Bible Study: 4 Lent (B)

March 15, 2015

Michael Toy, Princeton Theological Seminary

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9

This passage finds the people of Israel after they have left Egypt and journeyed through the wilderness. Bullied by the Edomites, the Israelites become impatient on the circuitous route and repeat their malcontented refrain: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God responds by sending poisonous snakes among the people, killing many. The people come to Moses and ask for him to intercede on their behalf. The serpents were themselves the affliction, and in an act of ironic salvation, the Lord uses a serpent of bronze to become the instrument of healing for those bitten.

Upon a first reading, this punishment hardly seems to fit the crime the Israelites commit. But this event is not an isolated incident. The people have complained before, and in fact, they refused to enter into the Promised Land for fear of its occupants. How is this story harmonious or dissonant with your conception of God’s justice? Is all suffering some kind of divine discipline or punishment?

Though the people of Israel are unhappy with Moses and God, the one thing that is never in doubt is God’s presence among the people. When the people complain against God, the Lord hears. When the people repent, God hears and responds with healing and relief from suffering.

Can you think of a time you felt that God led you to a place of wilderness?

In what ways has God delivered you from bondage as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt?

Wherever you are on your life journey – whether feeling the joy of healing and wholeness or in the miserable trek through wilderness – how and where do you see God accompanying you?

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This psalm of thanksgiving recounts the deliverances of Israel by the Lord. The refrain in this psalm is “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy, and the wonders he does for his children.” Though the people of Israel were perennially disobedient and rebellious, when they turned to God, the Lord had mercy and saved them. The actions of God elicits a response from the psalmist, who commands the people of Israel to give thanks to the Lord and to “tell of his acts with shouts of joy.” For the psalmist, there is no way to repay God’s mercy, but the response is thanksgiving and proclamation of God’s actions.

In what ways has God done wonders for you?

What are the “foes” from which you have been redeemed?

How can you follow the instruction of the psalmist and proclaim these blessings and grace?

Ephesians 2:1-10

The author of Ephesians eloquently paints a picture of death and renewal in this passage. Before there was death, but now, through Christ, there is life. Before “we were by nature children of wrath,” but now we are seated in the heavenly places with God’s own son. All of this is accomplished through God’s grace, not out of any human work. This passage is often quoted to emphasize that humans do nothing to earn God’s love or grace, yet at the end of the passage the author states that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

There is nothing that humans do to earn God’s love, grace or mercy, but that does not mean that good works are irrelevant. It is a matter of order. First and primary is our identity in Christ Jesus. Second, stemming from our identity is the way of life that God has prepared for us. The reason that Christians do good works is not in order to earn God’s love or mercy but rather in response to God’s action. Our good works are not in pursuit of a reward, for we have already received the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.

What does it mean to you to be a recipient of God’s grace?

Identities such as parent, child, spouse, employee or employer come with certain duties. How does your identity in Christ bring new or different duties?

Though our identity as Christians has shifted from death to life, that hardly means Christians are now perfected. In what ways do you recognize a movement from pursuing “the desires of flesh and senses” to the way of life that God has prepared?

John 3:14-21

One of the Jewish religious leaders, Nicodemus, meets with Jesus at night for fear of his peers’ judgment. It is in this conversation that we find perhaps the most well-known Bible verse of all time, John 3:16. This statement of God’s love and promise of eternal life in Jesus is tied by John to the serpents in today’s reading from Numbers 21. Just as the instrument of affliction became the instrument for healing to the people of Israel, so through Jesus death itself becomes the vehicle for imperishability. Death, the very enemy of life, has become the portal into eternal life.

In each of these passages, we see the people of the Lord have been delivered from death and brought into life. The merciful and salvific actions of God were never in response to the good works of the people, but rather stem from God’s identity and God’s grace. Now the Christian’s identity is that of one saved by grace from the grave, from affliction and the desires of the senses. From that identity, we live into the way of life God intended, doing good and proclaiming God’s goodness.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night for fear of his peers. But as it is written in this chapter, those who do what is true have no reason to hide in darkness but to come to the light. It is not easy proclaiming God’s goodness in a modern world that has little value for religion. Yet we are commanded to proclaim God’s goodness in thankfulness through word or good deeds.

In what situations or circumstances are we likely to mute our proclamation, whether through word or deed? In the workplace? In our social circles?

How can we find the strength to live into our identity as the people of God?

Death is still a frightening force in the world. What about death scares you?

What strength do we find in the Gospel of John that those who believe in God’s Son will not perish but will have eternal life?

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