A seal is a way of marking something as our own or authenticating what something says as being trustworthy. Jesus told his followers that if they accepted what he said, it was like setting a personal seal to the promise that God is truthful. All of us has the choice to accept what Jesus said about himself or to reject it. We can make his promises our own and receive the gift of eternal life, or we can choose to continue to live in darkness and ungodliness.
The readings on Thursday were Acts 5:27-33, Psalm 34:1, 15-end, John 3:31-end. In my reflection I looked further into what our choice can mean to us.
In recent weeks my parents have been preparing to move out of their own home into a residential home for older people. It’s a sad time after living in the same house for 64 years as you can imagine, but at 91 and 93 years old they are beginning to struggle a little bit with independent living.
There has been a lot of sorting out as all their possessions that they want to keep must fit into one room. Things that are broken or beyond being useful are being disposed of and those items which can be used by others are being given away. When I visited last week my mother had a small board on her lap when she was signing some forms. She told me it was the last part of her writing case that she had kept, the rest being too broken to be of use. I remember her writing case from my childhood. Mum was a great one for writing letters so the case was often around. In the bottom of the case I remember noticing some dark red sticks, a bit like flattened candles. My mother told me that they were sealing wax. She explained to me how it worked and I was fascinated. Some time later my aunt actually used some sealing wax when I visited her so I saw it in action.
Interest in old things often revives and recently a friend of our middle son has been using sealing wax on Christmas cards that he’s sent. He has a special seal which he uses to put his initial in the wax. In this way he prevents the item being tampered with and also states by whom it’s been sent. Our son really liked this idea and was overjoyed to receive a sealing wax and seal set for his birthday from his friend.
Seals have been around for a very long time indeed. As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, around 3000 BC, cylinder seals were used. They were rolled into wet clay to create an impression, perhaps to act as a label on traded goods. In Ancient Egypt signet-rings of the pharaohs, which were used to authenticate orders, have been found. We have an example of such a ring in the Old Testament when Joseph became second-in-command to Pharaoh. He was given the king’s signet ring in order that whatever he commanded was treated as if it came from Pharaoh himself. The signet-ring authenticated his orders as those of Pharaoh which must be obeyed. The seal was a sign of the power of the king.
We still talk now of putting our stamp on something, meaning to make it our own, though few of us have a seal. A fairly modern phrase used when trying to get a person or group to enthusiastically endorse some plan is that of getting the people to ‘have ownership’ of the plan. In that way, they make it their own rather than have something imposed on them and so are more likely to work towards its fulfilment.
In the Gospel passage the sentence which is translated, ‘Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true,’ can also be translated, ‘Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.’ Jesus is telling his audience and us that if we believe what he says and chose to state that it is authentically endorsed by us, made our own by the addition of our seal of approval, we will prove that what God offers is true or that God is truthful.
God has offered us life as a choice from long ago. In Deuteronomy 30 God says: ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’
Towards the end of his life, Joshua also set before the people the choice of whom to obey: ‘Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’
God wants everyone to have the choice of life not death. As Peter said in his second letter: ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ God spoke through Moses and Joshua and the prophets. In the end he sent his Son, full ‘without measure’ of the Holy Spirit, to once again offer us the choice of accepting all that God has offered us.
If we believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, our Saviour, we have the gift of eternal life. Eternal life is not exclusively life beyond this life, something only for the future. It is also a present reality for those who believe. When we choose to believe we begin to possess God’s life and the Spirit comes to live in us.
Jesus sets before us the alternative. If we do not believe, we remain subject to God’s wrath. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus contrasted those who live in the light to those who live in the darkness. In Romans Paul writes of those against whom the wrath of God is revealed, those who are ungodly and unrighteous. God, having given those who love the darkness, those who are ungodly, every chance to believe in him, will eventually abandon them to the way of life they choose. These people will not ‘see life’, they will not experience life in all its fullness by their own choice. True life, eternal abundant life, will not be available to them.
Peter and the other apostles had set their seals to the truthfulness of God, they owned the promise of Jesus. As a result they spoke boldly to the authorities who questioned and threatened them. Human agencies faded into insignificance in the face of the reality of eternal life, recognised in the here and now. The authorities sought to kill Jesus’ followers but what did it matter. All they could kill was the physical body living here on earth, but the life in Christ could never be killed. This promise, this truth, is what has allowed countless Christians to endure a martyr’s death.
It is the Holy Spirit that leads us into this truth, speaking through Jesus, speaking through the Bible, speaking to our hearts. Once we receive him he is our guarantee that eternal life is ours, a down payment, a promise that we now have God’s life in us which nothing and no one can ever take from us.
Often people put off making a decision about Jesus’ claims, not being sure, wanting to think about it more. Isaiah urges us: ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.’ Putting off is in itself a decision, a choice made, to reject the offer of life and instead to choose death. Listen to God’s plea in Deuteronomy: I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor