Affirmation in the Digital Age (John 5:44)
Affirmation in the Digital Age
(One Truth: In All Things)
February 17th, 2019
I. Fleeting Fame
Perhaps you remember Jeremy Meeks, the handsome felon turned Internet sensation. Last June, the photograph of the 30-year-old “mug shot hottie” ricocheted around the web, from the Facebook page of the police department in Stockton, Calif., to a Twitter hashtag
#FelonCrushFriday to, soon after, stories on “The Colbert Report” and “Good Morning America.” Mr. Meeks signed with an agent who was quoted in The Daily News saying that he could earn up to $100,000 a month for modeling and other gigs. So where is Mr. Meeks today? He remains incarcerated. That agent, Gina Rodriguez, no longer represents him. And the Twittering class has moved on. As the medium gets smaller, so does the fame. Enter nanofame, the one-hit-wonder, famous-for-an-eye-blink Internet netherworld occupied by the likes of Mr. Meeks. [at the article's conclusion, the writer brings us back to Jeremy Meeks]
Even so, many who experience nanofame still cling to the hope that it will lead to something more. That’s even true for convicted felons. On Thursday, Mr. Meeks, who pleaded guilty to one count of firearm possession in November, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison.
He still has a manager, Jim Jordan, who remains convinced that Mr. Meeks can be a male model or a reality TV star when he is free.
In the middle of that article, I found this fascinating description of something like the history of 'fame junkies'...
There was a time when fame was seen as everlasting, rather than fleeting, said Leo Braudy, a literature professor and cultural historian at the University of Southern California... “The Pharaohs built statues like those at Abu Simbel,” he said. “Stone was going to be lasting. That was their claim on posterity.” The notion of permanent fame lingered into the 20th century. In studio-system Hollywood, being famous meant your name and handprints would live forever in concrete at the Chinese Theater along with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. That changed with the digital age. “The more transient the media, the more transient the fame,” Mr. Braudy said. “When there are lot of people making a public claim for their own importance, each gets a smaller bit.”
Let's keep these ideas about fame in mind as we turn to John chapter 5.
II. The Passage: "You Receive Glory from One Another" (v. 44)
This morning, as we did last time, our study will be anchored in just one verse: John 5:44. As we continue this series called “Digital Disciplines”, think about how this verse should factor in:
“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
While you may not be a 'fame junkie' looking to become the next internet celebrity, many of us are tempted to look for affirmation or validation online by seeking and “receiving glory from one another”.
But to understand how this verse can help us with this kind of digital danger, let's break this verse down into several parts, and look at them one at a time. For example, the very first phrase of verse 44 reminds us that many of his first listeners were...
1. Refusing Christ's Witness (v. 44a)
What exactly does Jesus mean when he asks, “How can you believe...?”. Well if look at several of the verses that come right before verse 44, we can begin to make sense of Jesus' question and the attitude of his listeners (the Jewish leaders, called “the Jews” in verse 18). Look back at verses 39 and 40...
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Jesus picks up this same idea in verses 46 and 47...
“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
And in between these verses, in verse 43, Jesus makes the same sad tragic observation:
“I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me.”
There is no situation more tragic than when a guilty, enslaved, broken, blind, condemned, needy, and spiritually dead sinner refuses “to come to [Jesus] that [he or she] may have life.” Time and time again, John's Gospel makes it abundantly clear that we have no hope apart from Christ. As Jesus would later tell Martha...
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25, 26)
But again, how does any of this relate to digital dangers and digital disciplines? Well, the second part of verse 44 indicates that Jesus' listeners for most interested in...
2. Receiving Man's Praise (v. 44b)
Remember what Jesus asked them: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another...”
Now what exactly does Jesus mean when he talks about receiving “glory from one another”?
Well, the Gospels give us plenty of other verses that describe this orientation:
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in [Jesus], but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue;  for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (12:42–43)
Jesus spoke in Matthew 23:5 about their motivations: “they do all their deeds to be seen by others.” By contrast, in Matthew 6:1, a verse we'll study together in a couple weeks, Jesus warns his disciples about this misdirected, glory-seeking orientation:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Two thousand years later, in our digital day and age, this orientation shows no sign of letting up. As British writer Olivia Laing labelled it, “desire for attention: the driving force of the modern age”. In his book “Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You”, Tony Reinke quotes writer Alastair Roberts: “The buzz of social approval has conditioned us to feed on “regular microbursts of validation given by every like, favorite, retweet, or [shared] link.” Reinke goes on to more fully describe this digital danger...
The sad truth is that many of us are addicted to our phones because we crave immediate approval and affirmation. The fear we feel in our hearts when we are engaged online is the impulse that drives our “highly selective self representation.” We want to be loved and accepted by others, so we wash away our scars and defects. When we put this scrubbed-down representation of ourselves online, we tabulate the human approval in a commodity index of likes and shares. We post an image, then watch the immediate response. We refresh. We watch the stats climb—or stall. We gauge the immediate responses from
friends, family members, and strangers. Did what we posted gain the immediate approval of others? We know within minutes. Even the promise of religious approval and the affirmation of other Christians is a gravitational pull that draws us toward our phones. (Reinke)
As we've talked before, our digital devices are powerful tools. With them we have the ability to share (instantaneously) and interact with and discuss all sorts of things: important ideas, breathtaking pictures, tender moments, hilarious observations, entertaining videos, personal updates, opinions, reflections, struggles, and of course, God's word, and a whole host of Christian quotes, prayers, sermons, songs, articles, etc. Social media offers wonderful ways to connect and encourage and learn and grow; to broaden our horizons, and to allow others into our lives, into our thinking, even into our adversity.
But as John 5:44 reminds us, there is a widespread human tendency to look, in unhealthy ways, for affirmation and validation from other people. As the USC professor said in one of the opening quotes, many today are “people making a public claim for their own importance”. And so all of these ways to share and interact and discuss can easily become opportunities for self-promotion; vehicles for human validation; supposed mechanisms to find meaning; ways to find worth. There's nothing inherently wrong with posting a selfie. But what are we looking for when one selfie becomes twenty? When I prefer the produced 'me', instead of the problems of my everyday existence?
I think this brings us to the last phrase of John 5:44. Jesus' listeners were ultimately...
3. Rejecting God's Pleasure (v. 44c)
Look again at verse 44:
“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
Now at first, you might read this as “and do not seek the glory that belongs to the only God”. But that's not what it says, is it? It says, “the glory that comes from the only God”. But what exactly does it mean to seek that kind of glory? The Apostle Paul spoke about this glory when he wrote in I Corinthians 4:5 about the day when “each one will receive his commendation from God.” Similarly, both Peter and James speak about humility and God exalting us:
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:10)
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you... (I Peter 5:6)
That's the glory that comes from the only God. Listen to how Tim Challies weaves these idea together in his book “The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion”. He writes...
The Bible calls us to humility, going so far as to tell us that God will actively oppose those whose lives are marked by pride. Peter writes, “Clothe yourself all of you with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'” (I Peter 5:5). Where is the humility in one who constantly desires to be seen, who craves the kind of attention that our digital technologies can so easily deliver? We do well to ask ourselves if we are living to please God, to receive his “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21), or whether we are living to receive the attention of others, to find a moment or two of joy in their short-lived enthusiasm. Are we happy with who and what God has made us to be, or are we seeking to be something else, especially to those who know about us only because of what we choose to reveal through our technology?
Remember, that writer is a very active blogger who spends countless hours posting and interacting online. He knows well the powerful opportunities of the digital age. But he also knows its powerful temptations. I appreciate that, by God's grace, his experience has brought him back to the words of Christ in Matthew 25:21... “well done, good and faithful servant”. You may recognize that phrase as coming from the parable of the talents, a parable that leaves us with this question, “What will you do in this life with all that God has entrusted to you?”
That's an important question to ask about your own life, including your life in the digital age; your life online. Is your digital device a tool that helps you live to please God, or a tool that helps you live to please yourself? Is your life online driven by a quest for God's approval or the approval of others? Is it enough for you to be accepted fully by God through Christ? To be affirmed fully by God through Christ? To be validated fully by God through Christ?
Brothers and sisters, your phone, your tablet, your laptop, your gaming console, all of them can be used like talents in that parable from Matthew 25. They can be used to bring profit to God. What kind of profit? The profit of lives blessed through the gospel. Live encouraged in His love and his truth. Is that how you think about your device?
Brothers and sisters, friends, God has called us to accept and encourage one another in the truth. But the praise of man, the approval of others, the fame, the 'nano-fame' that seems like it will fill the cracks inside us, can never do what only God can. Only the affirmation and validation of our Maker can reassure the restless heart of a sinner.
III. We Esteemed Him Not
As I move toward a conclusion this morning, I want us to come back to that initial point from the opening statement of John 5:44. How do we tie everything together to make sense of that opening question, “How can you believe...?”; that is, how did the misdirected, glory-seeking of the Jewish leaders keep them from receiving Christ?
That they refused to come to Him should not be a surprise. In fact, it was predicted 700 years before it happened. Remember what God told us through the prophet Isaiah:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (53:3)
To put that in today's tech-terms, it wasn't a surprise when they did not “like” or “share” or “retweet” Jesus of Nazareth. As those who craved the approval and esteem of others, Jesus was the opposite of what they valued and sought to project. Look at verse 41 of John 5...
I do not receive glory from people... [He goes even further in verse 43] I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.
Brothers and sisters, do you see the eternal danger bound up in these verses? The more you desire the praise of men, the less desirable Jesus will seem to you. Isaiah did not say, “and [they] esteemed him not”. He said, “and WE esteemed him not”. Every single one of us is born looking for ultimate affirmation and ultimate validation from other people. The digital age simply empowers and magnifies that impulse. It's always been true. But that impulse is one of the reasons we resist the ways of God, and therefore face condemnation, rather than commendation.
But thanks be to God, glory be to God, that through the rejection of Jesus, God made it possible for us to be accepted eternally. Are you grateful that Jesus Christ came into the world to save misdirected, glory-seekers like us? That he died to make ultimate affirmation and ultimate validation possible, “in him”? Are you humbled that Jesus Christ rose again in order to give you a new heart, with a new impulse? What is that new impulse? To seek, above all, to please God and not men.
Paul told his listeners in I Thessalonians 2:4, “so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts”. If God were to test your heart this morning, which impulse would he find in the driver's seat? If you're like me, too often, it's that impulse toward receiving “glory from one another”. If you can admit that, then be encouraged. God has made a way. Forgiveness, freedom, and forever is our through Christ. As sinners in the digital age, may we, through faith, cling to Christ in all things, at all times, trying, as Paul encouraged in Ephesians 5:10, trying “to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” Let's pray.
More in Digital Disciplines
February 24, 2019Knowledge in the Digital Age (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)
February 10, 2019Relationships in the Digital Age (II John 12)
February 3, 2019Attention in the Digital Age (II Thessalonians 3:6-13)