Monday, December 17, 2012

The Nunc Dimittis: Simeon's Song of Salvation (Luke 2:21-35)

Throughout this Advent Season here at Immanuel, we’ve been exploring the wondrous songs that are recorded for us in Luke’s Gospel in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Over the course of history, these songs have been given Latin names based on their opening words, so we’ve examined the Benedictus of Zacharias, the Magnificat of Mary, and today we come to the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon. It is an appropriate song for us to examine on a day like today, in a service that consists of much music and singing, and a congregation that consists of people from many nations. Simeon’s song, more than any other of Luke’s Christmas songs, expresses the salvation that is offered through Jesus Christ to the entire world. Simeon was one of the first to recognize that Christ had not come for Israel only, but for all nations to know the salvation from sin that God offers to us all by His grace. “Simeon is the one who takes the gospel and makes it global.”[1]

Verses 21 and 22 describe two separate events. In verse 21, we read of the circumcision ceremony of Jesus, which customarily occurred on the eighth day of life. It was at this time that sons were given their names. Traditionally, a firstborn son would bear the name of his father. You might recall from the passage in Luke 1 concerning the naming of John the Baptist that there was some controversy about him not being named after his father. We must remember here that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. Jesus had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit while she was still a virgin. Joseph and Mary were not yet married and had not yet had physical relations. Jesus was not to be “Little Joe”; his name, like that of John, had been revealed from heaven. “Jesus” was “the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (v21).  His name means “Jehovah is Salvation,” and God had chosen this name and declared it through His angelic messenger, saying, “for He will save His people from their sins.”

Now in verse 22, we read of an event that took place several weeks later. After giving birth to a male child, a woman was considered ceremonially unclean for a period of forty days (Lev 12:1-4). When this time passed, she was required to bring the priest a sacrifice, and, after the sacrifice, the mother was declared ritually clean, and was permitted to enter the sanctuary again, and restored to the worshiping community.[2] The law prescribed a lamb to be brought for a burnt offering and a pigeon for a sin offering. If she was too poor to afford a lamb, she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons. It is a demonstration of the poverty that Jesus was born into that we see in verse 24 that Joseph and Mary brought the birds because they could not afford the lamb. This also helps us to understand the timing of the events of the Nativity, for the magi from the east had obviously not visited yet to offer their gold, frankincense and myrrh. But, Joseph and Mary had not come merely to offer birds for their own cleansing. They were also presenting to the Lord a lamb, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

The offering of the birds was for Mary’s purification. But, we read in verse 22 that they also came to present the baby Jesus to the Lord, in accordance with God’s claim on all firstborn in Israel (Exodus 13:1-2; et al.). Every firstborn was to be dedicated to the service of the Lord. “Since the priestly tribe of Levi had been set apart” for the temple ministry, “the firstborn sons in other tribes could be ‘ransomed’ through the payment of a redemption price of five shekels which was to be paid to a priest.”[3] But you notice that Jesus was presented, but not redeemed with a price. There is no mention of the payment of five shekels. In a sense, they are saying, “Though He is not a Levite, He is nonetheless fully consecrated to the Lord’s service for the rest of His days.” And indeed, the Lord Jesus lived His entire human life in perfect obedience and submission to the word and will of God, His Father, to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15; 5:17). Thus, as we are redeemed from sin by His death on the cross, we are justified before God as His perfect righteousness is reckoned to us by faith.

Now, it is the scene that unfolds as they enter the temple on that day that captures our attention here in this passage. There in the courts of the temple we find this man named Simeon. What a remarkable man he is! He is described in four phrases. He is righteous, meaning that his faith in God has been reckoned as righteousness, just as was Abraham’s faith (Genesis 15:6), and just as we are reckoned righteous by faith in Christ. This righteousness was displayed in his devotion to God, as he is also described as devout. His entire life was lived as an offering, fully devoted to the Lord. Luke tells us that he was looking for the consolation of Israel. Times were bad in Israel, very bad indeed. They were oppressed by Rome, terrorized by their own cruel King Herod, their religion had denigrated to mere outward performance and legalistic regulations imposed by the scribes and Pharisees, and the Sadducees who held influence in the temple were very worldly-minded, and no prophet had spoken for God in the land in 400 years.[4] Yet in the midst of this era of dark despair, there were some like Simeon who had not given up faith in the promises of God to bring consolation to His people through a Redeemer. He didn’t just believe it, he was looking for it. And the Holy Spirit was upon him. In a way that few in his day experienced, Simeon had intimate communion with God through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit had revealed to him in some way that we do not know (either by dream, vision, word, or unction) that he would not die until he had seen Lord’s Christ, this Redeemer who would bring the consolation and salvation for which the world was longing. And on this particular day, Simeon had sensed the prompting of the Spirit to get to the temple, and he arrived in time to see Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to be dedicated.

And so it is for us, that the Holy Spirit will always lead us to encounter the Lord Jesus and make much of Him. That is just what Simeon did. As Mary and Joseph make their way into the temple, Simeon confronts them and takes the child in his arms and begins to sing this song of praise to the Lord. It is a song of salvation, and one that we can join him in singing when we come to behold Christ as he did.

I. We sing of salvation that has come in human flesh!

Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote a song that we often sing, called “Because He Lives,” and there’s a line that says, “How sweet to hold a newborn baby, and feel the pride and joy he gives.” You know, that’s true. Most of us love to hold babies. They are sweet and cute (when they aren’t crying at the top of their lungs). I don’t know about you, but when my kids were babies, I would just hold them and stare at them and study their faces. But Simeon knows that he is not just looking into the eyes of a baby. He is staring salvation in the face. He proclaims in song, “My eyes have seen Your salvation.” Salvation is a person, and that person is Jesus.

It is the meaning of His name and the reason why He came. “Jesus” – the name means “The Lord (YHWH, Jehovah) is salvation”; and here He was, Jehovah God in human flesh, come to save us. The prophet Isaiah said He would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Isa 7:14). God has not sent an agent, He has come Himself to save us in the person of Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh, and in this flesh, He would accomplish our salvation from sin. When we stare into the face of a baby, we often are captured with wonder at the potential and possibilities that lay before this child. When John the Baptist was born, the people wondered, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” (Lk 1:66). Time would only tell. But Simeon knew from the promises of God revealed in His Word and revealed to him directly by the Holy Spirit that this child would accomplish our redemption. Here wrapped in the flesh of this six-week old child was all of our salvation contained. These tiny hands, maybe wrapped around the old man’s finger, would touch the sick, the lepers, and the lame, and restore them. These feet would walk through the despised places proclaiming good news to the least of these. This mouth would utter the unfathomable riches of God’s truth. And then these hands and these feet would bear the nails that would fasten Him to Calvary’s cross, and this tiny brow would be punctured with the crown of thorns, and this heart that beat within Simeon’s grasp would be pierced with a spear as Jesus bore our sin and suffering under the judgment of God in our place as He died. This child would grow up to know unparalleled suffering. Isaiah said He would be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). Simeon knew that, and he announced to Mary, that Jesus would be “a sign to be opposed.” And he even foretold that a sword would pierce her own soul. It would begin to cut her early, as He distanced Himself from her and devoted Himself completely to the will and purposes of His Heavenly Father. But the final stab of that sword would come as she watched Him die on the cross. This body that Simeon held in his arms would taste death for us, and be wrapped and entombed. And this body would rise in transformed glory in victory over sin and death to secure salvation for all who call upon Him. As Simeon looked at this baby, he knew that he was staring into the face of the saving God and beholding salvation itself in human flesh.

How are sinners made right with a holy God? How is this salvation accomplished? Salvation is not a ritual, an action, a rule or regulation. Salvation is found in a person, and that person is Jesus. When we behold Him, we see that salvation in human flesh just as Simeon did. And we will sing this song of salvation with him.

II. We sing of salvation that has come for all the world.

The time surrounding the birth of a child can be a very lonely time for a mother. If she is not feeling well, she may not get out much, and others may fear disturbing her rest, so they leave her alone. After the child is born, often mother and baby spend hours alone each day leading some new mothers to experience tremendous depression. But Mary did not seem to have this experience. From early in her pregnancy, she had spent time with Elizabeth and Zacharias, and had travelled with Joseph to Bethlehem where she gave birth in a very public setting, surrounded by strangers. They did not have the sterile isolation of a private room in a hospital or even an inn. It was all so very public. In fact, as Paul testified before King Agrippa in Acts 26, he said concerning the very public life of Jesus, “I am persuaded that none of these things escapes his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (26:26). Simeon said it this way: this salvation of which he sings has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” Soon, magi from the east will come to behold and worship the newborn Christ; and to protect His life, Joseph will take the boy and His mother away to Egypt before returning to Israel. All peoples of the world are getting a glimpse of the salvation that has come in the person of Jesus, for He has come to bring salvation to all the world. As we sing in our song, “Joy to the World,” “He comes to make His blessings known far as the curse is found.” This is truly a global gospel!

We all have a tendency to view the world in generalizations. No matter the issue, we tend to see “us” and “them.” We say things like this: “There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who appreciate a good polka song, and the kind who don’t.” Well, for most Jewish people of that day, the line of demarcation was heavy and definite. There was “us,” Israel, and “them,” everyone else – the Gentiles. But Christ had come to bring redemption to all—not just “us,” and not just “them.” Simeon sings of the salvation that Jesus brings us as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” While the Jews had received by God’s grace all the light of His revelation through His Word, His prophets, and His acts of redemptive history, the Gentiles were viewed as those who lived in darkness. It was for this reason that Israel was chosen to be God’s own people. They were to be a light to the nations of the world. But because they had kept God’s revelation to themselves, the nations languished in darkness. But the prophets had foretold of a day when that darkness would be shattered by piercing light. Isaiah said, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (9:2) And that light is the glory of the Lord Jesus. Just a few verses later, Isaiah spoke of the basis of the promise of light shattering darkness by saying, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” Simeon knew that the baby in his arms was the Light that would break the darkness that blinded all the nations and kept them from knowing God. Here is the light of revelation that God was sending to the Gentiles. Very few, if any of us, here today are Jewish by birth. We are these Gentiles who would still be bound in darkness were it not for Christ, the Light of the World, coming to rescue us and offer salvation to every nation.

This salvation is not only a light of revelation for the Gentiles who dwelt in darkness. Christ is the glory of Israel! Israel had once known the gracious blessing of having God’s manifest glory dwelling in the midst of them. We refer to this as the “Shekinah” glory of God, which rested over the tabernacle in the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 40:34-38). When Solomon’s temple was built, this Shekinah glory filled the place so densely that the priests were unable to perform their duties (1 Kings 8:10-11). Now, centuries later, when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem and deported the Israelites, the prophet Ezekiel was in one of the earlier waves of deportation. But in Babylon, he was given a vision of what was taking place in Jerusalem. He saw the Shekinah glory of God departing from the temple because of the idolatry that was taking place there (Ezekiel 8-11). And once the glory of God departed the temple and the city of Jerusalem, He allowed the Babylonians to make complete destruction of the place. In time, the exiles returned and rebuilt their temple. When it was constructed, the Lord spoke through the prophet Haggai, saying, “I will fill this house with my glory … The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:7-9). But the Shekinah, the manifest glory of God never returned to that temple or to Israel at all, until this particular day when the manifest glory of God was carried in by a virgin mother and handed off to a spirit-filled old man who saw in this baby the fulfillment of all that had been spoken about the restoration of the glory of God in Israel. All the waiting was over. God had come back to the temple, just as He promised, only this time He did not come as a pillar of cloud or fire. He came in the form of a baby, and the glory that Simeon held in his arms was greater than anything ever experienced in Solomon’s temple.

It is no wonder that Simeon burst into song! And we who have come to behold Jesus as the salvation for all nations and the manifest glory of God who has come in fulfillment of all of God’s saving promises, we surely will add our voice to the chorus! And as we do, there is one more note that is left to sing.

III. We sing of salvation that has come to bring us peace.

We do not know how old Simeon was, but everything in the context suggests to us that he is an old man by this time. And like many godly people who are advanced in years, he may have begun to long for the day of departure from this life, knowing that the promise of heaven awaited him by faith. But God had informed him in some mysterious and miraculous way that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And on this day in the temple, Simeon has seen the Lord’s Christ! And so all that is left to do is to close his eyes to this world and open them to the presence of God in heaven. And so he exclaims in song, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace according to Your word.”

Imagine that there is a servant who is appointed by his master to stand watch through a long and dark night to wait for the appearance of one particular star in the sky. After many hours of waiting, he comes to report to his master that he has seen the star. And then the master says, “Thank you. You are now discharged of your duty and may retire for the night.”[5] That is what Simeon’s advancing years have been like. He was on duty for the Lord until he saw the Savior. Now that he has seen him and held him in arms, his shift has ended, and he is released from service. Simeon says, “Now, at this very moment, You, O Lord, are dismissing me from service.” This is where we get the Latin title Nunc Dimittis. It means “Now You are dismissing.” And having seen the salvation of the Lord, Simeon knows that he can now die in peace.

You see, Simeon was well aware that all human beings will see death. But, he knew something most of us don’t know. He knew that he wouldn’t see death until he had seen the Lord Jesus. And having seen Him, he knew he could die at peace with God. You see the fact of the matter is that all of us will die, and none of us knows when. But if you have beheld the Lord Jesus as the salvation of God – the Savior who has come to live and die for you to rescue you from sin – then you can face death like Simeon did, having peace with God.

The coming of the salvation of the Lord in human flesh for all the world forces a choice upon us. Simeon said “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many.” Because Christ has come, some will fall in the misery and shame of dying in their sins. But many will rise in the glorious death of a redeemed life that enters the eternal peace and joy of God’s presence. They will rise from death in resurrected glory into a life that will never end. The choice that we must make is what we will do with this Christ who has come to save us. Will we take Him as our Lord and Savior and rise, or will we ignore or reject Him and fall? Simeon said that in Christ, “the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” What does your response to the Lord Jesus reveal about your heart?

Michael Card put this text to song a number of years ago, in which he paraphrases Simeon’s expression this way: “Now that I’ve held Him in my arms, my life can come to an end. Let Your servant now depart in peace. I’ve seen Your salvation—He’s the Light of the Gentiles, and the Glory of Your people Israel.” In the final stanza, Michael Card sings, “Now’s the time to take Him in your arms – your life will never come to an end. He’s the only way that you’ll find peace. He’ll give you salvation ‘cause He’s the Light of the Gentiles and the Glory of His people Israel.” If you behold the Lord Jesus as Simeon did, and see Him as the salvation of God that has come in human flesh for all the world, then your heart will sing because you are at peace with Him, and you know that when this life comes to an end, there is a greater life yet to live in His glorious presence.

[1] Daniel Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, Richard D. Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 127.
[2] See William Hendriksen, Luke (New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 163; C. Marvin Pate, Luke (Moody Gospel Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1995), 84.
[3] Pate, 85.
[4] Hendriksen, 165.
[5] Adapted from Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 118. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Magnificat: The Song of an Amazing, Ordinary Woman

On the Second Sunday of Advent, our Assistant Pastor, Dr. Jack Benzenhafer, preached on the Magnificat, Mary's Song, as found in Luke 1:2-55. The message can be heard online here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Benedictus: Zacharias' Song of Praise (Luke 1:57-79)

Every year, we begin to realize that the Christmas Season is upon us when, sometime in November, we begin to hear the songs of the season on the radio, in the stores where we shop, and in many other places. But for Christians throughout history and around the world, we are still several weeks away from the Christmas Season. Historically, the Christian Church has observed the days between Christmas Day, December 25 and Epiphany, January 6 as the Christmas Season. These are “the 12 days of Christmas,” though I am not really sure what partridges in a pear tree or five gold rings really have to do with it. The season that begins today on the Christian calendar is not Christmas, but Advent. This is a season of anticipation, expectation, and preparation. We celebrate that the longing of the ancients has been fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as God became a man, born for us at Christmas. But during this season, we also express our own longing and expectation, as we prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord. Just as He came 2,000 years ago, He also promised that He would come again to consummate His Kingdom, and we are awaiting His return and preparing ourselves spiritually for that day. Like the ancients, we do not know when He will come. But we know that when He comes, all wrongs will be made right, and we who belong to Christ will enter into His presence to dwell forever. And so, even as we celebrate the fact that He has come, we long for His return, crying out with anticipation, Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus. As we sing songs like “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” we are celebrating a past reality, even as we long for a future event to come to pass.

Of course, when we hear “the songs of the season,” many of them have nothing to do with Jesus. They are about snow, and winter, and Santa, and things like that; not about the birth of the Savior. This week, I pulled up the Holiday section on iTunes and took a look at the top 10 songs, ranked by the number of downloads. Not one of them are lyrically focused on the birth of the Savior. It seems that if you want to sing or hear a song about Jesus at Christmas, you have to come to church (which is not that bad of an idea anyway)! This year, during Advent, Pastor Jack and I will be exploring four songs that we might call “the first Christmas Carols.” We don’t sing them these days, we really don’t know the tune to which they were sung, but these songs capture the sense of longing that is satisfied in the coming of Christ in the world. Today, I will begin with the Benedictus of Zacharias. Next Sunday, Jack will deal with Mary’s Magnificat, and the following Sunday I will discuss the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon. Then on the final Sunday of Advent, Jack will present the Gloria, sung by the angels to the shepherds in the fields.  

We first meet Zacharias, the priest and the father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1:5-25. He and his wife Elizabeth are described there as “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments of and requirements of the Lord.” And yet, all is not well for the couple for they “had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advancing in years.” It came about that while Zacharias was on duty in the temple, that he had an encounter with an angel who announced to him that his prayers had been answered and that he and his wife would have a son, and the child’s name was to be John. The angel proclaimed that this child would become the forerunner of the Lord who would go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” They were to call this child “John.” Now, rather than rejoicing that his prayers had been answered and his longings fulfilled, Zacharias did something stupid. He questioned God. He said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” The response is pointed and direct. The angel says, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” The fact that Zacharias is face-to-face with an angel of God should be enough to convince him of the truth of this promise, but he asked for a sign. And the sign he received is not just a proof, it is a judgment upon him for his lack of faith. The angel said, “Behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words.” Now, for Elizabeth, things aren’t so bad. She has what many women dream of having – a baby on the way, and a husband who cannot speak!

In time, the baby was born just as promised. In keeping with tradition, the boy was circumcised on the eighth day, and it was on this day that his name was to be given. Everyone expected that he was going to be a “Junior,” and be given the name of his father, Zacharias. It was tradition for the firstborn child to bear the name of his father. But Elizabeth protested and said, “No, indeed; but he shall be called John.” The people couldn’t figure out where “John” came from. They said, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” They appealed to Zacharias, who still could not speak, and he demanded a writing tablet, and he wrote, “His name is John.” Zacharias made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the matter was already settled. His name had been given from heaven. And immediately, as Zacharias followed through in obedience to the angelic message he had received, his tongue was loosed and he broke forth in song to praise the God who remembers His promises and is faithful to bring them to pass in His grace!

Zacharias’ song is called the Benedictus, the first word of the song in the Latin Bible. It is a song of praise. He says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” And then the remainder of the song supplies the reasons why his freshly loosed tongue is employed in such exuberant praise. The theme of the song is salvation. He blesses the Lord because “He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people and raised up a horn of salvation.” So, the song goes on to magnify the God who saves, as the old priest sings of the promise of salvation, the preparation for salvation, and the product of salvation. As we come to experience the saving grace of God, Zacharias’ song becomes our song, which we sing with renewed tongues to the Lord as well.

I. We sing of the promise of salvation!

There have been many songs over the years that express the heartbreak of broken promises. We have become so accustomed to broken promises that we take no assurance at all from the fact that someone has promised us something. But when it comes to the promises of God, it’s an entirely different story. He has never broken a promise. There are no songs sung to God about broken promises. If we could put a succinct heading over the entire Old Testament, we would say that it is a book of Promises Made. If we wanted to place a similar heading over the New Testament, we could say that it is a book of Promises Kept. The Benedictus sings of how God has kept the promises that He has made.

Zacharias’ song is filled with Old Testament language. There are hints in this song of dozens of passages from at least 10 Old Testament books. This in itself reminds us that all true worship is fueled by the truth of God’s Word that is hidden in our hearts. When we have saturated ourselves in Scripture, as Zacharias obviously had, it is not hard to come up with the right words to say, or even to sing. Zacharias was not only drawing from his memory bank, though. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He demonstrates for us what it means to be a true worshiper. Jesus said that true worshipers worship “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Zacharias’ song of praise is empowered by the Holy Spirit and filled with the truth of God’s Word. He models for us what Paul says in Ephesians 5:18 -- “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Not only is Zacharias’ song praise; it is also prophecy. Verse 67 says that, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias prophesied. Most of the time, we assume that prophecy involves foretelling the future, and sometimes it does. But most of the time in Scripture, prophecy is not a foretelling, but a forthtelling of God’s truth. It is a declaration of what God has spoken. Zacharias’ song does both. It speaks of what God has declared in the past, what He is doing in the present, and what He will do in the future.

Notice how Zacharias proclaims in song the promises that God had made in the past. He speaks of the oath which He swore to Abraham. This is obviously a reference to the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” In visiting us, God has brought that oath to pass by bringing salvation through the line of Abraham that will be offered to the whole world. That promised seed of Abraham is the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth would soon occur when Zacharias sang this prophetic song. God has shown mercy toward the fathers of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by fulfilling the promise He had made to bring the Savior into the world through their lineage. Though the fulfillment has been a long time in coming, God has not forgotten it. Zacharias praises the God who has remembered His holy covenant!

He also mentions “the house of David.” He says that The Lord God of Israel is to be praised because “He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.” What is a horn of salvation? The imagery is of an animal’s horns, which are the symbols of its strength. As Phil Ryken says, “Horns are an animal’s ‘business end,’ so to speak, and in a similar way, the Messiah is the business end of God’s saving plan. With the coming of Christ, He was shaking the mighty horn of His salvation the way a mighty beast intimidates his rivals.”[1] Jesus Christ is the strength and power of God to save. He came to be the horn of salvation that David had longed for. His song of deliverance from his enemies in 2 Samuel 22:3 is echoed in Psalm 18:2, and in both songs David proclaimed that the Lord is “My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” This horn of salvation has been raised up in the world in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it has been raised up in the house of David. This harkens back to the promise that God made to David when David longed to build the temple for the Lord. In 2 Samuel 7, the Lord spoke to David through the prophet Nathan. He said that David would not build a house for the Lord, but rather, “the Lord will make a house for you. … I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.” The house that the Lord would build for David was more than a building; it was a dynasty that would endure in spite of his descendants’ failure to occupy and preserve the nation or the throne. There was another descendant of David who would come later, and His reign would never end. Through the house of David, God would bring an everlasting King to the throne, and He shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah! The Lord Jesus Christ is this King, and He is the horn of salvation that God has raised up in the house of David.

This promise of salvation has been sworn on oath to Abraham; it has been proclaimed as a promise to King David. And it has been announced through the prophets of Israel. Zacharias sings that God has spoken “by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old.” Notice that it was God who was speaking; the prophets were merely His mouthpieces. And God spoke words of saving grace through His prophets: “Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” This redemption, this salvation, that God has established in His visitation fulfills all that God has spoken through His prophets. The divine Messiah that Isaiah promised to be born of a virgin (7:14; 9:6-7); whom Micah promised would be born in Bethlehem (5:2); and whom other prophets proclaimed “in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1) would soon be born, and this causes Zacharias to break forth in song praising God for the promises of His salvation. As we come to realize that the Lord Jesus is the Savior for whom all the world so desperately longs, that in Him all of God’s promises are “yes and Amen” (2 Corinthians 1:20), we will join him in singing of promises not only made, but kept!

II. We sing of the preparation of salvation!

How did Zacharias know that the Messiah’s birth was imminent? After all, his son who had just been born was not the Redeemer, yet he sings as if the birth of the Savior of the world is just on the horizon. Well, we must remember that Zechariah had been told that his son would be the forerunner, the one who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). So, if the forerunner is coming, then the Lord must not be far behind. Remember also that Mary, the virgin mother of the Lord, was a relative of Elizabeth, Zacharias’ wife, and that she had come to spend time with them when both women were pregnant and they had rejoiced together about God’s plan for each of their sons. Mary stayed with Zacharias and Elizabeth for three months (1:56), and during that time, I am sure that there had been many conversations about how God would change the world through John and through Jesus.
Zacharias knew by both revelation and conversation that the birth of his son marked the beginning of a new era – a time of preparation for the salvation that God would bring to the world through Jesus Christ. And so as the old man sings, he sings of his son, saying, “you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” Though there had been some who had prophesied, no one had been called a prophet in Israel for 400 years. Just as Zacharias’ silence was broken at the birth of his son, so heaven’s silence was broken when John began to preach about the Lord Jesus Christ.

John’s ministry would be one of preparing Israel and the world for the coming of Christ. He would do this by giving “to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.” It would be fair to say that most people in that day were looking for salvation, but they weren’t all looking for this kind of salvation. The expectation of multitudes was that the Messiah was coming to save them from the oppression of Rome. He would come in like a military warrior on a white stallion to wipe out the enemies of Israel. But John’s ministry would prepare the way for the Lord Jesus by proclaiming to the people that this was not their greatest need. In fact, if they were liberated from Rome, they would still be enslaved to a stronger power. Though Rome was the most recent political power to oppress the nation, and could certainly be described by Israel as “our enemies” and those “who hate us” (v71), an enemy greater than Rome had enslaved the entire world under the oppression of a greater hatred. The salvation that the Messiah Jesus had come to bring was a redemption from the power of sin. The human race wastes away under the yoke of the ultimate spiritual enemy, Satan. Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). John said that “the one who practices sin is of the devil” (1 John 3:8a). That is the bad news. We are oppressed and enslaved in sin by a harsh task master who hates us. Satan delights to ensnare us in sin because He hates God and he hates us. Thus, it pleases him to keep us at enmity with God. But the good news is, as 1 John 3:8 goes on to say, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” It would not be sufficient to deliver Israel from Rome, for they would still be enslaved along with the rest of humanity. But if the Savior comes to redeem us from sin, then all the chains are broken. Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). So, John the Baptist’s ministry was to go before the Lord to proclaim that salvation was coming, not from political powers or worldly discomforts, but the ultimate redemption that comes through the forgiveness of sins.

Zacharias sings of the preparation for salvation. He sings of John’s ministry of going before the Lord Jesus to make the people ready to receive Him. We who understand the nature of the salvation that Jesus brings, and find in Him the redemption from the bondage to sin and Satan, can add our voice to the song and bless the name of the Lord, even as we labor to prepare the way for others to come to know Him!

III. We sing of the product of salvation!

In C. S. Lewis’ essay collection entitled God in the Dock, we find a brief work called “What Christmas Means to Me.” He says, “Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival” that is of primary importance to Christians; but it “can be of no interest to anyone else.” The second thing called Christmas is “a popular holiday and occasion for merry-making and hospitality.” Lewis insists that he very much approves of merry-making, but he says, “what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business.” The third thing called Christmas, Lewis says, is “unfortunately everybody’s business,” namely “the commercial racket.”[2] A few years ago, Donia and I began trying to use the word “Christmas” to only refer to the things of the season that pertain to Christ. The rest of it all, we refer to as “Winter Holiday.” Like Lewis, I have a hard time understanding why a person who doesn’t believe in, worship, or serve the Lord Jesus would have any interest in Christmas at all, but then again, I don’t see what most of “Winter Holiday” has to do with Jesus anyway. I know, I know: “Bah Humbug!” and all of that!

Why do so many people have so much interest in “Winter Holiday” (as I call it) while having so little interest in the Lord Jesus? I believe it is because they have not truly understood what He came to do for us. We are partly to blame for this, because we have not communicated the good news of Jesus Christ clearly to those we know. And perhaps this is also because we ourselves have not truly comprehended “the breadth and length and height and depth ... [of] the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18-19). Have we truly come to understand what He accomplished for us? Do we understand the effect, the result, the product (if you will) of this salvation that Jesus was born to bring us, that He lived to offer us, that He died and rose again to secure for us? Zacharias understood it, even before it happened. And he praised the Lord in this glorious hymn for the product of the salvation that the Messiah Jesus had come to bring us.

Apart from Christ, we are all dwelling in darkness. We are like those Zacharias describes in verse 79: we “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” But like the rising of the Sun, God has visited us in the person of Christ to bring light to us. The prophet Isaiah declared that “the people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine upon them” (9:2). He said, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you” (60:1-2). Christ has come like the rising sun to bring light to us. In Him the glory of God is fully manifest to humanity! Christ has revealed God to us who were blinded in darkness and wasting away in the shadow of death. He has defeated death for us through His death and resurrection so that we no longer need to fear its shadow. We know there is life beyond death, and we know, through faith in Him, that this everlasting life is ours because of the salvation that He accomplished for us. We no longer sit in darkness. We have been “rescued from the domain of darkness” and transferred to the Kingdom of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14).

This salvation brings us the forgiveness of sins! The sins that keep us separated from God have been dealt with fully and finally through the cross of Jesus Christ. He came to redeem us and give us life through His death. The crude manger in which the baby Jesus was placed was a foreshadowing of the cruel cross on which He would hang to bear our sins in His body as our substitute under the righteous judgment of God. Thus, we can be forgiven because He took our penalty for us! As the wonderful hymn “It is Well With My Soul” proclaims, “My sin, o the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more! Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”

And being rescued from the enemies of Satan, sin and death, we can “serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (v74-75). God has declared those who come to Him by faith in Christ to be righteous and holy before Him. He has granted us a glorious exchange. He placed our sins upon Christ as He died, and He bestows to us the righteousness and holiness of Christ’s life in return. Thus, we are cleansed and covered, and enabled to render service to the holy God from whom we were once separated and alienated because of our sins. The blood of Christ has cleansed us, as the writer of Hebrews says, “to serve the living God” (9:14)! He has made us to be a kingdom of priests, “a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Notice in verse 78 that the basis of all of this is the “tender mercy of our God.” Isaac Watts, the greatest composer in English hymnody, penned a song in the early 1700s that is called “With Joy We Meditate the Grace.” It is not in many hymnals today, including ours. But when it occurs, there is a line that is usually worded something like this: “His heart is made with tenderness and overflows with love.” But those are not the words that Watts wrote. Watts wrote, “His heart is made of tenderness, His bowels melt with love.” My goodness, who wants to come to church to sing about bowels? But Isaac Watts was not being crude. He was being a good student of the Word of God. He was merely translating the phrase that occurs here in verse 78 of Zacharias’ song.[3] Where the NASB says “the tender mercy of our God” the Greek text reads literally, “the bowels of the mercy of our God.” While we tend to speak of the heart as the seat of emotion, the ancients spoke of the entrails as the emotional center of a person. Thus, this is the strongest wording that Zacharias could employ to convey the great compassion, the deep love, and the overwhelming mercy of God that compelled Him to visit us in the person of the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, this Rising Sun, this Horn of Salvation. How much does God love you? He loves you so much that He is moved with mercy from the core of His being to act to bring you salvation: the forgiveness of sin, light in the darkness, the righteousness that He requires of you, which you cannot produce on your own, and which He bestows on you freely by His grace; in faithfulness to His promises. That made Zacharias sing! Do you sing with him?

We love the songs of the Christmas season. It is my prayer that today you have learned a new one. I wish I knew the tune, so I could sing it aloud! But we can sing it in our hearts, and if we have experienced this salvation that Zacharias sings about, the salvation that Christ was born to bring us, we can’t help joining him in singing, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.” Sing that song! Tell that good news to all who are near and far, so that they will know and experience the wonder of this God who saves and praise Him with us!

[1] Daniel M. Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, Richard D. Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008), 92-93.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock (New York: Inspirational, 1996), 507-508.
[3] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1931), 33.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Witnesses to Jesus (John 5:31-47)

We’ve all watched enough courtroom television shows, or perhaps had some personal experiences, to know that when a person is put on trial for something, the defendant is allowed to give his defense to the charges, and then witnesses are summoned to provide supporting evidence for each side. In the end, the judge and jury have to determine which side has the most supporting evidence, and cast a final verdict on the matter. Well, the Lord Jesus is not in a courtroom in this passage, but He has been accused of a terrible crime. Going back to the beginning of Chapter 5, when He healed the lame and helpless man by the pool, He was accused of violating the Sabbath. His defense, in response to that charge, was that it is impossible for God to violate the Sabbath, therefore it is impossible for Him to violate the Sabbath since God is His Father, and He is the Son, and therefore also God. This entire section of John’s Gospel is rich in Trinitarian teaching about how the one true God of the universe exists in the person of Father, of Son, and (less explicit here), of Holy Spirit; not three gods, but one God, eternally existent in three persons of equal deity. Of course, this hardly got Jesus off the hook of the allegations of Sabbath breaking. It merely added another charge against Him, namely that of blasphemy, for the Jewish officials understood clearly that by claiming God as His Father, and claiming to be the Son of God, He was making Himself out to be equal with God. In response to this charge, Jesus spoke of how He did nothing on His own accord, but only and exclusively the will of His Father, who had given Him the power to have life in Himself and to bestow it as He so desired, and the authority to act as judge of entire human race. They say Jesus blasphemed, and it would be blasphemy indeed, if it wasn’t true. But is it true? That is the question. And you are the jury. You must decide, based on the evidence supplied by the witnesses, if Jesus truly is who He claims to be. And if He is, then we are compelled to make a personal response of faith, devotion, worship, obedience, and service to Him as Lord. If He isn’t, then we can just write Him off as a lunatic lawbreaker. So, which will it be?

The Law that God had given to Israel through Moses specified that a fact has to be established on the basis of multiple witnesses. Concerning capital offenses, of which both Sabbath breaking and blasphemy both were, Deuteronomy 17:6 said that the conviction must be based “on the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses” (cf. Numbers 35:30). But even on any other charge, Deuteronomy 19:15 said, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” Jesus does not violate God’s Law in any point at any time, and this is no exception. He admits in verse 31, “If I testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” Well, Jesus is testifying about Himself, so does that mean He is lying? And if He is lying, then can we claim Him to be the sinless Son of God? Actually, what Jesus is saying here is that, if He alone testifies about Himself, the people have no reason to believe Him. His testimony about Himself is not valid unless it is corroborated by other evidence from other witnesses. He is saying that He would not expect anyone to regard His claims as true simply on the basis of His own testimony about Himself. So, He says matter-of-factly, “There is another who testifies of Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true.” Who is this other witness? Well, Jesus goes on to describe the witnesses who testify to to His claims and His identity, and we will hear the testimony of each of them as we examine this text.

I. The witness of John the Baptist

When Jesus speaks of this “other witness,” undoubtedly the minds of His accusers went immediately to John the Baptist. Perhaps some of us thought that is who He had in mind as well. After all, we read in John 1:7 that John the Baptist “came as a witness, to testify about the Light (Jesus), so that all might believe through him.” And these religious officials have “sent to John.” Jesus is referring to the events described in John 1:19-28 when the Pharisees had sent a delegation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem to inquire about his identity and his ministry. And when they sent this delegation to John, Jesus says that “he has testified to the truth.” John had told the delegation that he was not the Christ, but was the one that Isaiah had foretold of as the voice that cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He told them of another One, whom they did not know, “the thong of whose sandal,” John said that he was “not worthy to untie.”

John’s ministry was unique. He was the first prophet to come announcing God’s Word to Israel in 400 years. John 1:8 says of him, “He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.” Of course, that Light is Jesus. John 1:4-5 says of the Lord Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” No, John was not the Light, but Jesus says that he was “the lamp.” Lamps do not create light, but they bear light. They hold up light so that all can see it. And John did that in his ministry. The light that others saw in John’s ministry was not his own, it was the Light of Jesus, that John was lifting up for all to see. Jesus says that John was the lamp that was burning and shining.” The Greek wording here might be translated, “He was the lamp that was ignited and gave light.[1] He was a man on fire, and he had been set on fire by God Himself, to burn and shine as a witness for Christ. When God sets a man on fire, the world will come to watch him burn. They did that by the multitude as John burned and shined. But Jesus expresses the sad reality of their interest in John: they were “willing to rejoice” in his light, but it was only “for a while.” Sometimes when a preacher’s message starts stepping on too many toes, we say that he’s “gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.” And John had done that. He was calling the Jews to repent and be baptized, but Jews did not believe they needed baptism or that they needed to be made right with God. Jews only practiced baptism on Gentiles who converted to Judaism. But here was John saying that everyone, including the Jews, needed to get right with God. He denounced the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, and even called out King Herod for his immorality (which ultimately led to his execution). And when John went from preachin’ to meddlin’, the interest of the people began to wane and they turned away from the light that burned and shined in this lamp set ablaze by God. If they had heeded John’s testimony, then they might have been saved. And it was not too late! In verse 34 Jesus reminds them of John’s testimony, not because He needs the testimony of John to validate him, but because they need to hear and heed what they heard John saying in order to be saved!

But Jesus says here that John was not His only witness. He says here that there is a testimony that is greater than the witness of John.

II. The Witness of God the Father

If you’ve ever had to apply for a job and were required to supply a list of references, you know that most of the time they tell you not to include your family members. The assumption is that, of course, your family members are only going to say good things about you even if they aren’t true, because they want you to get the job. You have to supply impartial references, who will tell the truth about you, even if the truth means that you won’t get the job. Now, here Jesus says, “There is another who testifies about Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true” (v32). But this “another” is not John the Baptist. He is greater than John. So who could it be? After all Jesus said, “Among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). “Those born of women” seems to pretty accurately describe the entire human race, with the exception of Adam and Eve. So if John is the greatest human, but Jesus has a witness, a testifier, a reference (if you will) who is greater than John, then this witness must not be human. And He is not. In verse 37, Jesus says that “the Father who sent Me Has testified of Me.” Now, we might protest and say, “You can’t list your Dad as a reference!” But here’s the thing: what is the charge? The charge is blasphemy because Jesus has claimed God as His Father, thus equating Himself with God. Now, if that is not true, then God is most certainly not going to add His testimony to that. God has declared, “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). We are told in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that He should lie;” and in Titus 1:2 we read that God “cannot lie;” and Hebrews 6:18 says that it is “impossible for God to lie.” So if God validates the testimony of Jesus, then that testimony is true. So, how is it that God the Father has testified to the claims of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ?

First and foremost, there was a direct testimony given at the baptism of Jesus. In one of the great Trinitarian texts of Scripture, in Matthew 3, as God the Son emerged from the baptismal waters, God the Holy Spirit descended visibly upon Him in the form of a dove, and God the Father spoke from heaven audibly declaring, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” So, there, that one scene, the entire Triune Godhead is on display as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are manifested publicly. Again, later at the Mount of Transfiguration, the Father will speak from heaven and declare, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him” (Matt 17:15; Mk 9:7; cf. 2 Peter 1:17). But this particular group of Jewish leaders to whom Jesus is speaking now could plead, “We were not there! We never heard such an utterance from heaven!” And so Jesus speaks of other ways that the Father has testified of Him.

He speaks first of the works which He does (v36b). Jesus says that these works were given to Him by the Father to accomplish. So, in the doing of them, the Father is testifying through Him. The works proclaim that Jesus has been sent by His Father to do His will. This was obvious to those who could suspend their prejudice against Jesus. Even Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and in party with these leaders who are opposing Jesus in the present context, could say as he came to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). In John 7:31, we read that a large crowd of people were saying, “When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs that those which this man has, will He?” Jesus spoke of the testimony of these works repeatedly, saying in John 10, “The works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. … If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (10:25, 37-38). Everything that Jesus did was evidence of the Father’s testimony of His as the divine Son of God. The Gospels record at least three dozen supernatural miracles performed by Jesus, and John tells us that there were “many other signs Jesus also performed … which are not written” (20:30). Of course, the ultimate work that the Father gave to Jesus to accomplish was the work of redemption which was finalized in His substitutionary death on the cross for our sins, and His glorious resurrection. But until that event occurred, all of Jesus’ other miracles were signs pointing to this ultimate work that He would do on behalf of all humanity.[2] When John the Baptist wondered if Jesus was truly the Promised One who was to come, Jesus said to take word back to him that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matt 11:3-5); and all of these were fulfillments of the prophecies that had been made about the Messiah, as well as signposts pointing to the glorious salvation that He would make available to all humanity through His death and resurrection. The Father was testifying of Jesus Christ through these works that He performed.

But notice that Jesus also says that the Father testified of Him through His word. Jesus says in verse 39 that the Scriptures testify of Him. Now, no one in history has ever more fastidious about the study of the Scriptures than the Pharisees and their peers in ancient Israel. They devoted vast portions of their waking hours every day to the study of the Scriptures, and Jesus acknowledges that they “search the Scriptures.” But their approach to the Scriptures was all wrong. They believed that by their effort in reading, studying, and memorizing the Scriptures, that they were earning favor with God and eternal life, merely by the physical exercise of it. The esteemed Rabbi Hillel claimed that the more one studied the Law, the more life one would have, and that if a man gains for himself the words of the Law, he will gain for himself life in the world to come.[3] But Jesus says here that they were missing the point. For all their study of the Scriptures, they completely missed the fact that they were pointing to Him all along in the words of prophecy, in the typological images, in the events of redemptive history, and in the provisions for salvation found within the Law. If they would only come to Him, as the Scriptures testified of Him, then they would find life in Him. But He says “you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

Thus, there is a fourfold indictment against the unbelieving religious leaders in verse 37: (1) They have not heard the voice of God at any time. They did not hear His voice announcing His approval of the Lord Jesus at His baptism; nor have they heard His voice speaking through the Scriptures. (2) They have not seen His form. They might protest and say that no one could see the form of God. That had been true for the most part through all of history, but it all changed when Jesus came on the scene. John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” When Jesus spoke with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion, He said, “If you had known Me, you have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him. … He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:7-9). But when these religious leaders looked at Jesus, they didn’t see God in Him. Therefore, they never saw the form of God at all, because the only place He can be seen is in Jesus. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6 that God has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (3) They do not have His word abiding in them. For all their time spent studying the Scriptures, the word has not taken root in their hearts. If it had, they would have seen the Scriptures pointing to Christ as the divine, promised Messiah who had come to save them. But they didn’t. (4) Jesus says in v42, “You do not have the love of God in yourselves.” They would claim to love God more devoutly than anyone in the world, but it is lip service, because Jesus has come, not in His own name, but in the name of His Father, and they have not received Him. Ironic, considering that multitudes turned in belief to any one of dozens of false Messiahs who came to Israel in their own name and making boastful claims of themselves, telling the people only what they wanted to hear. So the tables are turned. It began as an indictment against Jesus for Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy, but He has responded with testimony to vindicate Himself. Now, He has now turned the incident into an indictment against unbelieving Israel, which could be broadened to include the entire unbelieving world. The evidence of these indictments is simple: “You do not believe Him whom He sent.” If they would hear the voice of God testifying through the words and works of Jesus, and see God in Christ, and allow the Scriptures to take root in their hearts, they would turn to Him in faith and repentance and be saved.

Jesus has already announced that there is coming a day of judgment, when He will exercise the authority given to Him by His Father to judge the entire human race. And He warns here, “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope.” They had set their hope on Moses as the deliverer of the Law and the mediator of the covenant God established with Israel. But Jesus says that Moses will testify against them, and he will be their chief accuser on that day of judgment, because ultimately, though they claimed to regard the writings of Moses, they did not truly believe them. The entire Old Testament was pointing the way forward to Jesus, and He says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”

What then is the verdict on the matter? Is Jesus who He claims to be? Well, we have seen in this text that it is not He alone who testifies of Himself. John the Baptist has testified of Him, but even more significantly, God the Father has testified of Jesus through His word, through the works of Jesus, and in the words of Hebrews 1:1, “in many portions and in many ways.” So who is He? He is God-incarnate, the supreme and almighty God of the universe, who became a man and lived a life of perfect righteousness, died to redeem us from sin by bearing our sins in His body on the cross, and conquering sin, death, and hell through His resurrection from the dead, which provided additional testimony to His identity and His mission of redemption. The question for every human being therefore is: Do you believe in Him? Not just in a historical, intellectual sense, but have you received Him? Have you come to Him? These are the words that Jesus uses in His indictment of His critics in this passage: believe, receive, come to. To believe in Jesus, or receive Him, or come to Him, means to turn to Him in faith as your only hope of life eternal and abundant. It is to receive Him as the life-giving Savior who rescues you from your sin. It is to come to Him in total abandon of all your other beliefs and practices in which you trust to make you right before God. Hope is found in Him and in Him alone.

If you do not believe in Him in this way, then you are like these who opposed Him in our text today. The indictments fall on you as well. You have not heard the voice of God, nor beheld His form in the person of Christ, nor do His word or His love abide in you. And yet, you will stand before Him as your righteous judge when you step into eternity. What hope will you have? You have not only rejected Him, but you have rejected the testimony of Moses, of John the Baptist, and even that of God the Father Himself. And the outcome will be condemnation and eternal separation from God, when the offer of life, free, abundant, and eternal was extended to you by Jesus Christ. There is still hope while you have life and breath, but the hope is found only in Jesus, so come to Him; receive Him; believe in Him. Trust Him as Lord and Savior by faith, not blind faith mind you, but faith that rests confidently on His own word, that of His Father, and that of a multitude of witnesses, including those of us here whose lives have been transformed by His grace.

And remember, if you have turned to Jesus and received Him as Lord and Savior, that you too are called to be His witness. You are the living proof of His power to save sinners. May His love and His word abide in you as you walk through this fallen world, pointing the way to Christ that others may know the joy of His salvation.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 261.
[2] F. F. Bruce, The Gospels and Epistles of John (1-volume edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1:135.
[3] Carson, 263. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Giving Life to the Dead (John 5:25-30)

I suppose sooner or later in everyone’s life, they wrestle with the question, “Is there life beyond death?” It is an age-old question. Most biblical scholars seem to agree that the Book of Job is the oldest writing in our Bibles. Though the events of the first half of Genesis pre-date the events of Job, they were not recorded in writing until the time of Moses, whereas Job seems to have been written long before Moses’ day. And, in Job, we find the suffering patriarch wrestling with the question, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14). I remember the first time I wrestled with that question. Somehow, I had avoided it for the first 18 years of my life. But, in the summer following my high school graduation, my grandmother died, and my cousins and I were pallbearers at her funeral. It was the first funeral I had ever attended, and it was the closest that death had ever struck me. I distinctly remember the sound of the mausoleum vault closing, and as it echoed I was perplexed with mixture of despair, fear, and curiosity. The questions that kept bouncing around in my head were, “Now what? Is that the end, or is there something more?” God used those questions and emotions that I wrestled with to draw me to Himself. And it was there I found the answers in His Word. I found that not only is there life after death, but there is also a death before death. I was afraid of what would happen when I died, all the while not knowing that I was already dead and in need of being brought to life by Jesus. So, these are the kinds of things that Jesus is talking about here in this brief text today. He is talking about His power to give life to the dead.

I. Jesus has the power to give life to the spiritually dead. (vv25-26)

Many of you have undoubtedly noticed that there is a craze going around about zombies. What is a zombie? Well, in popular folklore, a zombie is a dead body that has been enlivened by a mystical or paranormal power. In short, zombies are the semi-living, walking dead, or the “undead” as they are commonly called. Walk into any bookstore, and you will find titles like The Zombie Survival Guide or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In the toy aisle of your local big box store, you will find a whole line of “Monster High” dolls. Movies, TV shows, and video games commonly feature human beings pitted against hordes of the undead, and on a somewhat regular basis, otherwise mainstream news outlets report stories dealing with the fears of a zombie apocalypse. In fact, in September of this year, the Centers for Disease Control launched a campaign to prepare citizens for a zombie apocalypse, and just a couple of weeks ago in San Diego, United States Navy and Marine personnel engaged in zombie apocalypse training exercises.[1] Now, admittedly, those training exercises and the CDC campaign were promoted with tongue-in-cheek, suggesting that if you are prepared for a zombie apocalypse, you will be well prepared for any sort of emergency that may arise.[2] But they are capitalizing on the popularity of the zombie meme in contemporary popular culture. It’s all kind of foolish, don’t you think? This idea that we can be invaded by multitudes of walking, undead corpses? Well, what if I told you that I believe you are already surrounded by walking corpses? You might want to call in some professionals to evaluate my mental well-being. But in a very real and spiritual sense, we are surrounded by the living dead: spiritual zombies.

Notice in verse 25 that Jesus says, “An hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” Now, notice the phrase “and now is.” Jesus is talking about something that is taking place, not in the future (though it will happen then as well, for He says “an hour is coming”), but it is happening in the present, at the time of His earthly ministry. The dead are able to hear His voice and those who hear will live. Now, we know that Jesus did in fact raise the dead to life on a few occasions: Lazarus (John 11:1-44), the son of the widow at Nain (Luke 7:11-17); and Jairus’s daughter (Matthew 9:18-26). Aside from these three, we do not know how many others experienced this unusual and temporary deliverance from death. That doesn’t seem to be what He is speaking of here. Notice that here, in the present tense, Jesus speaks of giving life to the dead, but it is not universal in effect. Though He says that the time now is when “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God,” He seems to indicate that not all will hear, and thus not all will receive life. Contrast this with verse 28. There, we do not find any mention of a present work, only future; and those who are described as “dead” in verse 25 are contrasted with those who are described as “in the tombs” in verse 28. In the present state, in verse 25, not all receive life; whereas in verse 28, in the future, all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth. So it seems that Jesus is saying that not all who are dead are in the tombs. There are some others who are dead outside of the tomb, and if they will hear His voice, they will receive life. So, what is going on here?

The dead that Jesus is describing in verse 25 are what I would call “the living dead,” these spiritual zombies who are walking around in human bodies, but who are dead spiritually. Who are they? Well, in fact, every member of the human race is born in this condition, and a good plenty remain that way. Turn over to Ephesians 2:1, and let’s look at this for a moment. Here Paul says, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” He does not say, “You were sick,” or “you were disabled,” or “you were a little unwell.” He says, “You were dead.” You remember that God told Adam that in the day that he ate of the forbidden fruit, he would surely die. Now physically, Adam did not die that day. Sin brought about a condition in him that would ultimately lead to an eventual physical death. But immediately, at the very moment of his sin, he died spiritually. And the terminal disease of sin has been spread to all of humanity; thus, we are all born dead in the spiritual sense, and we are all susceptible to physical death – we live in dying bodies with dead spirits – because of the effect of sin on the human race. So, Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” So, what is the natural condition of a human being? Dead and dying; spiritually dead and physically dying because of sin.

Now, you might say, “But I feel pretty good. I don’t feel dead.” A couple of weeks ago I was engaged in the first battle of annual war on leaves in my yard. And in the course of the battle, I was attacked by a multitude of yellowjackets. So, I went to the store to find something to deal with the yellowjacket problem, and I found this can of Raid that was supposed to do the trick. It said, “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” That’s good. I wanted to kill them. And I wanted to kill them dead. So I sprayed the whole can into their nest. The next day I went out, and those yellowjackets were still swarming all over the place. It occurred to me that if that Raid had indeed killed the yellowjackets, it had not killed them dead. There must have been some kind of live kind of killing that the Raid had accomplished. When I think about that, I am reminded of how sin works in us. It kills us. But we are still buzzing around, aren’t we? Sin kills us, but it has not yet killed us dead. There’s some kind of live kind of killing that sin is accomplishing in us. But it will kill us dead eventually. Before that physical death occurs, however, we are spiritually dead in sin.

What does spiritual death look like? Notice how Paul describes it in Ephesians 2:2. He says that these spiritual zombies “walk according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (that’s Satan), of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” So, their lives are characterized by an enslavement to worldly values that are disobedient to will and Word of God, and which are dictated by Satan himself. Then in verse 3, he says that spiritual zombies live in the lusts of their flesh, indulging in the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and by nature they are children of wrath. They live under the condemnation of God because they serve their own warped desires as a god. To be spiritually dead is “to be insensible to the things of God and totally unable to respond to Him.”[3] That part of our being that communicates and interacts with God is dead within us from birth.

But notice the most amazing thing about this passage. Paul says in verse 1, “you were dead.” That’s past tense. In verse 3 he says that we formerly lived this way. So how did we go from being spiritual zombies to being spiritually alive? Paul says it this way in verses 4 and 5 of Ephesians 2: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” What is he saying? He’s saying exactly what Jesus is saying back in our text in John 5. The hour is coming, and Jesus says that hour is already here, when those who are dead – these spiritual zombies – will hear the voice of the Son of God. And when they hear His voice, He brings them to life. We are transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life by the effectual call of Christ through the Gospel. The voice of Christ comes breaking into the life of spiritually dead person like “a kind of summons from the King of the universe, and it has such power that it brings about the response that it asks for in people’s hearts. … This calling has the capacity to draw us out of the kingdom of darkness and bring us into God’s kingdom.”[4] It raises us up from spiritual death and makes us finally spiritually alive. And that happened to you the moment you heard and believed the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You were made alive in Him. We call it being born again.

Now, how is it that the Son, the Lord Jesus can give life? He says in verse 26 that it is because He has life in Himself. You see, our lives are “derived.” Most immediately, our lives our derived from the lives of our parents, who “gave life” (for lack of a better word) to us through procreation. But more ultimately, all human life is derived from God, who created humanity, who gave life to man, and with it the ability to procreate, and who upholds and sustains human life through His providential care. Thus, when Job was presented with the news that his children had died, he responded, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And concerning that response, the Bible says, “Through all this, Job did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:21-22). Job understood that human life is a derived life. But when it comes to the life that is in Jesus, it is not derived in any way. He has life in Himself. His is self-existent, and the life that He has, He is able to impart to others.

But what are we to make of the idea here in verse 26 that the life that Jesus has in Himself was given to Him by the Father? Admittedly, this is a complicated and mysterious truth, bound up in the infinite mystery of the Trinity. But the idea here seems to have something to do with the condescension of the Son in the incarnation as He took upon Himself human flesh and a human nature. Philippians 2:6-8 describes it this way: “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself….” Theologians refer to this as the kenosis, a Greek word that means “emptying.” Christ emptied Himself of His divine glory and power to become a man. But it was pleasing to the Father that Christ should retain some of His divine attributes even as He condescended to human nature. And one of these attributes was the power to have life in Himself and the power to grant that life to others. Thus, we read in John 1:4 that in Him (in Christ, the Living Word of God) was life, and the life was the Light of men.” The Father was pleased to grant the Son to retain His self-existent nature – this life-in-Himself, which He has the power to give to the spiritually dead who hear and respond in faith to the call of His voice in the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus says in John 10:27-28, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” When we were dead in our trespasses and sins, the voice of Christ came flooding in and brought life to those spiritually dead who heard His voice in the Gospel and turned in faith to receive Him as Lord and Savior. The hour is coming, Jesus says, and now is. If you are spiritually dead, having never turned in faith to the Lord Jesus, then He is calling out to you even today to announce that through His sinless life, His sacrificial death for your sins, and His glorious resurrection, your sins can be washed away and you can have life – eternal and abundant – beginning even in this very moment. The spiritual life that Jesus gives to the spiritually dead here and now foreshadows a coming day, yet future, which is described in the following verses.

II. Jesus has the authority to raise and judge the entire human race

Donia and I have been married for 15 years. For the first six years of our marriage, we lived beside of a cemetery; and for the last 7 years of our marriage we’ve lived beside of another cemetery. People often ask us, “What’s it like living beside of a graveyard?” Well, we don’t have to worry about noisy or nosey neighbors, so it really has some significant advantages. There’s not a lot of activity in most graveyards. But that won’t always be true. There is a day coming, the Lord Jesus says, in which there will be a great upheaval in every cemetery in the world. That day remains in the future. Unlike verse 25, there is no present tense component of this promise. How far in the future will this event occur? We don’t know. But we do know that every day that elapses brings us one day closer. In the previous section we were talking about the spiritual dead – those spiritual zombies who are walking around among us every day. But now we are talking about the physical dead – they are in the tombs. And one day, “all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth.” The same voice that brings life to the spiritually dead here and now will call the dead to rise from their tombs and stand face to face before Him. Thus Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26).

For at least 350 years, and probably much longer than that, as Christians gather to bury their dead, words similar to this are spoken: “we commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection from the dead unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This wording originates in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer from 1662, but certainly the ideas that these words express are rooted in the Word of God itself. No matter the circumstances or the degree of sorrow in my heart over the death of a loved one, when I officiate at the graveside of a believer, I find tremendous joy as I utter the words, “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.” Folks, I really believe that, and I hope you do too! For the believer in Jesus Christ, death is not the end. We are confident by faith that the day is coming when the soul of our departed loved one, who is already with the Lord, will be reunited with a risen and glorified body! Through our Lord Jesus Christ, we have a sure and certain hope of resurrection from the dead unto eternal life! There is no greater comfort a grieving Christian can know that this!

However, what we do not often express verbally at the graveside is that there is also a sure and certain promise of resurrection for those who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no hope and comfort in that promise. Though the unbeliever has the promise of resurrection and conscious existence beyond death, it is not a joyous existence in the glorious presence of Christ in heaven. It is a perpetual, eternal existence of judgment and condemnation. It seems odd to even call it life. It is at best a mere existence in the most agonizing of conditions. But it is a real, conscious, and unending existence, and that is a sure and certain promise made by none other than the Lord Jesus Himself. Therefore, we can believe it, and as He says in verse 28, we must not marvel at the truthfulness of these words.

When all who are in the tombs come forth in response to the voice of Christ, there will be a great separating of humanity. Now, this text really says nothing about chronology or time. There are other texts in Scripture that seem to indicate that the resurrection of the righteous dead will occur long before the resurrection of the unrighteous dead. This text does not contradict that. It merely asserts that all humanity – saved and unsaved; righteous and unrighteous – will be raised will be separated into two populations. Jesus says here that those who “did the good deeds” will be raised “to a resurrection of life.” It would be easy to mistakenly infer that Jesus is saying here that people will earn eternal life on the basis of their works, but that is most definitely NOT what He is saying. The Bible makes abundantly clear from cover to cover that works do not and cannot save human beings, for as spiritually dead people we are unable to do anything in our own power to bring pleasure to God, and our so-called righteousness is nothing but filthy rags in His sight. So, how then will those who did the good deeds be raised to a resurrection of life? We must rely on the whole context of Scripture to understand this. In John 6:28, the people asked Jesus, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” He responded (6:29) by saying, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” What is the “good deed” that leads to the resurrection of life? It is believing on the Lord Jesus Christ! It is not a doing of something, but the receiving of something that has been done for you! It is the receiving of Christ as Lord and Savior on the basis of His sinless life, the death He died in your place for your sins, and the power of His resurrection. And when a person has received Him, they are transformed from spiritual death to spiritual life here and now, and will eventually be raised to eternal life with Him in the glory of heaven. The validity of this person’s faith in Christ is demonstrated by perseverance in a God-glorifying of righteous living, not done in an effort to earn salvation; but done as an overflowing of His life within us. These deeds are not the working of our own power to appease God; they are the outworking of the indwelling Christ within us. As Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” So the good deeds that lead to a resurrection of life are not even our own. We merely receive and appropriate for ourselves what Christ has done for us, and He lives and works through us those deeds that demonstrate that our relationship with Him is real and viable. Works do not make a person a Christian, but they can and should reveal whether or not a person is a genuine Christian, and not merely one who calls himself or herself Christian.

Apart from life in Him, the best that we can do is sin. Sin so totally corrupts the spiritually dead person that our self-instigated acts of righteousness amount only to unrighteousness. Thus, Jesus says that those who committed the evil deeds – that is, they did not believe upon Christ; they did not receive spiritual life in their state of spiritual death; they do not have Christ in them as the hope of glory – these will be raised, but not to eternal life with Him. These will be raised to a resurrection of judgment. The word also means condemnation. It describes the eternal, conscious existence which is separated from Him in hell, where for all eternity the condemnation of our sins is experienced moment by moment.

For a multitude of people, this message is now and always has been a highly offensive message. Christians who proclaim this truth are called judgmental and narrow-minded. It is often said that Christians do not reflect the nature of Christ in making statements like this, but I remind you that these are the words of Jesus Himself. He has been granted the authority by His Father to execute judgment, and the judgment is based on human response to Him as Lord and as Savior of the world. Verse 27 says that the Father has given Him this prerogative “because He is the Son of Man.” We’ve discussed this title before many times, and noted that it is the favorite title that Jesus uses to refer to Himself. In fact, no one else ever calls Him this; He alone uses the title, and more often than any other title, to refer to Himself. It is rooted in the messianic announcement of Daniel 7:13-14, in which we read that the Son of Man will receive from the Ancient of Days an everlasting dominion and kingdom which will never pass away. This is a vivid picture of the authority that is granted to God the Son by God the Father. Because the Son is the eternal God, and has been invested by the Father with this authority, and because He has become man and lived in perfect obedience to His Father’s will, He has demonstrated His authority to judge all humanity. Though some will object that this judgment is unfair, that all humanity should be saved or perish on the basis of Christ, and Him alone, Jesus says in verse 30 that His judgment is just. It is based on the will of His Father, who sent Him for this mission and purpose. Peter announced in Acts 10:42-43 that Christ has “ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead,” for “through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”

Thus, by the Lord Jesus’ very own words, we have the sure and certain promise that there is a life that exists beyond death. All who are in the tombs will come forth. Those who have received life in His name have been cleansed of sin and covered in His righteousness. Our sins have been dealt with fully and finally in Christ crucified. He died to bear the wrath of our sin, that we might be brought forth from death into life – a spiritual quickening of our dead spirit that we might know the abundant life Christ offers to us here and now, and the physical life of resurrected glory after death has done its best to destroy us. In Christ we overwhelmingly conquer sin and death and hell, and are raised to a life that shall never end. But for those who do not experience the gift of His salvation which transforms us from death to life, eternity shall hold for them no hope or comfort – only the conscious experience of eternal torment, separated from Him in the despair and agony of hell. That reality can lead you to live in fear and dread, wondering against all odds how you will fare on the day of resurrection and judgment. Or, this promise can beckon you to call out to Him and know the glory of being raised from spiritual death to spiritual life here and now. He calls out to you even in the state of spiritual death. And so it is for good reason that the warning is given to us in Hebrews 4:7, saying that God has fixed a certain day and called it “Today,” saying, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”  His voice comes to you through message of His death and resurrection for your sin and for your salvation, saying as it were, “Awake sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).

If today you are a spiritual zombie – a dead spirit walking around in a living body – hear the voice of the Son of God calling and turn to Him and live. Then you will know the sure and certain hope of the resurrection from death unto life eternal through Jesus Christ our Lord. And if you have already experienced that transformation from death to life in your spirit, live in the hope and glory of it. Show those around you who are dead what it really means to live by resting in Him and allowing His life to break forth into the world through you. The world may not always like what they see of Him in you, but fear not. The worst that this world can do to you is kill you. But take courage, Christ has overcome the world, and He has overcome death, and He will call you forth from the tomb and you will rise to life eternal with Him. 

[1] Accessed November 8, 2012.
[2] Accessed November 8, 2012.
[3] John MacArthur, John 1-11 (MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 2006), 196-7.
[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 692.