Singing the Seven “I Am” Sayings of Christ

 

Last month, I had the opportunity to preach at a Christian camp. Since the campers’ ages ranged from 7 to 12 years old, I wanted my sermons to be simple, memorable, and foundational. So I chose to preach on the seven “I Am” sayings of Christ in the book of John.

As I prepared my sermons, the truths of these seven sayings began to deeply impact me. I wanted them to stick with the campers long after the week of camp. Then I had a thought: Turning these sayings into a song might help the kids remember these truths. So I went to work, putting these sayings into rhyming verse, and my wife Christa put it to this beautiful tune. As it turned out, this exercise pushed me to understand more clearly what Jesus was saying, and the significance it has for our lives.

The final product was a simple four-verse poem and chorus. I’ve provided the text below, with some comments on its context in the Gospel of John.

1

To hungry souls, Christ is the Bread
Who fills and satisfies.
To darkened hearts, He is the Light
Who opens blinded eyes.

John 6 tells us that Jesus had miraculously fed a monstrous crowd numbering over 5,000 people. When these people with full tummies followed Jesus hoping for more handouts, Jesus told them that their real need wasn’t for physical bread. After all, not even manna—bread that fell from the sky—could keep their ancestors alive. The only thing that would ultimately satisfy them was the Bread that came straight from Heaven—in other words, the Son of God who would die and rise again on their behalf. To “eat” this Bread means to believe in Jesus. Whoever does, Jesus assures us, “will live forever” (John 6:58).

In John 8:12, Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The very next chapter dramatizes this claim. Jesus restores vision to a man with congenital blindness. However, this man still needed another kind of sight—faith in Jesus. When he later came to Jesus and believed in him, the formerly blind man could finally “see.” He understood that he was a sinner in need of Jesus. The proud Pharisees, however, ironically remained blind, since they refused to believe. To them, Jesus said, “Your guilt remains” (9:41). When we come to Christ as the light, we simultaneously see our sinfulness and Christ’s perfection. We no longer try to deceive ourselves into thinking that our sin is hidden to God. Instead, we confess our sin, taking refuge in His perfect Son.

2

To wandering sheep, Christ is the Door
Who loves and lets them in.
No better Shepherd can they know
Than He who died for them.

Many people cherish the idea that there many paths to God. Christ’s teaching, however, is quite clear: access to the “fold” is only through Him. But the invitation is free: “I am the door,” Christ proclaims, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9).

Not only is Jesus the door of the sheepfold, he is the Shepherd of the sheep. In contrast to false shepherds, those self-seeking “hired hands,” Jesus proves his love by his sacrificial death: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (10:11). Let no one think that Christ’s death betrayed his weakness, for “no one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18). Neither should anyone think that his death was permanent, for “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (10:17). Can we find any better Shepherd than Christ?

3

Like branches, we can bear no fruit
Except through Christ the Vine.
He is the only Way to God,
The Truth, the Life Divine.

The third verse echoes John 15, which teaches that fruitfulness comes only through a relationship with Christ: “I am the vine,” he explains, “you are the branches. whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The second part of this verse reflects the familiar words of John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

4

Those dead in sin will come alive
At Jesus’ mighty cry.
For all who trust in Christ the Life
Will live and never die.

The phrase “those dead in sin” calls on Ephesians 2:1 to explain our deadness without Christ. I hoped the words “Jesus’ mighty cry” would evoke the scene of our Lord standing at the gaping mouth of the tomb shouting, “Lazarus, come forth,” which is the context in which he tells grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

I saved this saying for the final verse, even though it comes earlier in the book of John. It serves as a fitting climax since the theme of eternal life runs throughout John’s gospel from beginning to end. In 1:4, John tells us that “in him was life.” And near the close of this book, when explaining why he wrote, John says, “These [signs] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

Chorus

Come to this Feast, behold this Light,
Pass through this open Door.
Be led by Him and loved by Him,
And live forevermore.

With the chorus, the verbal mood changes from declarative to imperative. These sayings of Jesus are not intended as interesting facts to ponder. They present us with a Person to whom we must respond. That is why I wanted the chorus to be an exhortation, a direct call to action, just as the Apostle John intended for the readers of his gospel. I tried to incorporate at least a hint of each of most of the seven sayings. The “Feast” reminds us of Jesus as the Bread. The “Light” and “Door” are stated explicitly, and the words “pass through” reflect Jesus’ being the “Way” to the Father.  The exhortation to “be led by Him” urges the proper response to Christ as the Good Shepherd. Finally, the invitation to “live forevermore” is evocative of Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.

What I’m Reading: Sweet Reason

Sweet Reason: A Field Guide to Modern Logic

Sweet Reason is not the sort of book that will keep you wide-eyed, turning pages late at night. It’s actually a pretty dense textbook—the kind with charts, gray boxes, exercises, and odd-numbered answers at the back of the book.

So why am I reading this? When working on my Ph.D., I was required to have proficiency in two research languages and was given the option to substitute formal logic for a language. I chose to take logic instead of a second language, and Sweet Reason was the textbook. It turned out to be a game-changer for me. As I researched for and wrote my dissertation, Sweet Reason gave me the skills to more effectively evaluate arguments and compose my own. I determined (nerd that I am) to work through the book a second time.

The brilliant thing about this book is that it assumes virtually no prior knowledge about logic, but then leads you quickly—almost without your realizing it—into some pretty complex stuff. The authors deliver the content in a whimsical but clear writing style, and they weave informal logic throughout the textbook. Despite its daunting subject, Sweet Reason is anything but dry and dusty.

Thinking—good and right thinking—takes hard work. Discovering the truth is no easy task. But those who learn to do it well are less likely to be confused or deceived; they are more equipped to articulate truth to others. As a Christian who serves the God of truth, I believe right thinking is not only personally beneficial but also a way I can worship my God. And Sweet Reason is helping me do just that.

True Love, Genuine Faith

True love springs from genuine faith.

That is, in part, what Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 1:5, when he describes the goal of his gospel proclamation. “The aim of our charge,” he insists, “is love that issues from sincere faith.”

Does that mean that I must have sincere faith in order to truly love someone? Yes, because loving people is really, really hard. It is agonizing to be longsuffering with an irritating or irresponsible person. It is difficult to show kindness to someone who has a critical spirit. It takes enormous self-denial to avoid envying someone who gets what I wanted, or boasting over someone wants what I got. It is always easier to insist on my own way and to be irritable and resentful when I don’t get it. It is always easier to rejoice when people do wrong than when they do right. It is hard to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, to endure all things.

Love is hard. It is, in fact, the toughest thing a person must do because it requires self-denial. So, who can truly love? Only those with genuine faith. Why? Because only an unshakable confidence in God who loves me unconditionally can sustain my love for others. Love for others can thrive only in a heart overwhelmed by God’s grace, assured of God’s justice, and resting in God’s purposes.

Yes, true love must spring from faith that is sincere.

That word translated sincere means unfeigned, unhypocritical. Sure, someone can fake his faith for a while. He can go along with the Christian crowd and learn to say the right things and act a certain way. But not when he is called on to love—truly love. Tough, gritty, never-quitting love cannot come from a person who wears a flimsy faith-mask. Sooner or later the faker will give up trying to love God and others because he does not believe it is worth it. His faith is not genuine.

No wonder so many people openly claim to love God—and sincerely think they do—but show utter contempt for others. It is a common self-deception that our sentimental thoughts about God prove that we have love for God. In fact, however, the acid test of our love for God is whether we love others. John put it this way: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

You cannot love unless you have sincere faith. True love must spring from faith that is genuine.

What I’m Reading: Evangelism in a Skeptical World by Sam Chan

I recently finished reading Sam Chan’s Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News About Jesus More Believable. If you’ve read Tim Keller’s Center Church or Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Every Day Theology you’ll be familiar with Chan’s concepts and efforts to make the gospel intelligible to unbelievers. Chan calls out the unfortunate tendency of Christians to evangelize the way they were evangelized. Instead, Chan insists, we must be eager and equipped to craft our gospel presentations to most effectively connect with our hearers. His book aims to give a theological justification and practical help for doing just that.

For me, the practical parts were most helpful. Chan walks his readers through a method for “storytelling the gospel,” giving a “topical evangelistic talk,” or an “expository evangelistic talk.” (The day after I read it, I used his method of storytelling when I taught a group of teens.) These chapters alone are worth the price of the book. On the other hand, I found myself cringing at some other parts. Attempts to contextualize the gospel (which we all must do when witnessing) always run the risk of melting the jagged edges of Christianity into smooth metaphors. On the road of evangelism, firm guardrails must be on two sides: one keeps the evangelist from speaking the gospel in a way that is foreign to his audience, and the other keeps the evangelist from speaking to his audience in a way that is foreign to the gospel. Some repair of the latter guardrail, I think, would make this good book even better.

A Pastor’s Character, Convictions, Competencies

In The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne suggest a three-fold schema for training church leaders: character, convictions, and competencies. I’ve found it helpful to apply these three categories to the various qualifications for the shepherd/elder/overseer in the Pastoral Epistles.

Character: The Lifestyle of a Pastor

Combining the list of character qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 with those found in Titus 1, we find sixteen:

  1. Above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6)

In both 1 Timothy and Titus, the quality “above reproach” heads the list, not so much as an independent qualification, but as an overarching description of what is to follow. In every area of life, the pastor’s character should be beyond question.

  1. Husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6)
  2. Sober-minded (1 Timothy 3:2)
  3. Self-controlled (1 Timothy 3:2)
  4. Respectable (1 Timothy 3:2)
  5. Hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8)
  6. Not a drunkard (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7)
  7. Not violent, but gentle (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7)
  8. Not quarrelsome (1 Timothy 3:3)
  9. Not a lover of money/not greedy for gain (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7)
  10. Lover of good (Titus 1:8)
  11. Not arrogant (Titus 1:7)
  12. Not quick-tempered (Titus 1:7)
  13. Upright (Titus 1:8)
  14. Holy (Titus 1:8)
  15. Disciplined (Titus 1:8)

Convictions: The Beliefs of a Pastor

In his letter to Titus, Paul insists that an overseer “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9). The “trustworthy word” refers to the body of teaching which can be summarized by the message of the gospel. In 1 Timothy, Paul implies that pastors must hold to this “trustworthy” word, for he requires that the pastor be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). If a pastor is expected to teach, he certainly must have a firm grasp of Christian doctrine.

Competencies: The Skills of a Pastor

Besides these character traits and convictions, the pastor must have two key competencies: teaching and leadership/management.

Teaching

Unlike the deacon, the pastor/elder must not only have a firm grasp of the gospel, but he must be able to teach it to others (1 Timothy 3:2). In fact, the pastor’s grasp of the gospel must be so thorough that he is able to “rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

Leadership/Management

It is clear from the very designation “overseer” that a pastor must possess the skill of leadership. Yet the testing ground of a pastor’s leadership is not his public performance, but his private influence—at home (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Titus 1:6). Paul makes this clear in his letters, both to Timothy and to Titus. If a pastor fails to exercise gospel leadership with those closest to him (his wife and children), he cannot be trusted to exercise gospel leadership with the church. If he demonstrates incompetence on the basic, private level of leadership, he cannot be trusted with this public sphere of influence.

What I’m Reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

Titan is great biographical writing, and it’s hard to imagine a more intriguing person in the history of American business than John D. Rockefeller. Before reading Titan I knew virtually nothing about this Goliath of industry, besides his incredible wealth. So I was surprised to learn that he was a deeply religious man, whose Baptist disciplines were integral to his work ethic, scrupulous accounting, and staggering generosity. Chernow, in fact, draws a practical connection between the Baptist practice of tithing and acquiring wealth. Tithing requires one to be attentive to how much money one makes and spends—a habit also necessary for intelligent use of money. Rockefeller, of course, took financial shrewdness to previously unexplored heights and spent much of his life trying to figure out how to give it away. (The University of Chicago owes its very inception to a donation of $600,000—and later $80 million—to this devout Baptist.)

From Titan I’m reminded of the destructive force of bitterness, lies, and slander. Besides being generous, Rockefeller also gained a reputation for being ruthless—a cold, heartless man who would trample a widow just to extort her two mites. This unfortunate caricature, as Chernow demonstrates, is, for the most part, wholly unjustified. But it grew from the skewed investigative journalism of Ida Tarbell and McLure’s magazine. True, Rockefeller certainly had his warts. But Chernow’s well-researched book presents Rockefeller as humane, intelligent, and deeply pious, and perhaps reclusive to a fault.

Character, Leadership, and the Gospel

Character Matters

Why do we feel uncomfortable trusting a politician who has been unfaithful to his wife? or disappointed when a high-profile athlete–known and respected for “family values”– has been hiding an affair? Perhaps we feel this discomfort because we make an intuitive connection between a man’s character and our confidence in him as a leader.

The Link between Character and Leadership

But is this intuition fair? Does it really matter, for example, that a state leader is having an extra-marital affair, as long as he is able to make wise decisions for the state? Here is one reason we connect character and leadership: we realize that a person’s life cannot be divided into personal and public compartments. When a man cannot keep his word in private, he is unlikely to keep it in public. When a man is undisciplined in the way he spends his personal money, he is unlikely to be scrupulous in how he spends public money. Our intuition about character and leadership is well-grounded, for it is a person’s character that unites the public and private domains of life.

Church Leadership Must Be Gospel-Shaped Leadership.

It is no wonder, then, that the Apostle Paul writes much about character when giving the qualifications for leadership in the church (1 Timothy and Titus). The importance of a leader’s character fits with the whole theme of these epistles: when we grasp the gospel, we will live the gospel. In other words, a person’s character shows whether and to what degree that he or she has embraced the gospel. The person who can honestly affirm with Paul the gospel truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15) will be humble, joyful, and godly. In contrast, a person who is proud, self-righteous, or defiant betrays that he or she is failing to appropriate the gospel, or perhaps has never even believed the gospel at all.

The church is a group of people who have believed and are being shaped by the gospel, so we should expect that the gospel will be central to the lives of the church’s leaders—not only in what they believe but also in how they live and lead. Indeed, Paul’s qualifications for pastors/overseers and deacons indicate that this is exactly the case: the leaders of the church must live and lead in a way that is shaped by the gospel.