Monday, June 29, 2015

Keep Calm and Carry On


Keep Calm and Carry On
  
In 1939, the British government developed a campaign to reassure frightened and anxious citizens in the face of impending German blitzkrieg bombardments of the United Kingdom as World War II began to intensify. Over 2.5 million copies of a bright red poster were printed up, emblazoned with the crown of King George VI overtop the simple words, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Most of those posters were never seen. They were recycled for the war effort. But, in the year 2000 an English bookseller stumbled across a surviving copy of the original and displayed it in his shop, and the interest it stirred spread to a global phenomenon. In a video about the poster’s history, a narrator says, “Like a voice out of history, it offers a very simple, warm-hearted message to inspire confidence in others during difficult times.”[1]

Friends, I do not have to tell you that these are difficult times, and like that poster, I want to offer you a very simple, warm-hearted message to inspire you to keep calm and carry on. The Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage on Friday was a loud announcement, as though from a megaphone, that the world and the nation in which we live have greatly changed. If you haven’t been paying attention, or if you have been ignoring it, those options are no longer available to you. A lot has changed over the last few days, but some things remain unchanged, and one of those is the need for God’s people to keep calm and carry on.

Today, I want to address the situation from God’s Word, but more importantly how we as Christians should respond to it. As we address the situation, we begin by stating that …

I. God defines what marriage is.

We have heard it said in recent days that the courts are going to define, or re-define, the institution of marriage. This is a misconception. Neither marriage nor the definition of it is theirs to determine. God is the one who instituted marriage. Therefore, He is the one who gets to define what it is. Quoting from Genesis 2 on the creation of humanity and the institution of marriage, Jesus Christ said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:4-9).

Why did God create marriage in this way? Most basically, on a strictly natural level, there was an issue of compatibility. God had given Adam a command to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. But Adam soon discovered that it was impossible for him to carry out this plan alone. As he surveyed every living creature on the earth, he discovered that there was not a helper suitable for him – not one with whom he could be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. And so God created for Him a partner (a “helper”), a woman, with whom he could carry out his mandate.

But God was also providing something else for Adam. The Lord God had said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). It was the first thing that Lord ever declared to be “not good.” Man was made in God’s image, and part of the image of God is the perfect harmony that God had in Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For eternity past, when God was all that existed, He was not alone. The Father had ever enjoyed the fellowship of the Son and the Spirit, the Son of the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit of the Father and Son. No individual person of the Triune Godhead was more important than the other, but each had a unique part to play in creating, sustaining, ruling over and redeeming the world. For Adam to enjoy this intimacy of union and fellowship, he required an equal and compatible helper. And so God created a woman for him, distinct from him, but of the same nature as him, of equal worth with him, but with a different role than him in creation. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” And so in marriage, we have this picture of the divine image. We see a glimpse of who God is – one Deity who exists in three distinct persons. In marriage, God said He would take the two and make them to be “one flesh.”

As we read the Bible further, we discover that marriage was also intended to serve another purpose. It is picture of the special love that God has for His own people. In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives us the most practical guidance on marriage in the New Testament. He declares that husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church,” and “as their own bodies.” He says also that that wives are to be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord, and as the Church is to Christ (Eph 5:22-31). And yet, as he concludes this instruction on marriage, Paul says, “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (5:32). The book of Revelation describes the church as the bride of Christ and looks toward the day of the marriage supper of the Lamb, when the church, the Bride, will be joined together forever with the Bridegroom, Jesus (Rev 19:7-9). In marriage, we see a picture of how the Lord Jesus lovingly, sacrificially leads His church, and how the church joyfully follows His leadership and submits to His Lordship. “Nevertheless,” Paul says, “each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband” (Eph 5:33). As a husband and wife faithfully love, lead, and follow, they show forth the Gospel visibly. 

So, from the Old and New Testament alike, we have this biblical definition of marriage as a covenant bond between one man and one woman for the duration of their physical lives, as a representation of the nature of God and His covenant love for His people. The institution of marriage, as defined in this way, was part of the world that God created initially, and over which He declared to be “very good” (Gen 1:31). All was right in the world; sin had not touched one element of the earth when God created marriage and defined it in this way. But all did not stay well for long. In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the entire human race was plunged into sin and the whole earth was subjected to its curse. Every aspect of society became twisted and corrupted because of sin.
Friends, we need to keep in mind that the corruption of a biblical definition of marriage did not begin on Friday or in the last decade. It began within a short walk of the garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve sinned, God pronounced that sin would produce division in marriage. To Eve, He said, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16). The Hebrew text here indicates that her desire for her husband will not be one of pleasure or intimacy, but a desire to rule over her husband and to master him. The exact same Hebrew phrases are used here as in Genesis 4 where God speaks to Cain before he killed Abel. He said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” What sin wanted to do to Cain is what God said Eve would want to do to Adam. And what Cain must do to sin is what Adam would do to Eve. No longer would marriage be characterized by that loving relationship of a man lovingly shepherding his joyful helpmate, but rather it would become a battle of competing wills. Sin had defiled marriage.

Soon enough, sin would distort marriage even further. In Genesis 4, soon after we read of Cain and Abel, we read of one of Cain’s descendants named Lamech. And the Bible says of him, “Lamech took to himself two wives.” People often point to the cases of polygamy in the Bible as some kind of evidence that God does not frown on “non-traditional marriages.” Friends, to the contrary, though there are many cases of polygamy in Scripture, in no case did the Lord command it, and in no case did the Lord unconditionally bless it. In nearly every case, we see suffering and hardship flow out of these ungodly unions precisely because humanity rejected God’s design.

From polygamy, we begin to read about adultery and divorce. God’s design for marriage had been marred like a masterpiece whose beauty has been vandalized by graffiti. Marriage has been being distorted, defiled, and desecrated from the fall in countless ways. And I submit to you that one of the reasons that the culture turns a deaf ear to our rhetoric about God’s intention for marriage is that, decades ago, the church itself turned a deaf ear to God’s intention for marriage. One man and one woman is only part of God’s definition for marriage. “For life” is the other part. And the church’s soft stance on divorce and other marital sins paved the way for the culture’s soft stance on marriage in general. We see it expressed in rampant cases of cohabitation and the shifting cultural tide on same-sex marriage. But we may not have yet seen the end of it. The very same arguments on which the court based their decision could be used to advance the cause of incestuous marriage, polygamous marriage, paedophilial marriage, or even marriage between humans and non-humans. At some point, a line will have to be drawn, or all lines will have to be erased. But what can never be erased is the definition that God Almighty has declared for marriage from the beginning. It is one man and one woman united together in a lifelong covenant before Him, depicting His own nature and the unconditional love that He has for His people.

Not only does God define what marriage is, …

II. God’s Word has declared what sin is.

Contrary to what the culture around us believes, sin is not decided upon by a vote of the people or the ruling of a court. It is declared in the Word of God. God’s own holiness, righteous, and justice is the standard for human thought, conduct, and speech. His Word declares His nature to us, and whatever is contrary to His nature is sin. The Bible says that all of us are sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). We are sinners by nature, in that we were born with a will bent toward rebellion and disobedience. That is a product of the fall that we inherited from Adam. We are also sinners by choice, in that we yield to that sinful nature and willfully commit acts of disobedience against God. When the church of Jesus Christ declares that people are sinners, we do not exempt or exclude ourselves, nor do we make a judgment about any individual’s particular sinful actions. It is not accusatory, it is explanatory. We aren’t called sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.

Now, when we read the Bible honestly, we will come to a point at which we find ourselves condemned because of some sin that we have committed. It is true for all of us. Let’s take an easy one for example. The Bible says in Exodus 23:1, “You shall not bear a false report.” Let me paraphrase it: “Don’t tell lies.” I imagine that every single one of us at some point or another has told a lie. Now, when we come to that indictment, we have several options of response. (1) We can try to justify why we lied, as if that makes it better; (2) We can try to explain away what the Bible says and offer up an interpretation that makes what we have done somehow different from what was forbidden; (3) We can choose to ignore, reject, or deny what the Bible plainly says; or (4) We can confess that we have lied, and in so doing we have sinned against God, and we can turn to Him in repentance for forgiveness of our sin. The fourth of these is the only appropriate response, but it does not often happen that way. Typically, we choose one of the other options.

Friends, the Bible is clear that homosexual acts are sin. It is clear in the Old and New Testaments alike. I will give you one representative text from each as examples. In Leviticus 18:22, the Law of God declares, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” In Romans 1:26-27, we read, “God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” There are a host of other passages, but these suffice to demonstrate that God’s Word clearly declares homosexual acts to be sinful. Some will say, “But Jesus never spoke against homosexuality!” Friends, that simply is not true. In declaring that God’s intention for marriage was for a man and a woman to be united for life, Jesus was clearly saying that God has no other plan for humanity than this!

Now, the question arises in our day, “Why do Christians treat homosexuality as a greater sin than all others?” It is a fair question, and one that we must deal with, because it is disingenuous and hypocritical for us to judge homosexuality any harsher than we judge any other sin. I have often said that if you hate someone else’s sin worse than you hate your own sin, you have a fundamental disconnect in your spiritual maturity. We need to be clear that homosexuality is not a “worse” sin than any other.

We also need to be clear that homosexuality is a piece of a larger issue of sexual immorality in general. Any sexual expression outside of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman is sin, and that includes homosexuality, but also fornication, adultery, prostitution, pornography, incest, polygamy, and so on. And sexual sin, though not categorically “worse” than other sins, is categorically different than many other kinds of sin. In 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul says, “Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man (and the Greek word, porneia, indicates “sexually immoral”) sins against his own body.” It is a defiling of the already corrupted image of God within us, and a distortion of the beautiful imagery which God intended marriage and sexuality to demonstrate. That is why, in the same passage (1 Cor 6:18), we are admonished to flee all forms of sexual immorality, for “the body is not for [sexual] immorality, but for the Lord” (1 Cor 6:13).

Now, here is where some in our day will say that the church is trying to force an outmoded ethic of sexuality upon people and that it is destructive and disastrous to do so. People will say that our sexual ethic is driving young people who struggle with same-sex attractions to kill themselves. I would respond by saying that our sexual ethic is neither destructive or disastrous. Rather, a culture which insists that people define and identify themselves by their sexual desires and preferences is what is destroying people. People must seek their identity from the God who made them in His image, not from their own physical urges. God’s Word does not declare what is sin in order to destroy us, but to rescue us from the destruction of all manner of sin, including sexual sin.

We must also be clear in our day to say that temptation is not the same thing as sin. Hear me carefully here. It is not a sin to be tempted with same-sex attraction. What is a sin is to yield to that temptation and enter into homosexual lust or acts. We all face temptations, and the Bible says that “no temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). We do not have the privilege of choosing our temptations. People will say, “Well, God made them with this desire, so what is wrong with indulging that desire?” Friends, we are all born with certain dispositions, but this is not of God’s design. It is of sin’s corrupting effect. Because of sin’s corruption, some are born with certain desires, or certain dispositions which lead to certain desires, and others are born with different desires and dispositions. What is tempting to one person will not necessarily be tempting to another. You may be strongly tempted with fits of rage, or intoxication, or dishonesty, while another may be tempted strongly with same-sex attractions. But though there are different forms of temptation, temptation itself is the same for all men and women, and God is the same toward all, and will provide a way of resistance and escape for those who seek it in Him. We do not get to choose our temptations, but we do choose which ones we will resist and which ones we will indulge, and that is something that we need to be crystal clear about.

If you or someone you know struggles with same-sex temptations, condemnation is not what is needed. Compassion is what is needed, because we know the One who is able to deliver us from such temptations as are common to all men. By His death and resurrection, Jesus has conquered sin, and offers His victory to all who come to Him by repentance and saving faith. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, the Bible says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” When we read that, we may wonder if any of us, not just homosexuals, have any hope at all. We all likely find ourselves condemned by something in that list. But the hope comes in the next verse, as the Bible says, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” Friends, of all people in the world, Christians ought to be the most compassionate toward homosexuals and every other variety of sinners, because such were some of us before we encountered the life changing grace of God in Jesus Christ. We know this Savior who took our sins upon Himself and bore their penalty and defeated it by His unquenchable life. It is that past tense word “were” in that phrase, “such were some of you,” that gives any of us hope. As people who were such as these, but who have been set free by Jesus, we need to extend that same compassionate hope to others whom we know who still are.

So, in addressing this issue, we are brought to the final point. Having set forth two ideas from Scripture, namely, that God defines what marriage is, and God’s Word has declared what sin is, we must now say that…

III. God’s people must demonstrate a proper response to our culture.

How should we, as Bible-believing, evangelical Christians respond to the decision of the Supreme Court, to our hyper-sexualized culture, to our neighbor, our friend, our loved one, or that perfect stranger who is struggling with same-sex attraction or actively engaged in homosexual activity?

A. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus said that there is no greater commandment than these two. And, in spite of all that has changed, the Great Commandment has not changed. As we love the Lord our God with our entire being, we must be unswervingly and uncompromisingly committed to the truthfulness and authority of His word. And as we love our neighbor selflessly, we must be willing to treat them with kindness and dignity, as friends and not enemies, and as people whom God has created in His image and people for whom Christ died. It is never easy to love someone who is different than you are, but we already have a lot of practice at it. I imagine that among your family members, your circle of friends, and even your fellow church members, there are many with whom you have significant disagreements over a variety of issues. But you know that agreement is not necessary for love. You do not have to condone something that you are convinced is wrong to love someone. And an entire segment of our population is convinced that Christians hate them. The time has come for us to show them that we do not hate them, but we love them. We were not very lovable when Christ extended His love to us. We do not have to wait for others to become lovable to us for them to be loved by us. Be a friend, be a faithful family member, be a generous neighbor to all people, and do not exclude homosexuals. Make sure they know that your disagreement over sexuality and marriage is not a condition for your willingness to love and befriend them. Even if they make it a condition on their end, we must demonstrate what Romans 12:18 says: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

B. We must be Spirit-empowered witnesses for Jesus Christ among all men.

Not only did Jesus give us two great commandments, He also gave us a great commission to be His witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). And in spite of all that has changed, the Great Commission has not changed. We must remember that we are not trying to win a war over the issue of marriage and sexuality, but to win a war for men’s souls and to rescue them from perishing. Homosexuals are not excluded from the great commission. Like all who are engaged in unrepentant sin, we must point them to the One who has delivered us from bondage to all manner of sin, including sexual brokenness and marital deviance. Such were some of you. And you have a story to tell about how Jesus set you free. The most loving thing you can do is to share that story with others who are still lost in sin. You may have to earn the right to share it in the context of your relationship with them, but you must not be deterred from the mission, or distracted by other issues. At the end of the day, if we convince someone to come around to our way of thinking about marriage and sex, but do not persuade them to follow Christ, they are still lost. We must lovingly introduce them to Jesus by our words and deeds, and let Him convince them, convict them, and convert them. He did it for us, so we know He can do it for them.

C. The Church must be a safety net for a culture falling over the cliff of brokenness.

Let’s get one thing clear – the church is not a museum for perfect people. It is a hospital for broken people, and sooner or later, we pray, those who are lost in sin will come to realize how badly their sin has broken them. When they do, where will they turn? They will only turn to the church if they know that we can be a safety net for them. The decision that is being celebrated across America today will in time demonstrate its own folly. The joy and happiness that multitudes think they will have will evaporate and leave them in despair. Sin only satisfies for a season. When that season ends, will they know that broken people are welcome in the church of Jesus Christ? Will they know that you and I can relate to their brokenness because we ourselves have taken the plunge off of that cliff, and we have found ourselves resting in the strong arms of Jesus who is mighty to save? I have often said that we as a church must have such a reputation in this city that, when the day comes that someone awakens with questions about God plaguing their heart and mind, they will know for certain that this is a place they can come for answers. That is not something that a collective “WE” can do. It is something that every individual among us must do.

D. We must rethink “Church” as being increasingly counter-cultural.

It is being said of Christians today that we are living on the wrong side of history. Friends, for the better part of the church’s existence we’ve been on the wrong side of history. It has only been in the short history of the United States of America that we have been culture-definers. And now the tide has turned, and we must be faithful to Christ as we swim against the tide. Our convictions and our confessions of faith will be increasingly unpopular, and that is exactly why we have them. We will not be tossed about by the waves of cultural opinion or sink in the shifting sands of acceptable norms. Over the last several months, Immanuel Baptist Church has adopted new policies, we have amended existing ones, and we have made our positions and our convictions as clear as we can make them on this and many other issues. Now comes the hard part of carrying out those convictions. We can expect challenges to come our way. There may be “test cases,” lawsuits, threats, strong-arming, accusations and criticisms. We may have to rethink everything that our American heritage has taught us about allegiance to “God and country.” At the end of the day we will have to be clear that our highest pledge of allegiance is sworn to Jesus Christ and His unshakable kingdom. We have yet to see if we can retain tax-exempt status, or preach the Bible faithfully without being accused of hate-crimes. But we can already see that very soon in America, the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord will bear for us the full weight that it has borne upon our brothers and sisters around the world throughout history. It is a counter-cultural, radical confession, and we must stand unmoved on it.

E. We must pray and we must prepare! We must pray for our sister churches, pray for pastors, pray for Christian witnesses, pray for Christian schools, Christians in the government, and Christian business owners. Already we are seeing the beginnings of the turmoil. We have no assurances that it will get better. In a dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Roberts said, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.” A few weeks ago, when asked how the decision would affect religious liberty for Christian colleges, the solicitor general of the United States said candidly, “It is going to be an issue.” We can all consider that a fair warning. So, as we pray for our brothers and sisters to stand strong against the current, we must also prepare for the possibility that civil disobedience may be necessary. Civil disobedience is not insurrection or a taking up of arms. It is a quiet resolve to remain faithful to God, come what may. It is what we saw in the earliest church, when Christians were threatened to keep quiet about Jesus or else, and they responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20); and “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). We will continue to live in submission to proper governing authorities, as the Bible commands us to, and we will remember that the governing authorities who were in power when those commands were written were not friendly to the Church. But submission does not mean going along with in order to avoid consequences. It means being willing to accept the consequences for the sake of our consciences before God. Let me say this clearly: it is too soon to tell if civil disobedience will be necessary. But it is never too soon to prepare ourselves for the possibility, and it is always the right time to pray. Pray and prepare.

F. Finally, we must model a biblical ethic of marriage and sexuality. As I said earlier, the church’s sloppy and soft stand on issues like divorce have opened these floodgates. If we want the world to take us seriously when we say “one man and one woman,” we need to prove that we are faithful to the rest of it too: “for life.” We must fight for our marriages when hard times come, and hard times come to every marriage. We must encourage our brothers and sisters to hang in there and not walk away or throw away their marriages. We must celebrate and champion the life of single celibacy and marital endurance. We must be as serious and vocal about every other sexual and marital sin as we are about same-sex marriage, and all the more faithful to live out the biblical ethics of marriage, sexuality and family life. The world will never abide God’s standard for marriage and sexuality until or unless the church does. Remember, your marriage is showing your family, your friends, your neighbors and coworkers something about God, the Gospel, and the love of Jesus Christ. Make sure they see the right picture.

In closing, let me say that the Supreme Court is often called “the highest court in the land.” That is not quite true. As Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler wrote on Friday,

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land, and its decisions cannot be appealed to a higher court of law. But the Supreme Court, like every human institution and individual, will eventually face two higher courts. The first is the court of history, which will render a judgment that I believe will embarrass this court and reveal its dangerous trajectory. The precedents and arguments set forth in this decision cannot be limited to the right of same-sex couples to marry. If individual autonomy and equal protection mean that same-sex couples cannot be denied what is now defined as a fundamental right of marriage, then others will arrive to make the same argument. This Court will find itself in a trap of its own making, and one that will bring great harm to this nation and its families. The second court we all must face is the court of divine judgment. For centuries, marriage ceremonies in the English-speaking world have included the admonition that what God has put together, no human being — or human court — should tear asunder. That is exactly what the Supreme Court of the United States has now done.

Friends, when all is said and done, we rest on two pillars: our God is sovereign over all the affairs of this fallen world, and His word is true and authoritative. No vote and no court can change that. Therefore we will not panic, we will not declare that the sky is falling. We will not retreat to a holy huddle, bar the doors, and cower in fear. What will we do? We will be Christians. And we will be confident, courageous, and compassionate. In other words, we will keep calm and carry on. 




[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrHkKXFRbCI

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Lord's Prayer (John 17:1-5)

Audio

When I first began attending church, every Sunday my pastor would say as he drew his pastoral prayer to an end, “These things we pray in the name of Him who taught us to pray together,” and then the entire congregation would repeat aloud:

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
·        (Matt 6:9-13, KJV)

Those words were entirely unfamiliar to me as a new Christian, so most Sundays I would just sort of mumble in whispered tones until the words of what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer” became etched on my heart. It is one of the most well known passages in all of Scripture, and this prayer has been recited countless times by countless people through the centuries. As precious and powerful as this prayer is, it is perhaps a bit of a misnomer to call it “The Lord’s Prayer.” This is how Jesus said that we should pray, but it is not a prayer that He Himself prayed. After all, the sinless Son of God could not, and would not, pray that the Father would forgive Him of His debts or trespasses, for He had none. That familiar prayer would be better called “The Disciples’ Prayer.”

The seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel presents us with what may be more accurately called “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is uniquely His. Here we are encounter the profound communion that has eternally existed between God the Father and God the Son. This prayer of Jesus “is the purest and most extensive example in all the Bible of a direct, verbalized communication between two members of the Godhead,” and in it, “the veil is drawn back and the reader is escorted by Jesus Christ into the Holy of Holies, to the very throne of God.”[1]

This is not the only instance of Jesus praying that is recorded in the Gospels, but it is the longest one. It is commonly called “The High Priestly Prayer,” because here we find the Lord Jesus interceding as a High Priest for His people. But in these first five verses, He prays for Himself. So, let us come into this most holy place and eavesdrop, if you will, on this private conversation between God the Father and God the Son and hear how the Son prays for Himself in this true Lord’s Prayer.

I. The occasion of Jesus’ prayer

Charles Dickens’ famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities is probably familiar to us. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens was referring to the era of the French Revolution, but these words more fittingly describe the setting of our text. Verse 1 sets the stage: “Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come.’” Jesus had just finished the lengthy time of teaching with His disciples that we call “The Farwell Discourse,” in which He explained to them that He was returning to His Father. Having completed the work for which He had come into the world, He would return to His home in heaven, to the place and position that had been rightfully His for all eternity. It was the best of times. But it was also the worst of times.

Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has spoken of “His hour.” Prior to Chapter 12, Jesus said that His hour (or “time”) had not yet come (2:4; 7:6, 8; cf. 7:30; 8:20). But with the dawning of this final Passover week, Jesus began to say that His hour had come (12:23; 16:32; cf. 13:1). He says it again here in verse 1 as He prays. “Father, the hour has come.” What is this “hour” of which He speaks? It is the appointed time for His suffering and death, the culmination of His earthly mission to redeem humanity from sin by bearing our sins as a sacrificial substitute to bear the wrath we deserve upon the cross.

Marcus Rainsford was a 19th Century Irish preacher and his monumental work on this chapter, entitled, Our Lord Prays for His Own, is considered the evangelical magnum opus on John 17. Listen to his words about this “hour.”

Many an hour has passed on the dial of time since time began, but no hour like this. It was the hour on which His own and His Father’s heart had been set, and with the issues of which His own and His Father’s thoughts had been engaged from all eternity. It was the hour for which He became incarnate, and for which He came into the world; it was the hour when all God’s waves and billows were to pass over Him …. It was the hour when His soul was to be made an offering for sin; when, having been given by God to us He was about to offer up Himself to God for us.[2]

This is the hour that has come, and this is the hour in which He prays. But what does He pray for? We turn our attention to that question now.

II. The content of Jesus’ prayer

On an occasion such as this, we might imagine that Jesus would have a long list of personal concerns to bring before the Father. Yet, His request is limited to a single petition. In a moment like this, with so many disconcerting circumstances staring Him squarely in the face, Jesus’ singular request from the Father is this: “Glorify Your Son” (v1).

One of the most audacious prayers recorded in all of Scripture is that of Moses in Exodus 33:18, when he boldly requested of the Lord, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” The Lord’s answer was simple: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (33:20). As audacious as Moses’ prayer was, we might be tempted to see the prayer of Jesus as infinitely more audacious. He does not ask to see the glory of God, but to receive that same glory unto Himself. In verse 5, He adds to the request, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself.”

Any man who is merely a man and utters such a prayer would surely be guilty of the highest blasphemy! God said in Isaiah 42:8, “I will not give My glory to another.” Ah, but Jesus, though a man, is not merely a man. As Handley Moule said, “What creature, however exalted, could so call upon the Majesty on high? It is the voice of the Son, but of GOD the Son. On the other hand, it is the voice of God, but of God the SON.”[3] Verse 5 makes that as clear as any verse in Scripture. He says, “Now, Father, glorify Me together Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Jesus is here claiming that the glory for which He asks is rightfully His, and has been for eternity past. Therefore, this prayer is not ultimately audacious; it is uniquely appropriate.

You recall that John’s Gospel began with that majestic statement, “In the beginning was the Word (the Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Not only did He exist before the world, He made the world! In John 1:3, we read that through this Person called the Word of God, the Logos, “all things came into being … and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” John 1:14 makes it clear that this divine Logos, or “Word,” is the same Person whom we know as Jesus Christ. John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In Jesus Christ, the infinite and eternal Creator God became a man. Paul described Jesus’ condescension in His incarnation this way in Philippians 2:6-7 – [A]lthough He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped {or “held onto”}, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. [And He was] … found in appearance as a man.”

Prior to His incarnation Jesus possessed in Himself the fullness of all of the attributes of God and the splendor of His visible, brilliant glory. In becoming a man, He “emptied Himself” (to use Paul’s phrase) of that visible, brilliant glory, in exchange for human flesh. He maintained, at least in some measure, the divine qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and sovereignty, and His many miracles were glimpses of those attributes. But now, as He draws His earthly ministry to a close, He asks the Father that the full measure of infinite glory that was rightfully His for all eternity past would be returned to Him for all eternity future. He asks to again be clothed with the splendor which He had exchanged in return for human flesh in order to identify with us, to live for us, to die for us, and to rise for us.

The time had come for the glorious reunion in Heaven of Father and Son, and for the coronation of Christ as King. But there would be no crown to wear apart from the cross to bear. The glory for which Christ prays is ultimately found through the shame of the cross, for here Jesus would complete the mission for which He was sent into the world. Hebrews 12 says that it was “for the joy set before Him” that He “endured the cross, despising the shame.” The joy to which He looked was the glory for which He longed – the glory that was rightly His, which had been willfully forfeited for our sake, and which would be rightfully returned to Him forever upon His triumphant return to His heavenly throne.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, the audacious prayer of Moses and the appropriate prayer of Jesus find their answer. Moses asked God to show him His glory. Jesus asked for the Father to give Him His glory. That glory is seen nowhere more clearly than in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ, by which the human race, which is desperately corrupted by sin, lost in rebellion, and separated from God by a great, impassable gulf of iniquity, is graciously reconciled to God in all of His holiness and splendor.

This brings us to the final aspect of Jesus’ prayer for Himself here in these verses.

III. The purpose of Jesus’ prayer

In the epistle of James, we read, “You do not have because you do not ask.” But sometimes when we ask, we do not receive, so what do we make of that? James answers that as well, saying, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Selfishness and carnal desire underlie much of what we ask for. Well, Jesus asked for God to glorify Him. That seems very self-centered, does it not? It would be utterly self-absorbed for any of us to ask God to glorify us. So, why is it okay for Jesus to pray this way, but not for us? It is because when we seek our own glory, we seek something less than God desires for us. He wants us to know His glory, and when we ask for our own, we ask for too little, and we ask for it at the expense of His glory. God isn’t going to answer that prayer. But the Father answered Jesus’ prayer for glory because the glory for which Jesus asks is inseparable from His own, and ultimately serves to further the Father’s glory. Jesus says in verse 1, “Glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You.” Everything God does, everything answer to prayer He grants, is driven by His passionate pursuit of His own glory. And nothing brings glory to the Father more than the glorification of His Son.

When we pursue our own glory, we are pursuing something inferior than God, and that is idolatry. When God pursues His own glory, it is not idolatry or megalomania, because there is nothing greater that He can pursue. If God were to pursue anything other than His own glory, He would be an idolater because He would value something inferior over what is ultimate, namely Himself. And so He delights to glorify the Son, because the Son is faithfully committed to glorifying the Father. In the midst of His most critical hour, Jesus cries out for His own glory, that His glory would magnify and amplify the demonstration of the Father’s glory. “Glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You.”

That is the heartbeat of this entire prayer, and every prayer that Jesus ever prayed. It is also the heartbeat of every word He ever spoke and every deed He ever did. But the ultimate display of the glory of the Son, which in turn demonstrates the glory of the Father, is found in the completion of the work for which He was sent into the world. In verse 2, Jesus connects His prayer for glory to the authority that was given to Him by the Father. He says, “glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh.” That means that the Father has given Jesus the authority to be the rightful King over all, and “[e]verything and everyone in the universe is subject to this kingdom, whether the point is acknowledged or not.”[4] And the ultimate reason that the Father has given Him this unlimited authority is specified in verse 2 as Jesus continues: “You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.”

Everything about Jesus’ mission is centered on the authority that the Father has given Him to grant eternal life to human beings. What is “eternal life”? We usually equate it with “living forever in heaven.” It includes that. It is certainly not less than that, but it is a great deal more than that. After all, if “living forever” is all that is meant by “eternal life,” then we could say that even those in hell have “eternal life.” Yet the Bible never uses that phrase to describe the fate of the unredeemed who will endure the eternal torment of hell. It refers only and exclusively to the redeemed. So, Jesus defines eternal life in verse 3: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

That little sentence is loaded with meaning! For one thing, it categorically denies any and every claim to deity made concerning any person or thing other than the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible. He is the only true God, all others are false deities. It also categorically affirms that there is no knowledge of the only true God apart from Jesus Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, there are not many paths to God. There is one, and only one: Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (Jn 14:6). But it also explains that eternal life is not something that begins when we die and enter heaven. For those who have come to know the one true God through Jesus Christ, eternal life has already begun. It is not merely a “quantity” of life, but a “quality” of life. To know God in this sense is not to have an academic or intellectual understanding of Him, but to enter into the experience of a personal relationship with Him. It is to live life in relationship to God. This is a life that has a definite beginning – it begins when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. But it has no end. Death itself cannot terminate this life. It endures for all eternity in God’s presence.    

How is it that Jesus can say that He is the only way to know God? It is because only Jesus accomplished what is necessary for us to know God. In verse 4, Jesus says, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” Everything He ever did and everything He ever said was done in complete obedience to His Father. But the final step of obedience remained for the following day. His work would not be fully completed until Jesus laid down His life as a ransom to purchase sinners from their slavery to sin and Satan and reconcile them to God by dying in our place to bear the wrath that we deserve. He was sent to live the life that none of us can live, and to die the death that all of us should die. The merits of His righteous life are granted to those who trust in Him, in exchange for the penalty of our sins which was poured out on Him in His sacrificial death.

When Jesus breathed His last breath on the cross, He uttered, “It is finished!” Yet Jesus was so unswervingly committed to glorifying His Father in the completion of His commissioned task of saving sinners that He can speak of it on the eve before it happens as if it is already a completed work. In His perfect obedience, even to death, even to death on a cross, the Father is glorified because all of His glorious attributes are manifested in His Son. His holiness, righteousness, and justice are displayed in the suffering that Christ had to endure for our sins. His love, His mercy, and His grace are demonstrated in the salvation that Christ makes available to us through His sacrifice.

Why did Jesus pray for His glory, and why did the Father answer? Because Jesus was unflinchingly committed to bringing glory to His Father through the completion of the work for which He was sent into the world – the redemption of lost humanity through His shed blood. Paul said that Jesus “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed upon Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:9-11). Peter says it this way: “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet 1:20-21).

Friends, if the very Son of God must pray, then how much more must we? But we do not pray for our own glory, rather that the glory of the Father and the Son be manifested in and through us. And it will be as we, like Jesus, live in obedience to the Father’s purpose for our lives. As we follow Christ in obedience, we will share in His sufferings. His glory was made known most plainly through the suffering of His cross, and our own sufferings can be a means by which others see His glory in us. As we continue in obedience, even in spite of our sufferings, we demonstrate that the glory of God-in-Christ is greater than anything this world can offer us or take from us. And by faith in Christ, at last we will see that glory face-to-face forever – the glory which the Father has given to the Son, and which the Son has returned to the Father.










[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4:1246; John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21 (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 236 (cf. 239-240).
[2] Marcus Rainsford, Our Lord Prays for His Own (Chicago: Moody, 1950), 36.
[3] H. C. G. Moule, The High Priestly Prayer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 28.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 555. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Peace in a Troubled World (John 16:33)


Some of you are probably avid followers of the news – you read the paper, watch the news on television and maybe follow it online. Probably an equal number of you are not avid followers of the news. You get wind of the major events from time to time, but you don’t stay on top of the breaking stories throughout the day. Yet, even the casual observer of world affairs has to notice that we live in the midst of difficult days. There are things happening today around the world, and particularly here in America, that many of us would have considered unthinkable just a decade or so ago. The world is changing before our eyes at a breakneck pace, and I dare say that the changes are by and large for the worse. The ramifications are far reaching, and have at least some impact on every single one of us. These are troubling times, and the idea of finding any peace in this world seems like something from a fairy tale. And yet, peace in the midst of a troubled world is precisely what Jesus Christ promised to His followers.

We’ve come at last today to the final verse of what is known as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.” Beginning in Chapter 14, this entire teaching takes place in the moments and hours following the Last Supper while Jesus was alone with His disciples. He has been giving them final instructions before the critical hour comes in which He will be arrested, sentenced, and crucified. With the verse we have read today, Jesus draws the discourse to a close, having said all that He needed to say to them. In the next chapter, He will lift His voice to His Father and pray for Himself, for His followers, and for the world. Then the betrayer will come to hand Him over to arrest. Jesus knew that all of this would come to pass. He had announced it in advance. If ever anyone had reason to be troubled, Jesus did in these moments. And yet, even in these troubling moments, He can speak of peace – the peace He Himself has, and that He offers to all who follow Him by faith.

When the New Testament speaks of peace, it means more than we often think it does. Typically, we assume that the word “peace” means the absence of warfare or strife, or perhaps a state of tranquility. The biblical concept of peace, however, goes much deeper than this. The biblical idea of peace has been well defined as “the sense of complete well-being that characterizes the life lived in accordance with the design of God.”[1]
So, as we look at this single verse, let’s examine three aspects of this peace.

I. The Christian’s peace is found in Christ alone.

Many years ago, I paid a visit to a man named Dino. He welcomed my friend and I into his home, and before long, our pleasant conversation turned to spiritual matters. Dino was a frequent church attender, and he had a large Bible prominently displayed on his coffee table, and a cross hanging on his wall. But as he shared about his personal struggles, it became evident to us that Dino was deeply troubled about many things. My friend and I began to share the Gospel with Dino, and he was holding on to every word. Finally, we asked if he had ever placed his faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and he confessed that he had not. That evening, we had the privilege to lead Dino to Jesus and he was gloriously born again there in his living room. After he had prayed to surrender his life to Jesus, Dino reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small bag and threw it on the coffee table. He said, “I don’t think I need these anymore.” I asked him what it was, and he said, “Magic rocks. I have been carrying them around for years to give me good luck.” I said, “Dino, not only do you no longer need those, you never did. You carried them around for a long time, but as you shared your story with us tonight, it was clear that those rocks never brought you any real help.” He’d been to church, he had a Bible (a great big one at that), and a cross on his wall, but he did not have peace. He was surrounded by signposts, as it were, pointing him to the true source of peace, but he had sought peace in a bag of magic rocks. That night, Dino discovered that the peace that had eluded him could be found in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone.

Peace is found in the Person of Christ. Jesus said peace is found “in Me.” For all that has been written about what it means to be “in Christ,” I suggest it will take eternity to mine the depths of it. It speaks of our position and union with Him. We are “in Him” as a result of placing saving faith in Him as Lord and Savior. In that instant, we become inseparably united to Him. He becomes, as it were, the sphere of our existence. We have something of a dual citizenship. We are “in the world,” and we are “in Christ.” Our identity should be rooted in the latter of these citizenships rather than the former, because though we are in the world, because we are in Christ, we are not “of the world.” We belong to another realm, and peace is granted to us on the basis of our union with Him.

Paul points this out often in his letters, but my favorite place is in 1 Corinthians 1:2. There he identifies this particular local church as being “at Corinth,” but also as being sanctified (or set apart) “in Christ Jesus.” They might be at Corinth, but it is more important that they recognize that they are in Christ. That is significant! Corinth epitomized all that we can imagine about a godless culture, and then some. That’s where these Christians lived. But they were positioned in Christ. And the thrust of Paul’s letter to them is an exhortation for them to define themselves by their position in Christ rather than their location in Corinth. You might live in this world, in this nation with all of its societal ills, but you are in Christ if you have been born again, and your identity in Him has to be what defines your life. Because you are in Him, you have a certain birthright and certain privileges of citizenship, and one of those is that you can know peace – real and lasting peace. He has it in Himself, and is able to extend it to all who trust in Him. It is found only in His Person.

Then notice that this peace is based on Christ’s promises. He says here, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace.” Now, when He says, “These things,” He is referring to everything that He has said to the disciples during this farewell discourse. Now, just to remind you, over the course of this extended discourse, Jesus has spoken of:
·         The promise of eternal life (Jn 14:1-6)
·         His oneness with the Father (14:7-11)
·         The future ministry that the disciples will have (14:12; 15:1-8; 15:27)
·         Prayer (14:13-14; 16:23-28)
·         The coming of the Holy Spirit (14:16-21; 15:26; 16:5-15)
·         The inspiration of the Word of God (14:25-26)
·         The assurance of His love (15:10; 12-17)
·         The promise of joy (15:11; 16:22)
·         Future sufferings for the sake of Christ (15:18ff; 16:1-4)
·         His resurrection and second coming (16:16-22)

Jesus says that all of these things were spoken in order that the disciples may have peace in Him. They will only experience that peace as they remember and reflect on the truths He has shared with them. And the same is true for us. We will only comprehend and experience His peace as His word abides in us. So if we would have peace, we must make a regular discipline of reading, studying, and meditating on His Word. Everything in this world is at war with our peace, so we must constantly be reminded afresh of the promises Jesus has spoken to us.

So, how are we to have peace in this troubled world? The answer is that we can only have peace in Jesus Christ and in Him alone. By faith in Him, we are united to Him in a covenant relationship that can never be dissolved. We are inseparably “in Christ,” and have access to His peace which He freely bestows to all who call upon His name in saving faith. And this peace is realized in our lives as we meditate continually upon the precious promises of His Word. Now, the second aspect of our peace flows from this reality. Because the Christian’s peace is anchored in the person and promises of Christ …

II. The Christian’s peace transcends the troubles of this world.

Jesus said that all of His promises serve to produce peace in His followers. But, there are some promises that seem a little “less peaceful” than others at first glance. One of them occurs right here in verse 33. He says, and it is a promise, “In the world you have tribulation.” Wait, what? How is that supposed to help me have peace? How can Jesus say, on the one hand that we can have peace, and then almost without taking a breath, that we will have trouble? It is because our peace is not dependent on our circumstances in this world. It transcends these troubles.

We have to understand that this world is broken because it has been corrupted by human sinfulness. That sinfulness has infected the world with all manner of suffering and no one is immune to it. But for the Christian, there is a measure of suffering above and beyond what is common to others. Because of sin and its consequences, we are subject to the evils and sufferings of this fallen world. Moral evil and suffering is obviously when we are the victims of the wrongdoings of others. But there is also physical suffering, by which we deal almost incessantly with the illnesses and maladies to which we are prone because our bodies are decaying from birth. Sin has corrupted our bodies and so they are always breaking down. And of course there is natural suffering – the kind of thing we see taking place where floods and hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, and things like this have occurred. These things are an outworking of the curse of sin in the world. Sin has produced atmospheric and geological upheaval in the world, as evidenced for example, in the flood of Noah. Now, it is not that, when these tragedies occur, they are an express judgment of God upon the people affected by them but the world is susceptible to these tragedies because of how the curse in the fall of humanity into sin has affected the world. And as Christians, we are all subject to these kinds of sufferings, just as everyone else in the world is.

But there is a unique category of suffering for a Christian that the rest of the world does not have to endure. In addition to these categories of suffering that everyone is subject to, the Christian is also susceptible to suffering for the sake of righteousness, that is, for the sake of Christ. Jesus has spoken much about this throughout the discourse. Paul said that all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). That is as much a promise as the one Jesus gives here: “In the world you have tribulation.” And the reason we endure such suffering in the world is because the world is at enmity with God, and therefore at enmity with Christ and with all who represent Him in the world.

The word “world” occurs 78 times in John’s Gospel, 20 in the farewell discourse alone. In all but two of those 20 instances, it refers to the hostile forces of lost humanity who are at war with Christ. The world is said to:
  • Be unable to receive the Spirit of truth (14:17)
  • Be blind to the revelation of Jesus Christ (14:22)
  • Not experience the peace of Jesus Christ (14:27)
  • Be under the rule of Satan (14:30)
  • Hate and persecute Christians (15:18) because Christians are not of the world (15:19)
  • Be under the conviction of the Holy Spirit (16:8)
  • Rejoice over the death of Jesus (16:20)[2]

It is hard to see how this could lead to anything but trouble for disciples of Jesus Christ. The world, and all of the corrupted forces at work in it, have arrayed themselves for battle against God-in-Christ, and all who follow in His steps by faith. So Jesus promises us that trouble awaits us in the world. But, the question is, “How does this promise lead us to peace?” I have three answers to that question.

First, this promise leads us to peace because it prepares us for the hardships we must endure. Jesus has taught us to expect it. When we endure hardships and sufferings, even those that occur for the sake of Christ and His righteousness, this promise teaches us that we are not encountering anything unusual or out of the ordinary. Sometimes, when things are not going well for us, we may be tempted to believe that we have fallen out of God’s favor, or that He has removed His hand of blessing from our lives. It is comforting for us to know that our suffering in the world may actually prove the opposite – we are enduring it precisely because we belong to Him. It would be very disconcerting if Jesus had promised us a primrose path, and then we become pricked by the thorns. But Jesus promised us a hard road in this world, and we must expect nothing less. Peter wrote to suffering Christians in 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” Expect it.

Second, this promise leads us to peace because it reminds us how radically Jesus has transformed us. Of all people, Christians should have a special understanding of the world’s war against God, because we have been delivered from the thick of the battle. We too were once at enmity with God until we were rescued by His saving kindness. In Ephesians 2, Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus of what their lives used to be like, and how God had radically transformed them by His grace in Christ Jesus:

[Y]ou were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ ( by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:1-7).

Prior to knowing Christ, we ourselves were bound in sin, enslaved to Satan and to the carnal desires of our flesh and the patterns of this world’s thinking, provoking the wrath of God upon ourselves in our rebellion to Him. In Titus, Paul says it this way: 

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).

So the promise of trouble in the world reminds us that, once, we were walking with the world in its disobedience and rebellion. Our lives were characterized by the same strife and calamity that we see on display in our society. But God, in His kindness, has rescued us from that way of living – not on the basis of anything we have done, but solely by His sovereign grace and mercy – and He has reconciled us to Himself. That means, friends, that though we will endure much suffering in this fallen world, there is a deadline to it. The closest that we will ever come to hell is life in this world, and when it is over, the trouble ends with it. We will enter into the sin-free and suffering-free environment of heaven for eternity. Knowing that these light and momentary afflictions are producing for us a weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17) enables to endure these sufferings with a peace that passes all understanding.

Third, this promise leads us to peace because it assures us that our peace transcends the troubles of this world. Jesus’ promise of peace is made to those who are yet in this trouble-filled world. He did not say, “Once you leave this trouble-filled world, you will have peace.” He said, “In the world, you have tribulation,” but “in Me, you have peace.” And the peace we have in Him transcends all of the trouble of this world and can be experienced even in the midst of all this world’s troubles. To understand why that is so, we have to move to the third and final aspect of our peace here in this verse.

III. The Christian’s peace is secured by Jesus’ victory.

When I was a kid, you could find me just about any night of the week at the old Winston-Salem Coliseum watching the Carolina Thunderbirds hockey games. I distinctly remember, one night, it was announced late in the game that our star goalie was being removed from the game and being replaced by a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal. What was he doing on the ice? We discovered later that he had always dreamed of playing in a professional hockey game. With six minutes to go in the game, his dream came true. And he wasn’t half-bad. He didn’t let in a single goal. But, the only reason he got to live out his dream was that the Thunderbirds were winning by so large a margin, that even if he had let several goals in, it would not have changed the outcome of the game. He got to enjoy his six-minutes on the ice because the victory was already in-hand.

Friends, in an infinitely more significant way, we can have peace in a trouble-filled world because Jesus has already secured victory over the world. The battle may still be raging, but the war is over, and Christ has conquered. He says, “I have overcome the world.” The original wording here is a military term that is used to describe triumph over one’s enemies. Jesus won this victory in His death and resurrection. By His death, He defeated sin and death and rendered the prince of this world powerless. The world did all it could to Him – opposing Him, betraying Him, apprehending Him, torturing Him, and ultimately murdering Him. But He conquered all that the world threw at Him by overcoming death with His indestructible life. Satan, and all those who follow Him, together with the condemnation of sin and the threat of death, were decisively defeated through His cross and empty tomb.

Yet, Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and Satan was not merely a personal one. It is a victory that He shares with those who are “in Him.” We have His peace in the midst of this troubled world because we share in His victory. And because we do, we do not have to be intimidated by the troubles and threats of this world. Jesus said we can “take courage.” It might be better translated with a more forcible command: “Be courageous!” What can this world do to us? The world, along with its ruler the devil, is a defeated foe! It is not that we have overcome it, but Christ has overcome it on our behalf and extends His victory to us. Would the world hate us or seek to oppress us? Would it seek to persecute us or even kill us? Jesus said that, because of the peace we have through His victory, we can be courageous even in the face of such threats.

The men who were with Jesus when He spoke these words had the opportunity to see this promise come to pass within their own lifetimes. Soon after Jesus had ascended into heaven, and they had been filled with the Holy Spirit, they began to experience the world’s animosity. When the authorities commanded them to no longer speak in the name of Jesus, they responded from this posture of courageous victory. They said to the rulers of their day, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac 4:19-20). And then they went to the Lord in prayer and said, “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence” (4:29).

Friends, this is especially instructive for us today. The disciples responded to the troubles of a hostile word with a bold confidence that was rooted in the peace and victory that they had in Jesus Christ. Like them, we too hear from seemingly all sides that we must either compromise our convictions or else be silent about them. We are compelled, directly and indirectly, overtly and subtly, that we must surrender ground to the winds of this world’s opinions that are contrary to the Word of God. But, because we have peace in Christ and stand in His victory, like those early disciples, we can heed Jesus’ admonition and take courage in the face of these threats. We stand in the victory of Christ, who has overcome the world, so we must not fear what this defeated foe can do to us. We can be confident and courageous, and stand in His peace and His victory!

In the words of John Calvin, “Although we ourselves are almost overwhelmed, if we look at that magnificent glory to which [Christ] has been exalted, we may boldly despise all the evils which hang over us. If we want to be Christians, we must not seek to be free from the cross, but must be content with the fact that while we fight under Christ’s banner we are out of danger even in the midst of the battle.” [3]

Charles Simeon, the great English pastor of the 18th Century, was a man who endured much suffering in his service to King Jesus. When asked by a friend how he had managed to endure it all, he said, “My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head [Jesus Christ] has surmounted all His sufferings and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory.”[4]

We have peace in Christ, and in Him alone. He has secured it in His triumph over the world, and His promises anchor that peace in our soul. Our peace is not contingent upon the troubles we must endure in this world. It transcends them, because our peace and our victory are in Jesus. We can have peace in this troubled world, and we can be courageous so long as we do not mind a little suffering.



[1] Robert Mounce,  “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 596.
[2] L. Scott Kellum, Preaching the Farewell Discourse (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2014), 193.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991), 388.
[4] H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon: Pastor of a Generation (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1997), 167.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Prone to Wander (John 16:29-32)

Audio 

When Robert Robinson was just an eight-year old boy in 1743, his father died, leaving his mother unable to care for the boy. By age 14, he was sent to London to apprentice as a barber. Young, mischievous, and with no supervision over his life, Robinson turned early to alcohol and fell into the company of street gangs. At age 17, he and his companions decided to attend the evangelistic meetings of the great preacher George Whitefield. Drunk and disillusioned, their purpose in attending was to ridicule the preacher and those who had gathered to hear him. But that night, as Whitefield preached from Matthew 3:7, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come,” Robinson came under conviction of his sinful lifestyle. For the next three years, he wrestled with his sense of guilt and his need for God. At the age of 20 he finally surrendered his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As a new Christian, he began to cut his spiritual teeth under renowned preachers like John Gill and John Wesley. It was not long before he sensed that the Lord was calling him to preach, and in time he became a pastor. He was known to be a very gifted preacher and had a way with words. His most lasting legacy is in the form of a hymn that we sing often here: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

There is a familiar line in that hymn in which Robinson writes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Sadly, the words became almost prophetic for Robinson. He began to flirt with theologically dangerous ideas, and eventually fell deeply into sin. Details of the rest of his life vary from source to source, but it is widely reported that he encountered a woman on a stagecoach one day who was reading a book of hymns. She shared with Robinson that “Come Thou Fount” was one of her favorites, and asked his opinion of it. He responded something to the effect of, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”

The historians are mixed about whether or not Robinson ever returned to walk in faithfulness with the Lord. But whether he did or did not, he was not the first, and certainly was not the last, high-profile Christian to fail miserably. We see it all too often. Recently I have spent some time with friends I have had in ministry for twenty years. In every conversation, there is news to share about a fellow pastor who has abandoned the faith, who has shipwrecked his ministry with some grievous sin, or who has simply walked away from serving the Lord. Some were among our mentors, others were our friends, our classmates, our colleagues. The prominent ones make the news with their scandals. Many more do not make the news, but their failures are just as significant. You have known them too. Pastors you held in high esteem, Christian laymen and women who were influential in your spiritual formation, godly family members and friends to whom you went for guidance in your Christian walk – undoubtedly you have seen some of them drift away from faithfulness to God and His word. The examples are too numerous to choose from, and the details are too painful to recount.

Like Robinson wrote, it seems that within us, we are all “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” Now, you may want to say, “Not me! It will never happen to me!” That is exactly how Jesus’ first disciples felt when He spoke to them about their impending defection. And in our text today, He addresses this very thing with them. Here in the moment of their most confident assertion of faith in Him, Jesus grounds them in their own frailty and fickleness and warns them that within hours, every single one of them will forsake Him. It is a fitting message for believers like us, who on Sunday morning as we sit in church, feel as if we have perhaps arrived to the place above and beyond the temptation to fail or abandon the Lord. The words that Jesus speaks to His disciples provide us with two safeguards as we remember that we, like them, are prone to wander.

I. We must be humble in our orthodoxy (vv29-31)

Did you ever make a “lucky guess” about something? Sometimes we make guesses based on a hunch or on thorough, albeit flawed reasoning, and discover happily that our guess was correct. Philosophers in the field of Epistemology actually devote a lot of attention to how lucky guesses work. It’s called “the Gettier problem,” and it deals with how we can believe that something is true, and actually be correct, when we have no reason or flawed reasons for knowing it. It has been an issue of debate since the time of Plato, and even today, the issue remains largely unsettled. But we have all experienced it. Consider Groundhog Day. If the groundhog comes out and sees his shadow on February 2, then we say that we will have six more weeks of winter. Now, there is absolutely no correlation between a groundhog seeing his shadow and what the weather will be like over the next month and a half, but based on the groundhog and the shadow, we say that we believe certain things about the impending weather. And, in over a third of cases analyzed since 1887, the prediction has been correct!

There are numerous examples of how we come to the right conclusions on wrong information, and vice versa, but the point of it all is that we often do not know or understand nearly as much as we think we do. And this can be true especially when we are talking about spiritual things. When we are talking about the things of God, there is much that we can know with certainty because the Bible declares it plainly. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and believers who read it are illuminated by this same Holy Spirit so that we understand and form concrete convictions about many of the truths that are set forth therein. But there is a difference between concrete conviction and arrogant presumption. The Bible is completely true and trustworthy. Our inferences, interpretations, and applications of it are not. And this is why, even though we may be right about many things we claim to understand the Bible to teach, we must be humble in our assertions.

Notice this is the exact opposite of what we see in Jesus’ disciples here. Jesus had told them back in verse 12 that He had many more things to tell them, but they could not bear them at the present moment. In verse 25, He said that He had been speaking to them in “figurative language.” That’s not the best translation of the original wording, as it does not have to do with symbolism and imagery, but with mystery. He had been saying things to them that were beyond their intellectual and spiritual grasp. But Jesus said to them that an hour was coming in which He would speak to them in plain language. He was speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would guide them into all truth (16:13). The Spirit would not come until nearly two months later at Pentecost. But notice here that the disciples are so self-sure of their own understanding that they say, “Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech.” In other words, “We get it! Now we understand everything You are saying!” It is almost as if they are saying that they have no need for the future ministry of the Spirit to enlighten and illuminate them. They have finally got it all figured out for themselves.

They say, “Now we know that You know all things.” If they were so sharp, one has to wonder why it took them this long to figure that out. He had already proven Himself to know the unspoken thoughts of others, the places where certain things would be and take place, and the actions that others were going to take before they took them. Now, suddenly, the disciples are aware that He knows all things? That’s nothing to boast of; its almost an accidental admission of their density. And then they say that there is no longer “need for anyone to question You.” Jesus had said in verse 23 that a day was coming in which the disciples would no longer question Him about anything. He was speaking of the day when they were reunited with Him for eternity. But here it seems that they think they already possess such infinite knowledge. It as though they are saying, “Jesus you said one day we would need to ask anymore questions and that day is today! We know it all already!” I have known some Christians like this. I went to school with a lot of them, and had a number of them as students and church members over the years. I will let you in on a little secret, too – I have been one of these Christians who thinks they know it all. I tell people that I am not a know-it-all, but I used to be. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think I am right on every point of Christian doctrine. But, ironically, at the same time, I know that I am wrong on some point. I have to be! I just don’t know where I am wrong. I want to know where I am wrong so I can fix it, because I want to be right! I think I am, but I know I’m not. And that realization produces humility in orthodoxy.

Friends, there really is such a thing as orthodoxy: having correct Christian belief and doctrine. The disciples were orthodox. Nearly everything they said here in our text is true. Jesus does know all things, and He did come from God. But though their conclusions were correct, they did not necessarily arrive at them the right way. We can do the same, and we can also take right information, handle it correctly, and come up with wrong conclusions. That is why, in our orthodoxy, we must be humble and confess that there is much about God that remains a mystery. I don’t mean we can’t know anything. We can, and we can know a lot, and we can be absolutely certain about the most important things we need to know, such as who Jesus is, what He has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and how we can know Him by faith in a relationship that leads to eternal life. But, because God is infinite and we are finite, there will always be a measure of mystery, and we have to be comfortable with that. We are growing, hopefully, into better and better understanding as the Spirit shapes our minds through the Word of God, but there will always be some measure of mystery, and that means we have to be humble.

We have to be humble when we approach the Bible. I don’t care how many times you have read the Bible, there will come a day when you are reading some portion of it and come across something that takes you completely by surprise. It will throw a monkey wrench into theology somewhere. Now, if you aren’t humble, you will say, “Well, that can’t be true, because I have already got this figured out, so this can’t mean what it says and I’m not sure it’s even true.” But if you are humble you will confess, “I thought I knew all I needed to know about this, but I don’t.” And you will wrestle with that text and you will examine your preconceived notions and you won’t rest until you have it nailed down, or else you come to rest in the mystery of it. This is why the great theologians of the Reformed tradition championed the notion of “the church reformed and always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.” We always need to approach the Word of God in humility and allow it to continue to shape our understanding of what we think we know.

But we also have to be humble when we dialog with other Christians. You are going to meet a Christian who has a different view of the end times, a different view about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, a different view about the meaning and mode of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and so on. If you are arrogant, you will say, “Well, I already know all there is to know about this, and you are just wrong.” We will call them liberals and heretics because they differ with us on a point of doctrine. If you are humble, you will say, “Let me hear you out on this. I know we can’t both be right – we may both be wrong, but we can’t both be right. And for all I know you could be right. So let me hear you put forth your case.” And you listen, and you compare what they are saying with what you believe and what you understand the Bible to teach, and sometimes your views on some things may change. Sometimes their views will change because of your interaction with them. But even if neither view changes, by being humble with that other Christian, you have allowed a relationship to develop that can strengthen the body of Christ and further the Kingdom of God in the world.

Jesus’ disciples were orthodox, but they were not humble in their orthodoxy. Therefore, when they confidently assert, “Now we know!” and “By this we believe,” Jesus said to them, “Do you now believe?” You need to hear that with a heavy dose of sarcasm, as if Jesus was saying, “Oh, do you now?” Remember, by their own mouths they have affirmed that Jesus knows all things. He knows what they do and do not believe. And He knows that their faith has not yet come anywhere the level of maturity that they think it has. We may arrogantly show off our orthodoxy for others and appear before them as confident and brilliant theologians, but the Lord sees every chink in our armor. He alone knows the true condition of our hearts. And though our arrogance may impress someone, it does not impress the Lord. He says in Isaiah 66:2, “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word.” Because we are prone to wander, we must be humble in our orthodoxy, humble before the Word, humble before one another, and humble before the Lord. That humility is a safeguard against our tendency to wander.

From this, we move into the very next verse and find another safeguard for our wandering tendencies.

II. We must be aware of our frailty (v32)

I will never forget the first bicycle I ever had. It was a white AMF with a paint job that looked just like Evel Kneival’s motorcycle. Never mind that it had training wheels on it when I first got it, when I got on that star-spangled seat, I became the man, the myth, and the legend. And like Evel Kneival, the handful of times that I tried to jump the ridge that ran through the field beside of our house, I usually ended up on my rear end. Evel Kneival never saw a challenge that he didn’t think he could master. Nevertheless, many of his attempts ended badly. Over the course of his career, he broke 433 bones and nearly died numerous times. In fact, if you just do a web-search for videos of Evel Kneival, you will find more clips of his crashes than his safe landings. It seems that he became more famous for his failures than his successes. And, sadly, there have been a host of Christians throughout history about whom we could say the same thing.

The Bible warns us repeatedly of our own frailty. Most clearly we are warned in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Some of the Christians whom I have watched self-destruct were people who were most confident in their faith, most assured of their own sanctification, and ironically most judgmental of the failures of others. The fact is that none of us is above the possibility of failure. Jesus told these men who were His closest earthly companions that an hour was upon them when they would be scattered each to his own home and leave Him alone.

It had been foretold by the prophet Zechariah that the Shepherd would be struck and the sheep would be scattered. Jesus had told them just moments before as they partook of the Lord’s Supper that they would all fall away, in accordance with that prophecy (Mk 14:37). And moments from this point, it would happen. When the mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible says that “they all left Him and fled” (Mk 14:50). Every single one of them, from the always eager Peter to John, the writer of our Gospel who referred to himself as the one whom Jesus loved, and all the rest – they all forsook the Lord in this critical hour.

Now the word that is translated here as “home,” could also refer to “occupation,” and that may well be the better understanding of the sense here. After all, when we find the disciples later in John’s Gospel, they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, just as many of them had been doing before they met Jesus. It is not just that they went back home to avoid their own arrest. They also had walked away from their calling to be fishers of men and witnesses for Christ, and had returned to their former careers. For a variety of reasons, we see staggering statistics of similar realities today. Studies have shown that 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month in America; half of those starting out will be out of the ministry in five years; and only one in ten will endure to retirement. But it is not just pastors. Every day in America, 3,500 people leave the church of Jesus Christ for a variety of reasons. You have seen it happen with pastors and laypeople alike, sometimes the last people you thought it could happen to. I saw the moral self-destruction of one of my heroes in ministry a few years ago, and if you had asked me a year before that, I would have told you that I thought myself more likely to fail than this brother. It was heartbreaking and sobering, and his tarnished legacy stands as a constant reminder in my mind that every single one of us is subject, apart from the sustaining grace of God, to unthinkable failure.

Simply acknowledging that reality goes a long way in safeguarding us from spiritual shipwreck. If we know we are prone to wander, and know that we are not immune from disastrous defection, it drives us into deeper dependence on the Lord’s sustaining grace, and keeps us hungry for the Word and the transforming work of the Spirit in our lives. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the very awareness of this and the serious concern that it should raise in our hearts is a strong evidence of the assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ. If we did not truly believe in Him and long to be faithful to Him, then we would have no concern whatsoever about the possibility that we might abandon Him. The awareness of our own frailty causes us to recognize, like the hymnwriter said, that we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. But it also causes us to pray as he did: “Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.”

Now, friends, thus far as we talk about abandoning, defecting, shipwrecking and spiritual drifting, we are not entertaining any notion that a genuinely born-again follower of Jesus could ever be severed from Him by anything we could do, or anything that others can do to us. Jesus promised us that this was impossible and the Bible makes it clear throughout that those who belong to God by faith are eternally secure in their covenant relationship with Him. But this binding grace that secures us in that covenant relationship does not grant us a license to live any way we choose. There are consequences to our actions. One of the most severe consequences is that our defection from the faith may prove that we were not in fact genuinely born again. But if we are, then like these disciples, we have the assurance that the Lord Jesus will pursue us and restore us to faithfulness once again. That is what He did with these men, and that is what He will do with all who are genuinely His. But still, there will be consequences when we fail the Lord.

Our failures will affect ourselves and others in varying degrees of severity. I meet unbelievers and wayward Christians on a regular basis who hold up the sins of Christians they have known as the reason that they do not presently walk with God. That is serious. When King David committed the heinous act of adultery and murder in his sin with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan confronted him, saying, “By this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme!” (2 Sam 12:14). God forbid that anything that your or I should ever do or say would be used by someone else as an excuse from turning away from the Lord Jesus. It is a possibility, and one that we must never lose sight of.

But here is where we have to draw confidence from the sovereignty of God and the invincibility of His Kingdom. Jesus said to His disciples, “you [will] be scattered each to his own home, and … leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” You see, Jesus is saying here that His work in the world does not depend on the success or failure of any individual Christian, any specific church, or any singular group of Christians in the world. He is not alone, though these disciples all abandoned Him. He is not forsaken, though some prominent pastor is embroiled in a scandal. He is not hindered, though some congregation shuts its doors or an entire denomination defects into heresy. He says, even when all others abandon Him, He is not alone, for the Father is with Him. And God alone is a majority in all matters. He does not need us. He has chosen to use us by His grace, but it is not because His work cannot progress without us. We have to realize that because of our frailty, and because of God’s unlimited ability, none of us are indispensable to His Kingdom purposes. He will accomplish what He had come to do, with or without those eleven men who were just moments away from abandoning Him. Ultimately, it all rested upon Him alone anyway. And He was content and satisfied that, if no one else stood with Him, His Father was with Him as He completed the work for which He had come into the world – to accomplish and provide a rescue for sinners so that we might be reconciled to God. Friends, it is a terrible thing when Christians fail the Lord. It affects people deeply and it grieves the Lord. But it does not hinder His purpose. We have no leverage over Him, as if we can bribe Him by our obedience. He can advance His cause with or without us. It is by His grace and for our benefit that He invites us to be a part of it. But we are not indispensible.  

If we are all prone to wander in this way, frail creatures of dust regardless of how confident our assertions of orthodoxy may be, we may wonder then, to whom shall we look? Friends, we must learn to look to Jesus and Him alone. When temptations, sufferings, circumstances, oppression, and opposition beckon us to abandon Him, we must look to the One who endured all these things without failure in order that He may rescue us from the pride and frailty that will so easily undo us. Other Christians have failed you, undoubtedly, and they will again. You have failed others, and you will again. Like it or not, the fact is that we will all fail others at some point in our lives. But Jesus never fails us. His call was not for us to follow one another, but to follow Him. When all others abandoned Him, He remained steadfast with His Father, and as we look to Him in humility and recognition of our failures, we will do the same. And when we do not, we have the confidence that He is good and gracious and will restore us to Himself when we return to Him in repentance through the forgiveness of sin that is available to us through His shed blood.

I can’t recall where I first heard this quote, but I have found it to be true in my own life and experience. Someone said, “When I became a Christian, I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” We are often most like the disciples we see here in our text when we sing bold assertions of our steadfastness and faithfulness. Today, we will sing, “My Jesus I Love Thee.” Even as we sing those words, let us do so humbly, in full recognition of our own frailty. No matter what gusto we employ in singing these words, the reality is that we are prone to wander. But this does not hinder Him, and it does not negate the infinite love that He has for us. So, from that humble posture we can truly say, “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, tis now.”