John 1 recently came alive as an uncommon version of the Christmas story when reading together with men in Skagit County Jail two Thursday nights ago, starting right from the first two verses: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
“Check this out you guys,” I start out. “ Here it says that God’s Word was with God from the start. God’s Word equals God, and is called Word to stress God’s speaking. Do any of you guys feel the need to hear from God? Do you need wisdom for some hard decision?”
Most of the guys around each of our three consecutive bible study circles that night expressed their need and desire to hear from God— for direction for whether to accept a plea agreement, wisdom about dealing with girl friend or cell mate, clarity about their own calling or about spiritual questions. A number of guys also shared their inability to recognize God’s presence with them or perceive any kind of divine communication.
Before talking about what to do about spiritual obstacles I asked someone to read John 1:3-5, and we noted the power of God’s Word to bring all things into being as life and light which cannot be overcome by darkness.
Some of the men were surprisingly attentive while others seemed to strain to understand. Aware of the danger of losing people’s interest due the theoretical sound of things, and not wanting to talk about John the Baptist but keep people focused on God’s speaking and eventually revealing himself in Jesus, I asked someone to read John 1:9:
“There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.”
“So who is this Word, the life and true light for according to this verse?” I asked. “Are people with multiple felonies excluded?” I ask to further get their attention.
“No, it says it’s for every man,” a guy answered emphatically.
“What about legalistic prosecutors or people who look down on others as inferior?” I ask.
“It’s for them too,” someone else responds—reflecting a graciousness towards nearly any variety of “bad guy” among broken men.
“What about sex-offenders?” I ask.
“Even sex-offenders,” someone responds. “The Word enlightens every man.”
“Ok, so there is no one excluded,” I summarize. “So would that be attractive to people you know?” I ask.
The inmates seem genuinely attracted to this Word as desirable and good. I invite someone to read verses 10 to see how the world responds.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own, and those who were his own did not receive him.”
That God’s Word can be completely missed or outright rejected by Jesus’ own people seemed to allow the men some relief from self-condemnation. A man with long blond hair, heavily tattooed forearms and a knowledge of Scripture from years of prison time tells us he has an important verse. He reads 2 Corinthians 4:4— “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
“Do you guys see any signs that there’s a spiritual power out to keep you from knowing Jesus?” I ask. Many of the men say they recognize that their faith is under attack. Knowing we were ten minutes away from the guards coming I suggest we look at how we exercise authority over anti-Jesus propaganda. I ask someone to read John 1:12
“But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name.”
The invitation here is presented as a testimony to be emulated—to become one of these “many” which actually seem like a few. Receiving and believing looks like such a simple step requiring nothing more than humble, child-like faith. And yet there is something so counter-cultural to receiving Jesus when the world is not recognizing and Jesus’ own are rejecting. There’s a boldness and step of blind trust involved in believing. Yet to keep this as simple as it is I could see that a correction was in order.
Prisoners known for their difficulties in complying with laws need to know that the translation “right to become children of God” is not right. It sounds like becoming a child of God is something you must earn or qualify for (like entrance into drug court, a drivers license, or visitation rights to see children in foster care). The word in Greek is actually exousia, meaning “authority.” As we receive Jesus and believe in his name, God gives us authority to become his children, which begins a process of spiritual empowerment.
It’s a no-brainer for the men to see they would have more authority as God’s sons than sons of their biological father. “Authority as God’s children includes authority over demons and over all sickness” (Luke 9:1; Matt 10:1), I say, and ask them if anyone was in pain or needed freedom from the blinding god of this world. In each study a number of men were in pain and there was enthusiasm about having authority over powers of darkness.
I ask the men whether they are attracted to Jesus enough to want to receive him. I invite those drawn to Jesus to take a step of faith with me. I invite them to tell Jesus directly of their desire to receive him and choose to believe in him. In each of the three groups it looked to me like everyone was speaking out their choice to receive and believe as we prayed.
Most of the men had their hands palms up in front of them as I went on to invite them to then and there receive their authority as sons of God and to receive the Holy Spirit.
I invited those who felt assaulted by the god of this world to confess their own past and present agreement with darkness, to renounce the god of this world and to ask Jesus to open their eyes.
I then encouraged people to go a step further in the practice of their new authority by putting their hands on places on their body where they needed healing and speak out healing in Jesus’ name. Minutes before the guards came a number of men were noting in surprise and delight that all pain had left.
I left excited by the child-like openness of men deemed “hardened criminals” to receive Jesus into their beings and step straight into experiencing the benefits. May your eyes be opened and your faith ignited as you receive and believe in Jesus this season.