Monday, October 20, 2014

The Law of Sending and Receiving (John 13:20)

In 1913, an Ohio couple was trying to find an affordable way to send their son to visit his grandmother. Unable to afford a train ticket, they took their son to the post office, paid 15 cents in postage and insured the child for $50, and off he went to grandma’s house. After a few more folks tried this, the Postal Service finally banned the shipping of children in 1915.[1] Today, there is a large and puzzling list of items that can and cannot be mailed through the postal service. For instance, though rifles and shotguns can be mailed, handguns cannot. Cats cannot be mailed, but scorpions, bees, chickens and baby alligators can. A coconut can be mailed, without packaging – just slap the address label and stamps on the shell and send it on its way. A banana, however, cannot be mailed. In addition to these, there are a whole host of laws about sending and receiving in the United States.

There is also a spiritual law about sending and receiving. No, I don’t mean spiritual laws about whether or not trying to mail a live cat is a sin or not. I mean a law that governs the sending and receiving of the message of Jesus Christ that is going out to the world through His divinely appointed messengers.

We can rightly call it a law – an inviolable spiritual statute, because this is how it is introduced to us here in verse 20. Jesus begins this statement with the familiar words found often in the Gospels, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The word “truly” that occurs twice there is the translation for a Hebrew word that you would all readily recognize: “Amen.” The word denotes certainty and steadfastness. When we say “Amen” at the end of a prayer, we are saying, “I agree that what has been stated in this prayer is certain!” When we say “Amen” during the preaching of a sermon, we are saying, “Yes! What has just been said is undeniably true.” But Jesus puts His “Amens” at the front of His sayings. It is as if He is saying, “What I am about to say is the undeniable, unchangeable, absolutely certain truth of Almighty God.” Saying “Amen” twice, as He so often does, only adds emphasis to the certainty of what He is saying. It is not up for vote or debate, and there is no court on earth that can overturn the ruling. This is the eternal and inviolable law of God Himself. Here, the law deals with the sending and receiving of God’s divinely inspired message delivered through His divinely appointed messengers.

What is remarkable about this expression in verse 20 is the context in which it occurs. Several weeks ago we dealt in total with the verses in this chapter pertaining to Judas Iscariot and his unspeakable act of betrayal. But you will notice that this verse follows hard on the heels of verses 18 and 19, and those verses obviously follow the ones prior to them. Jesus has just washed the feet of His disciples. As He explained this to them, He said, first to Peter, that this was illustrative of His ability to wash us clean from our sins, and the necessity and sufficiency of His cleansing. So, He said to Peter in verse 8, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” We are hopelessly separated from God in our sins apart from being washed clean by Jesus Christ. And because Peter had already committed Himself by faith to Christ as His Lord, Jesus could say to him that he was already completely clean. But He said in verse 10, “But not all of you,” are completely clean. Of course, He was speaking of Judas Iscariot. Next, Jesus explains to the entire band of Apostles that He had given them an example of how they were to serve one another – in humility and in sacrificial and selfless service. And in verse 17 He promises that those who know and do these things will be blessed. But again in verse 18, He says, “I do not speak of all of you.” Judas is cut off from this blessing because he has determined in his heart to betray the Lord Jesus and hand Him over to death.

Now at this point, one can imagine that the disciples would be very discouraged. Their entire future is perhaps being questioned in their minds. Their Lord and Master has just announced that He is going to be betrayed – something He had warned them about in the past, and even told them would lead to His death. One of their own is defecting from the group. Does this mean that the entire enterprise is now going up in smoke? Well, the Lord Jesus here encourages them with these words. In verse 18, He tells them, “I know the ones I have chosen.” And it is to these, the ones whom He has chosen, that He gives this spiritual law of sending and receiving. The betrayal and death of Jesus will not be the end of His mission. The mission is being handed over to them, and they are to speak and act on His behalf in the world.

That mission has come down to those of us who follow Jesus Christ in the world today. It is a daunting task. It is quite overwhelming when we pause to think of it. On our first trip to Nepal, as we were landing at the Delhi airport, I remember seeing Mark Riddle staring out the window of the plane and shaking his head. He said, “There’s a billion people out there who don’t know Jesus.” Indeed, there are billions worldwide; millions in the United States and in North Carolina; and thousands in our city. And it is our job to reach them. Are you overwhelmed by that? If you are, it is perfectly understandable. This is why we must understand this law of sending and receiving. In it, we find encouragement, help, and hope as we engage in the mission of Christ.

I. The Law of Sending: Every follower of Jesus has been sent as a divinely appointed messenger.

When a nation wants to establish diplomatic relations with another, it sends an ambassador to live and work there. It is the task of the ambassador to speak and act on behalf of the chief executive of his home country. When the ambassador speaks, it is as if his own king or president is speaking. He has been sent with a mission, and a message, and bears the authority of the one who sent him. And this is how Christians are to understand our place in this world. We are ambassadors who have been sent under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the message we have to deliver to the world is His message.

Here in this verse, Jesus speaks of Himself as One who was sent by His Father. He was sent on His Father’s mission, with His Father’s message. In John 5:19, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” In John 7:16, He said, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me.” When Jesus taught, what impressed the people the most is that He “taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:29). Truly, He did have authority. He had all of the authority of heaven behind Him as He spoke and acted. This is how He was sent.

But in our verse here, John 13:20, Jesus speaks of His disciples as those whom He has sent. In John 20:21, after His resurrection from the dead, He said to them, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” This is the Great Commission that has been entrusted to the Church of Jesus Christ, down through the ages and to the present day. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says it this way: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20). Notice the word “therefore.” When you see the word “therefore,” you have to ask, “What’s that there for?” Jesus tells us to go and make disciples because all authority has been given to Him. So He has sent us, just as the Father sent Him. He sends us under His authority to speak and act in His name in the world. We are divinely appointed messengers, ambassadors for heaven, here in this world.

In 2 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul picks up the language of the ambassador and says it this way: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19a). This speaks of how the Father was working through the Son as His Sent One. But then He goes on and says, “and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (5:19b). That is, Jesus Christ, through whom God was reconciling the world to Himself through the atonement for sins, has committed a message to us – “the word of reconciliation.” We have been commissioned to tell the world that God longs for them to be reconciled to Him. He is willing to forgive their sins and receive them if they will turn to the Lord Jesus, our Reconciler.  So Paul goes on, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:20-21). Our mission is to go into the world and speak to sinful people, even as we ourselves once were before we were reconciled. It is Christ’s mission continued in and through us! And what do we say to them? He has given us the heavenly message that we are to proclaim: “Be reconciled to God! He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God has taken our sins, and covered the sinless Lord Jesus in them, so that in Him our sins could receive the full penalty of divine justice and wrath that they deserve. And in exchange, God has offered to make us righteous with the perfect righteousness of Christ, as we trust in Him. This is the message of God in Christ who has commissioned us as His messengers for His mission!

So perhaps you wonder, “Who am I that I should go and tell people that they need to turn to Jesus and trust in Him? Why should I even bother with this?” Well, friends, you see, it is not about what we want to do, but about what He has called and commissioned us to do. We have been chosen for this task, and we are His ambassadors. You may say, “Well, I do not know what to say to others?” The fact is, you have nothing to say to them, apart from the message that He has sent us to proclaim. You do not have to “come up” with the right words to say, you just have to deliver the message that has been given to you by Christ Himself. The message is that God receives sinners, forgives them, and makes them righteous when they turn to Him by faith in Jesus, because Jesus bore our sins in His death on the cross, and He ever lives to save us.

It is not your mission or your message. It is the mission and message of the one who has sent you to be His ambassador. And when you are faithful to the mission and faithful to the message, you are speaking and acting with all of the authority of heaven behind you. But if you decide to go off mission, or to monkey with the message, you have lost that authority and become a renegade, a rogue ambassador, who will be called to account for your defection. In Jeremiah 23, the Lord dealt with the false prophets who altered His message for their own benefit. He said, “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds” (Jer 23:21-22). If you are faithful to the mission to which Jesus has called you as His ambassadors, and you deliver His Words faithfully to others, then you have the confidence that God is acting and speaking through you as you carry this message into the world. This is the law of sending.

II. The Law of Receiving: Receiving the divine message from a divinely appointed messenger is a matter of infinite and eternal significance.

Not long from now, some of you will sit down to watch football. I probably will too. In football, there are a number of statistics used to measure players against one another. For receivers, they can be ranked by number of receptions, number of touchdowns, total yardage, or my personal favorite receiving statistic, the YAC – yards after catch. It doesn’t measure how many times a guy catches or drops a ball; it measures what he does with it once he has it. How many yards does he run once he gets the ball?

When it comes to our spiritual lives, everyone is held accountable before God for what we did with His message once we heard it. This is the Law of Receiving. The sender is duty bound to remain faithful to the mission and the message, otherwise he or she is acting without authority. But the receiver also has a considerable weight of responsibility. The receiver is called into account for what he or she does with the message they hear. And this is a matter of infinite and eternal significance.

Jesus says here, “he who receives whomever I send receives Me.” What does it mean to receive the one whom He sends? It does not mean merely that someone is nice to us, friendly or hospitable, when we come to them. I have been in a number of homes over the years where I was treated very kindly, and had a very pleasant and friendly chat with someone, but who ultimately rejected the message of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Though they were hospitable to me, they did not receive me in the sense of which Jesus speaks here. What Jesus means here about “receiving” whomever He sends is that this person  receives that one as a messenger who has come with a true message on behalf of the Lord Jesus, and therefore receives that message. They understand that the message they are hearing is the truth of God, and they turn to believe upon Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

You see, God could have chosen to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to the world in any number of ways. He could have chosen to communicate through dreams and visions, through golden tablets falling from the sky, or through writing the message in the clouds for all to see. But for reasons of God’s own choosing, He did not do any of these. Rather, He entrusted the message of salvation in Jesus Christ to the likes of us. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that we will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we will be His witnesses. We are the ones through whom He speaks to call the world to be reconciled to Him. First Corinthians 1:21 says that “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” Some are seeking signs, and some are immersing themselves in a quest for wisdom, but God has chosen to save human beings through the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Look at how Paul describes the process in Romans 10. In verse 9, he says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Then in verse 13, he says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But then he begins to outline the process by which this happens. In verses 14-15, he says:

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?

So, they cannot be saved unless they call upon Him, and they cannot call upon Him unless they believe in Him. But they cannot believe in Him if they have not heard of Him, and they cannot hear of Him unless someone goes and tells them about Him. And no one can go tell them unless they are sent. But we have been sent! Therefore we must go and tell. Only then will they hear of Him, and believe, and call on Him and be saved. We must go and tell, that is the law of sending. But they must hear and believe. That is the law of receiving. If they receive the message that we bring on Christ’s behalf, then they are not just receiving us, they are receiving Christ. And thus they will be saved. And the converse is true as well. If they do not receive the message we bring, they are not merely rejecting us, they are rejecting Christ Himself, and they are therefore not saved!

Now to some, this sounds arrogant and narrow-minded. Who are we to say that a person is lost, cut off from God for eternity, if they do not believe in Jesus? Well, my friends, this is not something that we made up! This is what Jesus Himself said. He said, “He who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” To receive the message we bring is to receive Jesus, and to receive Jesus is to receive God Himself and to be reconciled to Him. So, again, the converse is true as well: If a person does not receive Jesus, they have not received God, and are therefore still in their sins, separated from Him, and lost. And this will be their state for eternity, unless they turn to Christ and believe upon Him. In Luke 10:16, Jesus says with even more directness, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.” Nowhere did Jesus make this more clear than just a few verses below our text, in John 14:6. There, He says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” To know Christ is the only way to know God; and a rejection of Christ is a rejection of God. There is simply no way to know Him apart from the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not my opinion or idea. That’s what the Lord Jesus said, with all divine authority. We merely proclaim His message as we are sent to do. It is our responsibility to carry out the mission faithfully. It is the hearer’s responsibility to believe and be saved, or else to face the eternal and infinite consequence of unbelief, which the Bible clearly teaches is an eternity in hell because of sin. Those sins can be forgiven if we trust in Jesus, but apart from Him there is no hope. Thus there is a great severity in the Law of Receiving. It is a matter of infinite and eternal significance.

Understanding the law of sending and receiving should impact us as followers of Jesus in certain specific ways. First, it means that the pressure is off. We do not have to come up with a way to win the world; Jesus has given us His authority and His mission. We do not have to come up with the words to say; Jesus has given us His message. And we do not have to be concerned about what the world thinks of us. Their response to us is moreover a response to God-in-Christ, and that is a far bigger deal than what they think of us. Secondly, it means the urgency is great. The only hope for a lost world is Jesus Christ; and the only way they will ever know Him is if we go as His divinely appointed messengers and proclaim His saving Gospel to them. Third, it means that opportunities abound for us to be both the senders and receivers of this word. Specifically, I will mention three such abundant opportunities.

In our times of worship, we have the opportunity to see this law play out. It is incumbent upon the preacher to stand as a divinely appointed messenger and to faithfully deliver the message of Christ, just as He has given it to us in His Word. And it is incumbent upon all who hear to receive the message in that way as well. You say, “Well, I don’t like the preacher!” Let me ask you, where does that come into play at all in this law? Your feelings about the preacher, or even about the sermon itself, are irrelevant, because you come to not hear the opinions of a man, but to hear and respond to God as His Word comes forth. I hesitate to say this, because it sounds so self-serving, but if you understand this law of sending and receiving, you understand that it really is not. If the preacher of the hour is being faithful to the message of Christ, then you are to receive what is said as if it were coming from God-in-Christ directly to you.

In our opportunities for discipleship, whether in Sunday School or formal Bible studies, or casually as we interact with other believers in conversation, we have the responsibility to be divinely appointed messengers to impart the word of God into the lives of others. This is how God shapes our lives to reflect the image of Christ. So, as you teach or lead others, you have a mission and a message that has been given to you from Christ, and you must be faithful. And as hearers, the responsibility is to hear what is said, what is taught, what is exhorted, as if God has put that person in your life at this very moment in time to deliver His message to you. Be careful not to reject the messenger or the message, because doing so may reveal a very severe problem in how you are receiving and responding to the Lord Jesus Christ.

And then in our evangelism, you are a divinely appointed messenger that God has commissioned and authorized to declare His glorious truth, the way of salvation in Jesus Christ, to a world full of people who are hopelessly lost without Him. Go as He has commissioned. Be His ambassador. Speak to others on His behalf, as though God were beckoning them through you to be reconciled to Him. And if you do not know Him, whether in the hearing of this sermon today, or in a casual conversation with a Christian over a cup of coffee, as you hear the message of Jesus, you are hearing divinely inspired truth coming into your life through a divinely appointed messenger. You will write them off and reject their message only to your infinite and eternal destruction. You must receive that Good News of Jesus, because there is no other message and no other Savior who can deliver you from your sins. To reject the message of Christ, through whomever God has appointed to bring it to you, is to reject Christ Himself, and ultimately to reject God altogether.

Christian, you’ve been sent. Now go. You’ve been given a message. Now tell it. And when you hear it proclaimed through others, receive it even as you would receive it from God-in-Christ Himself.

[1] Steve Moramarco, “10 Weird Things Sent by Mail,” Accessed October 15, 2014. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Christ: The Exemplary Servant (Jn 13:12-17)

In the early 20th Century, Irish-born explorer Earnest Shackleton made three journeys to Antarctica in an attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole and cross Antarctica by way of the Pole. As is so often the case with legendary people of history, the passage of time has made it difficult to separate fact from fiction in the details of his adventures. For many years people have often quoted an advertisement allegedly placed by Shackleton himself in the London newspapers. Now it seems that the ad never existed except in the mythology surrounding the man. We know that he recruited an able crew, and we know that he solicited an overwhelming response of volunteers. And though these may not have been his exact words, it is certainly believable that he must have given some similar warning to those who expressed interest in his journey. According to the legend, the advertisement read something like this: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Whether the ad actually ever existed or not, by whatever means Shackleton went about raising his crew, the story holds that he received over 5,000 inquiries. He allegedly sorted them out in three categories: Mad, Hopeless, and Possible. [1] Indeed, it seems that one may have to be mad or hopeless to inquire about such a venture. But, none of them could say that they didn’t know in advance what they were getting themselves into. I don’t imagine anyone boarded Shackleton’s ship expecting a luxurious Caribbean cruise.

Friends, the Lord Jesus Christ has recruited for Himself a people to engage in a journey that could be described in similar terms. He has called us to a life of humble, selfless, and sacrificial service. We have not been recruited as passengers on a luxury liner. We have been recruited as workers on a spiritual rescue ship. We are called to serve the Captain, and one of the ways we do that most often is by serving one another along the way. If we were to post an ad to recruit volunteers, it would read much like the one that Shackleton may have posted. It is hazardous, it does not promise abundant wages, the circumstances are often hard and unsafe, and honor and recognition are not likely to be found here on earth. It is humbling, demanding, and difficult. Would there be any takers? Maybe there would be some who are mad, others who are hopeless, and a few who would embrace the task wholeheartedly. After all, the Lord Jesus, our Captain, has given us an example that we are to follow. He does not call us to do that which He is unwilling to do Himself. He is the Exemplary Servant.

In the preceding weeks, we have explained the task of footwashing that we see demonstrated here in our passage. We won’t explain it in detail again today, except to say that in that day, it was typically a task reserved for the lowliest servant of the home as guests entered. And in our text, it is the Lord Jesus Himself who donned the servant’s towel to wash the feet of His disciples. Like several other things Jesus said and did, here He seemed to have two aims in so doing. First, as we examined last week, He intended to teach the disciples the necessity of being washed of their sins through His sacrificial death. But here in the verses before us today, we see that He also intended to give His followers an example of what it means to serve Him by serving one another.

I. The example stated: Christ is our example in serving one another (vv13-15)

The other day, I was at Subway ordering a sandwich, and the girl making the sandwiches (the “sandwich artist” as Subway calls them) was new on the job. I was about third in line, and as each one ahead of me ordered, she would start making the sandwich and quickly call out to the supervisor for help. “How many pieces of chicken do I put on this? How do I arrange the cheese? Do I toast it now, or after I put the other stuff on it?” Finally, by the time I got to place my order, the supervisor said to her, “Here, let me show you how to do this.” And she walked her through the process from slicing the bread to wrapping it in paper and stuffing it into the bag. I thought to myself that this whole process would have been a lot more efficient if the supervisor had just done that to start with. Words can be misunderstood. Instructions can be confusing. But an example sets a clear pattern for what is expected. And the Lord Jesus has not merely told us to serve one another; He is the example we look to in order learn what it means to serve.

There is a bit of reticence in some Christian circles to speak of Jesus as our example. The widely influential movement of 20th Century Christian Liberalism reduced Jesus to merely being an example. Liberal theology proclaimed Jesus as a good man who did good things, and if we would have the favor of God (assuming that such a being actually exists) and our fellow man, then we should simply follow Jesus’ example. Liberalism did not see the death of Jesus as necessary for the atonement of sin, but rather as an example of obedience in spite of difficult circumstances. Thus, J. Gresham Machen, in the early 1920’s, notably wrote that Liberalism “is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christian as to belong in a distinct category. … [D]espite the use of traditional phraseology, … liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally difference class of religions.”[2]

In response to Liberalism, many evangelicals chose to shy away from all mention of Jesus as our example. This, however, seems to be an overcorrection. Jesus is certainly more than our example, but He is by no means less than our example. He is our Savior and Lord, and it is only by His atoning death for our sins on the cross that we might be saved. Jesus is indeed, contrary to Liberalism, fully God. But, we must not forget that by the miracle of His incarnation He is also fully man. As the one and only perfect human being who ever lived, therefore, Jesus is in fact our example. He is just not merely an example.

He sets the example of Christian service here in His humility. He did not consider Himself to be too great to do a menial task for His disciples. He served them. They had a need, and He met their need, even though the service required was typically that of the lowliest servant. Jesus gave no thought either to His proper station or that of His disciples, nor did He consider the difficulty or lowliness of the task. He is the One who said, “I am among you as the One who serves” (Lk 22:27), and proclaimed that He had not come to “be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45).

He says here in v13, “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for I am.” Notice the order of those two titles. The order here reflects the order in which they had come to know Him: first as Teacher, and then subsequently as Lord. But then notice in v14 how He changes the order: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” It was as the Sovereign Lord that He could command obedience from them, and as their Teacher that He could instruct them by word and by example in the way of obedience. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus ever demand the obedience which He deserves as Lord from any who had not yet come to know Him as Lord, or from those who only knew Him as Teacher. But for those who have come to know Him as Teacher and as Lord, He has the right to instruct and the right to demand obedience. But He does not demand that obedience apart from teaching, nor apart from demonstrating the example of obedience in how He served. Here He has given them an unparalleled example in His own act of service, and urges us to follow the example.

II. The example explained: No act of service to one another should be considered beneath the one who is a servant of Christ (vv14-16).

One of the great blessings I have enjoyed as a pastor is the opportunity to mentor a few young men who have served as interns alongside of me. I’m always refreshed by their zeal for ministry. They say, “Pastor, are we going to prepare sermons today? Are we going to discuss the great works of systematic theology?” And I enjoy telling them, “Perhaps, but first, there is a person in the hospital we must visit, and a funeral service to prepare, and then there is a toilet that needs cleaning, some trash that needs to be picked up, and a few other things we have to do first.” A few years ago, Lisa found a huge ziplock bag in the office full of keys, all unlabeled and unmarked. Brian Davis was serving as our pastoral intern at that time, and I said, “Brian, I need you to take these keys and go around the building and see what locks they fit.” A little while later he texted me and said, “Pastor, this is not my spiritual gift.” I replied, “Nor is it mine, but it still has to be done.” A pastor friend of mine recently sent me a picture of several of us that was taken at a conference, and he had inscribed the caption below the picture, “Toilet Unclogging Team.” Young men entering ministry do not envision spending hours doing these sorts of things; I know I didn’t. But these things must be done. And there are countless other ways that we all must serve one another in humble, inglorious roles day to day as we follow Christ.

Jesus said, “If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Now, this statement has given rise to “a third ordinance” in some denominations and churches. In those churches, foot washing takes place along side of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as biblical ordinances. You may have noticed, we do not do this, and you may wonder why. We do not believe that Jesus was here instituting a third ordinance for all of His followers, and we believe that there are only two such ordinances that He did institute for all members of His church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We come to this conclusion by two lines of reasoning. First, unlike Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, nowhere else in the New Testament do we see foot washing being practiced by the church or commanded for the church. Second, the intention of the Lord Jesus here was not to institute a new observance, but rather to give His disciples a pattern of humble and selfless service to follow. The practice of washing another’s feet could easily be done in a perfunctory, ritualistic way, entirely divorced from the humility and selflessness that is the point of what Jesus had done. It could even become a parade of the very opposite of humble and sacrificial service – pride and self-centeredness. And therefore, in the next verse (v15), Jesus says plainly, “I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Notice He did not say to do what He did to you, but as He did to you. Quite simply, He is saying that the example is not for a ritualistic performance but for the genuine giving away of oneself in the service of each other.

So the point is, will you serve each other in humble and sacrificial ways? Will you meet the needs, whatever they may be, of your brother or sister in the Lord? John Calvin said, “He who is the Master and Lord of all gave an example to be followed by all the godly, that no one might think it a burden to stoop to a service, however mean and low, to his brothers …. The reason love is despised is that everyone elevates himself too much and despises almost everyone else. … There is no love where there is not a willing slavery in assisting a neighbor.”[3]

What is it that stops us from doing whatever it is that our brother or sister needs? Is it not pride? On that very night, a dispute had arisen amongst the disciples about which of them was the greatest. And Jesus told them that the key to greatness in His Kingdom is our willingness to serve one another. Then He showed them how it is done by washing their feet. But we have such an upside down view of this, do we not? Our inclination toward pride is pervasive in our hearts. We feel that greatness should equate to our being served by others, and to having our needs met by them. So, Jesus explains further in verse 16, “Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” Who is who here? Jesus is the Master, we are His slaves. He has purchased us in redemption by the price of His own shed blood. Jesus is the Sender, we are those whom He has sent. Would we dare to say that any task of service to our fellow Christians is beneath us? The Lord Jesus Christ washed the dirty feet of His disciples when no one else was willing to stoop to the menial task. As Carson writes, “No emissary has the right to think he is exempt from tasks cheerfully undertaken by the one who sent him, and no slave has the right to judge any menial task beneath him after his master has already performed it.”[4]

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing to a church that is dear to his heart, but which is on the brink of a rupture in the fellowship because of the arrogance of two women in particular, whom he names in Chapter 4: Euodia and Syntyche. And he says to the entire church, not just to those women, these words in Chapter 2:
1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2  make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4  do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Phil 2:1-8 (NASB)

How can we best serve Christ? By considering the example of Him who humbled Himself. The Lord of Glory, who became a man, took on the role of a servant, and He humbled Himself and served His disciples by laying aside His garments and washing their feet. And He humbled Himself and served us all by laying down His life to die for us on the cross. Shall we ever say that meeting the need of our brother or sister in Christ is too menial a task? Shall we act out of selfishness and empty conceit? Or shall we have the mind of Christ and emulate the example of our Lord Jesus, who showed us the way to serving one another?

Now finally,

III. The example commended: The blessing of God comes upon those who not only know these things, but who do them. (v17).

I suppose we all know a lot of things, and we all do a lot of things, but my hunch is that it is true for most of us that there are a number of things that we know that we do not do anything about. Every time I go to the doctor, he asks me, “Are you exercising regularly and eating right?” Now, I absolutely know I should exercise more often and eat better. I don’t need to read more statistics about that. But thus far, I haven’t done much with the knowledge I have. And I suppose this is true for us all in a myriad of ways when it comes to our spiritual lives as well. We know we should pray more; we know we should study our Bibles more; we know we should be more faithful in our giving; I could go on and on. And we know that we should serve one another more faithfully, more humbly, and more selflessly. You didn’t come in here today not knowing that, did you? Often when we think of our sins, we think of the sins of commission – the forbidden things we have done. But do we often think of our sins of omission – the things we do not do that we know we should? After all, James 4:17 says, “To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” And I suppose that every one of us to some degree has considered ourselves to live under the blessing of God, giving no though to the sins of omission that deprive us of the fullness of His blessings.

Jesus says here in verse 17, “If you know these things ….” Which things? The things He has been showing and telling—namely, that we must follow His example in serving one another in humble and sacrificial ways. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them,” He says. He does not say you are blessed if you know them. He says you are blessed if you do them. To be “blessed” in the sense of which Scripture speaks is to be highly favored by God. It is to have His approval upon yourself. It is to live, as it were, beneath the smile of God. And one way to have that blessing is to give ourselves away in the service of one another.

There are some who would take issue with thinking of it this way, as if we were promoting a mentality of “give to get.” Certainly, it is not my intention for you to think of Christian service to your brothers and sisters as a means to an end. It would be entirely self-serving and manipulative for you to serve others merely for what you could get out of it in return. Yet still, there is something to this, is there not? You do want the blessing of God on your life, do you not? Jesus is not asking you to serve others solely for what we will get in return, but to serve others because it is the right thing to do as His servants – to follow His example! Do some do this for the wrong reasons? Certainly, but if someone is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, the solution is never to stop doing the right thing! The solution is to ask God to purify the motives and intentions of your heart. Ask Him to help you love the task of humble service! Ask Him to help you to do it for no other reason than for the love of the Lord and for your brothers. And as He shapes your heart in those ways, you will not be serving just for what is in it for you, but you will certainly enter into a state of blessedness.

Francis Schaeffer, in his powerful book No Little People, says, “We should ask ourselves from time to time, ‘Whose feet am I washing?’” Now, certainly he is not trying to institute a literal act of foot washing here, but he is pointing us to humble and sacrificial service. Whom are you serving? You may say, “I am waiting for the grand and glorious opportunity to come!” Friends, there are not many grand and glorious tasks to be done in Christ’s Kingdom, at least not in the way we view those things. No, in His Kingdom, the most grand and glorious thing we can do is to humble ourselves and give our lives away in the service of one another. As Schaeffer says, “Doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way is not some exotic thing; it is having and practicing the mentality which Christ commands.”[5] And I would add, “which Christ Himself models for us as our example in Christian service.” So, will you ask yourself that question today? “Whose feet am I washing?” Whom am I serving? When was the last time you joyfully volunteered for a task that you might otherwise consider to be “beneath you”? When was the last time you did something inconvenient, something costly, something difficult, for no other reason than because your brother or sister in Christ was in need? When was the last time you put their needs above your own and served them, following the example of our Lord Jesus?

He is our example. He has called us to follow Him. And He has promised His blessing on those who do.

[1] Accessed October 8, 2014.
[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 6-7.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 323.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 468.
[5] Francis Schaeffer, No Little People (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003), 69. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Gospel in Pictures (John 13:3-12)

The human imagination is an amazing thing. It is able to create images in our minds even as we think or read about something. Some of us have experienced this as we have read stories about far away places in the real world or the world of fantasy. I recall reading about Narnia in C. S. Lewis’s wonderful books, and in my mind I could see the place. When the major motion pictures based on these books came out some years ago, the settings portrayed on the screen looked remarkably similar to the places I had envisioned in my mind. In some cases, the images in our imagination are even more vivid than those that we see on the movie screen or in real life.

As we read the story of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, in our minds’ eye, we can almost go there and find ourselves in the room. In our imagination, we can watch the Lord Jesus humbly condescending to the role of the servant in washing the feet of His disciples. We’ve just mentioned the foot washing in passing in the two other messages that have come from this great chapter of Scripture, so I want to take a moment to explain the background of what Jesus is doing here. For many of you who have travelled abroad on mission trips, it will be easy to understand. In that day and time, a meal like this would be taken at a low table, and you would be reclined on mats, leaning on the left elbow so as to take the food with your right hand. As it still is in most cultures, you would remove your shoes when you entered in. In that day, the most common shoes were sandals. Because you walked on dirty streets and paths in those sandals, and because your feet would be positioned so near the head of others, it was necessary to wash one’s feet before eating. The task of footwashing was considered a humble and lowly service. In fact, it was even too demeaning even for most servants, and would only be done by the servants of lowest rank. In the first-century Jewish world, this task was typically reserved for Gentile servants. So, with that in mind, you can understand how alarming it would be for the Lord Jesus Christ to take this task upon Himself. In all of the literature of the ancient world, Jewish or Greco-Roman, this is the only example of the greater serving the lesser in this way.

So, we may wonder, why did Jesus do this? Well, there is a practical matter. It had to be done! Anyone could have done it, but no one did it. So rather than leaving it undone, the Lord Jesus did it Himself. There is even a lesson for us in this. If you see a need that is not being met, do not waste time contemplating why no one else is doing it, or criticizing others for not doing it, or complaining that someone else is not doing it. In the words of the famous Nike advertisements, “Just do it!” I imagine that we are seldom more like Jesus than when we meet a need – not because we have to or should, but because we can. So, there’s this practical matter, but I believe that Jesus had a deeper motive for doing this. Everything Jesus said and did had a revelatory value – it was showing or telling some truth about Himself and His mission to redeem humanity and reconcile us to God. This act of footwashing is no exception.

Just as our imaginations are able to take words and create images in our minds, so the very actions of others can impart unspoken messages onto our hearts. On this last night with His disciples, just hours before His crucifixion, Jesus desired to teach them many things, and He did so at length. But before He spoke a word to them, He was teaching them by this very significant action. What Jesus was doing was a symbolic re-enactment and pre-enactment by which He was dramatizing for them the character of his entire ministry. “He was showing them … what He had come into the world to do.”[1] He was giving them, as it were, the Gospel in pictures. Here in this act of washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus is showing us all two Gospel pictures: the picture of the Savior, and the picture of our Salvation.

Let’s look at the first one:

I. See the picture of our Savior!

I find it interesting that when God planned to impart the revelation of Himself to humanity, He did not inspire artists to draw pictures. He inspired men to write words. Pictures may show us what someone looks like, but words convey far more significant truths. The images of who Christ is and what He has done for us which are formed in our minds as we read the Word of God are far more important than any visual representation of His likeness. So, what picture of our Savior do these words that we read here in this text form? The various pixels of this image come into focus through the movements of Christ in our text. As we see Jesus going through the activity of washing feet, we see another image, a grander image, of our Savior coming into sharper focus.

Verse 3 sets the tone for all that follows it. It says that Jesus knew three things: He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands; He knew that He had come forth from God; and He knew He was going back to God. And the wording indicates that what He did next was because He knew these things. His actions following verse 3 are a visual demonstration of how He came forth from God, how He was going back to God, and how all things came to be in His hands.

We see Jesus as the one who got up from where He was seated (v4). The text says simply that He got up from supper. He had been seated, but now there was a task to complete and a need to meet. So He got up from where He had been seated. In a far greater way, the Lord Jesus, prior to His incarnation, was seated in eternal glory with His Father in heaven. John 1:1 told us that He existed “in the beginning,” and the He was “God.” In John 3:13, Jesus said, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” In John 17, as He prays to His Father, He will speak of the glory which He had with the Father before the world was. But in obedience to His Father’s plan to rescue humanity from sin, the Lord Jesus got up from that place of heavenly glory where He had been seated for eternity past.

Secondly we see Jesus as the one who “laid aside His garments” (v4). The plural indicates that He did not merely take off His outer garment, but that He disrobed down to the loincloth.[2] That which had covered Him, He removed and made Himself all but bare. But long before that night, Jesus had done this same thing in an even more meaningful way. Prior to His incarnation, He had been enrobed in divine glory. As Paul says in Philippians 2:6 that Jesus “existed in the form of God.” But Paul says there that He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,” that is He did not cling to this or hold onto it, “but emptied Himself” (Php 2:6-7). In the words of one of our favorite Christmas hymns, “He lays His glory by.” He disrobed Himself of His eternal heavenly glory to come and dwell among us.

Next in our text we see that Jesus took a towel and “girded Himself” (v4). This would be a long towel that would wrap around his waist, with enough left to hang freely in order to dry off the feet of His disciples after He had washed them. This would be the regular attire of a lowly servant. But long before this evening with this towel, Jesus had taken on the form of a servant. This is what is said of Him in Philippians 2:7. He “emptied Himself” and took “the form of a bond-servant … being made in the likeness of men.” In the words of John 1:14, He “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Here is God, who has become a man. He became a man in the fullest sense. He experienced everything from birth to death, and all things in between, in the fullness of humanity. But in the humble condescension of His incarnation, He says that He did not come to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45). A servant exists to meet needs. Jesus served His disciples at the table by washing their feet, but He served the entire human race by giving up His life as a ransom to rescue us from our sins. This is what we most desperately need. And He met this need by becoming one of us, so that He could live for us the life that we cannot live, and so that He could die for us the death that we deserve. His taking up of the towel parallels His taking up of a human nature, that He might serve us and save us.

That brings us to the next pixel of the image here. John says that “He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded” (v5).  Here were these disciples with their dirty feet, and Jesus poured out what was needed to make them clean and washed them that they would be clean. Just as these men had dirty feet, so we all have dirty souls – dirty lives, if you will – covered in the stains of sin. Just as He had poured out the water, so He would pour out His life’s blood. It is what was needed. From the very first sin ever committed, God had taught His people that the wages of sin is death, and that forgiveness could only come through the shed blood of a sacrificial substitute. Rivers of blood had flowed from bulls, and lambs, and goats on the altars of Israel through the centuries, all pointing forward to the ultimate sacrifice that God Himself would provide: the Lord Jesus Christ. And within hours of washing away the dirt of His disciples’ feet, Jesus would pour out His blood to wash away the stains of our sin. He would make us clean by taking our sins upon Himself and receiving in His own body the penalty of divine judgment as He died in our place on the cross. As 1 John 1:7 says, “the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin.”

Now we move forward to verse 12, where we read “when He had washed their feet ….” The NIV reads, “When he had finished washing their feet.” The task was completed. Their feet were dirty, and Jesus set out to wash them and He finished the task. In a far greater way, on the following day, He would complete the task for which His Father had sent Him into the world. As Jesus died upon the cross, He uttered seven statements. According to John 19:30, the final one was this: “It is finished!” Then, “He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. When He uttered these words, He was declaring that His mission to redeem humanity from the curse of sin was completed. Nothing more is needed, nothing more can be added to it. His death is sufficient to overcome the breach between us and God which has been created by our sin, and He has done it! It is finished!

Next John says in verse 12, that Jesus took His garments, that is, He put His clothing back on. He had undressed Himself from His normal attire, and took on the garment of a servant, and now He clothed Himself again. And in a most spectacular way, He did a similar thing on the third day following His death. When His followers visited the tomb where His body had been placed, they did not find Him there. Soon enough, Jesus began to appear to His disciples. He was alive, walking and talking among them again. But something was different about Him. At times, they did not even recognize Him. He could appear from nowhere and then vanish from sight again. But He had a real body – they could see Him; they could touch Him; He ate with them. But He had been raised in a glorified body. The glory that He had laid aside when He left heaven for earth, He had taken up and clothed Himself again.

Then finally, we see that John says that Jesus reclined at the table again (v12). Having completed the task at hand, Jesus returned to the seat He formerly occupied. And so He did on a far grander scale following His resurrection from the dead. Having completed the task for which He came into the world, and having conquered sin death for all who trust in Him, Jesus remained with His disciples to continue teaching them for forty days (Ac 1:3). Then, the Bible says that “He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Ac 1:9). Where did He go? Let me answer that with a bit of Bible trivia: Do you know what the most frequently quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament is? It is Psalm 110:1. There, in this Messianic Psalm, David writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” It is either quoted or alluded to at least 18 times in the New Testament. And it tells us where the Lord Jesus went when He ascended. God the Son returned to His rightful and eternal place of honor at the right hand of God the Father. In Ephesians 1:20, Paul writes that the Father “raised Him (Jesus) from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet.” That is where Jesus went. He knew that was where He was going. In verse 3 of our text, John writes that Jesus knew “that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God.”

So, in the movements and actions of the Lord Jesus here at the table, washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus was enacting a visual parable, as it were, creating for us a picture of His entire mission of redemption. He left His place in heaven, set aside His glory, took on the form of a man, became a servant, poured out His blood to cleanse us from sin, finished the task in His death on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended back into heaven where He is seated at the right hand of the Father in the glory that He has shared for all eternity. Hallelujah! What a Savior! And what a picture of Him we have here in these verses.

But this is not the only picture we see. We must also …

II. See the picture of our salvation!

This weekend, on the Jewish Calendar, it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This day was set aside by the Lord as a day of sacrifice for the sins of the nation, and on this day and this day only, the high priest was permitted to enter into the holy of holies and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, the covering of the ark of the covenant, so that the sins of the people could be forgiven. When God gave the instructions for the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings, He specified how the ark of the covenant was supposed to be made. This box would be considered the very throne of God in the tabernacle and temple. There on the top of it, the mercy seat where the blood was applied, the Lord commanded that two golden cherubim (angels) were to be placed with their faces “turned toward the mercy seat” (Ex 25:20). Those angels were to be positioned as if they were unflinchingly focused on the blood that was shed for the salvation of the people. And so when Peter wrote of our great salvation in the first chapter of 1 Peter, he said that these were things “into which angels long to look.” They want to see what this salvation of God’s grace and mercy looks like. And we would like to see it as well. Here Jesus gives us a picture in His dialog with Peter. Just as He washes the disciples’ feet, so in our salvation He washes us clean from sin.

As Jesus went around the table washing the feet of His disciples, He came to Simon Peter, who first questioned and then protested. He said in verse 6, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” And then in verse 8, “Never shall You wash my feet!” These two statements from Peter tell us something significant about our salvation in Jesus Christ. First, Peter’s question reminds us that salvation is something we do not deserve and cannot earn. Peter understood that it was entirely inappropriate for Jesus to do this for Him. Peter does not deserve to be treated this way by Jesus. And we do not deserve to be washed of our sins. But Jesus was not washing Peter’s feet because he deserved it; He was washing him because he needed it. It was a gracious act, undeserved and unearned, but greatly needed. And so it is for our salvation. We do not deserve it, and we cannot earn it, but we desperately need it! And so it is by grace that we are saved. Jesus is giving us something we do not deserve and cannot earn because He desires to meet this great need in our lives.

But in Peter’s protest, we see something else: salvation must be received in humble faith. Peter initially refused to allow Jesus to do this. He was too proud to allow Jesus to serve Him in this way. Friends, there are so many in the world, and maybe a few here, who are too proud to be washed clean of their sins by Jesus. Maybe they do not think they need it. They may think that they are good, nice, clean folks who do not need to be washed. But they do! We are all sinners by nature and by choice, and you can only protest that so long before you catch yourself in the lie! We know that we do not do what we should, and we often do what we should not. We need to be made clean, and there is no other alternative besides Jesus! So rather than protesting the salvation that He offers us freely in His grace, we must receive this salvation in humble faith. It is by grace we are saved, through faith, the Bible says (Eph 2:8-9). Stop protesting. Stop questioning. Humble yourself, and trust in Him.

You say, “I don’t understand it all.” Jesus says, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” This week I attended a meeting at Fort Caswell, where I came to know the Lord 22 years ago. I stood outside the house where I professed my faith in Christ and thought about that night so long ago. I didn’t even know the words to say or what it all meant, but I knew I needed Jesus! And for 22 years, I have been growing in my understanding of this great salvation that is incapable of full comprehension until we see the Lord face to face in heaven.

Then, notice how the dialog progresses. Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” To have part with Him is to be united to Him. He is saying to Peter, “You are dirty and you need to be clean. I can wash you if you will let Me, but if you do not let Me, then there is no other way for you to be made clean.” And the same is true for us. You might say, “Well, there are so many opinions and views on matters of religion. Why should I trust in Jesus, rather than in some other way?” Friend, listen, there is no other way! There is no system of belief in the world that even attempts to answer the question of how you can be cleansed of your sin and reconciled to a holy God. You are dirty. You need to be clean. Only Jesus can wash you. And if He doesn’t wash you, then you have no part with Him. You are hopelessly and eternally separated from God in your sins.

Now at this point, Peter seems to be understanding, and so he says, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” In other words, “All of me!” Peter understands that if Jesus must make him clean, then he needs to be clean from head to toe. We must also come to this point. We must understand that we are radically corrupted in sin. There is nothing good within us in our natural born condition. We must be made completely clean, not partially clean, to be acceptable before God.

But Jesus tells Peter, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean.” This sentence expresses what I call the “twin towers” of salvation: justification and sanctification. When a person comes to faith in Jesus, the Bible says that we are “justified.” That is, our sins are washed away, and we are declared righteous before God on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ which is imparted to us by faith. God views us and declares us to be “completely clean.” And Jesus tells Peter that he has already become “completely clean.” When did this happen? It happened when Peter declared his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. When Jesus asked His disciples at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:15-16). Jesus affirmed that Peter had made this statement of faith in response to the revelation that God had given to him. Peter was, from that moment on, a saved man. He had been justified. And so it is for us. We each come to that moment when, by faith, we must declare who we believe Jesus to be. When the Holy Spirit convicts and convinces us of the truth of who Jesus is, and we respond in faith to Him as Savior and Lord, we are born-again, justified, cleansed of sin and made righteous before God. But we are saved men and women at that point; saved, but not perfect. For that, we need the work of sanctification.

Once we are saved, God begins a work in our lives to shape us practically into what He has declared us positionally to be: namely, as righteous as Jesus. Saved people still sin, right? Please tell me I’m not the only one! No, it is true for us all, and will be for the rest of our lives. This is why Jesus says, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean.” Peter was completely clean positionally because of justification, but he needed to be cleansed practically through the ongoing work of sanctification. Just as his bath had made him clean, only his feet, that part of his body that had become dirty as he walked, needed to be washed.

I thought of this verse a few weeks ago as we vacationed at the beach. My wife and kids love the sand! They can go out for hours and lay in it, play in it, bury each other in it, and roll around in it. I really don’t like being covered in sand. So, when we come in from the beach, the first thing I do is take a shower. Then we eat dinner, and after dinner we go back out for a late night walk on the beach. When we come back, I don’t need to take another shower; I just need to wash my feet. This is how it is for us as Christians. We still sin, but when we do, we do not need to be saved all over again. Our position in Christ is secure for all eternity because we have been justified. But as the Spirit works out sanctification in us, we need to continually come before the Lord in repentance and confession to be cleansed repeatedly from the sins we commit. John will say in his first epistle, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:8-9). And so it goes, on and on, throughout our lives. We’ve been made completely clean because we have been washed in Christ through justification. But as we continue to sin, we need to regularly come before the Lord in confession and repentance, allowing Him to “wash our feet” as it were, to cleanse us from those sins that we have committed.

And so we have this great picture of our salvation. It is undeserved and unearned, offered to us entirely by His grace. We must recognize our need for it and receive it in humble faith. We must realize that we need to be made completely clean before God, and that Jesus alone can do this. And once He does, we are completely clean, covered with His righteousness by the divine act of justification. But as we continue living in these fallen corruptible bodies in this fallen world, we continue to sin. And we come back to Him time and time again in repentance, confessing our sins before Him, and He is faithful to continue washing those sins away, strengthening us against them, and shaping us in sanctification to live more and more in the righteousness that He has given to us.

Jesus asked His disciples, “Do you know what I have done for you?” I imagine some of the more spiritually dense ones among them might have thought to themselves, “Well, yeah, You washed our feet.” But He was doing so much more than this. He was doing for them something that they could not understand then, but would grow to understand thereafter. He was giving them a picture – and thanks be to God the picture has been shown to us as well. It is a picture of our Savior and a picture of our salvation in Him. My friends, if you are a Christian, this is your Redeemer and Lord, and this is what He has done, and continues to do for you. Come into the art gallery here and gaze upon this Gospel  picture. Get lost in the details of it all. Mediate on these truths as you would stare at a masterpiece of art. As you view these Gospel pictures, let them inspire you to live every day humbled and awestruck by this grace that He has demonstrated to us. What a Savior! What a great salvation we have in Him! And if you are not a Christian, friends, I hope that you can see the picture of this Savior and the salvation He offers you, and I pray that you will turn to Him and trust in Him by faith. He is the one who has come from heaven to earth to die for you and wash you clean. He is the one who declares, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”

[1] Ray Stedman, quoted in James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Vol 4; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1010.
[2] Robert H. Mounce, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 10:546. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

My Caswell Story

During our Board of Directors' Meeting at Caswell this week, I was sharing with Rick Holbrook, Director of Caswell, about how my life was radically changed at Caswell. He asked me to write these things down and send them to him, so here is what I have written. 
This week, I had the great privilege to revisit a place that has left an indelible mark on my life. Once every four years, the Board of Directors of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina convenes at the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell (or as it is more fondly known by many, “Caswell”) for its triannual meeting. A small handful of times over the last twenty years, I have had the chance to visit briefly, but this was the first time I’ve been back with enough spare time to walk the grounds and meditate on the eternal impact that has been made on my life here at this place.

For better and for worse, I am not a “board member.” I’m an “at-large member” of the Business Services Special Committee. I jokingly tell other board members that I have two adjectives up on them: I am “at-large” and “special.” Outweighing the limitations on this unique role is the advantage of having fewer meetings to attend when the Board convenes, and thus more personal time to enjoy and experience the place where we gather.

I drove over four hours in pouring down rain on Monday evening, from my home in Greensboro out to the far north-east corner of Oak Island where Caswell is picturesquely situated. By the time I had unpacked in Oceana, the rain had ceased and I had an appointment to keep. My appointment was with a particular bench. There is this little bench situated behind the “Little Pier” cottage that looks out on the Cape Fear River, with the Oak Island Lighthouse just over one’s left shoulder. I first sat on that bench twenty-two years ago, early on the Friday morning of July 31, 1992.

"My Bench"

It is necessary to understand something about my life up to that point before one can comprehend the significance of that morning on the bench. I did not grow up in church. Though my parents would call themselves Christian, the Christian faith was not discussed or practiced in our home. I do not recall whether or not we even owned a Bible. Certainly, if we did, it was never read by me or anyone else. By the time I was in high school I had declared myself to be an atheist, and I availed myself of all of the moral liberties that the rejection of God’s existence afforded me. I grew to despise all things that smelled of “religion,” and I pitied those whom I considered to be so desperate as to need something called a “god” in their lives. I recall proudly asserting to one Christian I met along the way, “I don’t need a god, because if there is a god, then surely I must be him.”

From as early as I can remember, I had desired to gain an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot. Much to the surprise of many, I had attained that goal. I reported for processing in the middle of June, just a couple of weeks after my high school graduation. It was as if everything I had ever wanted had been laid before me. On the night before we were sworn in, I laid down in an uncomfortable bed in a pitch-dark room, and it was as though in a second my entire world collapsed around me. Having everything I had every wanted within my reach, I realized that my life was empty. For reasons I cannot fully explain, I sensed that I could not follow through with my commitment to the Air Force, and that I must return home. As I explained this to an officer in his pajamas in the middle of the night, he said, “Let me call a chaplain.” I said, “Do you have an atheist chaplain?” He said he did not, and offered to call a psychiatrist. I assured him that though it would not make sense to anyone else in the world, I was more sure than I had ever been about anything that I must leave the Academy. The next afternoon, I did just that.

I came home to a number of heartbreaking situations. Most of my family and friends, who had been so proud of me just a few days before, were now ashamed of me and confused about how I could throw away my future. My grandmother died within days of my return. Just when it seemed that I had no one else to turn to, I was surrounded by a group of friends I had only recently met. We had a lot in common, but one thing we did not have in common was our beliefs. I was an atheist; they were Christians. Over the next few weeks, they began to talk about their excitement to go to “Caswell.” I had never heard of this place and certainly had no desire to go to some place where all people did was pray and read their Bibles and talk about Jesus. My friends persuaded me, however, by telling me two things: I could go for free (because I was taking the place of someone else who had already paid), and I could meet girls there. One of those factors was more influential than the other, and so I went.

As we rode along in the church van, the youth leader (my closest friend’s mother) asked me if I brought my Bible. Ashamed to tell her that I did not even own a Bible, I simply said, “No, I didn’t think to bring it.” She handed me a Bible and told me I could use it all week and keep it. I laughed at the mere prospect of actually reading this book. Much to my alarm, once we arrived at Caswell, I discovered that every morning I was expected to read it during some strange ritual called “Quiet Time.” Each day during quiet time, I would find a different place where I could enjoy the view. The first day, I determined that I would not read this book, but would just sit for an hour doing nothing. After a few minutes, I realized that an hour moves slowly when one has nothing to do, so I began to read our devotional guide for the day, and I spent most of the hour trying to find the place in the Bible where this story was supposed to have taken place. As the days went by, I learned to use my table of contents and locate the passages, and I would read them.

Friday came, and it was our last day at Caswell. I went out to a new place for quiet time: the little bench behind Little Pier. I sat down and daydreamed for a few moments, and then I reviewed my devotional guide. The passage I was to read was 1 Samuel 3:1-10. As I read it, I was struck by how the Lord had been speaking to Samuel, but Samuel did not know it was the Lord. Immediately I thought of a dozen situations in my life when something had happened, even in the recent weeks, and I had not even considered that God might have been trying to get my attention. As I read verse 7, something happened in my heart and mind. “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to Him.” When I sat down on that bench that morning, I was as committed an atheist as I had ever been. When I read that verse, I knew that God had been working in my life to bring me to Himself, but I had not recognized it and did not know Him. As Eli told Samuel, “If He calls you… you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.” I uttered those very words aloud: the first prayer I had ever prayed in my life. All through the day, I repeated it over and over again: “Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening,” but I told no one of what had happened on the bench.

That night, I attended the final worship service of the week at Hatch Auditorium. I do not recall who was speaking or singing, or what we sang or what the message was about. What I do recall was hearing how Jesus died for us to save us from our sins so we could be reconciled to God. In my heart, I knew that I needed Jesus and was almost ready to receive Him. Much to my surprise, the speaker announced that anyone who wished to receive Jesus should come forward! Almost everything in me wanted to go forward – everything except my pride which kept a white-knuckled grip on the back of the pew in front of me. My friends were urging me, pleading with me, “Why don’t you go forward? Come on! I will go with you!” I did not go, and the service ended.

As I exited Hatch that night, I was filled with remorse. I knew the greatness of my sins and I knew my desperate need for Christ. I wrestled with my ego and my pride all the way back to the Yaupon House. As I entered, my youth group was already assembling for evening devotions. I had barely gotten in the house and seated when the pastor said, “Does anyone have anything they want to say?” Before I realized what was happening, I was on my feet, saying, “I do! I want to believe in Jesus! I need Him as my Lord and Savior.” And that night, in the front room of Yaupon, I was gloriously and graciously saved. When I returned home, I was baptized, and joined my friends as a member of United Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.

It was just on the inside of that front door that I gave my life to Jesus.

The next summer, I think I was the first one in our church to sign up for Caswell. Having completed my first year of College, I was saddened to discover that I was “too old” for a youth trip, but I could go as a “chaperone.” I think we had more chaperones on that trip than we had “youths,” but I was eager to return to Caswell. During that second trip to Caswell, God stretched me to understand what it meant to really live for Him. Though I had been a Christian for a year, I had not grown in my faith beyond the first steps. I rededicated my life that week at Caswell. Though I did not undergo an instantaneous transformation, over the next year I became more and more convicted of things in my life that needed to be purged and of healthy spiritual disciplines that needed to be cultivated. Throughout the school year, I continued to reflect back on the rededication I had made at Caswell and the lessons I had learned in Bible studies that year.

By the end of spring semester in 1994, I had come to another “fork in the road” in my life. Having spent the previous two years studying history and education at UNC-Charlotte, I had become increasingly disinterested in the idea of being a school teacher (a fact that my grades evidenced). I had also become increasingly uncomfortable in my surroundings at college. Desiring to grow in my faith, I felt that I needed to be in a more spiritually edifying environment. As I left Charlotte for the summer, I declared my intent to not return and to begin investigating other opportunities. By the time our annual Caswell trip came around, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had taken a full-time job as a manager of a sporting goods store, but I begged time off so I could return to Caswell as a chaperone.

It was sometime early in the week that I was sitting on the upper balcony of the Long Bay building (which was called “Building 2” at that time). I had been strumming on my guitar, but put it aside to read from Jeremiah 1. As I read those words about how God had been preparing Jeremiah to serve as His prophet, I became undeniably convinced that God was calling me to spend my life in ministry. For the next few days, I would withdraw from everyone else as often as possible and hide in a little corner on top of the battlement directly in front of Long Bay with my Bible to pray about this sense of calling. I can distinctly remember a holy moment there on top of that fortress when I surrendered to the Lord and said I would go wherever He would send me and do whatever He wanted me to do.

"Long Bay" or "Building 2"

"My Hiding Place"

The next morning in the Youth Leaders’ Bible Study at Sherrill Chapel, I met a young man named Chris Huffman. He had recently surrendered to the call to ministry and was attending Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute (now College). A few weeks later, I got a friendly letter from Chris telling me about how excited everyone at Fruitland was about the installation of their new President, Randy Kilby. He sent me a course catalog to look over as I considered the possibility of enrolling. Over the next several months, I read every word of that little book many times over. During that same period of time I got engaged to Donia, and I began sharing with her about my ministry calling. Donia’s family had a vacation house in Holden Beach, and I distinctly recall taking her to Caswell for a quick “drive-thru” tour of this place that had been so special in my life and walk with God.

It was in the Spring of 1995 that Donia and I visited Fruitland together and the warmest welcome was extended to me by Chris. I came home, resigned from my job, and enrolled at Fruitland as soon as possible. In God’s gracious providence, my first quarter there was Chris’s last, so we were able to share some of that time together. As my time at Fruitland was drawing to a close, I was on a mission trip to Kenya when I learned of Randy Kilby’s death. The entire campus was shrouded in grief at the seemingly untimely loss of such a beloved leader.

By the time I graduated from Fruitland, Donia and I had begun attending Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem where we would be married in October of 1997. I had served with Mark Corts as an intern following my graduation from Fruitland. Soon after my internship ended, I was called to Conowingo Baptist Church in Conowingo, Maryland as the Assistant Pastor. Just a few weeks after I began serving there, the Pastor’s health declined rapidly and I became the Pastor. Upon Dr. Corts’ urging, I finished my undergraduate degree at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania. During my time at Conowingo, my son Solomon was born in 2000.

I served at Conowingo until 2003, when I sensed that the time was right for me to enroll in Seminary. After much prayerful consideration and counsel, we decided to return to North Carolina. I enrolled at Southeastern Seminary and began serving as Pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Kernersville. My daughter Salem was born during these years of seminary studies and service at Hillcrest. One of the highlights of my brief tenure at Hillcrest was dropping in our youth group for a night each summer while they attended their own youth weeks at Caswell.
"Live Oak" where Hillcrest Youth often stayed

In 2005, I left Hillcrest to begin serving as Pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Greensboro, where I continue to serve today. The same year, I also graduated from seminary. Over these years of ministry, I have been blessed to travel to Kenya, Ukraine, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Nepal on numerous mission trips, and have helped to establish and strengthen churches in New England through home mission partnerships. We have rejoiced to be a part of the lives of so many people that God has brought our way. Looking back to that first trip to Caswell, I could have never imagined all that God would do in my life in the intervening years. But it all started at Caswell.

This week, I was so blessed to return there. I sat on “my bench” and read again those words from 1 Samuel 3. I walked over to Hatch and remembered how God was working in my heart to draw me to Himself. I stood in front of the door at Yaupon and remembered the moment when I first met Jesus. I climbed the stairs to the upper balcony at Long Bay where I first sensed God calling me into the ministry, and I ascended the fort to my little hiding place, and read Jeremiah 1 once again, remembering how I had surrendered my life to His service twenty years ago. I stood outside of Sherrill Chapel and thought about how God used Chris Huffman to point me to Fruitland. I told these stories to as many people as would sit and listen to me. In our Business Services meeting, I rejoiced at the statistics that were shared of young people who, like myself, had been saved, made rededications, and surrendered to ministry at Caswell this summer. Most importantly, I thanked God that there is such a place as Caswell, and that He saw fit to bring me to that place and use it in such a tremendous way in my life!