Rob Sturdy: What is abundant life?

29 02 2012

The term “abundant life” is something that gets bandied about a lot within the Christian world.  And though the expression is on the lips, t-shirts, and music albums of many Christians I’m afraid that it is a phrase without content.  By this I mean, if someone were to ask “what is the abundant life?” many would be at a loss for how to answer.  But merely defining the abundant life is not enough, we must also be able to answer the question “how might I acquire this abundant life?”

What is the abundant life?
The phrase comes from a story in John’s Gospel where Jesus is in a dispute with several Pharisees over the healing of a blind man conducted on the Sabbath (see John 9).  Doing work, even the work of healing was seen as a pretty severe no no by this particular religious group which is why Jesus is in trouble with them in John ch. 10.

Jesus doesn’t defend his actions, but rather tells a story which is self referential.  He says:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
(John 10:1-6 ESV)

The Pharisees shouldn’t be blamed for failing to understand.  After all, if you were having an argument with someone and they started speaking like this you would be confused too!  Noting their lack of understanding, Jesus continues this time connecting the dots in a more explicit way.

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.  (John 10:7-15 ESV)

Jesus identifies himself as the door of the sheep.  This is complex and fluid imagery.  Some commentators suggest (i.e. Kenneth Bailey) that shepherds in the Middle East lie across the entrance to the sheep pen, thus they can be both shepherd and door.  D.A. Carson draws attention to the obvious difficulty with this, in that in Jesus’ first statement (10.1-6) there is a gatekeeper.  All in all, the simple answer is that Jesus is using a metaphor and all metaphor’s break down at some point.  To put it simply, Jesus is saying that if you want to go out into pasture, you will only go out in to pasture either by hearing his voice as shepherd and responding or by crossing through him as door.

There are other characters in this parable that want the attention of the sheep.  These are the “thieves and robbers” of vs. 8.  They are those who “came before Jesus,” possibly meaning those who came with claims to be the Messiah who led Israel in bloody and unsuccessful revolts.  I think contextually it almost surely means the Pharisees, who would deprive the blind man his sight simply because it was the Sabbath.  Thus in their religious zeal they are understood to “kill and destroy.”

Jesus contrasts this action of killing and destroying with his own action of laying down his life, the motive of which is that his sheep might have abundant life.  The actual phrase, “zoen exosin xai perrison exosin.”  For our purposes the interesting word is perissos, translated here as “abundantly,” but that doesn’t necessarily do the concept justice.  It certainly is “abundant,” but it could also mean extraordinary, unnecessary, and excessive.  It is then as if Jesus is saying, “I came that they might have life, and have it in unnecessary, excessive, overflowing abundance.”  Surely this is the kind of life that Paul has in mind when he says that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge” and that God can do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3.29).  Note that what Jesus is not saying simply that he can do more than we ask or think, but that he came to give us more than we could ask or imagine.  He came to give us such a measure of life that could only be described as extravagant or excessive.

How might we go about getting this life?  Quite simply, there is nothing you can do to go about getting this life.  Rather, this life is a gift given to us by the Shepherd and it is intimately linked with the giving up of his own life.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

That is, our excessive, extraordinary, abundant life is bound up in the killing and destroying of Jesus own life.  Thus it is only in death of Christ as gift to us, which is another way of saying “Gospel,” by which this abundant life can be ours.

It is at this point that religious people, especially Christians need to be very careful that they do not wind up like the Pharisees, seeking to kill and destroy.  In a misguided attempt at “discipleship,” many will point unsuspecting sheep to works as a manner of achieving the abundant life.  “Do this, don’t do that,” is their mantra.  But of course, in our everyday experiences of “doing the things we ought not do and not doing the things we ought to have done,” this mantra becomes a means of killing and destroying our souls as we suffer under the weight of disappointment which leads to despair.

Rather than pointing people to works, which can only be a means of killing and destruction, we ought to point people to the shepherd, who was killed and destroyed that we might experience the abundant, unnecessarily excessive life which he desires to freely give us.  This life bound up in the death of the shepherd, leads us in hearing his voice and following, not as a work but as the natural response for sheep who wish to feast in the pasture of his worship, his word, and the fellowship of his saints.

May we all have such life within us!  Not because of anything we’ve done, but what has been done on our behalf through the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.



One response

1 03 2012

Sounds like you need to visit the healing ministry. I would pray for you but don’t know the exact words that need said in order for God to act.

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