“I don’t think God is very pleased with me right now.”
This was the response of a friend when I asked if he was involved in fellowship with other men at his church. It was a strange response to a yes or no question. When I asked why, he replied “Because of the things I’ve done in the past and put my family through. I need to get right with the Lord first.”
In the language of biblical times, he felt “unclean.” Like a leper in the ancient near-east, he felt unfit for the presence of God and consequently the people of God. He was in self-imposed exile, “o
As followers of Christ, whenever we decide that God is not pleased with us, we are in trouble. Like my friend, we may begin planning a comeback – a way to clean ourselves up before even thinking of approaching God or God’s people. Like my friend, we might end up avoiding Jesus (and real fellowship with his people) until we feel more worthy. We may hope a few good deeds and some distance between ourselves and our last big sin will merit our return.
Sound familiar? The default mode of the human heart is to believe that God’s acceptance of us is determined by our performance. We all naturally think this way. Sadly, this thinking often creeps into and even permeates the church of Jesus Christ.
We clean ourselves up, and then we can go to God. That’s the word on the street.
Jesus shocks us by speaking a radically different, and beautiful word.
“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you…I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in he, it is him who bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:3f)
We hear Jesus use this word “clean” today and are unmoved because we no longer use it as it was used in the first century. But we should find Jesus’ pronouncement of cleanliness every bit as shocking as Jesus’ disciples must have when he spoke it. “Clean” and “unclean” had very specific and familiar meaning to any first century Jew. Their entire culture revolved around these concepts. Nothing unclean enters the presence of God. No one could approach God without being ritually cleansed and offering sacrifice first. But Jesus tells his disciples that all of that is over now. No more blood. No more washing.
“You are already clean.”
In other words, no longer can anything you do, think, say, come into contact with, or have done to you ever make you unclean and unacceptable before the Holy One. I can’t even begin to imagine a contemporary equivalent that would illustrate how countercultural this statement was to Jesus’ original audience. It would have been utterly outrageous. It still is!
This “word” refers to all of the things Jesus had just done and said with his disciples in the upper-room to teach them about his mission to rescue his people from our uncleanness – from our sin. That mission has been accomplished. We call this “word” which cleanses us “Gospel,” which means “good news.”
My friend had forgotten that the mission was already accomplished. He was believing the lie that before he could turn to Jesus (abide), he had to cleanse himself. He didn’t think in the categories of “clean” or “unclean.” Instead, like many of us, he instinctually felt a need to show he had some skin in the game, to straighten up and fly right, so that he could feel spiritually confident. He was believing that he could produce fruit on his own, apart from Jesus. As a result he was exhausted, defeated, isolated, burdened, shamed – joyless. And that’s what happens to all of us when we forget the Gospel, the good news that the work required to cleanse and restore us to fellowship with the Father was accomplished perfectly and for all time by Jesus. We begin to hide from Jesus and become like a branch cut away from its vine.
Jesus knew we would think this way. Isn’t it unspeakably precious to hear him say, “you are already clean?”
If you are in Christ, no matter what you are struggling with today or from your past that makes you feel unclean, don’t avoid Jesus. Hear and believe the word that Jesus speaks to you – you are already clean. Run to him and abide in him! Apart from him, we can do nothing.