As I prepared to talk about John 15:26-16:4 over the last few weeks, I have to admit that I struggled. At first glance, I didn't feel like the passage had a lot to say to me. As I was talking this through with my wife Stephanie, she asked me what I do when I can't figure out what a passage is saying to me.
How do we respond when a passage is a bit confusing or unclear or feels incomplete? This is a critical skill to develop as a centered set community. We aren’t feeding people pre-digested Bible nuggets that you can just close your eyes and swallow.
We’re throwing you a bag of wheat and inviting you to grind it, process it, bake it yourselves.
For that reason, I'd like to model the process I use to meditate on scripture with friends. Here’s an overview of the process adopted from the Kaleidoscope Institute.
Read the passage three times and after each reading, ponder one of these three questions:
What sticks out to you?
What questions do you have?
What is God saying to you?
Let’s start by hearing what Jesus has to say. This passage starts at John 15:26. Now this part of Jesus’ story starts a week earlier when he arrives in a town near Jerusalem. He is anointed by Mary Magdalene as a sign of his coming death, then the entourage enters Jerusalem to crowds and celebration. Now we fast forward to the last supper. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and singled out his betrayer. Judas has then retreated into the night. Jesus then informs the remaining disciples about the coming Holy Spirit and tries to assure his friends that even though he is going away, they will not remain alone. Now they are likely walking through the dark streets, up to the Mount of Olives. The paths are probably quiet as most Jews were inside celebrating Passover together. Imagine following Jesus in the dark as he shares these words:
"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you.“
If you had to choose one word or verse or picture that stands out to you, what would that be? Write down or think about that for a minute.
Two words that first stood out to me were:
These two words capture the basic arc of this passage:
The Spirit is coming.
That’s good, maybe the disciples don’t really know what that means, but it probably is helpful right?
What does the Spirit do?
The Spirit will testify, and then Jesus’ followers will testify. To testify means telling others about something you’ve seen. Therefore, the Spirit will attest to information regarding Jesus.
This raises some questions:
What kind of testimony is this?
How does a spirit testify and to whom?
My first guess is that the Spirit testifies to us and through us.
The Spirit testifies to us: that’s us hearing the Spirit communicate. Maybe through dreams, through wisdom or "knowing" something that we haven’t directly experienced, or it could be a feeling or certainty about something.
Think about how you’ve “heard from the spirit.”
The Spirit testifies through us: that refers to times when you say something to someone that is inspired by the Holy Spirit in you. Writing a letter, a kind word, engaging in an act of service, praying, expressing who God is through music or art or dance; all of these and more can be ways that the Spirit speaks through us to others.
So what is the Spirit going to say? It’s going to be about Jesus. What about Jesus? There’s a lot of ambiguity here that we’ll have to be OK with, but it’s important to remember that the Spirit isn’t here to build up our own prestige, fame, power or wealth. The Spirit is here to communicate to us and others about Jesus.
The second word that sticks out to me is remember.
16:4 says, "I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you.“
Remember what Jesus is saying, which is what?
People won’t like you, people are going to treat you unfairly, you will be rejected and killed, just like me. Remember that this is all an expected part of the story. You might imagine that Jesus conquering death would immediately trigger an age of perfection. But the disciples are about to face something else and Jesus is encouraging them to remember.
So that was step one. We looked at the context, the main ideas and the things that caught our attention. In essence, we let the Spirit testify to us about this passage, just like this passage describes. Now, let’s read the passage again. This time I’ll read from The Message Version.
“When the Friend I plan to send you from the Father comes—the Spirit of Truth issuing from the Father—he will confirm everything about me. You, too, from your side must give your confirming evidence, since you are in this with me from the start.
"I’ve told you these things to prepare you for rough times ahead. They are going to throw you out of the meeting places. There will even come a time when anyone who kills you will think he’s doing God a favor. They will do these things because they never really understood the Father. I’ve told you these things so that when the time comes and they start in on you, you’ll be well-warned and ready for them.
“I didn’t tell you this earlier because I was with you every day. But now I am on my way to the One who sent me."
After a second reading, there’s usually a question that begins to form in my mind. There’s some element of the passage that sticks with me. I like to wrestle with that question a little and see what comes from that.
My question today is: why are religious people so confused that they attack people drawing close to God? That’s a question that’s relevant both then and now.
A clue in this passage is repeated twice. If you rewind just a bit to verse 21, Jesus talks about the world hating him “because they don’t know the One who sent me, and then in 16:3: "They will do these things because they never really understood the Father."
Who is Jesus talking about? Who are the ones who are going to persecute his followers and believe that they’re doing God a favor? Who is "the world" that Jesus warns his disciples about? If we look at this passage, we find that it's not the Romans, they’ll get in on the persecution party soon enough, but that’s not Jesus’ main concern here. He’s talking about good ol' fashioned church folks. Those people who dress all their actions in the language of God’s will, but now Jesus is saying they were off by a mile. They never knew God. They spent their whole lives doing the right things, believing the right things, saying the right things, and yet they never knew God.
That leads to another question: What does it mean to know someone?
The other week it was my wife’s birthday and I was wondering what I could write to her to tell her what she meant to me. Was there anything new to say after 15-odd years of spending life together? What I landed on was something like this: "I love knowing you. And I love that you know me. What more is there to life?"
What was I trying to say? I was trying to tell my wife that I see the many dimensions of her personhood. That it’s a joy to be allowed into a knowledge of her, a joy that she has invited me to participate in every element of her very self. She communicates about her identity through her actions, by her priorities, by her emotions, by her words, by her time. She has allowed me to know her and that’s a precious gift. In this context, it feels very natural that the word “knowing” was a euphemism for sex in the writings of the Bible. Sex is another layer of knowing that embodies what it means to share all of who you are with another person.
So what was Jesus saying about these people who thought they were religious, who were pursuing a way they thought was centered on God but it ended up being the opposite? He was saying that they never knew God. But how could they not know God if they were listening to scripture, celebrating the festivals and practicing the fundamental religious forms which define following God?
We won’t ever know for sure, because each person has their own story. The only question I can answer today is do I know God? That can be a hard question. Do I have an understanding of what God is about, what God is like, what God is interested in, what God desires for me and for us? Could I end up just as confused and backwards, attacking those seeking God, calling evil good and good evil?
I think it's easy to replace knowing God with knowing a religion. It’s easy to read a rule book, to learn the rituals, the words to say. Learning what to do and not to do. Memorizing the practices define the religion, understanding what things you should and shouldn’t say, what puts you with the “in crowd."
Knowing God is different. It means turning to God daily, not assuming God will just “follow the rules." It means being willing to see God move in unexpected ways. It means following God when it feels uncomfortable or unusual. It means spending time with God to find out what it’s like to hear God, recognize God, be known by God. This is the focus of a centered-set lens on theology. The danger many of us can fall into is knowing “Christianity” rather than God. It’s like going on stage to perform a choreographed dance without ever knowing the moves, only having watched others and imitating what they do. You can fake it for a while, but sooner or later, it’ll become clear you just don’t know what you’re doing.
I’m going to pause right there. You don’t need me to explain or talk any more about knowing God. I want you to take a minute or two and untangle these questions in your mind. Ask yourself, do I know God? How do I know God? What does knowing God look like in my life?
So we’ve read the passage twice, got the high-level plot and worked at one of the questions that was revealed through the word. We’re going to read the passage one more time and ask God, What is God asking of me in this passage?
This time we'll read the same passage from a new version I’ve been reading called the First Nations Version.
"I am sending you the Spirit of Truth, the one who is coming from the Father. He will walk close by your side, representing me, and telling the truth about me. You will also represent me as truth tellers, for you have walked with me from the first and have seen these things with your own eyes.
"I am telling you these things to keep you from stumbling away from the path. The tribal leaders will force you out of their gathering houses. The time will come when they will put you to death, thinking they are doing what the Great Spirit wants, all because they do not know me or my Father. I am telling you this so when the time comes you will remember I told you ahead of time. I did not tell you these things from the first because I was with you."
My final question for you is what is God speaking? What is the spirit testifying to you right now? What is the invitation, what is the challenge? We may find that our response to this passage is very different from our neighbor or spouse or friends. But let us listen to hear what God is asking of us in light of this passage.
After this final reflection, I hope you’ve found valuable insight from this passage. This same process can be used with almost any passage and is especially powerful when shared with others.