Ephesians 6:14a, John 8:31-47
About 4.5 years ago I started running. At first, I just did parkrun on a Saturday morning, and as I got better, I began doing the occasional run on my own through the week as well. I didn’t call myself a runner; I just did it to keep fit, and because I enjoyed parkrun. But around the end of 2018, I found that the winter was making my slow parkrun times even slower. I was missing lots of Saturdays, and the darkness and miserable or icy weather meant I didn’t have much motivation to get out and do my own runs.
So, in January 2019, I joined an outdoor fitness group called Be Military Fit (BMF for short). My aim for joining was to try to counteract the typical winter reduction in my fitness. Through BMF I began to make friends. And towards the end of summer 2019, a friend I had made through BMF, encouraged me to join the running club he was part of. I did join, and settled straight away as I found I already knew loads of people there through parkrun. So now, although I’m not fast, I can no longer get away with saying I’m not a runner. I’m in a run club so I’m a runner.
These days sport and fitness is becoming very popular, and it’s easy to pick up various items of clothing designed specifically for being active. The material is lightweight, and wicks away sweat. Shorts are common for fitness activities, even outdoors in the winter months. And for those who prefer longer trousers, sports bottoms are designed either to have cuffed ankles, or to be tight fitting all the way down the leg to the ankle. Waists have tight fitting elastic, and usually also a draw string as well for extra safety. Sports clothes are basically designed for being very active, without the clothes in any way getting in the way of any activity.
Sports clothes are not always the best for carrying any kit needed on the activity, though. Some have pockets, but they are often tiny. My husband uses a sports belt whenever he goes out running. It’s tight fitting and uses the same material as other sports clothes. But it adds the functionality of having lots of space in which to keep various items. He’ll put in the car key, the house key, his phone, and sometimes his wallet, or any other smallish items he might need whilst running. It aids his ability to be active as well as carrying anything necessary for the activity.
In Biblical times, though, there was no sports clothes, and not only that, clothes tended to be long, flowing and loose, and would be a genuine tripping hazard when any attempt to run, or to be particularly active was made. So, in order to be ready for action, including the action of being in a battle, people had to gird their loins. Girding loins is a weird phrase which basically means fastening long clothes secure and tight around the waist, just above the hips. It’s not a noun, but rather an action. But a waist fastening does aid in the process of girding loins because something secure around the waist allows the robes to be tucked in; and, a bit like Dave’s running belt, can allow for necessary objects to be attached to, or put into the fastening. Only once their loins were girded was a person ready for action at all.
This morning we are beginning the new series that Gil introduced last week. Using the armour of God in Ephesians 6 as a basis, we will spend the next 7 weeks looking at 7 things we need to take into 2020. They spell out NEW LIFE, and are seven things we need if we are going to grow afresh in 2020. The first of these is that we need to be Nurtured on truth.
In Ephesians 6 the aim of the armour is for the church to take it’s stand against the devil’s schemes. In order to be able to stand defensively against these schemes the very first thing the need to do is gird their loins with truth. It is truth that holds the armour together, truth that enables any action to happen at all, and truth that allows the space to carry the sheath for the sword. Without truth around the waist nothing can be achieved at all against the devil’s schemes, and no sword can be carried into battle. In order to be of any value to God we need to be nurtured on truth, so that it surrounds our very being, enabling us to be active for God.
I find truth to be a challenging word though. I can sometimes find myself a bit irritated when it’s used in an overly simplistic way. When Jesus tells Pilate at his trial, that everyone on the side of truth listens to him, I can understand why Pilate, who didn’t yet know Jesus enough to fully understand what he was trying to say, retorts back the question ‘What is truth?’
In an episode of ‘friends’ that I watched recently Phoebe tells the scientist, Ross, that she doesn’t believe in evolution. Ross gets very defensive and sets about trying to prove to her that evolution is scientific fact. In other words, Ross says that it’s not something to be believed in, it’s something that just is and that’s that. But Phoebe responds by pointing out how many times in the past science has turned out to be wrong about things as more data is gathered over time, and asks Ross if it’s even a tiny bit possible that evolution might end up being proved wrong in the future. At that point Ross concedes, he admits that science in the future may show evolution to be wrong.
My point in telling that story is not to argue for or against evolution, but simply to make the point that our knowledge as humans is finite and subjective. We can do our absolute best to make the best sense of our observations, but our limitations make truth a slippery term, subject to change according to perspective and availability of data. But Scripture tells us what truth is and how we can know it. Truth isn’t supposed facts. Truth is a person. Truth is Jesus. Truth is simply listening to Jesus and being open to being transformed by Him.
Jesus tells us in John 8:31-32 that if we hold to his teaching then we will really be his disciples and we will know truth, and that truth will set us free. Based on that statement the rest of this talk will look at three things: 1. Being true disciples; 2. Knowing truth; 3. What it means to be set free.
Being true disciples
In John 8 Jesus is speaking to Jews who had believed him. But he still says they must hold to his teaching in order to be really, or truly his disciples. That implies such a thing as false or temporary disciples. The difference is between those who hold to his teaching and those who don’t. In this little section of Scripture, Jesus is showing these Jews the inadequate, shallow nature of their faith. Are they really going to stick around and truly listen to Jesus? Or are they going to turn hostile against him?
The word ‘hold’ is from the Greek μένω (meno) which means to stay firm, or to live. If we are living in the teaching of Jesus then we are being nurtured by it all the time. It’s not something we visit from time to time, but something that stays a part of us and influences our daily living. If we are not consistently seeking to be nurtured by the teaching of Jesus then we cease to be true or real disciples and we aren’t on the side of truth. If we were once disciples and think we now know everything we need to know, then we are not truly on the side of truth. We can’t learn for a little while and then stop learning. To be able to get ourselves ready for battle by fastening truth around our waist we must be consistently living in the teaching of Jesus; consistently seeking to be nurtured on that teaching. We need to be continually growing and changing as Jesus leads and guides us by His Holy Spirit, because living isn’t a static thing, it’s ongoing.
Knowing truth then means knowing Jesus. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. And, as we live in his teaching, we get to know him more and more. I’ve heard it said that the average friendship lasts seven years as a result of changes in life circumstances. The best friendships continue on for many years, even in difficult circumstances. For friendship to last a life time though is really rare and special. Friendship across a distance, when life circumstances have separated friends is always different from the friendship before the separation. Over time, the intimacy and detail in the knowledge of the other person decreases over time. You still know each other, but as the frequency of being with each other in person decreases, so does the level of truth in our knowledge of each other.
Being truly Jesus disciples means knowing Jesus. If we cease to spend time listening to him, even though we know him, and believe in him, we stop truly knowing him. Jesus isn’t a fact to know. He isn’t something that once you know it you know it. He’s a living person, and we need to stay with him to know him. Since knowing Jesus equates to knowing truth, the more distant we are from Jesus, the less we know truth. The closer to Jesus we are, the more the Holy Spirit will continue to lead and guide us into good ways of thinking and being. It’s an ongoing thing that doesn’t stay still as the times, and seasons change around us. Jesus may have walked this earth over 2000 years ago, but His Spirit remains active around us and through us. We need to know Jesus to know what he is doing in our lives, in our church, and in our town, today, and through 2020. To know Jesus as true disciples means living not only Scripture, and listening to those who help us understand it, but living in our world, in a current, relevant application of the teachings of Jesus.
Being set free
In John 8, as I said, Jesus is testing the trueness of the Jews faith in him. His statement that they need to live in his teaching in order to know truth and be truly free really annoys them. The statement is a test of their faith in him, because in their mind they are already free by the very nature of their identity as Jews. And they believe that it is simply in their identity as Jews that they receive salvation.
They saw their descent from Abraham as their ancestor as the only necessary requirement for their receipt of the promises given to Abraham, and their salvation from their enemies. And freedom was a huge part of their identity because Moses had set the Jews free from Egypt, and all Jews saw themselves as free. In fact, the whole context for the ten commandments and all the laws that flowed from them was their freedom. The opening statement of the ten commandments is ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ and it is only after that opening statement does God go on to say ‘you shall have no other gods before me’ etc
Jews were free, they weren’t slaves to anyone. Although a Jew could become a slave to another Jew there were strict rules regarding that slavery. Extreme poverty was the only reason for slavery and any Jewish slaves were to be set free in the seventh year, once all their debts had been cancelled. And they were also meant to be set free with a financial blessing from their owner. Any slave who wanted to stay with their master could do so, but in that case they are freely choosing to remain a servant out of love for the family. All slaves had the same rights as everyone else. Any slaves were to be treated well, because they knew that it was like to be treated badly when they were in Egypt as slaves.
In the narrative of John this chat Jesus is having with the Jews in chapter 8 occurs roughly around the time they are celebrating their freedom at the festival of shelters. In that context it’s not too surprising that these Jews react badly when Jesus implies they aren’t actually free unless they are true followers of him. But it also shows that they weren’t truly open to who Jesus is and to God’s ongoing revelation of freedom through Jesus. Jesus explains that they are still slaves to sin. However, they don’t quite get that Jesus is the son of God and that freedom now comes through him. They don’t get that Jesus is genuinely able to set them free from any consequences of sin and become part of God’s family. Instead, they begin to see him as talking nonsense.
They don’t believe that God is Jesus’ father and they may have heard rumours that Jesus was illegitimate. That could explain why they respond with a bit of sarcasm that they are not illegitimate children, but that Abraham, and indeed God himself is their father. But Jesus knows that since they are rejecting his teaching on freedom they are not on the side of truth.
To reject Jesus is to reject truth, and to reject truth means to reject freedom from sin. These Jews have missed the point in the story of Abraham that it was faith, and obedience to God’s Word that was important. Jewish Rabbi’s often held Abraham up as a moral example to follow. Abraham was receptive to revelation from God. The fact that these Jews don’t realise that Jesus is from God shows that they are not Abraham’s children because Abraham had faith, and he would have recognised Jesus for who he was. They need to become God’s children by faith, not by descent from Abraham, or by circumcision.
Knowing Jesus, then, means freedom from sin: As Romans 8:1 says ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ And knowing Jesus also means freedom from fear because fear has to do with punishment. But in truth there is freedom ‘to’ as well as freedom ‘from’. Freedom to live as God’s children, as true members of the family. Freedom to do God’s will and to go into battle ready for action. Freedom to be led by Christ. Freedom of movement and action because the loins are girded. Those who refuse to listen to Jesus remain, for now, slaves to sin. Sin is itself a rejection of Jesus because sin is a lack of openness and positive response to divine revelation by the Spirit, and sin a belief in the lie that we do not need Jesus for salvation. And from the very beginning the devil has tempted people away from a trust in God’s revelation and guidance through lies.
Once we are empowered for action through truth, we can stand firm against the devil’s lies. But we can’t do it individually. Truth is about a dependence on Jesus and a closeness to him. But we need to be fastened with truth all together. As Gil said last week, Ephesians is all about the body. The request to put on the armour of God in Ephesians 6 is addressed to the whole congregation in Ephesus. In order for us to be effective against rejection of Jesus in our communities we have to all be close to Jesus. It doesn’t work if just a few people are. We all need to work together in the act of listening to the Holy Spirit and discerning the way forward. Have you girded your loins with truth? Are you ready for action?