Monday, September 15, 2014

The Perfect Love of Jesus (John 13:1)


“Love” is one of the most commonly used and frequently misunderstood words in the English language. The complexities of this word are evidenced in that the Greek language actually had at least four distinct words to describe the various ways in which we use the word “Love.” We use this one word to describe our love for God, His love for us, the love we have for our spouse, our children, our parents, siblings, and friends. But we also use it to describe how we feel about our favorite foods, sports teams, pastimes, hobbies, and interests. If we were teaching English to someone who had no concept of our language, imagine how confusing it would be for them to find that we use the same word to describe, for example, our affection for our spouse, our parents, and pizza. Surely, we understand that the different uses of the word convey different meanings. When someone tells us that they love us, we certainly hope that they mean something more significant than how they feel about food or entertainment. Deep within each of us there is a longing to both love and to be loved in a way that transcends these earthly affections. In short, we want to experience a perfect love. Our frequent experiences and disappointments seem to suggest, in the words of the old country song, that we’ve been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” There is a perfect love that can be found, but it can only be found in one place ultimately. Our text today shows us the source of this love.

Before we dive into it, we need to orient ourselves a bit to where we are in the Gospel of John. We’ve just passed the half-way point here. The first chapter told us of the eternal origins of Jesus Christ, and how God came to dwell among us as a man in Him. From that point, over the next 11 chapters, we’ve covered the highlights of Jesus’ three year public ministry. As Chapter 12 began, we were entering into the final week of His earthly life. That means that the entire second half of John’s Gospel is devoted to a single week. But more noteworthy is this: Chapters 13-19, the lion’s share of the remainder of the book is devoted to a single 24-hour period that begins here in verse 1. It is Thursday night as the Chapter begins. And it is as if John has put his Gospel into super-slow-motion. They will not leave the upper room where they are observing the Passover meal together until the Chapter 18. By the end of Chapter 19, Jesus will be dead and in the tomb.

These events did not come upon Jesus by surprise. John says here in verse 1 that He knew “that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father.” This “hour” had been known to Jesus since He first left the glories of heaven to enter this world. The events of this hour, including His betrayal and crucifixion, were the very reason He had come. At the wedding of Cana in Galilee in John 2, Jesus stated that His hour had not yet come. On two other occasions (John 7:30 and 8:20), John states that no one was able to seize Jesus because His hour had not yet come. But beginning in John 12, Jesus began to say that His hour had come, and here it is stated that He knew it had come, this hour that He would depart out of this world and go to the Father. He knew that His death was at hand, less than 24 hours away in fact.

It would be understandable, in these moments, if Jesus turned His thoughts solely to Himself. If we were to read that He withdrew from everyone to spend the evening in prayer in preparation for His death, it would not surprise us. But this is not what He did. Instead, He gathered with His disciples for this meal and He determined to demonstrate His love for them. And in so doing, we see perfect love on display and are drawn to that love as the fulfillment of our heart’s greatest desire.

So, what do we learn – what are the facts – about this perfect love that we can discern from our text? Let’s consider them here.

I. Notice the special objects of His love.

1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. It is His nature to love, and He cannot not love. In fact, the Scriptures make it plain that God loves the entire human race. John 3:16 comes to mind – “God so loved the world.” That word “world” in Scripture can and sometimes does mean the universe and/or planet Earth. It also means at times a way of thinking or a system of belief that operates against God in the world. And it often is used to refer to the human race, God’s image-bearers in the world. That’s how it is used in John 3:16. Some would suggest that God does not love those who reject or do not believe in Him. Scripture actually proves this to be false in a number of ways. First of all, we have direct statements like John 3:16 that say without question that He does. We also have passages that imply God’s love for unbelievers, such as when Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem (Lk 19:41), or in Ezekiel 33:11 when God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”

We also have His love for unbelievers expressed in His commandments in the Law. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded, of course, that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Then He continued by saying that the second is like the first, in that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). When Jesus was immediately asked, therefore, “Who is my neighbor?”, He responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans and the Jews bitterly despised one another. But the point of Jesus’ parable was that our love should be extended to all people, even those who are not like us. Jesus even commands us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies (Mt 5:43-44). What does this prove? Well for one thing, because God’s law is an expression of His own nature, He does not command us to do something that He does not do, or to think or act in a way that is not consistent with His own character. Also, because Jesus fulfilled the entire Law in His life of perfect righteousness and absolute sinlessness, we know that He Himself lived in complete obedience even to these commands.

And then we have actual incidents in which we see His love for unbelievers on display. One that comes to mind is the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10. When he asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him, “You know the commandments, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” The man said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up,” which was obviously not true, because it is not true of anyone. And the Bible says that Jesus looked upon him, and “felt a love for him,” even as He said, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” That call to come and follow Him was the key. He was inviting this young man into a personal relationship with Himself. And the Bible says that “at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” Here was a man who blatantly rejected Jesus’ offer of eternal life, and who walked away from the invitation. How did Jesus feel about that man? The Bible says He loved him.

In God’s love for the entire human race, He acts in lovingkindness toward all men in some ways. Jesus said that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt 5:45). In Acts 14:17, Paul addressed a crowd of unbelievers in Lystra and said that God had done good for them and given the rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying their hearts with food and gladness. There is no one on the earth whom God does not love! He proves His love over and over again in His many gifts to mankind. Everything from the next breath you draw to the next meal you will eat comes to you as a gift from His hand. We can say without hesitation on the authority of God’s Word that, whoever you are, God genuinely loves you.

But, now I want us to notice something here in our text. In His final hours on the earth before His crucifixion, Jesus’ heart was not occupied with this universal love that He has for the entire human race. He has withdrawn from the multitudes and drawn to Himself His twelve disciples, and John says that He “loved His own.” “His own” are those who belong to Him in a personal relationship by faith. These are the special objects of His perfect love. He did not stop loving the rest of the world, and He never has and never will. But, His love for His own is qualitatively different than His love for the rest of humanity. It has been well said by some, “God has given some things to all men, and all things to some men.” We can say the same of the love of Jesus. He has given some of it to all, and all of it to some. And those “some” are His own. In fact, it is this perfect love of Jesus that unites us to Him and makes us His own.

He loved His own, John says, “who were in the world.” That’s an important statement (actually all statements in Scripture are important!). This world that is fallen and thoroughly corrupted by sin; this world of humanity that is lost an in rebellion against God; this world that Jesus was soon to leave – this is where the special objects of His perfect love dwell. That means that they are still imperfect, still battling the presence and power of sin in their own lives, still affected daily by the outworking of sin’s effects in the world. But they are no less beloved of the Lord Jesus. In this very chapter, Jesus will tell Peter (one of His own) that he will deny the Lord three times before sunrise the next morning, but that did not negate His love for Peter. The Lord doesn’t love you because you are good. He loves in spite of the fact that you are not good. He loves you with this special kind of love because you are His. We will all fall and fail as long as we are in this world, but if we are His, we fall into His loving arms which are able to raise us back up when we do. Peter experienced that, and so will you if you are His own.

There is a strain of teaching that calls itself Christian that says if you love God and trust Him enough, then He will love you back and protect you so that bad things won’t happen to you. This weekend, one of the preachers of that message has been across the street at the Coliseum, and in a few weeks another will come in behind him. But don’t believe it for a moment; it is a lie from the devil. As long as you are in this world, you will wrestle with sin and its devastating effects, both in your own self and all around you. You will be hurt, you will be grieved, you will experience suffering and tragedy, because no one in this world is immune to it. Jesus Himself was not immune to it. And when those things happen to you (not if, but when), the devil will tempt you to think that you are not loved by the Lord Jesus. But friends, you must hear this statement very clearly: “He loved His own, who were in the world.” He has promised to take His own out of this world eventually to be with Him, but for now, you remain in the world. But it is not home. You are in the world, but Jesus says in John 17 that you are not “of the world.” You are just passing through on your way to your true, eternal home with Him. Don’t be like the world, and don’t love this world and the things in it too dearly, because you are a pilgrim here. Be in it, and be His special objects of love in it, and bring others into the experience of His perfect love as you bear witness to them of your true King and true Kingdom, but you are not of this world. Your citizenship has been transferred elsewhere. Jesus will say in John 16:33 that in this world, you will have tribulations, but take courage, because He has overcome the world. And the one who has overcome this world loves you, and if you are His own, you are the special object of His perfect love, regardless of what hardships you encounter in this world. As I have often said, “In this world, you may often be unwell, but you are never unloved if you are one of His own.”

Now, moving on from the special objects of His love, let’s notice the second fact of His perfect love …

II. Notice the fervent intensity of His love.

In football, there is a penalty for what they call “piling on,” when multiple players jump on the ball carrier after he’s already been tackled. That’s a bad thing in football. It will get you 15 yards. But in the Bible, we often find a literary phenomenon that we could call “piling on” that is often a good thing. It’s when a biblical writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit repeats a word for emphatic intensity. And we find that here in John 13:1. John says, “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” Having loved them, He loved them. And He loves His own “to the end.” That’s how the NASB translates the Greek prepositional phrase here. But it is not the only way it can be translated accurately. It could also be rendered with reference to completion, like “He loved them to the uttermost.” In 2011, the NIV was revised, and by all accounts it is a far inferior translation than the 1984 edition of it. In the older edition, the NIV translated our verse here this way: “He now showed them the full extent of His love.” As one commentator handles the phrase, it is love “in its highest intensity.”[1] This is how Jesus loves His own. It is the demonstration and the proof of it. So how does He love His own? He shows us here.

You might have heard sayings like, “Actions speak louder than words,” or “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It is not that words have no value, but words can be empty or meaningless if they are not accompanied by deeds that validate the words. Jesus did not just tell His disciples that He loved them. He showed them. He showed them His love on more than one occasion, but what He was about to do for them was the greatest act of love they had ever seen, and it foreshadowed an even greater act of love.
In verse 4 we read that He got up from the supper, laid aside His garments, took up a towel and girded Himself. In so doing, He was putting aside the dress of the Teacher and Master, and taking up the simple and humble garb of the servant. Then, verse 5 says that He poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. This was one of the most menial tasks one could perform, the washing of the dirty feet of another. Most people, even most servants, would consider this task beneath them. But the Lord Jesus did not. Even though He was the Lord of Glory, He was not ashamed to serve His disciples by washing their feet.

In Luke’s account of this last supper, we find that the disciples were actually disputing amongst themselves on that very evening about which of them was the greatest. But Jesus wanted to teach them that greatness in God’s Kingdom was seen from a different perspective. He said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:26-27). And He demonstrated it by washing their feet, what the lowliest of servants would ordinarily do, and what apparently none of them were willing to do for one another or even for Him. No greater act of love had ever been seen by them, or by any man. But it was merely a shadow of the ultimate act of loving service that He would render for them.

In Mark 10, upon hearing them bickering once again about who was the greatest among them, Jesus taught them with almost the exact same words, and then He said this: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” To ransom is to pay a price on behalf of another that they may be released from captivity. The entire human race is held captive in sin, and Jesus had come to be the ransom that they may be set free. And the price of that ransom was His very life. If what they had witnessed at the table blew their minds, what they would witness on the ensuing day would even moreso, as the Lord Jesus would lay down His life on the cross to take the sins of the world upon Himself that He might bear the wrath of God in our place. This is the full extent of His love. He loved us with His life and He loved us with His death. He was serving us by meeting our greatest need – the need to be rescued from sin and reconciled to God. In the words of Philippians 2, even though He existed in the form of God, He did not cling to His equality with God, but “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:6-8).

Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Would you lay down your life for your friends, for your loved ones? I dare say that many of us would say “Yes.” If it came down to it, I would gladly forsake my own life for my wife and children. I have told my best friend in the world on more than one occasion, and I truly mean it, I would take a bullet for him. After all, he led me to Jesus. But the love of Christ is greater still than even this. As Paul says in Romans 5:6-8, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet siners, Christ died for us.” In verse 10, he says, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.” He did more than lay down His life for His friends, He laid down His life for His enemies, that He might make them – no, that He might make US – to become His friends.

Do you wonder if you are loved by the Lord? My friends, He has shown us the fervent intensity of His love. Had we been in that upper room, He would have washed our feet in the humble service of love. We weren’t there, so that didn’t happen. But something greater did. He did more than take up a towel for you. He took up a cross for you. This is how He loved us and how we know He loves us. He loves us with His cross. This is the fervent intensity of His love.

Now let’s look at the final fact of His perfect love for His own.

III. Notice the unending duration of His love

We’re still looking at that little phrase, “He loved them to the end.” Remember we said that the phrase could also be translated either as “to the end” or as “to the uttermost.” Well, which is it? Well, it is both. This Greek phrase occurs five other times in the New Testament. Four of them speak of duration, one speaks of intensity. Here it means both. In several passages, John uses phrases that have more than one meaning, and he uses them in such a way that both meanings are implied, intended, and expected. As one scholar notes, “It is better … not to separate the two ideas, for because the love of Jesus was of the highest degree, it would consequently carry through to the very end.”[2] And that is the case here. He does intend to convey to us the fervent intensity of Jesus’ love: He loved His own to the uttermost. And he intends to convey the unending duration of His love: He loved us to the end. To the end of what? To the end of His life, to the end of their lives, or to the end of all things, to the end of all time and into eternity future? The answer is, “Yes! All of the above.” His perfect love for His own never ends.  

The text speaks of His love in the past: “Having loved His own.” He had been loving them up the very moment. And then it speaks of His love in the present: “He loved them,” or we might say, “He was loving them even at the moment.” And then it speaks of His love in the future: “He loved them to the end.”

Some time ago, I was visiting with one of our members, and she had been given a piece of jewelry by a family member with a Hebrew inscription. If I remember correctly, it was a silver circle hanging from the end of a necklace. She asked me to translate it for her on the spot, and I told her that my Hebrew was a little too rusty to do that, so I scribbled down the inscription and came back to the office to work on it. As I began to parse the words, the meaning leaped off the page: “Loved with an everlasting love.” It’s from Jeremiah 31:3, where the Lord says to His own, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” We who are His own, are loved with the everlasting love of the Lord Jesus that will never, ever end. It is as if the Lord Jesus has placed that very pendant around our necks to promise us forever, “I love you, and My love for you will never end.”

Think of it. He has given to His own a life that transcends death, even as the Lord Jesus overcame death. And why has He granted us everlasting life? Is it not that we might be with Him forever? Why in the world does He want us to be with Him forever? Is it not so that for all eternity He might lavish upon us the riches of His mercy and grace and that we might bask in the glory of His love forever?  If you are His own, if you have come to Christ by faith in Him and been adopted by His grace into the family of God, you need not fear that you will ever be unloved. His love for you will never cease. Having loved His own, He loves us to the very end.

Is it not the yearning of every human heart to be loved with a perfect love? Is not the cause of so much of our disillusionment and depression the fact that human and earthly loves have so often failed us, and that we have failed to live in that kind of love? This love is attainable. It can be yours. But it can only be found in Jesus. He alone can love to the uttermost with an everlasting love. He has shown you His love in the cross, and He will love you to the end. If you do not know Him by faith as your Lord and Savior, it is His love that has brought you to this place and given you the opportunity to receive Him. The Bible says that it is His kindness that leads us to repentance. Would you turn from sin and turn to Christ to trust Him as your Master and your Rescuer from enslavement to sin? His love has been poured out for you. Will you receive it? If you will, you will become His own, the special object of His perfect love that is of the utmost intensity and unending duration. And many of you have entered into that love. If you have, you need never feel unloved. If every other person fails you in life, the Lord will not. If all other loves fail you, the love of Jesus never will. The Lord says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Isa 49:16). You have been inscribed there with the markings of the nails that were driven through His hands as He died for you on the cross. You are loved, and you are loved with an everlasting love. Will you rest in that love, and if all other loves fail you, will you be content in knowing that you are loved by Your Redeemer and Your King forever?








[1] Herman Ridderbos, cited in Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 402.
[2] Robert H. Mounce, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 10:545. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Last Sermon of Jesus Christ (John 12:44-50)


The great Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once famously said, “I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men!”[1] As a Puritan in an age where being such was subject to persecution, Baxter never knew when he might be preaching his final sermon. But of course, it is true for us all: we never really know when we might preach, or hear, our last sermon; even when we might draw our last breath. When I was a student at Fruitland, we had a great, visionary president leading the school. Randy Kilby was a young man – 42 at the time, with a wife and a seven-year old son. On February 6, 1997, he was preaching at Southeastern Seminary, and said as he began, “Pray that I will come into this pulpit as if it were my first time, pray for the me that I’ll preach as if it were my best time, and pray for me as it could be my last time.” It wasn’t his last time, but five days later, as he preached very passionately in another place, he finished his sermon, walked out of the sanctuary, and fell over dead.[2]

I will mention another incident, one that I have heard Pastor Jack speak of on numerous occasions. Dr. V. Raymond Edman, then Chancellor of Wheaton College, addressed the college chapel on September 22, 1967. It was the first time he had spoken in public in ten months, and he spoke on the subject of an invitation to visit a King. He began by speaking about his personal meeting with the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He spoke of all the formality and protocol of that encounter, before transitioning to the subject of meeting with the King of kings and Lord of lords Himself in worship. He admonished the students that as they entered the chapel, all conversation was to cease, and they were to enter in silently and be seated, in order to meet with the King. They were to wait in silence before the Lord, to prepare their hearts to hear the Lord and to meet with the King. He exhorted them to pay close attention to the message and the messenger as if they were in private audience with King Jesus. And at some point, early in the message, Dr. Edman slumped over the pulpit and died of a fatal heart attack.

I share these stories to indicate the thrust of Baxter’s words – that we must preach as dying men to dying men, never knowing when the next sermon we preach, or even hear, might be our last. In the case of Randy Kilby or Raymond Edman, I don’t think either of them knew that it would be their last sermon. But here in our text, we find the last public sermon of Jesus Christ – one that He knew would be His last. These are not his last words, for He continued on for some days teaching with His disciples in privacy, and He spoke but a few words during His trial, and He spoke seven utterances on the cross. Of course, after His resurrection, He spoke to those to whom He appeared over a period of 40 days. And then of course it is true that Jesus speaks still today, through His Word, the Bible, every time we open its precious pages. But here in our text, Jesus was delivering what He knew would be His final public message. In so doing, it was His aim to provide a concise summary of the most important strands of teaching from His entire earthly ministry.

These are the words that He desires to resonate in the ears of those who heard Him on that day. That He intended to be heard, and heard well, is obvious from the opening words of the passage: “And Jesus cried out and said.” The Greek word translated “cried out” is sometimes translated as scream or shout in other passages. This passage follows close on the heels of verse 36, which concludes with Jesus going away and hiding Himself from the public eye. It seems that as He departed from the scene, He was saying these things. So, what are the truths that Christ would impress upon the hearts of the hearers of His final sermon? They distill to three: His divine identity, the certainty of judgment, and a command to eternal life.

I. He speaks of His divine identity (vv44-46).

There’s a little joke among preachers about the bad habit that some pastors fall into of preaching always and only on their favorite topics. We call them “hobby horses.” The joke is about a Baptist preacher who was always preaching on Baptism. The preacher took for his text one Sunday Genesis 3:9, which says, “The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He announced that he had three points to consider: (1) Where Adam was; (2) How he got there; and finally (3) a few thoughts on the subject of baptism. Expository preaching through books of the Bible is effective at keeping us away from our hobby horses. In John’s Gospel, there are many texts that deal with similar subjects, so there will be a good many sermons in a thorough study of the book that deal with those few topics. One of them is the identity and nature of Jesus Christ. This is not because it is a hobby horse (although one would be hard pressed to find a better hobby horse to ride), but because it is the point of both John’s Gospel and so much of the preaching and teaching of Jesus Himself. One of the ways to know that we are staying close to the center line of John’s Gospel is to see that his overarching theme of presenting Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and the One who is able to impart eternal life to those who believe upon Him (John 20:31).

The Apostle Paul said, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). Jesus could uniquely say something almost completely opposite: “I preach myself, Christ Jesus, as Lord.” If anyone else were to stand up and promote and preach himself as the object of our attention and devotion, he would be an egomaniac. But this is not true of Jesus. He alone can preach Himself, because there is no higher Person to whom He could point than Himself. As the incarnate God, He could rightly make Himself the singular and ultimate subject and object of all of His preaching and teaching. His obvious aim in all of His preaching and teaching was to disclose unto His hearers the divine truth that He was the one and only true God, who had become a man for us for our salvation. Therefore, it is no surprise that in this, His final public sermon, He devotes much attention to this truth.

He says, “He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me.” That sounds almost nonsensical, doesn’t it? Just replace the word “Me” with the words “the Tooth Fairy,” and see how it sounds: “He who believes in the Tooth Fairy does not believe in the Tooth Fairy.” It seems self-contradictory. We need the remainder of the sentence to understand how Jesus could say this. He says, “He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me.” He is saying that belief in Jesus is really a belief in the One who sent Him, namely God the Father. This means that we are not merely to believe in Jesus in the historical sense of His existence, as if we might say we believe in George Washington or in Martin Luther King, Jr. When we truly believe in Jesus, we are believing far more than that He lived and died. We are believing in God Himself, through the person of Jesus. We believe, in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” By these words, Jesus was saying that He and the Father were One, and that to believe in Him was to believe in God. The converse is also true: to reject Him is to reject God. This is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so offensive in our world today. With so many claiming to believe in God, to believe in this deity or that one, the words of Jesus Christ are alarming and shocking. He is saying, “If you do not believe in Me, you do not believe in God, because I am Him, I came from Him, and I was sent by Him.”

He goes on to say, “He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me.” If you want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me” (Jn 14:1). And He said, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him” (14:7). I appreciate Philip here in this passage, because He had the audacity to say what everyone else was thinking. He said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (14:8). In other words, he is saying, “OK, OK, Lord, we want to believe that You are who You say You are, but it would help us greatly if You would just give us a little glimpse of God Himself so that we can truly see Him and then believe in You.” Jesus said to Him, “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; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” (14:9-10).

Do you want to know what God is like? Then look to Jesus, for He says that when you see Him, you see God Himself. Remember in Exodus 33, how Moses cried out that he might see the glory of God face to face. God answered him and said, “‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; …’ But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live! … [Y]ou shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exo 33:18-23). The holiest man in Israel was barred from seeing God face to face because he would have been incinerated by the very sight of Him. But God, in His mercy and grace, condescended to come among us in the person of Jesus Christ. As John 1:14 says, He “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory.” It is only in Jesus that we can truly see God.

Apart from Him, we are all lost in utter darkness. But Jesus says that He “came as Light into the world so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.” As God, He alone reveals to us the truth about God. Were it not for Jesus, we would have no access to this truth. We can speculate and guess about what God is like, but would never be sure. We might like to think that God is love. People everywhere say that about God. But how do we know that God is love? We know this because in Jesus, He demonstrated His love to us. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son.” Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. So we have this divine revelation of who God is, recorded for us in His written Word, and living among us in human flesh as the incarnate Word. In all of His preaching and all of His teaching, Jesus was crying out to a world lost in darkness saying, “Here is Light! I am the Light! If you want to know God, come to Me! When you see Me, you see Him! When you believe in Me, you believe in Him!” He was speaking of His divine identity.

II. He speaks of the certainty of judgment (vv47-48).

My first encounter with Jonathan Edwards, that famous preacher of the American Great Awakening in the 18th Century, came when I was a high school student, before I was a Christian. In an American Literature class, we were required to read Edwards’ notorious sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I can still remember the way my teacher and my textbook depicted him in a very negative light. My friend Steve Nichols is an Edwards scholar. He writes,

The overwhelming judgment of contemporary readers is that Edwards was dour and calloused and that when he preached, he breathed the smoke of hellfire and brimstone harangues. … This image of Edwards could not be more wrong, and this judgment of him could not be more ironic. It is ironic because his sermons overflow with the words sweetness, pleasure, joy, love, and beauty. Edwards never pulled back from proclaiming the wrath of God on sin, but he just as forcefully and readily proclaimed the abundant mercy and grace of a good and loving God.[3]

If we want to find a preacher whose sermons could be characterized by stern warnings of a coming judgment, perhaps Edwards is not our best example. In fact, I think we could actually find no better example than Jesus Christ. A quick survey of all the Bible’s teachings on hell and judgment would readily reveal, as John MacArthur points out, that “The most prolific teacher on hell in all of Scripture was the Lord Jesus Himself. He had more to say about the subject than all the apostles, prophets, and evangelists of Scripture put together.”[4] It is no wonder that He emphasizes the certainty of judgment in His final public sermon.

Now, at first, someone might say, “No, Jesus says here that He does not judge, and did not come to judge the world.” Well, that is at best a reading of only half of the text. So let’s look at verses 47-48 and see the whole of it. Jesus says, “If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” Notice that Jesus did not say that unbelievers who reject His word will not face judgment. He says that He is not the one judges them. Notice also that He says He did not come to judge the world. That was not the intent of His coming. The intent of His coming was to save the world. Now, let me ask you, if the world was not already at risk of being judged, then what was He coming to save the world from? The fact is that Jesus did not have to come to judge the world, because, as He said in John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” You see, Jesus did not have to come to bring judgment. Judgment was already upon those who rejected God, and therefore rejected His incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus. But in His coming, Jesus was on a mission to save those who would believe upon Him from that judgment.

Now notice the next verse. He says, “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him.” So, Jesus is by no means saying that there will be no judgment for those who do not believe in Him. He is assuring His hearers of the absolute certainty of a coming judgment. He says that “one” who judges the unbeliever is “the word I spoke.” That “is what will judge him at the last day.” The same message of Jesus that has the power to save all who believe in Him is also going to condemn all those who reject Him. The world around us thinks that we Christians are very arrogant to proclaim that only those who believe on Jesus will enter heaven, while all others will go to hell. Maybe someone here today thinks the same thing, and would even question, “Who are we to say who will go to heaven and who will go to hell?” Well, my friends, as Jesus makes abundantly clear here, it is not up to us to arbitrarily decide. The matter of judgment has been settled by His Word. We Christians are not the ones who say that unbelievers will go to hell; rather, our Christ is the one who Himself has declared this with absolute certainty. His words carry ultimate authority, because as He says in verses 49-50, He does not speak on His own initiative, but He speaks what the Father has commanded Him to say, just as the Father told Him to speak. His words are not the words of a mere man. They are the very words of God Himself. Therefore we must take His words with all severity and seriousness.

Take for example that simple verse that so many of us learned as children – 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.” If we believe this is true, as stated, then we must believe its necessary corollary: God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever does not believe in Him will not have eternal life, but will perish. Nowhere does Jesus make this clearer than in John 14:6, when He says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” If this is true, then there is also a true necessary corollary: Because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, anyone who comes by any other way, believing any other message to be true, and hoping for life in any other person or thing, will most certainly not come to the Father. They will perish under the just and holy judgment of God – a judgment which Jesus declared to be certain and unavoidable. When we come before the bar of God’s judgment, it will be belief in the promise of Jesus’ words that saves us. If we have rejected Him, the very words He spoke will pronounce a certain and eternal condemnation.

III. He speaks of a command to eternal life (vv49-50).

I’m thankful that I’ve never had to spend much time in courtrooms. One time, a friend was making a case in court and invited me to come to support him, where I would have the opportunity to speak if I so desired. I took him up on the invitation, but I didn’t have to. I could have said, “No thank you,” and all would have been fine. But on another occasion, I got a piece of mail saying that I had been summoned to the courthouse for jury duty. In this, I did not have an option. I had to go, otherwise I would have to face the consequences. This was more than an invitation; it was a command.

If you understand the difference between an invitation and a command, you will find an unusual statement here in the final portion of Jesus’ last public sermon. He says that He doesn’t speak on His own initiative, but that the Father has given Him a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. He can’t NOT speak these things. And then He says this: “I know that His commandment is eternal life.” God is commanding us to eternal life. We don’t normally think of it that way, do we? Normally we think of it as an invitation or an offer that one can freely accept or reject. Well, it is an offer and an invitation, and one can accept or reject it; but it is also a commandment, and as such one rejects it only to his or her own peril.

In the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian, and nearly every other English version, Acts 17:30 says that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” He is commanding us to turn from our sins and come to Him by way of faith in the Lord Jesus! Why? Because He loves us! He wants us to know Him, to be cleansed of our sins, to have eternal life with Him! If you love your children, do you give them commands? Of course you do! You give them commands for their own good and their well-being. And if they disobey those commands, you love them enough to make them face the consequences of their disobedience. Friends, if we understand this truth in human relationships, how much more is it true of God? Out of His great love for us, He has done more than invite us, as if He could not care less whether we accepted the offer or not. No, He has commanded us to repent and return to Him by faith in Christ and be saved from His judgment. As we invite others to come to Jesus, and make a fair offer of the Gospel to them, we need to be clear that the God of the universe has issued this command, which can lead them to eternal life if they will turn from sin and believe on Christ, or to eternal destruction if they turn away from him in disbelief and disobedience.

This is why the Lord Jesus speaks with such urgency, crying out – shouting or screaming, as it were – these words of His final public sermon. He wants us to know who He is – God in the flesh, who has come to reveal God’s truth that we might turn to Him and believe. He wants us to know that there is a judgment coming in which we will be either saved or condemned on the basis of our response to the words He has spoken. And because He loves us, He issues us a commandment that is eternal life to all who turn to Him by faith. And that was the end of His public ministry, the conclusion of His last sermon. All that remains is to take His words to heart, to consider the weight of them, and to respond to them, either by faith or by unbelief. It was the last time they would hear Him preach. It might have been the last time some of them would hear anyone preach. We don’t know but that this could well be the last sermon I ever preach. It might well be the last one someone here could hear. I pray not, but we do not know what a day will bring. So, it remains for us as it did for those in our text, to hear the words of Jesus, to let them bear with all due weight upon our hearts and souls, and to make a reasonable response to His words. And the only reasonable response is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Many of you have, and have received this eternal life that God commands in Christ. If you have, then you surely desire that others will as well. We can do no better than to urge them with these important truths that Christ proclaimed here. Tell them who He is; tell them of the coming judgment, and of God’s command to turn to Jesus and be saved. If you never have before, I pray you will this day, perhaps even in this moment.

  



[1] Richard Baxter, The Poetical Fragments of Richard Baxter (London: Pickering, 1821), 35. Online: http://www.archive.org/stream/poeticalfragment00baxt#page/34/mode/2up/search/%22dying+man%22. Accessed September 4, 2014.
[2] “Fruitland President Kilby dies at 42 of heart attack.” Baptist Press, February 17, 1997. Online: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=3094. Accessed September 4, 2014.
[3] Stephen J. Nichols,  Heaven On Earth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006), 30.
[4] John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (third ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 77.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

An Unconfessing Faith? (John 12:42-43)

Audio

In our culture, we have a simple way to identify that someone is married. Typically, it is shown by the wearing of a single, solid band on the ring finger of the left hand. However, it is not the ring but the relationship that makes them married. You can wear a ring and not be married, and a married person doesn’t become unmarried if he or she removes the ring. But, it is commonly understood that a married person wants to have some way of making it known to others that he or she is in a committed, covenant relationship with another person, whether it is by a ring or any other indication.

How do we know that a person has faith in Jesus Christ? Is it because they wear a cross on their necklace? Is it because they are a member of a church, or have been baptized? Certainly a Christian may wear Christian jewelry, but so can a non-Christian. A Christian may be, and should be, both baptized and a member of the church. But unfortunately, there are many non-Christians who have been baptized and become members of churches. Someone said to me recently, “Just because I go to McDonalds, that doesn’t make me a hamburger.” Similarly, just because a person goes to church, or even joins a church, doesn’t mean that he or she is a Christian, and it does not make a person a Christian; nor does baptism. If a person is not a follower of Jesus, being baptized doesn’t make him or her a Christian, it just makes them wet! But, we do understand that when a person is a follower of Christ, he or she seeks some demonstrable way to make his or her faith known to others. We call this confessing or professing the faith. Now, it is true, there are some who make professions of faith who do not genuinely follow Christ. But, all who are followers of Christ will make some public expression of their faith in Him.

In the text we have read today, we run up against a bit of an oddity. We find a group of people who are called rulers (meaning that they are part of the ruling council of the Jews), and we might be somewhat surprised by what we read about these rulers here in the text. After the previous context, which indicated that Jesus had been wholesale rejected by a vast majority of the people of His day, we find here that many of these rulers believed in Him. That sounds like a pleasant surprise, doesn’t it? The next word however indicates that there is a malfunction with their belief in Him. What’s the next word? “BUT.” That word indicates a contrast. They believed in Him, BUT. When you see something like that in the text, it is a red alert. It means that the thing has turned in a different direction. They believed in Him, BUT “they were not confessing Him.” They were not making any attempt to publicly and openly identify themselves as a follower of Jesus. They have an unconfessing faith, and this is a problem.

So, what we need to do here is examine why an unconfessing faith is a problem, look at what causes this problem, and how to fix it.

I. The problem of an unconfessing faith.

I am very proud of my wedding ring. It is the only piece of jewelry I have ever worn. Well, there was that brief bit in college when I wore an earring, but let’s not talk about that. My wedding ring announces to the world that I am happily married to a wonderful woman. But my wedding ring is also an irreplaceable family heirloom. It belonged to my grandfather. For that very sentimental reason, I have chosen to not wear my ring when I travel overseas. If it were to be lost or stolen (which is not uncommon), it would simply be irreplaceable. In fact, on one mission trip, Donia and I awkwardly learned that this ring doesn’t have the same sort of meaning in some other cultures anyway. Therefore, I no longer wear it when I go overseas, and Donia is perfectly fine with that. But, what if I told her on our wedding day, “I have absolutely no intention of ever wearing a wedding ring.” She might suspect that there was a disconnect in my commitment to her. That’s a problem, isn’t it? It is also a problem when someone claims to believe in Christ, but is unwilling to make an open confession of faith.

Let’s consider a few key passages of Scripture on this matter. Not surprisingly, we find perhaps the strongest words on this subject coming from the Lord Jesus Himself. In Luke 12, we find Jesus surrounded by so many thousands of people that the Bible says that they were literally “stepping on one another.” But in the midst of that great multitude, Jesus spoke privately to His disciples about the necessity of publicly identifying with Him. As long as one is immersed in a crowd with relative anonymity, it is easy to blend in with His true followers. But Jesus told His disciples, “I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (12:8-9). So, get that … if you confess Him before men, if you will openly say that you belong to Him on earth, He will openly say that you belong to Him in heaven. That’s a wonderful promise of our security in Christ. But He also said that if you deny Him before men, if you deny that you belong to Him on earth, He will deny in heaven that you ever belonged to Him. That is an alarming promise, just as true as the other one.

In the magnificent first chapter of Romans we find Paul making this bold declaration: “I am eager to preach gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:15-16). Like Paul, one who is not ashamed of the Gospel is eager to make it known. Don’t be dismayed or deterred by his word “preach” there. He’s not saying you all have to prepare a sermon and stand in a pulpit this week. What we translate as “preach the gospel” is one Greek word, euaggelisasthai (from which we get the word evangelism). It means “proclaim the good news.” Paul is not ashamed to be known as a Gospel-man, because this is the Gospel that has saved him, and this is the Gospel that alone is able to save anyone! The Gospel is nothing to ashamed of, but instead we should be eager to be openly identified with this good news of Jesus Christ.

Then coming to Romans 10:9-10, we have this declaration which aptly sums up all that we are trying to say here about believing and confessing. “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; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Those two things cannot be separated. We have no righteousness apart from salvation, and we have no salvation apart from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon us. You can’t have one or the other; they go together always and inseparably. So, if you believe in your heart, you will confess with your mouth, otherwise, the Word of God says, you are not and cannot be saved!

That’s a big problem. Some of us will want to sympathize with these Jewish rulers who are described as believing but not confessing. It is always comforting to find someone in the Bible to whom we can relate, and maybe someone reads John 12:42 and says, “Yes! These are my people! They believe, they just like to keep quiet about it. They aren’t confessing.” That is nothing to boast of. That is a problem! Is it possible that someone could be saved by an unconfessing faith? Look, I’m not God, so I don’t get to decide, apart from what God has declared in His Word. And what God has declared in His Word that believing and confessing have to go together in order to have salvation and righteousness, and Jesus Himself said that He will confess in heaven the one who confesses Him on earth, and deny in heaven the one who denies Him on earth. Don’t point to these guys and say, “Well, what about them? They believed but they didn’t confess.” They are not put forth as a positive example! They are put forth as a warning to us! They are not examples of true, saving faith. They are, rather, examples of “inadequate, irresolute, even spurious faith.”[1] Can a person be saved by an unconfessing faith? This text does not answer that question for us. But based on other texts that are very clear, why on earth would you want to take that chance? If you believe, confess it! If you do not confess, then do you really believe? Do not be ashamed of the Gospel. Do not be ashamed or afraid to make it known that you believe in Jesus and belong to Him by faith.

Now, having identified this as a serious problem, we need to consider why the problem is so prevalent. Why are there so many, both here in our text, and all around us in the world, who have some measure of faith, but are unwilling to confess their faith in Jesus?

II. The cause of an unconfessing faith

As many of you know, I came to know the Lord during youth camp at Fort Caswell, and two years later, at the same place, I surrendered to the calling to ministry. I look forward to every opportunity to go back there, because to me, Fort Caswell is holy ground. I even have a t-shirt that says across the front in big letters, “CASWELL.” One day I was wearing it in Wal-Mart while doing some grocery shopping, and a person came up to me and said, “Are you from Caswell County?” I just kept walking and said, “No.” A few moments later, I was just overcome with guilt about how curtly I had dismissed the question, when I could have taken the opportunity to share my testimony about how Jesus had changed my life at that place. I really blew it! I’m sure we’ve all had those situations when a critical moment passes by and we are filled with regret as our minds are flooded with what we should have said or done. Why do we so often not say or do the right thing, or even think of it until the moment has passed? For me, on that day, I know why. I had my mind on getting out of Wal-Mart as quickly as I could. I was there to get my groceries and get back home as fast as possible. In that moment, like too many others unfortunately, I had misplaced affections. I loved myself, my own agenda, and my own comfort zones far more than I loved that person, their eternal destiny, the Gospel, and even the Lord Jesus. I think that’s true for most of us more often than we would like to admit. We have misplaced affections. Whether it is for a moment, when we fail to take the opportunity to confess our faith in Jesus, or if it is a besetting problem that silences us perpetually, misplaced affections is the cause of all occurrences unconfessing faith, including that which we find in our text.

There are many imperatives in Scripture that define our appropriate and fitting response to the Lord. Two of them that occur over and over again are fear and love. We know what these things are. They are natural affections. We all came into the world knowing how to fear and how to love. But God calls us to fear Him above all other fears, and to love Him beyond all earthly loves. Our affections are misplaced when we love anything more than we love God and when we fear anything more than we fear Him. And that is what we find going on here in the hearts of those in our text.

Notice that verse 42 says that they were not confessing Jesus “because of the Pharisees.” These were their peers, their fellow “rulers.” What was it about the Pharisees that caused these men to not confess Jesus? Well, they knew the hatred that the majority of the rulers had for Jesus, and they’d seen that expressed toward others who confessed faith in Jesus. In John 9, when a man whom Jesus had healed of congenital blindness confessed that Jesus had made him well, the Pharisees put that man out of the synagogue – they excommunicated him – and they threatened to do the same to his whole family. Seeing how they had treated that man, these rulers who had come to some measure of belief in Christ had to know that they were not exempt from the same treatment. And this slammed their mouths shut and kept them from testifying to their faith in Jesus.

They had misplaced affections. Verse 43 says that they were silenced by fear. “They were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” To be barred from the synagogue was a BIG DEAL for any Jew, and still would be today. But for these guys, it meant a loss of their position, their stature, their security, and their reputation. And these things were very important to them. Jesus had said to His disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets” (Lk 20:46). They liked all of that stuff. They were afraid to lose it. Their fear of losing these things was greater than their fear of the Lord. Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.” Because of the fear of their fellow religious leaders, these men were ensnared – they were trapped in an unconfessing faith. The great irony is that they thought they were exalted. But as the Proverb says, the Lord will exalt the one who trusts in Him. They could not experience that truer and greater exaltation because they were ensnared by the fear of losing their false position of pseudo-exaltation in their society. It was a misplaced fear.

They also had a misplaced love. Notice that they “were not confessing Him … for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Now, this is not a great choice of words in the translation. The thing they loved was not the approval of men. The Greek word is doxa. How should we translate this? Think of how it used in other passages. Here’s a good example: when the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, the doxa of the Lord shone around them, and they said “doxa to God in the highest.” What’s the word? It’s not “approval!” We don’t sing any Christmas songs that say, “Approval to God in the highest,” do we? No. The word is glory! They loved the glory that they received from their peers more than the glory that belongs to God. Now, that same Greek word for “glory” was just used a few verses before in verse 41. It says that Isaiah saw His glory (that is, He saw the glory of the Lord Jesus), and what did He do with it? He spoke of Him. This illustrates the folly of these men. The greatest prophet of Israel’s was unashamed to speak of His glory, and he did so thoroughly and beautifully! Who do these guys think they are that they would shrink from proclaiming the glory of Jesus, if they had really, truly believed in Him? They did not love His glory. They loved their own glory, the glory that they would lose in the eyes of others if they were to love His glory instead.

There is a single word that summarizes all of our misplaced affections when it comes to the Lord: idolatry. When we love anything more than we love the Lord Jesus, be it our possessions, our positions, our reputations or even our religious traditions, whatever it is, it is an idol in our lives. When we fear anything more than we fear God we have fallen into the snare of idolatry, for we have elevated the power of that thing to a higher place than we allow for the power of God in our lives. Cherishing any glory other than the glory of God is nothing but idolatry! And that is what lies at the root of all unconfessing belief: the idolatry that masks itself as a desire for personal security, prosperity, approval, and so many other cleverly-disguised things. Idols are only good for one thing – toppling. And that brings us to the cure for unconfessing belief.

III. The cure for an unconfessing belief.

There was a commercial many years ago for a laundry detergent that showed a guy getting grass stains all over his clothes. The ad called these “protein stains,” and it said that “protein gets out protein.” This detergent claimed to have “the protein power to cut clean through” those protein stains. So, if you need to deal with a protein stain, you need a stronger protein to deal with it. The same is true of our misplaced affections. They can only be treated by proper affections. If you have fears, you can cast them out with a greater fear. If you have inappropriate loves in your life, you can remove them with a greater love.

These men feared their fellow man more than they feared the Lord. What they need is a greater fear of the Lord. Jesus said in Luke 12, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body.” That sounds like odd advice, doesn’t it?  Don’t fear those who can kill you. But Jesus said you don’t have to be afraid of them, because, as He said, “after that,” after they kill your body, they “have no more that they can do.” The worst they can do is kill you. You might say, “Well, what else is there?” Jesus has an answer. He says, “I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Lk 12:4-5). Are you afraid to confess Him as your Lord because you fear that it will mean a loss of your reputation, your relationships, your possessions, your security, perhaps even your lives? You need to replace that fear with a greater fear – a fear of the One, the only One, who can confess you before His Father in heaven as His own, or deny You on the day of judgment and, in the words of Jesus, “cast you into hell.” Even if confessing Him leads to a lifetime of hardship and suffering, cut short even by a brutal death, what is that compared to an eternity of perishing in hell? Are our fears in proper order?  

They loved the glory that they had in the eyes of men more than they loved the glory of God. What did they need? A greater love! What is the greatest commandment? Jesus said it is this: “You shall love the Lord your God.” You say, “Oh but I do, in addition to my love for many other things.” But Jesus said that the great commandment is to love the Lord your God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Lk 10:27). All of your entire being – heart, soul, strength, and mind – is to be singularly devoted to loving Him! You might say, “Well if I only love Him, I can’t love anyone else.” Not true. The fact is that you cannot love anyone or anything else rightly until and unless you are singularly devoted to Him as the first and foremost love of your life. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). Did He really just say that? Yes He did. But you say, “No, He didn’t mean that, because we aren’t supposed to hate anyone, and we are supposed to love others.” What Jesus is saying is that our love for Him must be so unrivaled, so unequaled in our affections, that our love for other people or other things must appear as hatred in comparison to the priority of loving Him. It means, if given a choice between Him and any other love – God forbid, the love of parents, the love of wife and children, and yes, even the love of our own lives – there must be a clear and distinct preference for Him above all else. There will be hard decisions to make at times in our lives: decisions that force us to choose between our own well-being, our friendships and family members, our achievements and successes, and our devotion to Him. Is your love for Him such that the choice, difficult though it may be, is an obvious one? A greater love for Him sets all other lesser loves in right perspective.

And, friends, when our fear of God casts out the fear of man, and when our love for Christ surpasses our love for all others, including our own selves, our unconfessing faith becomes a confessing one. It moves from the level of inadequate, irresolute, and spurious faith, to genuine, saving faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a faithful German pastor who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote to address the problem of unconfessing belief that was plaguing the German church in his day. He called the idea of an unconfessing faith that was unwilling to embrace the cost of discipleship, “Cheap Grace.” Listen to his words, which are so relevant to our own day and time:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. … Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son. … Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life.”[2]

Friends, the only way to experience such a costly grace is to receive it with a bold, confessing faith that is not ashamed to be identified openly with the One who identified with us in His incarnation and crucifixion, and who will identify with us when He confesses us before His Father on the day of judgment, and pleads the blood of His own wounds. He will confess us, but only if we have confessed Him. May God grant us all a confessing faith in the Lord Jesus, lest we be denied by Him when all is said and done.



[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Pillar, 1991), 450.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 43-45.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Unbelief Explained (John 12:37-41)


Would it surprise any of you to know that drinking and driving is dangerous? Perhaps no single issue has received so much attention and awareness in the past quarter-century than this. And yet, just two weeks ago a high-ranking law enforcement official in our state was caught driving under the influence of alcohol. I read that story and wondered how anyone in America in this day and time, especially a law-enforcement officer, could get behind the wheel of an automobile in an intoxicated state? Do they not know the dangers? Do they not believe the reports they have heard? And then there is this factor: one of the effects of intoxication is that it impairs a person’s judgment. They not only fail to make the right decision, but they actually cannot make the right decision. And then tragedy happens.

Let’s consider another tragedy – that of spiritual unbelief. Why is it that some people, in fact most people in the history of the human race, have believed in a supernatural being, while others simply do not consider it at all plausible? Recently some have speculated that there must be a specific gene that causes some people to be predisposed to spiritual experiences. Some evolutionary anthropologists have theorized that as humanity continues to evolve to higher levels of sophistication, we have outgrown our need for a deity and therefore more and more people do not believe. And then there are those who would say it boils down to evidence and information. They would say that those who do not believe have just not seen enough convincing evidence to change their minds. Some will even say that there is an over-abundance of evidence to the contrary that should convince more of us that God does not exist.

Even among those who believe in God or gods, there are vast differences of opinions about how many deities there are, what they are like, how they interact with the world. Who is right, who is wrong? I trust that most of you have decided that the message of the Christian faith is true, and all others are false. What convinced you to believe, and why have so many of your friends, neighbors, and relatives, not believed? Is it a matter of information and evidence? Is it cultural or genetic? Are you just smarter or luckier than they are, or is it vice-versa?  Or is it something else?  Some would ask us Christians, “How could you possibly believe in Jesus?” We need to expect that question, and 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we need to be ready to give an answer to that question. But it is just as legitimate to ask the unbeliever, “How could you possibly not believe in Jesus?” I suppose that the average unbeliever has never given much thought to how to explain his or her unbelief. And yet the text that is before us today actually goes a long way toward helping us understand this very thing. This is unbelief explained.

I. Unbelief is a willful rejection of divine revelation (v37-38)

Many people sort of have this assumption that we who believe have either rejected all of the evidence that should convince us not to believe, or else that we have been privileged to see some convincing evidence that others have not seen. I’ve had unbelievers tell me, “I wish I could believe what you believe, but I’ve just seen too much evidence to convince me otherwise.” Some have said, “I am open to believing, but God just has not given me enough reasons to believe.” It sounds plausible, doesn’t it? When we hear things like this, we are tempted to sympathize with them. After all, it is not their fault if they haven’t seen convincing evidence, is it?  We may go to the Lord in prayer asking Him why He has not done more to convince our unbelieving friend or loved one of His existence and His power to save. Some may be tempted to doubt even their own faith, wondering if they have been duped into believing something that isn’t real, or if we have been too gullible to see all of the evidence to the contrary. This text helps us to understand that ultimately unbelief is in fact a willful rejection of divine revelation.

Consider verse 37: “But though He (Jesus) had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him.” Some had seen Jesus turn water into wine; multiply just a small number of loaves and fish into a meal that fed a multitude of thousands; heal people with serious medical ailments at the touch of His hand or the sound of His voice; even raise the dead back to life. John says that there were many other things that Jesus did which have not been recorded for us in Scripture. He says, “If they were written in every detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). Yet, John considered that only the small portion of Jesus’ miracles that he recorded in his Gospel should be enough to convince anyone to believe in Him. He says, “Many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in His name” (20:30-31). 

It is undeniably true that, if an infinite God really exists, the only way for finite human beings to know anything about Him is for God to reveal that information to us. He did that supremely in the Person and works of Jesus Christ, and the revelation was by-and-large rejected. Now, we might say, “Well, so much for them, but what about my friends, my loved ones, my neighbors, who have never seen the miracles that Jesus did?” Some even point to the famous “pagan in the faraway land” who has never heard of Jesus. What about them? Surely they have not rejected revelation, have they? Isn’t it more the case that they’ve never received the revelation? No, this is not true. Every human being who has ever lived has received God’s divine revelation about Himself to some degree.

The Bible speaks of two kinds of revelation. There is His “general revelation” by which He makes Himself known to all men everywhere. We might call this “the works of God.” And then there is His special revelation by which He makes known the specific way of salvation through a personal relationship with Himself. We might call this “the Word of God.” Certainly, in the case of those in our text, they had received specific revelation in the Person and works of Jesus Christ. Not only did He speak the Word of God, but He IS the Word of God made flesh (Jn 1:1, 14). God has also made the specific revelation of His Word known through the Scriptures that He has inspired.

The nation of Israel is an example of those who had received God’s special revelation. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 9:4-5 that the Israelites had been given “the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, … the fathers, and … the Christ.” God had given them unprecedented revelation of Himself over centuries of history, culminating in the coming of Christ into the world through their lineage and in their land. And yet, so many of them remained in unbelief! En masse, they had received the Word of God (inscripturated and incarntated), and they had rejected the Word of God.

But the Word of God has also gone out to the rest of the world through the Church. In 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Paul says that the Scriptures are able to give one the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus, and ALL Scripture is “inspired by God” (it is theo-pneustas, God-breathed). In Scripture, God is speaking and revealing Himself. That word “Scripture” is used to refer to the writings of the Old Testament as well as the writings of the New Testament. Peter used the word Scripture to refer to the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16), and Paul used it to describe the writings of Luke (1 Tim 5:18, cf. Lk 10:7). So, everywhere the truth of the Bible goes forth, God is revealing Himself through the special revelation of His Word. And everywhere it goes forth, it is met to some degree with unbelief – a willful rejection of divine revelation.

But what of those who have not heard the Word of God? They’ve never seen Jesus, they’ve never seen or heard anything from the Bible, they’ve never heard the Gospel. Surely they have not rejected divine revelation have they? Well, in fact they have, because God has revealed Himself to all people everywhere through His works, which we call His “general revelation.” In Romans 1:18, Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Notice that he does not say that they do not have access to the truth, but they have suppressed or rejected the truth in exchange for unrighteousness, the practice of their sin. Well, what truth did they have? He goes on in the following verses to say, “Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). It is evident within them, because every human being is made in His image. A part of that image is the innate awareness of God and a moral conscience that affirms us when we act rightly and condemns us when we sin. But in addition to this, there is the creation, what has been made. So, as a result, Paul says that no one anywhere is without excuse when it comes to belief in God. His revelation has gone out into all the world, and it has been met with large scale rejection.

Unbelief is, according to God’s Word, not due to a lack of evidence, but is a willful rejection of the evidence given through divine revelation. This is something that was observed and foretold even by the prophet Isaiah. John says in verse 38 that the unbelief and rejection of these people took place to “fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: ‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The passage being quoted is from Isaiah 53. There are two distinct questions here: (1) Who has believed our report? The answer is very few. (2) And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? The answer is EVERYONE! They have all received some measure of divine revelation.
Remember the story Jesus told of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. When the Rich Man is being tormented in hell, he cries out to Father Abraham in heaven for him to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers of their need to repent and turn to the Lord in faith. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets (the Word of God); let them hear them.” The Rich Man protests and says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And Abraham says to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (the Word of God), they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” Hear that clearly: the real need is not for more evidence! They have evidence in what God has revealed, but they have rejected it! So, we will pray “O Lord! Please do some miracle or send some sign into my loved one’s life that will make them believe!” You can pray that until the cows come home from wherever they are, but the answer from heaven will be, “What good would more evidence do?” If they do not believe on the basis of the revelation they already have, including the Scriptural revelation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, then more revelation will not convince them. It will only make them more guilty before God because they have rejected even more evidence.

We must understand that unbelief is a willful rejection of divine revelation. Now the second aspect of unbelief we need to understand is a bit more complicated and controversial, and some may even find it offensive. But the Word of God makes this truth clear, and we cannot deny it, so we must accept it, even by faith, and seek to understand it.

II. Some who reject divine revelation are rendered incapable of belief by an act of divine and merciful judgment (vv 39-41)

Early in our lives, some of us were introduced to this very important question: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” That little tongue-twisting question actually teaches us something very important: the difference between “could” and “would.” That’s an important distinction and it is essential if we wish to interpret this passage correctly. In verse 37, it says that in spite of all the miracles that Jesus did, “they were not believing in Him.” That is, as we have said, they made a willful decision to reject divine revelation, and they would not believe in Him. But now we come to verse 39 and we read that they could not believe. One deals with what they chose to do, the other deals with what they were capable of doing. And apparently, they had become incapable of believing.

Now how had they lost their ability to believe? John says it was “for this reason.” And the reason points backward to their decision to not believe. Because they would not believe, now they could not believe. And he points once again to Isaiah the prophet, this time from chapter 6, when Isaiah was first called to be God’s prophet.[i]

The scene in Isaiah 6 is familiar to many of us. There we read that “In the year that King Uzziah died,” the prophet saw a vision of the Lord seated on His throne in heaven, surrounded by angels calling out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (6:1-2). Upon seeing this vision of the Lord and all of His glory, Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (6:5). Following this confession, an angel came to Isaiah and touched his mouth with a burning coal and declared him to be cleansed and forgiven of his sins (6:6-7). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord, saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responded, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:8-9). This was Isaiah’s commissioning into the prophetic ministry.

It is interesting to point out that John writes here, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the book of Isaiah, that Isaiah “saw His glory and he spoke of Him” (Jn 12:41). The surrounding context makes it clear that by “His” and “Him,” he is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord Jesus! It was Jesus who was enthroned in Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, and it was the message of the Lord Jesus which Isaiah preached. While every prophet spoke in some way of Jesus, none spoke of Him more clearly than Isaiah. It was Isaiah who spoke of His virgin birth, His divine names and titles (7:14; 9:6), His mission to save Jews and Gentiles from their sin, and His substitionary atonement in His death on the cross (52:13-53:12). The message of Jesus is unmistakably clear in Isaiah. When the Lord Jesus inaugurated His public ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, He did so by reading from Isaiah 61 and declaring that it had been fulfilled in Him. Remember in Acts 8, Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch. What was he reading when Philip met him? Isaiah 53. The Bible says that Philip “opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, he preached Jesus to him.” And that man came to faith in Christ on the basis of what was revealed about Him in the prophecy of Isaiah. The report was as clear as it could be. But as Isaiah said, “Who has believed it?”

Now, as the Lord commissioned Isaiah in Isaiah 6, the Lord said to him, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (6:9-10). So, let’s get that clear. God tells His prophet that the people to whom he is preaching will not believe the message, and in fact will be rendered incapable of believing. Welcome to the ministry, young man! Understandably, Isaiah was confused by this, and he said, “Lord, how long?” And the Lord said to him, essentially (and I paraphrase here), “Until I bring complete and utter destruction upon the nation of Israel, and all the people are hauled off into captivity.” This of course took place under the Assyrians and the Babylonians from the 8th to 6th Centuries before Christ, as the Lord brought judgment on the nation for its unbelief! But the Lord went on to say in Isaiah 6:13, “Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, and it will again be subject to burning, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.” So the message is going to be wholesale rejected by all who hear it, with the exception of a tiny remnant, a holy seed, of 10% of the nation.

Now, this is the exact passage that John points to in order to explain how Jesus’ message was rejected by so many. Was it rejected by all? No! There would have never been a church if it had been rejected by all. But it was rejected by most, and it still is. Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and spoke of Jesus, and only a tenth believed it. Jesus Himself had the same result, and so have most of us. We share the Gospel with many who hear it and in the end, only a small handful actually believe it. All are making a willful decision to reject divine revelation, but some – perhaps many in fact – have been rendered incapable of believing by divine and merciful judgment. Their hearts have been hardened and their eyes have been blinded so that they cannot believe.

Undoubtedly, many who hear this will bristle against it because it seems like we are talking about a capricious act of a supernatural tyrant, who is just arbitrarily manipulating people like mere pawns in His game of cosmic chess. It all seems very harsh and unloving. But it is not. Why? First, we must remember that God is not causing anyone to not believe who has not already decided to not believe. These are not morally neutral, or even good people, who are arbitrarily damned to hell. No, in fact, the Bible teaches us that we are all born sinners, and are all children of wrath from the moment of our conception because of the sinfulness that is inherent in us. Condemnation is what we all deserve because of our sins, and God, in His mercy offers a way of escape through salvation in Jesus Christ, who loves us, who lived for us, and who died for us, so that our sins could receive the condemnation they deserve at the cross, in the person of Jesus as our substitute, and yet we might be saved!

We need look no further than the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Moses to see an illustration of this. When God called Moses to deliver His people from Egypt, He told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exo 4:21). Yet, when we read the account of the Exodus, we find four times it is said that Pharaoh had hardened his own heart (Exo 8:15, 19, 32, et al.); four times it is said that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, but not specified whether it was hardened by himself or by the Lord (7:13, et al.); and nine more times it is said that God hardened his heart (9:12; et al.). What was happening was that God was judging Pharaoh by allowing the condition that he had chosen for himself to become permanent. It was as if Pharaoh had poured concrete into his own heart, and God merely allowed that concrete to set. That is why the Bible so clearly warns us on more than one occasion, “If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psa 95:7; Heb 3:7; 3:15; 4:7).  You never know when you will do it for the last time, and God will render it certain and final, and you will be rendered incapable of belief.

But I have said that this is not just a divine act of judgment, it is also a merciful judgment. How can we say that it is merciful for God to harden someone’s heart and render them blind to His truth? It is a truth of Scripture that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus made this clearer than anyone. And the basis of these varying degrees of punishment seems to be the response of the people based on the amount of revelation they received. Notice, for example, in Matthew 11, when Jesus denounces the cities wherein He had done many miracles. He says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless, I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Mt 11:20-24). Notice that hell will be a far worse experience for the unbelievers of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum than for those in the ancient cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, because they actually saw the Lord Jesus face-to-face and heard Him teaching the truth of God, and saw Him performing many miracles and signs. So, when God hardens a heart and blinds eyes, it is a merciful act of judgment, because in so doing, He is actually sparing those whom He hardens and blinds from a far worse condemnation than they would experience if they could actually perceive the revelation clearly. Hell will still be an eternally miserable experience for them, but it will be more tolerable for them than it would have been if they had been able to perceive the truth clearly, and then still reject it. There is a strange work of divine mercy at work here in this hardening and blinding judgment.

Have you known someone who was just very hard-hearted about spiritual truths, and seemingly blinded to the evidence that should otherwise persuade them to believe? It could be a condition of their own doing. They may be hardening themselves and shutting their own eyes to these truths. In that case, there may still be hope, but it is a matter of great urgency that they cease their rejection of God’s revelation and humble themselves to submit to Jesus in repentance and faith as their Savior and Lord. But in some cases, God in His mercy, knowing that they will never believe, no matter what evidence is put before them, may have rendered them incapable of perceiving the truth and believing in order the spare them a more severe judgment. How do we know which is the case? We do not know! And that is why it is imperative for all who are in Christ to make it the mission and purpose of their lives to proclaim a fair offer of the Gospel to all men, for it is only through the hearing of the Gospel, and believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ that any may be saved! You say, “I’ve been doing that, and no one believes!” It is very discouraging, isn’t it? But know that your experience is not unique. Isaiah saw the same results, as did Jeremiah and the rest of the Prophets, the Lord Jesus Himself, and all of His apostles. But you can be encouraged. Though you do not know, God knows who that remnant is who will believe. And we can continue on in the faithful proclamation of the good news, confident that God will not fail in the accomplishment of His purposes and promises. Tell the story of Jesus often enough, and you will find someone who has been waiting their entire lives to hear it, so that they might be able to turn from their sin and place their faith in Him and be saved. But as you do, you will also find many who are unwilling to believe because they willfully reject the divine revelation of God’s Word and God’s works. And you will undoubtedly even encounter some who are incapable of believing because they have been mercifully hardened and blinded to God’s truth in an act of divine judgment against their persistent unbelief. We must pray for the lost to be saved! And we must be a witness to them! And we must believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, even though it may only be a tenth portion! And we must understand unbelief as a willful rejection of divine truth, which if not remedied, may result in a permanent condition of terminal unbelief. If you have been hardening your heart against God’s truth, I urgently plead with you to reconsider what God has done and what God has said, and turn to Him believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might be saved, before the opportunity passes you by forever.


[i] As an important technical detail which is beside the main point of this passage (and therefore the main point of this message), I want to point out something about the references to “Isaiah the prophet” in verse 38 and 39. Because of the number of specific prophecies in Isaiah which are fulfilled either within or shortly after the prophet’s lifetime, those who reject supernatural phenomena such as miracles or predictive prophecy believe that it is impossible for someone like Isaiah to speak with such vivid accuracy about coming events. One example that is often cited concerns the naming of Cyrus in Isaiah 44:24-28. Far more than a general prediction of deliverance for God’s people, Isaiah actually provides the name of the foreign king who allows Israel to return to their homeland. Critics of the Bible’s supernatural origins claim that the reference to Cyrus and several other specific prophetic details must have been written back into the prophecy of Isaiah long after the eighth century B. C. prophet had died. Thus, it is common to find reference in modern critical works to two or three “Isaiahs.” On their theory, there is an Isaiah, and then there was a “deutero-Isaiah” (and in some works even a “trito-Isaiah”) who redacted the original message of Isaiah with additional details to give the appearance of a more detailed prophecy than the original Isaiah really wrote. The theory suggests that the final product we possess in our Bibles was composed in successive stages by different authors. One strong argument (among many that could be given) to support the fact that the entire work which we call “Isaiah” was written by a single author comes from the New Testament references to the book and the prophet himself. This selection in John 12 is one example of that. Notice how John makes reference to the latter portion of Isaiah (chapter 53) and makes reference to “Isaiah the prophet” as the author of those words in John 12:38. Then notice how John makes reference to the earlier portion of Isaiah (chapter 6) and says, “Isaiah said again,” implying that these words are from the same human author as the words in Isaiah 53. This phenomenon actually occurs repeatedly in the Gospels, and is a strong piece of evidence in the case for the single-authorship of Isaiah.