truth of what they had written, they also witnessed the differences it made in people’s lives. Peter urges his readers to ‘pay close attention’ to what the prophets had written ‘for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place’ (v19 NLT). He seems to be referring specifically to the message of the prophets of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah among them, who pointed forward to the coming Messiah who would bring God’s redemption, justice, peace and glory to the world. There are a range of ways we can understand the idea of ‘prophetic messages’ but here Peter is pointing us towards those messages in the Bible that direct us towards Jesus. He is the light of the world who brings life to all who trust in him, so when we hear the words the prophets wrote which the Holy Spirit inspired, the Holy Spirit uses those words to create faith in Jesus and to bring the light of his salvation to our hearts.

That is why it is so vitally important for us to remain in God’s word and to be listening to what God is saying through it. These aren’t just some nice stories to tell our kids. They’re not even stories that just teach us to live in good ways or to make good choices. These stories are eyewitness accounts of the glory of God which is revealed in Jesus. When we connect with these stories, the Holy Spirit fills us with the glory of God which Jesus revels to us and drives out the darkness in our hearts and minds. We can then bring the glory of God which we encounter in Jesus – his love, mercy, grace and all the goodness of God – into the lives of other people and into what can often be a very dark world. As the glory of God shines in us through the presence of Jesus by his Spirit, we can bring his glory into all the circumstances of life and all the situations we might find ourselves in.

I can’t prove to anyone that the stories we read in the Bible are true. What Peter does, though, is give us two good reasons why we can believe they are true. Firstly, he was there, on that mountain, and he saw with his own eyes the glory of God revealed in Jesus. Secondly, he saw the difference the message of Jesus made in people’s lives as it drove the darkness from them and the Holy Spirit filled their hearts and minds with the light of God’s joy, peace, hope and love. Why would he make these stories up when he had nothing to gain and they cost him his life?

Stories like the Transfiguration made a profound difference in Pete’s life as he witnessed the glory of God revealed in the grace, love, peace and hope Jesus brings. They can still do the same for us…

The Light of God’s Glory (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

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There are plenty of ways for us to communicate in a digital age. We can send text messages, email, use social media of various types, video call, or we can even use more traditional technology and talk with someone on the phone.

However, there is nothing quite like seeing someone face to face if we are going to really get to know them.

When we see someone’s face, we get a lot of information that aren’t there when we use electronic communication. There have been a number of times when I’ve been trying to say something to another person through text message or email when my words have been misinterpreted because the other person couldn’t see the look in my eyes, or hear the inflections or tone in my voice. When we talk face to face, there are a lot of things in our faces and voices that not only help to communicate clearly, but give the other person a better understanding of who we are.

The same is true in our relationship with God. Hebrews 1:1 tells us that there were lots of ways God communicated with his people over the centuries, especially through the prophets that he sent to his people. There were a few occasions in the Old Testament when we are told that some people were able to see God (eg Exodus 24:9-11) but generally God spoke with his people through mediators because God’s holiness meant that people could not see God and live (see Exodus 33:20).

That is what makes the Transfiguration of Jesus an amazing event. When Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain and revealed his heavenly glory to them, they were seeing something that very few people had ever seen. Jesus gave his three closest disciples a glimpse of his heavenly glory to help them understand who he is. While Jesus is an ordinary person according to his humanity, his transfiguration showed his followers that there is much more to him than meets the eye. Jesus was the presence of God with them. He brought the fullness of God’s goodness to them so they could know God face to face rather than having to rely on what others said about God or who they thought God might be. In the face of Jesus, we see the face of God – not what God looks like, but who God is.

Understanding the nature and character of God through the person of Jesus became critical for the Apostle Paul. When he wrote to the Christians in Corinth, Paul described the ‘glorious light of the Good News’ being the ‘message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God’ (v4b NLT). For Paul, seeing God’s glory in the face of Jesus means that we can know God and have a relationship with God through the person of Jesus. He gave a glimpse of this glory to Peter, James and John in his Transfiguration, and to us as we hear this story. As Paul says, if we want to see God’s glory, the place to look is the face of Jesus (v6).

We see the full glory of God not so much in the transfigured face of Jesus, but in the human face of Jesus. That is where we see a God who does what no one else has ever done. Jesus is different from every other religious, philosophical or political figure I have ever come across. He reveals to us the glory of a God who meets us in our broken humanity. Jesus shows us a God who doesn’t try to explain why people suffer in the world, but instead enters into our suffering. In Jesus we meet a God who would rather die than see his children separated from him by sin and death. Jesus shows us how high, how wide, how long and how deep God’s love is for us by sacrificing everything for us on the cross. In the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God’s love is stronger than death, and nothing in this world can overcome God’s love for us. The ‘glorious light of the Good News’ (v4) of Jesus shows us a God who is compassionate and kind, who forgives sinners and justifies the unrighteous, who does everything to reconcile with those who have turned away from him and restore broken relationships. The glory of God we can see in the bruised and bloodied face of a crucified man is the glory of the God who sacrifices everything in love for people who deserve it the least but need it the most.

This is a very different way to think about glory. Usually we think about God’s heavenly glory, seated on his throne, surrounded in light with angels singing his praises. When Paul points us to look for God’s glory in the face of Jesus, though, he wants us to see the glory of the God who suffers with us, who suffers for us, who gives everything out of love for us. Paul wants us to see the face of the God whose love is stronger than anything in this world and who promises us something better than what we are experiencing right now. As Paul knows from his own personal experience, seeing this kind of glory in the face of Jesus can change our lives.

To see God’s glory in the face of Jesus gives us a new way to connect with God. We don’t need to find our way to heaven to try to connect with the Divine, or to try to find some spark of the Diving within us. Instead, God makes himself known to us through the person of Jesus. Just as every good relationship means spending time face to face together, when we grow in our relationship with Jesus, and with the body of Christ that is our Christian family, we also grow in our relationship with God. This growth equips us to live as people who carry the light of God’s glory into the world by living and loving others the same way Jesus did, full of forgiveness, compassion, mercy and grace. This connection, growth, equipping and sending is what it means to live with the light of God’s glory in us.

We can try to get to know God in lots of different ways, but most of them are like trying to get to know someone through text messages, emails, social media or even phone calls. There’s nothing like seeing someone face to face. In Jesus’ transfiguration, we see God’s glory face to face as we encounter the God who sacrifices everything to overcome the distance between us and who gives us new life as the people he loves.

God’s Glory (John 1:1-14)

glory-to-god-in-the-highest-03Every now and then a gentleman comes into the church office asking questions about God and faith. I don’t honestly know whether this gentleman is searching for answers to his questions, or whether he is just looking for an argument. Whatever his reason might be, his questions are good and challenge us to search for a deeper understanding of God and the way he is at work in the world.

One question this gentleman has asked a number of times is one that has perplexed humanity for thousands of years – if God is all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then why are children and other innocents dying everyday all around the world from war, hunger, abuse, preventable diseases, and other evils. The assumption behind his question is that if God is actually all-good, all-loving and all-powerful, then he would somehow eradicate evil and everyone, especially the innocent victims of human hatred and greed, would be able to live safe, happy, well-adjusted lives.

I can understand this gentleman’s struggle with the paradox of God’s love and power because I grapple with it on a regular basis in a number of different circumstances. The problem with simply getting rid of evil is that, if God were to do that, God would also need to get rid of human will which is often the cause of the evils in the world. We would end up with a God who controls people instead of a God who gifts people with freedom. People who have no will are people who are unable to love, and if God’s desire is that we live in loving relationships with him and with others (see Matthew 22:34-40 etc.), then taking away our will also takes away our capacity to love.

So instead, God deals with the problem of evil in a different way. Instead of magically getting rid of suffering in the world, God shows us his glory by doing something that we don’t expect and that no-one else could do – he enters into the suffering of the world as a child. God joins us in our suffering in order to meet us where we are and then give us the hope of something better in Jesus.

This might sound a little philosophical and a bit depressing for a Christmas Day message. We expect and look for Christmas to be light and happy most of the time. But that misses the real significance and power of the Christmas story. Jesus wasn’t born in a sanitized and air conditioned birthing suite. He came into the world by being born in a dirty, smelly, unhygienic cattle shed. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were shameful for their culture as his mother became pregnant before she was married to her fiancé. At the time, the people to whom Jesus was born were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire which kept control through brutal and oppressive violence. We can sanitize the Christmas story so much that we forget that God entered the world in humble way, immersed in shame and into the suffering of an occupied and oppressed people. The Christmas story is really a story of shame, dirt, and conflict.

We see God’s glory in this story because when we are suffering from shame, dirt or conflict, God is with us through the birth of Jesus to give us hope and peace, love and even joy. Jesus shows us the glory of a God who isn’t removed or distant from the realities of our lives, but he is right there with us, walking with us every step of the way, because he has been there before us in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t just leave us there, but, in Jesus, God promises us a life that is free from shame, in which we are made clean through his forgiveness and healing, and set free from the oppression of sin, death and all the evils of this world.

When this gentleman comes into the office, then, and asks where God is when the innocents are suffering and dying, I can tell him that in Jesus, God is right there with them. This is not an empty platitude to try to win an argument, but the glory of God at work in the world. In Jesus, God exercises his power by joining with all of us who suffer. He surrenders his power to meet us in the circumstances of our lives and then gives us the hope of a better life. We see the love of God as, in Jesus, God is willing to sacrifice everything, even his heavenly glory and his own life, to suffer at the hands of evil in order to free us from the power of evil. We encounter the glory of God in Jesus who meets us where we are, journeys with us to carry our shame, scandal and conflict for us, sets us free and gives us life that never ends.

Where is God when the world, or when we are hurting? In the birth of Jesus, God is right there with us.

More to think about:

  • Do you ever ask where God is when things go wrong or you witness people suffering? What has caused you to ask that question recently?
  • Are you able to reconcile the idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God with suffering in the world? If so, how do you do it? If not, what gets in the way?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering in the person of Jesus shape your thinking about God’s relationship with pain in the world?
  • If or when you suffer from shame, scandal or conflict in your life, could it make a difference to trust that God is with you in those times in the person of Jesus, and that he will get you through them? Can you explain why or why not?
  • How might God entering into human shame & suffering inspire us to walk with others who are experiencing their own pain?