What does Jesus tell us about growing in him?
If “repentance” is the crucial element in God’s plan of salvation, then what comes next? How does the believer grow “in Christ” ? For Paul, the idea of being “in Christ” was crucial. Note 2 Cor. 5:17 (NRSV): “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
In that same connection, Paul’s letter to the Colossians presents a tantalizing paradox: Not only are we to be “in Christ,” but Christ is also to be “in” us. Note how the two ideas lie very close to each other in Colossians 1. The key phrases in 27 and 28 are in bold type (NRSV):
24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
That dual concept of being in Christ just as Christ is in us, is reflected in the teachings of Jesus himself, especially in John’s narrative of the vine: “Remain in me as I also remain in you” (John 15:4). That vine narrative is one of several Gospel images that can help us understand how to grow in Christ. Three have been selected here as illustrations: the vine, persistent prayer, and the cross.
1. Maintaining the Connection: The Vine: John 15. A study suggestion: In John’s narrative of the vine, trace the interplay between the ideas of being in Christ and Christ being in us and how those ideas affect our spiritual growth.
2. Prayer: Staying With It. Luke records two parables that teach the importance of persistent prayer, the story of the midnight friend (Luke 11:5-13) and the parable of the unrelenting widow (Luke 18:1-8). In the story of the midnight friend, the importance of persistence in prayer is not stated explicitly, though it is implied. But in the story of the unrelenting widow, Luke spells out the point of the parable: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart (Luke 18:1).
Both of these parables, however, contain an element that is potentially misleading, for in dealing with the topic of prayer, one assumes that the parable should teach not only about prayer, but also about God, the one to whom the prayer is directed. But if that were to be the case in these two parables, the resulting picture of God is not an attractive one, for the friend is reluctant to get out of bed and the judge only responds because the widow has made a nuisance of herself. Is God reluctant and/or unjust? Hardly. But each parable does teach a simple truth about prayer: Stay with it! Apparently there is something about persistent prayer that transforms the one who prays.
The classic scholarly perspective on parables teaches that a parable focuses on one particular point. By contrast, an allegory can assign meaning to every aspect of a narrative. In the case of the two parables in Luke, persistence would not be clear if the one to whom the prayer is directed is too eager to help. Thus the midnight friend and the unjust judge do not teach us about God, but about the need for human persistence.
For many, however, it is difficult to allow a parable to leave such a “negative” view of God. In their exuberance for God, devout believers are easily tempted to over-interpret the parables in order to avoid the impression that God may be reluctant. The struggle over these two parables was vividly illustrated for me in one of my classes a number of years ago when three students gave strikingly different responses to the parable of the midnight friend (Luke 11:5-13). One student was an optimist who saw good news everywhere; another was one who was angry with God but was not brave enough to confront God with her anger; a third one was simply puzzled, and went searching for answers. All three students were bright and alert; it was not a question of intelligence, but of temperament and imprinting. Here is the text of the parable, followed by the comments of the three students: the Exuberant, the Angry, the Puzzled:
Luke 11:5-8 (NRSV): And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
A. The Exuberant: “To me, God is the midnight friend who persistently knocks on my heart until I let Him in.” – Note that the point of the parable has been completely re-written. The picture of a God who knocks on the door of our heart is thoroughly biblical: “I stand at the door and knock,” is the word to the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:20). But that is not the point of the parable in Luke 11.
B. The Angry: “Sadly, I did NOT understand the Luke texts. I didn’t get the point at ALL. I’m very sorry. I’ll ask you today in class.” – In this case, the student was tussling mightily in her walk with God. She was deeply religious, but was struggling with the haunting picture of a reluctant God, one who would not allow her to express her anger. Thus she could not bring herself to be honest with the text. She feared the response of a harsh and vengeful God.
C. The Puzzled: “I am honestly not sure about this one. Our friend will not help us because of the friendship but because of the boldness? Is Jesus asking that we be more bold? I went and got my Clear Word and it says that even though a friend may hesitate because of the inconvenience, he will do it because of the friendship. He will help you out whenever he can because of the friendship.”
Here is the actual quotation from theClear Word:
Luke 11:8, Clear Word: “Though your friend will hesitate to wake up his family to give you what you need, if you keep asking, he’ll get up and get the breadmyou need because he’s your friend. The two of you are such close friends that no matter how often you ask, it won’t affect your relationship.”
In Luke’s narrative the point is just the opposite:
Luke 11:8, NRSV: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
Note that the puzzled student was correct in her initial interpretation of Luke’s parable, but was led down a different path by the Clear Word. Because of his own personal experience, Jack Blanco, the author of the Clear Word, deleted the very part of the parable that was intended to teach persistence.
3. His Cross and Ours. All three of the synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ dialogue with Peter over the identity of the Messiah (Matt. 16:15//Mark 8:29//Luke 9:20). Peter gives the right answer in all three, but only Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ rebuke when Peter tried to contradict Jesus’ teaching about the suffering messiah: “Get behind me, Satan.” And given Peter’s strong reaction against the idea of a suffering Messiah, it is striking that all three Gospels record Jesus’ answer with its explicit reference to the cross, not just his, but ours. And Luke, whose version is otherwise identical with that of Matthew and Mark, adds a single word, “daily”:
Luke 9:23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Perhaps the most important and most difficult question that this lessons poses for us today is this one: What does the idea of a daily bearing of the cross have to do with our growing up in Christ?