Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Questioning Jesus (John 18:12-14, 19-24)


Law professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School has created a fascinating website chronicling around 75 famous trials in history. [1] Not surprisingly, one of them is the trial of Jesus Christ. In his treatment of the trial of Jesus, Linders makes a number of claims to which we would rightly take exception, yet we can all agree with this statement: “no other trial in human history has so significantly affected the course of human events.”[2] No other trial has affected the quality of life and eternal destiny of any significant number of human beings, and yet the trial of Jesus has this immense and eternal bearing on us all. 

Because the Jews were under Roman authority in the First Century, there were two systems of justice in place. In order to secure a death sentence, Jesus would have to be sent before the Roman authority, Pontius Pilate. But He could not come before Pilate without the case being passed up from the Sanhedrin, which was chaired by the current high priest, Caiaphas. John presents us with information not found in the other Gospels which indicates that before Caiaphas heard the case, an informal inquiry was conducted before Annas, presumably to gather information and coerce Jesus into indicting Himself. Annas is an interesting fellow. In verse 19, John calls him the “high priest.” He had held that office for a decade, but around 15 years before Jesus’ arrest, he was deposed by Pilate’s predecessor Valerius Gratus. He had been succeeded briefly by his son Eleazar, and his son-in-law Caiaphas had been the high priest for about a dozen years at this point. Several of his other sons would go on to hold the office after Caiaphas. Even though he did not currently hold the office of high priest, however, it seems that Annas still possessed significant influence. After all, according to Mosaic Law, the high priest was ordained for life, and most Jews in that day would not have accepted a Roman decision to remove him from office. In the eyes of many, maybe even most, Annas was still the real high priest. For this reason, it is not surprising that he would be the first to interrogate Jesus.[3]

There is also another reason that this should not surprise us. Annas had a personal axe to grind with Jesus. When Jesus overturned the tables in the temple and chased out the moneychangers, he was hitting Annas where it hurt – right in the pocketbook. The shops and stands in the temple that charged exorbitant fees for the exchange of currency and the sale of sacrificial animals were known as “The Bazaars of Annas.” He was the chief profit-maker of all of these transactions, and Jesus had just interfered with his cash flow. Therefore, Annas would have had some measure of personal delight in confronting Jesus and being a part of this effort to end His life.[4]

Though the account we have read here represents the first phase of Jesus’ trial, it was by no means the last. From Annas, Jesus would go on to Caiaphas, and from Caiphas to Pilate, then to Herod Antipas, and back to Pilate for the final sentencing. But, one could say that the trial of Jesus did not even end there. In a sense, it continues on today. Who He is, what He has said, and what He has done, continue to be the subjects of debate, and these things must become matters of personal decision for every human being. As one team of scholars has written,

Many … today still reject His claims and consider Him a threat to the religious and political establishment, as did the religious and governmental leaders of Israel and Rome. But Jesus is under fire in a different way now. Today some declare that Jesus never said most of what is recorded of Him in the Bible. Some pronounce further that Jesus never did most of what the Bible records He did. They claim that Jesus of Nazareth was a far different figure than church history and the creeds have believed Him to be. … To many today, the Jesus of Nazareth we find in the pages of the Bible is a fictitious creation of the early church, and He must be exposed for who He truly is if He is to have any value for people who face the twenty-first century.[5]

Jesus is still on trial, if you will, in the minds and hearts of many. Some are like a modern-day Annas or Caiaphas, having already set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner with a predetermined verdict. Others are honestly and openly seeking answers. But the questions they are asking are not altogether different from those that were asked of Jesus when He stood trial 2,000 years ago. And the answers He gives are unchanged as well.

I. People are asking questions about Jesus.

After any big sporting event, there’s always a guy with a microphone ready to throw it in the face of a player or a coach. They always ask the same questions, and they usually get the same answers. “What happened out there today? What went wrong? How do you feel after that game?” Stuff like that. And the answers are always equally mindless: “We played our best. It is what it is. We feel good about our performance. We’ve got some things to improve.” It gets old after a few hundred times. Well, for 2,000 years, people have been asking the same questions of Jesus over and over again.

In verse 19, we read that the high priest questioned Jesus about His disciples and about His teaching. The specific questions are not recorded, just the broad categories. Perhaps he wanted to know which one of the disciples hacked off Malchus’ ear. Maybe he was asking where they had all wandered off to since they fled when Jesus was arrested. Whatever else may have been asked, we have good reason to assume that Annas wanted to know just how many disciples Jesus had, and what they were up to. The charge that the Jews were going after for Jesus was blasphemy, punishable by death under Jewish law. But, the Romans would not allow the Jews to execute someone for blasphemy, and they had to give final approval on capital cases anyway. So, the Jewish authorities knew that the best way to secure an execution for Jesus was to portray Him before Pilate as a revolutionary. If they could get some dirt on the covert maneuvers of Jesus’ band of renegades, they could persuade Pilate to convict and kill. 

The second category of questioning from Annas involved Jesus’ teachings. Just what, exactly, had He been filling their heads with over these three years? Was there some secret meaning to His teaching, or some dangerous heresy in it? Annas’ questions were obviously an attempt to get Jesus to say something here and now that he could distort into some twisted meaning to implicate Jesus as a blasphemer and a seditionist.

Interestingly, the questions people are asking Jesus as He stands trial today are not that much different than those asked by Annas. They tend to fall, at least, into the same categories. Of all the things that they could ask of Him, they tend to focus on His disciples and His teachings. When it comes to His disciples, the questions tend to sound like this: “What about that famous Christian who committed that great sin that we read about in the paper? What about that politician who is in a scandal that claims to be a Christian? What about those crazy people who are doing all those crazy things in the name of Jesus? What about that group of weirdos who teach this or practice that?” It is understandable to an extent. Many of us have decided that we will no longer shop in a certain store or eat in a certain restaurant again because one employee of that place gave us bad service. That’s the way some people view Jesus. Because of the poor representation given Him by one or a few of His professed followers, they have written Jesus Himself off. On the other hand, it is a bit of an unfair judgment, isn’t it? While we all should represent Jesus better than we often do, our failures are not His. It is not Jesus who sinned, or who was embroiled in scandal, or who wronged anyone. He never called anyone to follow His followers. His call was always and only, “Follow Me.” Not everyone who claims to follow Jesus really does, and even among those who do, human beings are always going to fail and disappoint one another. But Jesus never fails and has never disappointed anyone. To focus the questions on His disciples and so-called followers is to avoid the eternally important issue. On the last day, you will not have to answer for what a Christian (whether a true or false one) did to you. You will have to answer for what you have done with Jesus. Many have tried to avoid Him by erecting smoke screens of defense about His followers. As we field those kinds of questions, we need to direct the conversation to where it needs to be focused – on the person of Jesus Christ.

People are also still asking about His teachings. Did He really say this or that? Why did He never speak about this or that? Why did He say so much about this or that? These are good, legitimate questions that every follower of Christ needs to be prepared to answer. In order to do that, we must immerse ourselves in the Scriptures so that we know and understand what He said and didn’t say, and what He meant when He said what He said. For example, it is commonly said today that Jesus never spoke against homosexuality, and the question is asked, “If homosexuality is such a big deal, why did Jesus never speak on the subject?” Sadly, too many Christians accept that question at face value and are left speechless and unable to answer. The fact is that Jesus said several things that are directly relevant to the issue of homosexuality. First, He said that the entire Bible is true and trustworthy. For instance, in Matthew 5, He said,

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

He also said that the Holy Spirit would guide His apostles to complete the written revelation of God in the writings of the New Testament. He said to them that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things (Jn 14:26), and guide them into all the truth (16:13). This means that Jesus has endorsed all that has been written in the Old and New Testaments. So, when the critics say that only Paul and Moses spoke about homosexuality, we must point out to them that Jesus has ratified all that stands written in the Word of God – even the words that He Himself did not speak.

But we also need to point out that Jesus did not remain silent on the specific issue of homosexuality. When asked about marriage and divorce, Jesus 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” (Mt 19:5-6). Jesus could not have been clearer that God’s design for intimate human relationships was intended solely for a man and a woman.

My point here is not to leave our text in order to discuss other issues, but to demonstrate that people today are still asking the same kinds of questions about Jesus that Annas asked 2,000 years ago. They are asking about His disciples and His teachings. And it is incumbent upon us as His followers to give an answer to them. First Peter 3:15 says that we must always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” We do that by pointing people beyond the followers of Jesus to the person of Jesus, and clarifying for them exactly what He said, what He didn’t say, and what He meant and didn’t mean. This brings us to the next matter in our text.  
II. Jesus is answering the questions people are asking.

In addition to this being my tenth anniversary as your pastor, this year has also marked the twentieth anniversary of my ministry. On October 1, 1995, my home church “licensed” me to the Gospel ministry. Over the last two decades, I have received a lot of advice that has helped me along. I have forgotten who said it, but I will never forget the words spoken to me early on in my ministry. Someone said, “Don’t spend your life answering questions no one is asking.” It is easy to do that – to become experts in things that do not matter! Though Jesus didn’t answer directly every question that was ever asked of Him, He did answer the ones that matter the most. He did that here, and the answers He gave are still relevant to the world today.

First, let’s look at how Jesus answered the questions about His disciples. Do you see it in the text? No, you do not, because He didn’t answer that question. Rather than discussing His disciples, Jesus kept the focus where it belonged: on Himself. Eight times in His response we find the words “I” and “Me.” In the Garden when they came for His arrest, He asked the militia twice whom they were seeking, and both times they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” After the second time, He said, “If you seek Me, let these go their way” (v8). He is the One with whom the world has to deal. It is not that He doesn’t care about His disciples. He cares about a very precious few things more than His people. Rather, it is that He cares too much for the souls of those who are asking questions to let them be distracted by their trifling curiosities about the whereabouts and goings-on of His followers. Do you want to ask Him about the sins, the secrets, or the schemes of His followers? That seems to be what Annas wanted to know about. But Jesus did not satisfy Him with an answer, and He will not entertain that question of the world today. He will simply point to His cross where He died for the sins that His followers have committed, and declare that the only hope for the world is found in that same cross. Every person has enough sins of their own to be concerned about, so there is no need to obsess about the failings of others. He will not engage the dialogue. He will simply say that the sins of these have been covered in His blood. What about yours?

When it comes to the questions about His teachings, He has much more to say. And these answers are still valid today. Annas undoubtedly wanted to get down to the bottom of some of some of the things that Jesus had said publicly, and wanted to see if there were any “secret teachings” that He’d been giving to His followers. Jesus’ response to Him is direct and to the point. He says, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret.” He didn’t mean that He never spoke to His disciples when they were alone. He just meant that what He said to them in private was no different than what He spoke in public. As Carson says, “His private discourses further unpacked what He said in public, or extrapolated His message a little farther according to His perception of His followers’ willingness or capacity to understand and obey.”[6] But what He said privately never contradicted what He had said publicly.

A few decades ago, when the Southern Baptist seminaries were overrun with theological liberalism, most Southern Baptist church members were unaware of the problem. Professors would spout heretical ideologies in the classrooms, infecting a rising generation of church leaders with all sorts of strange doctrines. But when they went to preach in Southern Baptist churches, they would couch their words carefully, being sure to not say anything that would sound off-base to the Bible-believing members of those churches whose contributions paid their salaries. It came to be known as “doublespeak.”

Jesus was saying to Annas that He was no “doublespeaker.” He did not espouse one set of doctrines in the private classroom with His disciples and another before the public audience of the temple and synagogue. He says, “If you want to know what I taught, ask those who heard Me.” And there were thousands of them!

There are two important components of Jesus’ response to the questions about His teaching. First is the transparency of His message. He says that the words are out there for one to hear and weigh for himself or herself. When people ask questions about the teachings of Jesus, many of them have never read one word of the Gospels. Others have read the Words of Jesus through distorted lenses. Our response to them is the same as Jesus’ response to Annas. The message is there. Read it! Read it without bias, read it with an open mind and open heart, read it with an eye for the weighty implications that it bears on every human soul. There isn’t a “Volume 2” to the Word of God that only the privileged initiates are given. Our beliefs about Jesus are rooted in the words that He said and the words that are said about Him in the Bible. This book is not written in hieroglyphics. It’s been translated into every major language in the world. It’s readily available. Read it. Don’t read into it, just read IT, and given open-minded consideration to what Jesus has said.

Second, Jesus’ response deals with the abundance of witnesses. He says essentially here, “There are thousands of people who heard what I said; go ask them.” Witnesses were very important in that legal system. Jesus is saying here, “If you need two or three witnesses to implicate Me of some crime, they aren’t hard to find.” And friends, the same is true today. We can point to two kinds of witnesses to the teachings of Jesus. First are the eye-witnesses. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Peter was an eye-witness, and Mark has recorded his accounts. Luke was not an eyewitness, but he says in the opening verses of his gospel that he has interacted with eyewitnesses and investigated everything carefully. So the Gospel records provide us with eyewitness testimony to what Jesus said and what Jesus did. If you have a question about Jesus, you can ask the eyewitnesses by reading the Gospel accounts. But we also have a second kind of witness: the experiential witness. Who are they? Many of them are in this room. Multitudes have lived over the last 2,000 years. These are people who had profoundly personal encounters with Jesus Christ and He changed their lives. He didn’t just “improve” or “affect” their lives; He radically transformed them into new people. Ask them about Jesus. They aren’t hard to find. If you are here today and you have questions about Jesus, don’t leave here without asking someone else – ideally several others – “what has Jesus done for you, and how have His words impacted your life?”

The point here is that Jesus is still answering questions that people are asking, and He is answering them in the same way. He is pointing them to Himself, not the failures and follies of His followers. He points them to the cross where He died for sin, not the sins for which He died. He points them to His word, which is transparent and readily available. And He points them to the witnesses who testify of who He is, what He has said, and what He has done. But once Jesus has answered the questions, a response has to be made. And that brings us to the final issue.

III. There are only two responses one can make to Jesus.

Every married couple has had this discussion at some point. “What do you want to do for dinner tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Whatever you want to do.” And on and on it goes until someone gets hungry enough to make a decision. There are nearly unlimited options available, and ultimately it does not really matter what decision is made, but both parties are just trying to avoid having the make the decision. And some people foolishly approach matters of religion and spirituality with the same sort of nonchalance. “What do you want to believe? Oh, I don’t know, what do you want to believe? It doesn’t matter anyway.” Friends, it matters tremendously! There is nothing else in the universe that matters as much as this! To be wrong on this is to be destructively and eternally wrong in such a way that it will not matter at all what else you were right about in life! A decision has to be made, and there are only two possible decisions we can make in response to Jesus and His answers to our questions.

The first is the one we see in the text. I would call it irrational rejection. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying all rejection is irrational. I might think that, but I’m not saying that. I think some rejection is premature, some of it is uninformed, but a lot of it is irrational. Look at verse 22. After Jesus had spoken in response to Annas’ questions, some guy, who is so insignificant that his name doesn’t even get mentioned, comes up and smacked Jesus across His face. The Bible says that he “struck Jesus,” but the Greek word that is used here typically meant “an open-handed slap on the face.” He said, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” There is not a moment’s consideration of the content of His answer. Their minds are already made up, and rather than taking issue with the truth or falsehood of Jesus’ words, this guy resorts to physical violence, over what? His tone of voice? Jesus had not said anything disrespectful or inappropriate. The irrationality of this was not lost on Jesus. He said, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong.” In other words, “Tell Me the words that I said that prompted such a response.” He says, “But if [I have spoken] rightly, why do you strike Me?” In other words, if there was nothing objectionable in My response, then your reaction is uncalled for.”

This irrational rejection went further. Seeing that Jesus was not going to give Annas what he wanted, verse 24 says that sent Him to Caiaphas. He could’ve let Him go at that point, but he sent Him to Caiaphas, the current holder of the office of high priest. Annas held the power and influence. Caiaphas held the office and the title. Why did Annas send him to his son-in-law? For a fair trial? No way. Caiaphas had already declared his intent. In John 11, Caiaphas had said to the Sanhedrin, “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” And the Bible says there that “from that day on they planned together to kill Him.” Caiaphas’ mind was already made up. He knew that Jesus couldn’t be executed without Pilate’s verdict, and he had already determined to send Jesus up the ladder to Pilate and up the cross to die. Verse 14 reminds us that Caiaphas had said that, lest we forget that his rejection of Jesus was irrational.

Today, people still reject Jesus irrationally. He doesn’t give them what they want. He doesn’t say what they want to hear. He calls them to repent of their sin and die to themselves and to leave all behind to follow Him. There is nothing the world wants to do less than that. So sometimes violently, often vehemently, and more often irrationally, people decide to reject Jesus.

But there is another option – only one other option. Rather than deciding to reject Jesus, you can decide to follow Him. You can turn to Him as Lord and Savior and recognize that it was for your sins that He died, so that you can be forgiven and reconciled to God. He bore your penalty in His death as your substitute so that you can have everlasting life with Him instead of everlasting torment away from Him. Caiaphas had spoken, ironically, far better than he knew. It really is expedient for this man to die so that you will not perish. The Bible says that God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son – He gave Him to die! – that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.

The account of Jesus’ trials is filled with ironies. The greatest of them is this: here we find unbelieving people setting themselves up as judges over Jesus. And that irony is still be played out. Every day, Jesus goes to trial somewhere in the world, and in those trials, unbelieving people whose minds are already made up about Him set themselves up as His judge. But the Bible says that God has “fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Ac 17:31). That Man is the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Bible says that God has appointed as Judge of the living and the dead (Ac 10:42). On that day, the tables will be turned. He will not be on trial, but every man will stand trial for himself. And Christ will be the judge. He will ask the questions and you will give an answer. And the only question that will matter on that day is “What have you done with Jesus?” Until that day comes, you have the opportunity to ask of Him whatever you wish, and hear from Him the answers that He and His witnesses have spoken about who He is, what He said, and what He did, and ultimately decide if you will reject Him or follow Him by repentance and faith as your Lord and Savior.

[1] Douglas O. Linder, “Famous Trials.” Online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/ftrials.htm. Accessed September 3, 2015.
[2]  Linder, “The Trial of Jesus: An Account.” Online at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/ jesus/jesusaccount.html. Accessed September 3, 2015. 
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 580-581.
[4] Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 614.
[5] Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 1.
[6] Carson, 584. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Put Away Your Sword (John 18:10-11)


This week, we are celebrating something of a milestone here at Immanuel. Though the actual anniversary date is not until September 11, we are prematurely commemorating the fact that you all have patiently and graciously endured my ministry here for a decade! That is far more a tribute to you all as a church, and to God’s faithfulness, than it is to me. So as far as our family is concerned, we are celebrating Him and celebrating you as we mark this milestone. This week, as you might imagine, I have been doing a lot of reminiscing, and one thing that came to mind concerned the five stones which I hold in my hand. I suppose I had not been pastor here for more than a few weeks when Tillie Rice came into my office and dropped these, one by one, down on my desk. When I gave her a puzzled look, she said, “When I was working as a nurse in Gaza, I went to the Valley of Elah, where David killed Goliath. These are five smooth stones from that valley, just like the ones the Bible says that David picked up. And I want you to have them, because if you are ever going to make it here, you are going to have to kill a lot of giants!” Well, I am happy to say that, 10 years later, I still have all five of them, I haven’t had to throw any of them, and I haven’t killed anyone. But, we have overcome a lot of obstacles together and had our share of setbacks. We have celebrated some victories, and endured some tragedies. Some of them were beyond our control, and all of them occurred under God’s providence. And if any good has been done over the last decade that someone may be tempted to attribute to me, I will simply say what Martin Luther said, looking back on all that people had attributed to him: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word. … I did nothing: the Word did it all.”

Some of Luther’s followers weren’t so sure that the Word had the power to advance the Kingdom of God during the Reformation. Inspired initially by Luther to break away from Roman Catholicism, some like Thomas Muntzer lacked the patience to see the Word of God accomplish its powerful work in Europe and decided instead to resort to force. They attacked Catholic churches, revolted against civil authorities, and caused much bloodshed, violence and death during the Peasant’s War. Their aim was to establish a Christian society, but they had employed extremely non-Christian means to establish it.

Today, the subject of religious warfare is often discussed as we see one example after another of Islamic terrorism taking place in the world. High-ranking government officials are quick to suggest that Islam is not alone in carrying out religious violence. They point to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the murder of abortion doctors by so-called Christians, and the antics of groups like the Westboro Church in order to suggest that Christians have had their share of dangerous extremists throughout history. We cannot rewrite history. We have to confess that Christians have had far too many woeful embarrassments over the last 2,000 years. However, we should also be quick to point out several truths: first, not everyone who claims to be Christian really is. The word “Christian” means “like Christ.” So if someone is conducting themselves in a manner that is unlike Christ, we can hardly say that their efforts are Christian. Second, we must say that the world has rarely ever seen a true Christian extremist. To be an extremist Christian would be to live in such a way as to radiate the glory of Christ in such a way that all would see and know Christ through the ways and words of such a one as this. To be a Christian extremist, one would have to be “extremely” like Jesus. The world has rarely seen anyone who fits that description. Third, we must say that the Bible alone sets forth the means and manner of establishing and advancing the kingdom of Christ in the world, and it is never by violence; it is always through the Spirit-empowered proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God. Jesus never called any of His followers to kill in His name, but He calls us all to be willing to die in His name. Instances of God-ordained acts of violence in the Old Testament can be cited. In response to those accounts, and to those who would indict the church and the Bible on the basis of them, time only permits us today to say that those are uniquely set in contexts of place and time, and are not set forth as examples that we should follow or commands we should obey.

That brings us to our text today. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane, and the setting is that Judas has just brought a militia out to arrest Jesus. The Lord has just identified Himself and essentially surrendered on the terms that the militia will let the disciples go. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the ever impetuous Simon Peter begins swinging a sword. Jesus immediately rebukes him and commands him to put away the sword. “Put the sword into the sheath,” He says in verse 11. There’s no “thanks,” no bonus points for courage and bravery, no “A” for “Effort;” just a stern and unmistakable rebuke. As one scholar writes, this “is a somewhat vigorous expression, and leaves no doubt but that swordplay is forbidden.”[1] Put away the sword. Apparently he did, but not without first striking off the ear of one in the arrest party. Sadly, some others throughout church history have yet to put away their swords, and like Peter, they continue to establish and advance the kingdom of Christ in the world by violent force. We would join with Jesus in saying to them what He said to Peter: “Put away your sword.” We will see two reasons why this is imperative here in the text.

I. Put away your sword, for the Kingdom of Christ is not established by our ignorant zeal.

Three specific things are said about Peter in verse 10: he had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword. Scholars tend to agree that the Greek word here translated as “sword” probably doesn’t refer to the long blade we envision when we think of swords. That is a different Greek word. This one most likely refers to something like a dagger or a long knife. Peter may have been carrying it concealed in his garments. According to Luke 22:38, the band of disciples collectively possessed two of them. A few verses later in Luke, when Judas came into the garden and betrayed the Lord with a kiss, they said to Jesus, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” But before Jesus could answer, Peter was already swinging the blade. He had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword.

It was not without effect that he used the sword. Verse 10 tells us that he cut off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. It is interesting to note that, though all four Gospels record this incident, only John gives the names of Simon Peter and Malchus. In verse 16 of this chapter, we read that John was known to the high priest, so Malchus may have been an acquaintance as well. And, Simon Peter had been dead for three decades when John wrote his Gospel, so John could identify him by name here without fear of retribution. But John adds another detail that could only be offered by an eyewitness. He notes that Peter cut off the “right ear” of Malchus. This is more than just a trivial factoid. It helps us piece together a few possible scenarios. For Peter to strike Malchus in the right ear, one of two things had to be true. Either Peter had to be left-handed, because he would have struck the opposite side of the man facing him; or else Malchus had his back turned, making Peter’s act a cowardly one. But to strike the ear at all tells us something even more significant. No one aims for the ear. He wasn’t trying to give Malchus a haircut or a close shave. He was trying to separate Malchus from his head. It was intended to be a murderous blow, but either because of his sloppy swordplay, or Malchus’ quick reflexes, he just left him wounded.

Peter had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword, but I have suggested here that he did so in ignorant zeal. It is a difficult thing to measure one’s motives, but it is somewhat easy to do here. To take up the sword and strike Malchus, presumably with the intent of killing him and then hacking and slashing his way through the entire militia, was obviously a display of zeal. That it was ignorant zeal, however, is seen in the underlying thought that must have precipitated the act. Peter was either trying to defend himself or to defend Jesus. If he was trying to defend himself, then it was ignorant zeal, for Jesus had already secured Peter’s safety by demanding that the militia let the disciples go freely (v8). Peter was risking starting a battle that could have resulted in them all being killed on the spot. If he was trying to defend Jesus, then it was ignorant zeal nonetheless, for here once again, Peter is operating contrary to the will and purpose of God. It had happened before. In Matthew 16, after Jesus began telling the disciples that He would suffer and be killed, Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” And Jesus’ response to Peter then was, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mt 16:21-23). Jesus was trying to make Peter see that His impending death was in accordance with God’s purpose for sending Him in to the world. But Peter did not understand then, and he hadn’t come to any better understanding of it by the time of our text. He was trying to prevent something God had ordained. In his ignorant zeal, he was denying the purpose for which Jesus had come, and the mission that was His to accomplish in His death.

Peter had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword, and in so doing he proved to have misunderstood nearly everything Jesus had ever said about being His follower. Peter was willing to kill for Jesus, but not to die for Him. And that is what Jesus calls each of us to do. He said that if anyone wished to come after Him, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23). There is a daily dying to self that must take place in the Christian life, as well as a willingness to hold fast by faith to Christ even in the face of the worst of this world’s threats. A North African Christian named Arnobius, writing around 300 AD, said that “We … have learned from [Jesus’] teaching … that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.”[2] The call of Christ to His followers is to take up the cross, but to put down the sword. We must be willing to die, but not to kill, because His Kingdom will not be established by ignorant zeal. The Christian motto is not that of James Bond: “Live and let die.” Rather it is, “Die and let live.”

There is room here to debate, and to agree to disagree, about issues like just warfare and pacifism under the Christian ethic. We do not deny that a nation has the responsibility to defend itself, protect national security, and ensure global safety. We do not deny that there are lawful and reasonable lengths that people can and should go to for their own self-defense and protection. Even the Apostle Paul appealed to his own rights as a Roman citizen when he was arrested (Ac 22:28). Personal and national interests are not what is in view here. We are talking about the advancement of the cause of Christ in the world, and this must always remain separated from, and elevated above, personal and national interests. Personal and national interests are often advanced by violence and ignorant zeal, but the Kingdom of Christ will never be established or advanced that way.

Peter had a sword, he drew the sword, and he used the sword. But Jesus rebuked him. He tells him here to put it back into the sheath. In Matthew 26:52, Jesus warned him that “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Interestingly, the Bible speaks of another sword that is able to prevent us from perishing when we take it up. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are divinely powerful. In Ephesians 6, he describes the full armor of God in which we are to take our stand against the devil and his schemes. Among the pieces of that armor listed, he says that we must take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The only sword that a follower of Christ is called to take up is the Bible, the Word of God, for it is the sword of the Spirit. Peter had a sword, and so do we. But our sword is more powerful than that of Peter. Peter’s sword can only draw blood and kill. Our sword can save those who fall under its power and come to faith in Jesus. Peter drew his sword, and so must we. We must speak the word of God in the world as we give testimony to the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Calvin notes that it was “exceedingly thoughtless of Peter to try to prove his faith with his sword when he could not do it with his tongue.”[3] It is easier in some cases to start a fight than to share our faith, and Peter showed that when he sliced the ear of the high priest’s servant here in the garden, but wouldn’t bend an ear with his testimony for Christ at the high priest’s home. There he denied the Lord. He had a sword and drew it. We have the sword of the Spirit, and we must draw it, always being ready to give a defense to anyone who asks us of the reason for the hope within us (1 Pet 3:15). Peter had a sword, he drew it, and he used it. But Peter used his sword in an attempt to kill. Jesus will have none of that. In Luke 22:51, the Bible says that Jesus touched the ear of Malchus and healed him. As we use the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, the Spirit of Christ can open spiritually deafened ears to hear the glorious grace of the Gospel. And that Gospel brings us to the second reason why the follower of Christ must put away the sword.

II. Put away your sword, for the Kingdom of Christ is established by His sacrificial death.

It is interesting how the four Gospels relate the response of Jesus to Peter’s swordplay here. Matthew puts the focus on Peter, as Jesus warns him that those who take up the sword will die by the sword. Mark does not record a response. Luke puts the focus on Malchus, and how Jesus touched his ear to heal him. But John, writing decades later, provides an important detail. The focus here is on Jesus. He commands Peter to put away his sword and says, “the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?”

What is this cup of which the Lord Jesus speaks? In the Old Testament, “the cup” is often used in association with the wrath of God against the sins of man. Psalm 11:6 says “Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.” Again in Psalm 75:8, the Psalmist Asaph writes of this cup, “For a cup is in the hand of the Lord, … Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.” Isaiah 51:17 refers to it as “the cup of His anger.” In Jeremiah 25:15, the Lord speaks of a “cup of the wine of wrath.” Ezekiel 23:33 calls it “the cup of horror and desolation.” It is the cup of judgment that God has filled with His holy wrath against all of mankind’s sin.

This is the cup that Jesus says that the Father has given Him to drink. Is it any wonder, then, that when the Lord Jesus prayed in the garden just before His arrest, He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will. … [I]f this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Mt 26:39, 42). Is it any wonder that He had said to His disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Mt 20:22). The cup had been given to Him by His Father, and it was the Father’s will that He drink it. Isaiah 53 says of the Messiah, “He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief, if He would render Himself as a guilt offering.”

In drinking this cup, Jesus was taking upon Himself all of the sin that we have committed and all of the wrath that we deserve. The divine judgment that is due to us was transferred to the sinless and righteous One who suffered and died in our place. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He drank the cup to the dregs on our behalf so that we might be saved. This is His saving grace: that He would take what we deserve, so that He might give us what we do not deserve – eternal life and the righteousness of Christ which is ours by faith. Human nature will always resist resting in saving grace. Peter could not bear the thought of Christ dying in his place, so he drew his sword to fight. So there are many who cannot bear the glorious weight of the Gospel, so they fight against the plan and purpose of God and try to earn eternal life with their own fighting merits. But this will never avail. Our only hope, and the hope of the whole world, is found in Jesus drinking the cup of wrath that we deserve on our behalf.

And this is how His Kingdom is established in the world: not by taking a life, but by laying one down. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, that the sheep might be rescued from the eternal peril of judgment and wrath. As He comes to reign as Lord and King over His people one by one, His Kingdom advances in the world. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 4:6).

There are two cups mentioned in Scripture that come to mind as we conclude. There is the cup of wrath, and the cup of salvation. The Psalmist said in Psalm 116:13, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I shall lift the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.” Every single one of us, and every human being who has ever lived, is going to lift one or the other of those cups: the cup of wrath or the cup of salvation. Jesus drank the cup of wrath so that we would not have to. He drank from that cup so that we could drink from the cup of salvation. But if we refuse it, then the only other alternative is to stand before Him in judgment on the last day and drink “of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed full strength in the cup of His anger,” as it stands written in Revelation 14:10. If you have never come to know Christ as your Lord and Savior, He is offering you the cup of salvation today, inviting you to come to Him and be saved – to have your sins forgiven, and be granted His righteousness in exchange. He made it possible for you when He died in your place, because He took the cup of wrath on your behalf.

If you are a Christian, you must realize that Christ’s Kingdom is only going to advance in the world as we take up the sword of the Spirit – the Word of God – and proclaim Christ and Him crucified for the redemption of sinners. This is our only sword. We have it, we must draw it, and we must use it, even as we put down all other swords. We must take up the cross and allow Jesus to fill us with a  wise and holy zeal, for He will not advance His Kingdom through ignorant zeal and weapons of the flesh. He established it by His sacrificial death, and this is the Gospel, the good news. We must proclaim the news that Jesus has drank the cup of wrath so that all who come to Him by faith can drink the cup of salvation.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 745-746.
[2] Arnobius, Against the Heathen, 1.6. Online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf06.xii.iii.i.vi.html. Accessed August 27, 2015.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 409.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Insurmountable Authority of Jesus (John 18:1-9)

Every now and then, we hear in the media that some newly discovered, long forgotten “gospel” has been recovered containing scintillating information about Jesus that will change the way we look at Him. These books were not “lost” or “forgotten.” They were rejected by the early church almost immediately as they began to circulate for a variety of reasons. Some were known to be forgeries; that is, it was known beyond any shadow of doubt that they were not written by the individuals whose names they bore. Some were rejected because their content contradicted the Scriptural writings that the early church knew to be authentic documents written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But in every case, these so-called gospels were also rejected because they were not Gospels at all. The word “Gospel” means “good news,” and the good news of the Christian faith is that Jesus came into the world to die and rise again to rescue sinners and reconcile them to God. This is the central message of the Christian faith. Without the climax of Jesus work of redemption upon the cross, a writing is not a “Gospel” because it has no good news for us. We have four authentic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And in each of them, the writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, move relentlessly through their narratives toward the account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each of them climax on the final week of Jesus’ earthly life – His “Passion” week.
The word “passion” is well known to us, but most of us associate it with a meaning that is far removed from this sense. We associate it with “desire,” “longing,” or even “lust.” The sense in which it is used of Jesus has to do with suffering. When we speak of His passion, we speak of all that took place from His betrayal and arrest to His death on the cross.

With our text today we have come to John’s account of the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. His treatment of the “Passion Week” began back in Chapter 12. That means that roughly half of John’s Gospel is concerned with the final seven days of His earthly life, leading some to describe the Gospel According to John as a “passion story with an extended introduction.”[1] Writing his Gospel decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written, John assumes that his readers are familiar with some of the details of the narrative. Therefore, he omits details such as the name of the garden where Jesus was arrested, that Jesus labored there in prayer, or that Judas betrayed Him with a kiss. But John also provides us with information that the other Gospel writers omitted. Therefore what we have in the four Gospels are not contradictory accounts, but complementary ones, giving us a full picture of the incidents that took place. Each one has its own unique emphasis. John’s singular aim in his treatment of the suffering and death of Jesus seems to be to stress that Jesus was not taken by surprise by any of the events that transpired. Throughout it all, Jesus is shown to be in control of the situation.

It is a mistake to view the events surrounding Jesus’ death as a tragic accident. To hear some describe it, it is as though everything suddenly went haywire and Jesus fooled around and got Himself killed. No, quite to the contrary, everything took place exactly as the Father had planned it, and Jesus was a willing participant, not a martyr or an accidental victim. In John 10, Jesus foretold what was to happen, and He said there, “No one has taken [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” And beginning here with the scene of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, John shows us that Jesus is the one in charge of the situation. His authority over everything that transpires is insurmountable, and it is demonstrated here in three specific ways.

I. Jesus’ insurmountable authority is seen in His perfect knowledge (v4).

It was game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and my Boston Red Sox were down 3-0 to the Yankees in the series, on the verge of yet another heartbreaking end to a promising season. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Sox were losing 4-3. We had a runner on second base that could tie the game. Everyone in the stands was on the edge of their seats. But not me. I was relaxed, calm, and at ease. I knew he was going to score that run and send it into extra innings. And he did. And the game went on to the bottom of the twelfth inning, still tied. With a runner on base, David Ortiz came to the plate and there was a nervous anxiety in the heart of every Red Sox fan. But not me. I was cool, calm, and collected, because I knew that Ortiz was getting ready to launch a walk-off home run to stay alive, and I even knew that the Sox would go on to win the next three games, and then to win the World Series. I knew that because I was watching that game from 2004 just a couple of months ago on my computer. But back in 2004, when I was watching it live, I was not so calm about it. It makes a difference when you know what is getting ready to happen.

We have a saying that says “hindsight is always 20/20.” That’s how I watched that baseball game not long ago. But none of us have 20/20 foresight. There isn’t a one of us who knows with absolute certainty what the next year, the next month, the next week, day, or even minute will hold for us. Jesus did. As the divine Son of God, omniscience was inherent to His nature. He knows everything with perfect knowledge at all times. And the Bible says here in verse 4 that He knew “all the things that were coming upon Him.” He knew He was being betrayed, He knew He would be arrested and tried, He would He would be convicted, sentenced, and executed. He had foretold it on many occasions. Matthew 16:21 says that Jesus began to show His disciples that “He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.” He told them this repeatedly. At the supper in the upper room, He had announced that He was being betrayed and even identified Judas as the betrayer. He knew everything that was going to take place.

Now, what is interesting about that is what Jesus does with that knowledge. Maybe you have imagined at times, if you could go back and do something in your life over again, knowing what you know now, you may have done things differently. Jesus doesn’t live with those kinds of thoughts. He didn’t know any less then than He knows now, and He wouldn’t have changed a thing about how He acted in the situation. The Bible says here that Jesus, after He had spoken these words – the words of the farewell discourse and the High Priestly Prayer that are recorded in John 14-17 – went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron, where there was a garden in which He entered with His disciples. The other Gospel writers tell us that this garden was called Gethsemane, a word meaning “olive press,” because the area was filled with olive trees. John tells us that Jesus had often met there with His disciples.

There on the banks of the Mount of Olives there were a number of private gardens of wealthy Jerusalem families, walled off and separated from one another. It is possible that one of these families had given Jesus permission to use the place regularly. During Passover week, the expectation was that the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem would stay in the city until the festival had ended. Because of the number of pilgrims who came, the “city limits” (if you will) had to be enlarged and would have included this hillside. Luke 21:37 tells us that during Passover week, Jesus spent the night every night here on the Mount of Olives. Judas had been there, and he knew that Jesus would go there on that night. Verse 2 tells us that.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Remember, verse 4 says that Jesus knew all things. He knew that He was being betrayed. He knew that they would come for His arrest. He knew that Judas knew the garden and would bring them there. So what would you have done? I would have gone somewhere else! What a plot twist that would have been! Judas brings the arrest squad to the garden and, what do you know, Jesus isn’t there! That’s what I would have done, but it is not what Jesus did. He went to the garden anyway. Nothing that took place on that night took Him by surprise, and nothing occurred that was outside of His knowledge or the Father’s purpose for Him. So, willingly and knowingly, He went to the garden where He knew the betrayer would bring the mob to arrest Him. Jesus was in complete control of the situation, and never once was it out of His control. His authority is insurmountable, and He shows us that by His perfect knowledge here.

II. Jesus’ insurmountable authority is seen in His powerful word (vv3-6).

For three years, Judas Iscariot spent nearly every waking moment in the company of Jesus. In that time, He saw the Lord do amazing things to demonstrate His power. But he never once saw Him act in a violent way. There was the cleansing of the temple incident, which may have occurred twice, depending on how one arranges the events of the four Gospels chronologically, but even in that event, Jesus did not do harm to anyone. So one has to wonder what Judas was expecting when he brought the arrest squad into the garden that night.

Verse three says that he brought a cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees. The “officers” were members of the Jewish Temple police force who were responsible for maintaining peace in and around the Temple Mount. We don’t know how many of these there were, but they did not come alone. There was also a cohort, a Roman military detachment. The word “cohort” here translates a Greek word which refers to a unit of a thousand Roman soldiers. In practice, these cohorts sometimes consisted of no more than 600 soldiers, and at times the word can refer to a “maniple,” or a unit of 200 soldiers. Even if we assume that the word here refers to the smallest of these detachments, we are talking about hundreds of Roman soldiers in addition to the Temple police.  

Judas brought numbers out against Jesus, but we need to see also that they were armed to the teeth. They had lanterns and torches and weapons, according to verse 3. The lanterns and torches would not have been necessary, for the full moon that would have been in the sky during Passover would have provided plenty of light. They must have expected Jesus to run and hide in the shadows. We don’t know what kind of weapons they brought, but it wouldn’t matter. Several hundred trained fighting men armed with any kind of weaponry at all would have been an imposing force. Considering this sizeable armed militia, William Barclay observes profoundly, “What an expedition to send out against an unarmed Galilean carpenter! … What a compliment to the power of Jesus! When the authorities decided to arrest him, they sent what was almost an army to do it.”[2] But, as they were about to find out, it wasn’t enough.

Thinking they would have to beat the bushes to drive Jesus out into the open, they must have been alarmed when He went forth and confronted them (v4). He made it easy for them. John doesn’t record Judas’s kiss, but it likely took place when Jesus came forth in verse 4. Jesus asked them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered, “Jesus the Nazarene.” Undoubtedly it was spoken with a serrated edge. Remember that it was often said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

Now here is where we have to know how to handle our Bibles. You don’t have to know Greek to study the New Testament, but you need to know your English Bibles handle the Greek New Testament. Usually it is explained in that front matter of your Bible that everyone always skips over. For example, on page vii of my copy of the New American Standard, the editors have explained, “Italics are used in the text to indicate words which are not found in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek but implied by it.” We have an instance of this in most English versions in verse 5. When they say they are seeking Jesus the Nazarene, Jesus responds by saying, “I am,” and then in italics we have the word “He,” so it reads “I am He.” “He” has been inserted so that the sentence is grammatically correct in English. But, theologically, the word “He” is not implied or required, and in fact gets in the way of what is going on here. Jesus said, in Greek, “Ego eimi,” or “I am.” Does that sound familiar? When Moses asked God at the burning bush what His name was, He said, “I am.” Seven times previously in John, Jesus has taken up this title for Himself, saying, “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” and so on. Here, He simply sets for the divine name as His own: “I am.”

Notice what happened when Jesus spoke these two words: verse 6 says that they drew back and fell to the ground. There are some scholars who suggest that what happened here was that the militia was frightened when Jesus came out of the shadows suddenly, and shocked by the candid admission of His identity. Their surprise caused the front line of soldiers to lose their footing on the hillside and fall backward, sending the rest of them tumbling down like dominos. So, we are supposed to believe that they sent the Keystone Cops out to arrest Jesus and a madcap misadventure broke out. No way! These were elite, trained fighting men. So, why were they literally knocked to the ground? It was the power of Jesus’ word as He revealed His true identity and nature to them. He is the Great I AM, and the power of His word could not be overcome by armies or weapons.

There are two surprises that take place here as the militia falls to the ground. First is what Jesus did – or rather, what He did not do. I think if it had been me, I might have said, “OK, boys, they’re on the ground, let’s make a break for it!” But Jesus didn’t do that. He stood by and waited for them to regain their composure, and He asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” He was not going to try to escape or avoid the purpose for which He had come into the world. The second surprise is what the soldiers did. After picking themselves up from the dirt, when Jesus asked them the second time, “Whom do you seek?”, I don’t know about you, but if I’d been in charge of that group I might have said, “Uh, maybe we’ve got the wrong guy. Did we say Jesus the Nazarene? We meant to say the Nieces of Jazzercise. That’s not you, so we’ll be moving along. Have a good night.” But here is the alarming thing: they persisted in seeking to seize Him! They said once again, “Jesus the Nazarene.” So persistent is the rebellious unbelief and hatred of God in some people that, even after seeing a grand display of His power and nature, they will remain hell-bent on destroying Him. This is a hatred for Christ that has united the Pharisees, the chief priests, and the Romans: three parties that at any other time would mutually despise one another. But their relentless hatred of Jesus compels them to come together and to persist in spite of what they have just seen and experienced.

The power of the Word of God cannot be underestimated and it cannot be overpowered by anyone or anything, even relentless and persistent unbelief and hatred. Remember that it was by the power of His Word that the world and everything in it was created, it is by the power of His Word that souls are saved and lives are changed, and it will be by the power of His Word that the world and everything in it will be judged on the last day. The book of Revelation points us forward to a day when Jesus shall return, and from His mouth will come a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron (Rev 19:15, 21). Here we see a foreshadowing of that day, as Jesus speaks, and the sharp sword of His divine word overpowers the multitude that had come out armed against Him. On the last day, the scene will be much more severe and intense. His insurmountable authority is evident as we behold the power of His word.

III. Jesus’ insurmountable authority is seen in His sacrificial love (vv7-9).

Have you ever noticed how many books and movies depict someone laying down their life to rescue someone else? Why do you think that is? My theory is that every human being is hard-wired to long to hear the story of sacrificial love. Great stories are only great when they echo the greatest story every told. And the greatest story ever told is the story of Jesus laying down His life to rescue us from sin. He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). He also said, “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” And here in the Garden, we see Him doing just that.

Why is that Jesus asked the mob twice whom they were seeking? We can’t know for sure. Certainly the second question gave them an opportunity to reconsider. But it also provided an opportunity for clarity. “Whom do you seek?” Twice it was asked and twice it was answered: “Jesus the Nazarene.” He is making it clear that their business is with Him, not with His disciples. He is putting Himself in between the violent mob and His beloved sheep in a demonstration of His sacrificial love for them. He says, “I told you that I am He (or literally, “that I am”); so if you seek Me, let these go their way.” Jesus gives Himself up willingly, and He gave Himself up to rescue and preserve His followers. This is the reason He came into the world. This act is a symbol, a foreshadowing (if you will), of what He will do on the next day when He becomes the substitute for us all on the cross.

John says that Jesus said this “to fulfill the word which He spoke, ‘Of those whom You have given Me I lost not one.’” Each one of Jesus’ followers have been given to Him as a gift of love from the Father. He cherishes each one is determined to preserve them to the end. He said in John 6, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37-40). We rightly understand this faithful preservation of His own as a spiritual protection, not a physical one. We do not look to this and similar promises to find assurance that He will always protect us from harm and danger. Rather, we find comfort in these words because they instill in us the assurance that He will keep all those who belong to Him to the end. We are not keeping ourselves in His love, thank God, but He is holding onto us with a grip of grace that is greater than any of our sins or momentary lapses of faith. Yet, here, the promise seems to be applied to a physical protection, not a spiritual one. Well, we must not think that the two are unrelated. At this stage in their spiritual journey, with a fledgling faith in Jesus but without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit that they would come to possess at Pentecost, Jesus knew that the physical dangers of this moment could shake these men to the core of their faith and cause them to fall away. So His physical protection of them was for the purpose of their ultimate spiritual preservation.

You have heard me say often that there is only a half-truth in the familiar cliché, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” The truth is that we can’t handle much, and most of us are regularly going through far more than we can handle. The full truth of the matter is that God will not give us more than He can handle, and He has promised to handle those matters as we rest in Him, so that our faith will not be shaken, and we will endure and persevere because He is faithfully preserving us in His love. He has stood between us and the ultimate and eternal danger of the outpouring of God’s wrath, and weathered that furious storm on the cross for us. He endured the cross for the joy of reconciling us to God, and having done so, He will not allow the difficult circumstances our frail bodies face in this fallen world to sever us from Him. He who knows all and can do all, who has power in His word to speak and overpower any adversity, and who has saved us by His sacrificial love, could certainly deliver us from any circumstance we face. If He doesn’t, it is not because He is not good or does not love us. He has not let us endure any situation that will not be found in heaven to have anchored our joy and our everlasting satisfaction in Him. Whether He intervenes or whether He doesn’t, it always to the end that we will rest ourselves in Him and His sacrificial love for us.

No one has said this better than Calvin:

Christ did not keep the apostles safe to the last, but amidst endless dangers and even in the midst of death He did secure their eternal salvation. … [B]y sparing them for a time, [He] made provision for their eternal salvation. .. We see how He continually bears with our weakness when He comes forward to repel so many attacks by Satan and ungodly people, because He sees that we are not yet able or prepared for them. In short, He never brings His people into the field of battle until they have been well trained, so that even in perishing, they do not perish, because they can gain both in death and in life.[3]

That gain in death and in life has been secured for us by Jesus through His death – an act of sacrificial love as a demonstration of His insurmountable authority!

Friends, as you read the Passion narrative in Scripture – the betrayal, the arrest, the injustice of His trials, the brutality of His sufferings, and the bloody cross that He bore for us – you must understand that at every moment of it all, He was the One who had insurmountable authority of the situation. He knew all that would take place, and with a single spoken word, He could have changed any of it. But He did not, so that He might rescue us by His sacrificial love. Friends, if Jesus faced these horrors with this kind of insurmountable authority, we who are His can face our difficulties in life with the confidence that He possesses the same insurmountable authority now. He knew what He was facing, and He knows what you are facing. He could speak and change His circumstances, and He can speak and change yours. But no matter what comes our way, it is His sacrificial love that unites us to Him, and nothing can overcome or overpower His authority over us and all that we face.  

[1] Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 609.
[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Daily Study Bible, rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 2.223.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 408.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Knowing God (John 17:25-26)

In Ecclesiastes 12, Solomon wrote, “My son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” Some of us know this truth from experience. Walk into any bookstore, including any Christian bookstore, and you will find thousands of books on display, many of them having been published within the last few weeks or months. Most of the books that get published do not stand the test of time. When a book endures in popularity for decades, it becomes known as a classic.  Mark Twain once quipped that a classic is a book which people praise and don’t read. Of the books that will come out this year, few if any will endure to become classics. But one book that has stood the test of time for over four decades now is J. I. Packer’s book, Knowing God. In the opening chapter, Packer asserts that “a study of the nature and character of God … is the most practical project anyone can engage in.” He writes,

Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesmen to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction, and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.[1]

But Packer goes on to say, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of Him. … [I]nterest in theology, and knowledge about God, and the capacity to think clearly and talk well on Christian themes, is not at all the same thing as knowing Him.”[2] Is it any wonder, then, that so many find themselves (in Packer’s words) stumbling and blundering about in a world that seems strange, mad, painful?

Nearly five centuries ago, John Calvin wrote in the opening words of his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion,

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. … Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self. … [I]t is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize Himself.[3]

Again, it is no wonder that in recent months, we have seen headline stories about people who are confused about their own identity. If Calvin is right (and I am persuaded that he is), it stems from a lack of the knowledge of God. Nothing is more important than this.

Jesus addresses these words to His “righteous Father.” This is the only time in the entire Bible that God the Father is addressed by this title, but throughout Scripture, righteousness is one of the most frequently mentioned attributes of God. In Deuteronomy 32:4, the song of Moses proclaims, “His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” The Psalmist says that “the righteous God tries the hearts and minds” (Psa 7:9). Isaiah said that “the Lord of hosts will be exalted in judgment, and the holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness” (Isa 5:16). Righteousness permeates all that He is and does. His judgments are righteous (Psa 19:9; Rom 2:5); His deeds are righteous (Psa 103:6); His ordinances are righteous (119:62); and His Word is righteous (119:123).[4] But He is also a loving Father, as Jesus address to Him here indicates. He is the righteous Father. And Jesus knows Him to be such, but not everyone does.

We cannot overstate how important it is for us to truly know this righteous Father. It is not just that our temporal existence hinges on a right knowledge of God, though that is true. Moreover, our eternal existence hinges on this knowledge of God as well. After all, Jesus said in the third verse of John 17, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” In the closing verses of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, He speaks to the Father about this knowledge: who has it, who doesn’t, and what difference it makes to those who do.

I. The world does not know God.

Jesus could not have said it any plainer: “the world has not known You.” Nearly 70 times in John’s Gospel the word “world” occurs, and as is the case in our usage of the word, it can have a variety of meanings. It can refer to the planet on which we live, as in Chapter 1, when it is said of Jesus that He was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. It can also refer to the entire human race, as it does in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” But very commonly in John’s Gospel (particularly in this Farewell Discourse that began in Chapter 14), “the world” refers to a specific subset of the human race. It refers to those who are in active rebellion to God’s will and word. The world, in this sense, is hostile toward God. Jesus said that the world hated Him and His followers (15:18-19), and that ultimately the world cannot receive the things of God (14:17, 22). Jesus referred to the devil as “the ruler of the world” (14:30), and in this usage, He is speaking of this group of people who defy God and live under the control of Satan. They are described by Paul in Ephesians 2 as those who live according to the prince of the power of the air, in the lusts of their flesh and desires of their minds. And the reason for all of this is here spelled out clearly: they do not know God.

Paul writes often of the world’s ignorance of God in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians. He says that the world did not come to know God through its wisdom (1:21). Because the world’s wisdom did not lead them to a knowledge of God, God has made the wisdom of this world to be foolishness, and has shamed and nullified the world in its wisdom (1:20, 27-29; 3:19). The message of the cross of Jesus Christ, and the followers of Christ are considered foolish to the world because of their ignorance of God.

Romans 1 makes it clear that the world is without excuse in its ignorance of God. There Paul says that what can be known about God has been made evident through creation and the human conscience. There is enough true revelation within us and around us to convince anyone of “His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and divine nature” (Rom 1:21). But Paul says there that they have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. It was their insatiable desire for sin and their inherent disposition for rebellion that caused the world to reject the knowledge of God that is apparent to all in what He has created. And so Paul says, “Even though they knew God (or as we might better say, “knew about God,” or “knew of God”), they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” As a result, the Bible says that God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts, to their degrading passions, and to their depraved minds.” This unbridled depravity and degradation is marked by a whole list of behaviors spelled out in Romans 1, including idolatry, homosexuality, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, and slander. It includes not only the doing of these things, but also giving hearty approval to those who practice them. All of this is tantamount to hatred of God that stems from their lack of knowledge of Him (see Romans 1:18-32).

This explains almost everything we see in the daily news. Why does the world carry on as it does? Why is good considered evil and evil good in our day? Why are Christian values ridiculed and godless values celebrated? It is because the world in all of its so-called wisdom does not know God. Proverbs 1:7 says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Because there is no fear of the Lord – no reverence for Him as the righteous Judge, or the loving Father – the world has embraced foolishness in the name of wisdom and turned away from true knowledge, which begins with a knowledge of God and a right reverential fear of Him. But the world does not know Him, as Jesus said.

Now secondly, notice that it is written that …

II. Jesus Christ knows God

Jesus said, “the world has not known You, yet I have known You.” Now it may seem that this goes without saying, particularly here among believers in Christ. After all, we confess that Jesus actually is God – the second Person of the Triune Godhead Who, for us and for our salvation, became man in His incarnation. He made that claim repeatedly about Himself. Yet, repeatedly Jesus states that He knows God the Father. In addition to this statement in 17:25, we find in John 7:29 that He said, “I know Him, because I am from Him, and He sent Me.” In 8:55, He says, “I do know Him, and keep His word.” In 10:15 He says, “the Father knows Me and I know the Father.” He has complete, total, and perfect knowledge of God.

No matter how well someone else knows you, no other human being knows you better than you know yourself. And no one knows God like God. John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Of course, the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father is God the Son, the Lord Jesus. He is the One whom John says existed in the beginning with God, and was God (Jn 1:1). When Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us,” Jesus said, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:8). Hebrews 1:3 says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature. So it should go without saying that He knows Him.

What Jesus seems to be saying here, however, is more than just that He knows the Father. He seems to be saying that He alone knows the Father. As Rainsford writes, “On this wide earth there was not one solitary being but Himself who knew that Father. When God looked down upon the world He had made, there was not one heart beating in sympathy with His own, but the heart of that beloved Son who was addressing Him.”[5] He alone knows God, and He knows Him to be the righteous Father. That knowledge will sustain Him through the following day as He goes to the cross. Because God is His Father, He knows that nothing will befall Him that has not according to the Father’s loving plan for Him. Because God is righteous, all that He does is perfect and just. As Jesus faces a death that He does not deserve for our sins, His knowledge of God as the righteous Father will enable Him to endure the cross. He knows that His death will be a demonstration of God’s righteousness “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). In His righteousness, He is just to punish the sins of humanity. In His fatherly love, He is the justifier of those who believe in Jesus – that is, He is the One who removes our sin and declares us righteous on the basis of our faith in Jesus – by allowing our sins to be punished in the Person of the Son.

So it is essential for us to understand that, in a way that no other person can claim with integrity, the Lord Jesus is able to say that He knows the Father. And because He knows the Father, He is able to impart that knowledge of the Father to others who are yet in the world – the world that does not know God – in order to redeem them from the world, that they may come to know God as their own righteous Father. And this is exactly what He came to do. That brings us to the third point here …

III. Jesus makes God known to those who have faith in Him.

It is a truth that man can know nothing about God unless God makes it known. It’s called “revelation.” God has revealed truths to mankind about Himself in creation, including within us, and by His Word. But as the writer of Hebrews says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb 1:1). Jesus came into the world to make God known. But, many refused the revelation that God was giving to the world through His Son. John 1:11-12 says, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Those who believe upon the name of Jesus come to know God, and become adopted as His children.

Jesus says here concerning His disciples, “these have known that You sent Me.” At times, they seemed to not know much, but from their very first encounter with Jesus, they knew this: that He had been sent by the Father into the world. This is where it all begins for each of us. Content to be “of the world,” we are suddenly made aware that there is something unique about Jesus and His claims. It is the Holy Spirit who brings this awareness upon our hearts. We begin to think seriously about Him and consider who He is and what He has said to be of significant importance. After all, if He is not who He said He is, then no one should even still be talking about Him. He is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord, and the first two of those options seem too ridiculous to consider. We come to know that He is One who came to speak for God in the world, and as we meditate upon what He has said, we come to know that is much more than a prophet. He is the One who came to unite us to God through His saving work upon the cross.

As we come to know Jesus in this way, we begin to grow in our knowledge of God. Our knowledge of God is rooted in the revelation that Jesus Christ has made known to us. Jesus said, “I have made Your name known to them.” To make God’s name known means more than just His title or what He is to be called. It is to make His nature and character known. In His incarnation, His teaching, and His works, we see the nature and character of God the righteous Father on display. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. If you want to know what God has said, listen to Jesus.

And Jesus says, not only that He has made the Father’s nature and character known, but that He will make it known, implying that the revelatory work is not yet finished. There was more to be revealed. But how can this be so, when He has already declared that He knows His earthly life will end on the following day? Certainly, He means that on the coming day, when He goes to the cross, He will be continuing to make known the nature and character of the righteous Father. The cross is the ultimate display of the nature of God. There are some theologians – those who may know a lot about God, but do not know God – who say that what we see of His character and nature in the cross is not a pretty picture. They see in the cross a bloodthirsty God who murders His own Son in an act that some have described as “cosmic child abuse.”[6] As Paul said, “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For those of us who have come to believe in Jesus, and to know God through Him, we see in the cross a perfect picture of the attributes of God the righteous Father. In the cross, we see His love, His mercy and grace, His holiness and justice, His wrath toward sin and His forbearance with man all displayed in one moment. The cross, like nothing else, shows us that God is the righteous Father.

Jesus continues to make God the Father known to us by the indwelling of His Spirit, who lives within all those who come to faith in Him. The Spirit illuminates our understanding of the written revelation of God in the Bible. As we read Scripture, the Spirit becomes our teacher, showing us on every page that this is the God whom we have come to know, the God who has saved us and adopted us as His children. How is it that we can know God? By coming to faith in the One whom He has sent, the One who has made His name known to us, and continues to do so by Spirit through His Word. By His Word, by His Spirit, in the message of the cross, proclaimed by His church, Jesus continues to make the righteous Father known until that day prophesied in Jeremiah 31:34 when no man will say to another, “Know the Lord,” for in that day, the Lord says, “they will all know Me.”

The knowledge of God is not like the knowledge of history or some other academic subject. In this life, with our finite understanding, we will not become “masters” of the subject. You can go to seminary and get a degree called a “Master of Divinity,” but you have not mastered the Divine. All of life is a process of growing in grace and in the knowledge of Him (2 Pet 3:18). And as we grow in our knowledge of God, we grow also in our understanding and experience of what it means to be loved by Him. Jesus said that He makes the Father’s name known to us “so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them.” Just as a child grows to experience throughout his or her life the full magnitude of what it means to be loved by earthly parents, so the adopted children of God come to experience in increasing ways the blessing of living in the Father’s love. We come to know that we are loved with the same love that God has for His only begotten Son. That love surrounds and secures us through all of life’s circumstances, be they pleasant or unpleasant. Moreover, as we grow in our comprehension of that love, we begin to display that love for others. We come to love one another with the very love of God that has been given to us. We find the answer to the prayer found in Ephesians 3 taking shape in our lives as we grow in this love. That prayer is that we may be rooted and grounded in love, and be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge (3:17-18).

But it is not just that the love of God is found in us, but also that Christ Himself is within us. He says that He has made the Father known to us “so that … I [may be] in them.” He has given His Spirit to indwell and live within all who believe upon Him by faith, so that we can truly say that Christ Himself is in us. As we grow in the knowledge of God, we come to understand more and more what an infinite and immeasurable blessing this is. He truly is Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14). He is with us in good times and bad times, and we are never alone. As we grow in our understanding of this, we begin to see Christ in our brothers and sisters of the faith as well. It affects how we treat one another and how we relate to one another, and it heightens our awareness that when we are gathered together, there is a special manifestation of His presence in our midst. Where the love of God is shared between the followers of Christ, He is truly among us in a unique way.

Into a world that does not know God, Jesus has come to make Him known. Those who come to know Jesus can truly say that, through Him, they have come to know God. The assurance of this knowledge is found in His indwelling presence within and among them, and in the love of the Father that flows to them and through them. We have become, as it were, the embodiment of the presence and love of God in the world. If the world is to know Him, then we must continue the work of Jesus. Just as He knew the Father and made Him known, so these must become our priorities as well. We must continue to grow in our knowledge of Him, and we must seek to make Him known to all that we encounter. If our testimony for Him is rejected, and if we ourselves become the object of the world’s hatred in so doing, it is only evidence of the world’s ignorance of God. As Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18). It is also evidence that we are not of the world, but belong to God. Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (15:19). But, we rest assured in the love of God, and we secure one another by that love, as He empowers us and enables us to persevere in knowing Him and making Him known in the world. These five words -- Know Him, Make Him Known – describe the mission of Jesus, the mission that He has called us to carry on for Him in the world. If you do not know Him, you can today by turning from your sins and placing your faith and trust in Him as your Lord and Savior, believing that He died for your sins and rose again in victory over your sin and its penalty. If you do know Him, by the power of His indwelling Spirit, and with a heart filled with His love, endeavor to make Him known to others.

[1] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (20th Anniv. Ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993), 18-19.
[2] Ibid., 26.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.35, 37.
[4] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21 (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 301.
[5] Marcus Rainsford, Our Lord Prays For His Own (Chicago: Moody, 1950), 446-447.
[6] Giles Fraser, cited by Albert Mohler, “Is the Apostolic Preaching of the Cross Insane?” Online: www.albertmohler.com/2007/04/06/is-the-apostolic-preaching-of-the-cross-insane/ Accessed August 13, 2015.