Managing expectations #1: the power of God’s word

One of the greatest challenge of leading a church – especially a small church in 21st century Europe – is managing expectations.

If our expectations are too low then we won’t be involved in mission. If we think it’s unlikely anyone in our town will trust in Christ then we’re unlikely to speak of Christ to people. If I think my neighbour is unlikely to convert then I’m not going an effort to invite them to experience the life of the church. If our expectations are too low then we won’t proclaim Christ.

But if our expectation are too high then we risk becoming disillusioned. And disillusionment would mean not getting involved in mission. I’ve been in churches were people said things like, ‘We should buy 500 song books because if we don’t have faith for growth then God won’t bless us.’ I’ve often heard people predicting revival will break out in the coming months. I’ve had people say we should pray for a thousand people to be saved or a hundred churches to be planted. And in one sense there’s nothing wrong with having big expectations because we have a big God. But a year later people are disappointed and frustrated. You can whip up enthusiasm with exaggerated expectations once, maybe twice. But people are not stupid. After a while they lose hope. They lose motivation.

So if our expectations are too low then we won’t proclaim Christ. But if our expectations are unrealistic then we become disillusioned and we won’t proclaim Christ.

John 21:1-14 speaks to this challenge.

A number of the disciples go fishing on Lake Tiberias (which is another name for Lake Galilee). They fish all night, but catch nothing. As morning comes Jesus appears on the shore. They don’t recognise him, probably because it’s still twilight. He shouts, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish.’ The word translated ‘friends’ is a colloquial word. It’s equivalent would be something like, ‘Hey lads, you caught anything? Try on the other side.’ When they do they can’t pull the net up because it is so full of fish. At this point they realise it’s Jesus. ‘It’s the Lord.’ When they land, they find Jesus already cooking breakfast for them.

At the end of the previous chapter Thomas declares: ‘My Lord and my God!’ In many ways, it’s the climax of the Gospel. This is John’s big idea. He wants people to see Jesus and declare, ‘My Lord and my God.’ Everything builds to this moment.

John’s Gospel has a number of signs – miracles that point to the identity of Christ. And John numbers his signs. In chapter 4, for example, Jesus heals the son of a royal official. And John tells us. ‘This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.’ (4:54) John presents a sequence of signs to prove that Jesus is the Son of God.

Now in the closing chapters he presents a number of resurrection appearances. Look at how this section begins and ends. Verse 1 begins: ‘Afterwards Jesus appeared again to his disciples.’ And verse 14 says: ‘This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.’ And notice how, like the signs, John numbers these appearances. We’re given (1) the proof of the signs and (2) the proof of the appearance.

In verse 2 John includes ‘Nathanael from Cana’. Nathanael has not been mentioned since chapter 1. The point is that Cana was the site of Jesus’ first two signs. The people of Cana saw the first two signs of the incarnate Christ. Now Nathanael from Cana witnesses of the third revelation of the glory of the risen Christ.

When John describes the first sign (the turning of water into wine) this is his comment: ‘This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.’ (John 2:11) The word translated ‘revealed’ (‘revealed his glory’) is exactly the same word as the word translated ‘appeared’ in verse 1. Verse 1 is literally ‘Jesus revealed himself’. Through the signs Jesus revealed his glory. Now Jesus reveals himself.

Jesus himself has become the sign. Imagine following a sequence of signposts as you travel to a town. And then you drive over the brow of the hill and there is the town itself. You don’t need the signposts anymore because you can see the town itself. The signs of Jesus have pointed to his identity. But now he has risen. Now he himself is the sign. And he beckons us to come to him.

So John is carefully piling up the evidence that Jesus is ‘our Lord and our God’. And the biggest piece of evidence is Jesus himself, risen from the dead.

And he really is risen. In this story Jesus has breakfast with his disciples. Luke tells us he ‘ate [a piece of fish] in their presence’ (Luke 24:42-43). This is not simply a vision or a dream. Jesus hasn’t merely risen in some metaphorical or spiritual sense. Jesus has risen physically. He has a real body that can prepare and eat food.

Verse 12 says: ‘None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.’ They know this is Jesus risen from the dead. But they don’t know what to make of this. They don’t know what to say. It’s another reminder that they didn’t expect the resurrection. The disciples were not gullible or superstitious. They weren’t ready to believe anything.

But as they see and hear and touch the risen Christ, they put their faith in him. They declare, ‘My Lord and my God.’

But this raises a problem and John is alert to it. What about those who don’t get to see and hear and touch? What about us? What about the people of your town?

Look at what comes just before our story in 20:30-31: ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

The solution is God’s word. People who can’t see the risen Jesus, can hear God’s word. As God’s word is read and proclaimed, people will believe in Jesus and find life in his name.

Actually this theme has been rumbling away throughout the Gospel. Look at 2:18-25.

The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’

They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

Notice two things.

  1. Faith from seeing is suspect

First, faith based on seeing miracles is suspect. ‘Many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.’ (2:23-24) Jesus doesn’t trust faith based on miracles. It’s not hard to imagine why. Faith based on experience is all well and good when our experience is good. But what about when life is tough or when persecution comes? Will it survive? Jesus doesn’t entrust himself to such faith because he knows people. If we follow what suits us, then we will readily change sides when that suits us.

Indeed in 11:47-48 it is because the Jewish leaders believe in reality of his miracles that they plot to kill Jesus. When the miracles of Jesus threaten to strip them of their power and prestige they plot against Jesus. ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ (11:48)

  1. Faith from hearing is genuine

Second, notice how true faith arises in John 2. Verse 22 says: ‘After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.’ The disciples believe because they believe ‘the Scriptures and the words of Jesus’. Their experience of the risen Christ is combined with faith in God’s word.

This is true faith. It’s not dependent on our latest experience. Nor it is swayed by any immediate advantage. This faith doesn’t simply say, ‘Give us bread’ as the crowd does in chapter 6 (6:34). It says, ‘My Lord and my God.’

True faith comes through hearing God’s word. So, no matter what results we see, this must be our approach and this must be our confidence.

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