Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Today You Shall Be With Me in Paradise


The season of Lent began officially this week on Ash Wednesday. For centuries, all over the world, Christians have observed this season that leads up to Easter as a time of heightened spiritual concentration on the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This year, our focus during this season is on the seven sayings of Christ on the cross. Herschel Hobbs says of these sayings,

Every word falling from the blessed lips of our Saviour is precious indeed and of eternal import. But there is an unusual significance in the seven words of Jesus spoken at the cross. Few men indulge in mere prattle in the face of death. Therefore we may be certain that He who never indulged in an idle syllable chose wisely and with purpose the final words left for Him to speak as He walked into the valley of the shadow of death.[1]

We began last week with the first saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Today we move ahead in Luke’s Gospel to the second saying, in which our Lord says to a condemned criminal, “Today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” The first word of Jesus is a prayer to His Father. The second word of Jesus is an answer to the prayer of the man on the cross beside of Him. This story of the exchange of words between Jesus and the repentant criminal has been called “the most surprising, the most suggestive, the most instructive incident in all Gospel narrative.”[2] That may an overstatement, but certainly Russell Bradley Jones is correct when he says, “It is doubtful whether any other gospel incident presents the plan of salvation more clearly or simply.”[3] For here in this text, we meet a sinner who undergoes a radical conversion, who receives a promise of paradise from the Savior, and thereby exemplifies the scandal of grace.

I. Notice the radical conversion of the sinner.

By the time we come to this narrative in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has endured one abuse after another at the hands of sinful men. He has been betrayed by a friend, accused with lies secured by bribes, convicted and sentenced in a mockery of justice, beaten, scourged, paraded through the streets in shame, and now crucified—stretched out to die in the most cruel and unusual form of punishment the world has ever known. But sinful humanity was not satisfied. Still, after all this had been done, they mocked and insulted Him as He bled and died on the cross. Verse 35 says that the rulers were sneering at Him and taunting Him. Matthew 27:41 tells us that these included the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Mark 15:29 says that the people passing by were hurling abuse at Him. Verse 36 or our text here in Luke says that the soldiers were mocking Him. And Matthew and Mark tell us that the two criminals who were crucified on either side of Jesus were both insulting Him (Matt 27:44; Mark 15:32). This was a bit unusual, for most accounts of crucifixion indicate that if the victims say anything at all, they shout curses at the soldiers and the crowds of people. These two, instead, “used their dying strength to join in the taunting of Christ.”[4] But at some point, one of the two criminals begins to have a change of heart.

We may wonder what could create such a radical change of perspective in the heart of this criminal. Surely many have wondered the same about some of us. How is it that we no longer think, or speak, or act in the ways that we used to? The change of heart that we have experienced is not altogether different from that of this man, and the causes are likely the same as well. First, we must notice the words of human witness. Surely, in the case of the words that this man heard, the witness was somewhat accidental. In the taunting and mocking of Jesus, this criminal heard it said of Jesus, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One” (v35). We must wonder if the criminal began to think, “He saved others? What could they mean that He saved others? Are there some who believe that He is the Christ, our long awaited Messiah? Did He claim this for Himself? Could He really be?” Others were saying to Jesus, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” (v37). Indeed, Pilate had ordered the inscription to be hung over Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews.” These were words of mockery and derision, but there was truth in the words. This truly was the King of the Jews. And perhaps the sight of that inscription and the sound of those words began to spark an interest in the heart of the criminal as he considered, “What if this really is our King? What might that mean for us?” So we have this somewhat accidental witness of the people around the cross. They were not intent on testifying for Christ, but even in their mockery, they were saying truthful things about Him. And God was using the kernels of truth in their words to begin a process of change in the heart of this criminal. That should encourage us in our witness, for if God could use even kernels of truth in the words of these mockers to touch the heart of this thief, what could He do with our witness for Christ?

In addition to the words of human witness that the criminal heard, he also was presented with the Word of God. Jesus is the Living Word of God, as John’s Gospel tells us, and anytime someone beheld Jesus with their eyes, they were confronted with the very word of God. The criminal was witnessing the Living Word fulfilling the written Word that had been recorded by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier. Here was this Suffering Servant of the Lord, who was led to slaughter like a lamb, and who spoke not a word in His own defense (Isaiah 53:7). Here was a righteous man being numbered among the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12), as the Scriptures had foretold. And then the Lord Jesus began to utter His spoken Word. While others spoke words of venomous hatred from their crosses, here this One who is called King and Christ opens His lips to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This must have surely been an alarming surprise to the criminal. In the midst of His agony, Jesus cries out to God as His Father, and He cries out to Him for mercy to be showered on His murderers. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. And here the Living Word, fulfilling the written Word, proclaiming the spoken Word, begins to awaken faith in the heart of this sinful thief on the cross. So often we wonder, what should we say as we witness to our lost friends? Friends, we do not need to find words. We have the Word of God. Our witness is best when it is saturated with God’s written Word, about the Living Word, who declared the spoken words of truth about sin, salvation, and eternity.

Then we also must recognize, as in all true spiritual conversions, the power at work is the Holy Spirit. He is the one who works through human witness and through the Word of God to produce conversion in human hearts. He brings us conviction of our sin and awareness of our need for a Savior. We see His convicting power at work in the heart of this criminal as he sees his own sinfulness and accepts the penalty of his sins as a just judgment. As the other thief continues to hurl abuse at Jesus, this one turns to him and says, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” These words indicate that the criminal has come to see himself as a sinner. No more excuses, and no more attempts at justifying himself – he simply says, “We are getting what we deserve for what we have done.” He recognizes that the God-ordained power of the governing authorities has done right to put him to death as he says, “We are suffering justly.” But he is also beginning to awaken to the reality that the court which sentenced him and his compatriot to death is not the final judgment they will face. He says to the other criminal, “Do you not even fear God?” In other words, “Have you given no thought to the fact that in moments we are going to stand face to face with our Creator and Judge! Our guilt before Him will be evident soon enough! And what if the things they are saying about this Man are true? Then you are only adding to your guilt before God by mocking His Son, the King, our Christ!” This criminal has come, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the place we all must be brought to if we would be saved. He recognizes himself as a sinner who is fully deserving of punishment, and whose most severe penalty is yet to come at the hands of a holy God.

Have you come to this realization yet? Or are you still saying, “OK, I’m not perfect, but I’m not so bad. I don’t really deserve for any bad things to happen to me, and I especially don’t deserve to be condemned under the judgment of God.” You see, those are the words of the other criminal. Those are the words of an arrogant and hard heart. When he says, “Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” he seems to imply that he deserves something from Jesus. He seems to think that what he has done is not deserving of what he is experiencing. And if he really wants salvation at all, he only wants it from the harsh circumstances he finds himself in at the present. He has given no thought to the guilt of his sins before God, and no thought of the judgment and the penalty that is to come. So many people are like this unrepentant criminal. If we have any use for God at all, it is only that He might make our lives here and now more comfortable and pleasant. In a sense, this man is like the hordes of people who flock after the so-called prosperity Gospel in our day. “Let’s don’t deal with our sins and the reality of hell. Let’s deal with the fact that I’m not experiencing my best life now. If God is really there, and if Jesus is really the Christ, let’s have a little more health, wealth, prosperity, and comfort, and let’s have it now.” That is not the Gospel. That is a satanic distortion of Christianity. Only one of these men is even beginning to comprehend the good news of Jesus, because only one is aware of the guilt of his own sin, and the justness of the penalty he is bearing now, and the greater penalty to come. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in our hearts, we will become convicted of these truths as well.

This conviction of the Holy Spirit is a blessed gift of God, for through it we come to see our need of a Savior. You see, it is only at this point in the narrative, after having become convicted of his sin, that the criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Notice he calls him by name, “Jesus.” Now, I’m taking the statement of Philip Ryken at face value, I haven’t fact checked him on this; but Ryken says that no one else in the Gospels spoke to Jesus calling Him by His name.[5] Think about it. Most of the time, when people speak to Jesus, they call Him Master, Rabbi, Teacher, even Lord, and all of those titles are appropriate for Him. But if Ryken is correct, then this man on the cross who ever looked upon Him and began speaking by addressing Him by name, “Jesus.” What is the significance of this? You recall that when the angel announced to Joseph that Jesus was to be born to the virgin Mary, he said, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). His very name means, “The Lord (YHWH) is salvation.” Might it be that this crucified criminal is the first person who ever truly understood the mission of Jesus? Might it be that he was the first one to ever recognize that in the death of Jesus, this man whom the criminal recognizes is suffering unjustly (he says, “this man has done nothing wrong”, v41), and in Him alone salvation from sin is found? It is obvious that he is not thinking about salvation in terms of the here and now. He is thinking about a salvation that is yet future. He is not asking for temporal relief from his misery, as the other thief is asking. He is asking Jesus, the Lord of salvation, to remember him at some point yet future, when after His death He enters into His Kingdom. Though his knowledge of Christ is limited here, it seems that he understands more about the saving mission of Jesus than even any of the Twelve apostles at that point. He is able to look with the eye of faith to a future in which Jesus conquers death and inherits a Kingdom prepared for Him by the Father, and to request a place in that Kingdom.

His is not the request made by James and John. They asked Jesus if they might be granted to sit His right and left hand, the places of supreme honor, when He came into His Kingdom (Mark 10:37). No, this man is not asking for a place of honor. He is simply asking to be remembered. It’s a humble prayer. And his faith in Christ is a confident one, for he does not say, “Jesus, remember me if you ever come into Your Kingdom.” He says, not if, but when. His prayer reminds me of Joseph’s request when he was in prison in Egypt. After interpreting the dream of the cupbearer, Joseph said, “keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house” (Genesis 40:14). But the cupbearer did not follow through. The Bible says that he “did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Gen 40:23). You and I have been asked numerous times by people enduring hardships that we might remember them when we speak to the King in prayer, and like the cupbearer, we so often forget them and their concerns. But Jesus is not a fickle human as we are. He does not promise one thing and deliver another. No in response to this humble request of faith, Jesus speaks with assurance a promise of Paradise.

 II. Hear the Promise of Paradise

It is often the case, and we might say always the case, that when we pray to the Lord, He grants us far more than we ask. His answers are not always what we have asked for, but they are always far better, even if we do not understand it here and now. But the dying criminal surely understood that what Jesus was promising him in response to his request was “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). His request was to be remembered at some indistinct point in the future when Jesus came into His Kingdom. The reply was “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” These words assure us that it truly is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, that we are saved. Jesus did not say to Him, “Well, first there are some things you need to do.” No, there could be no doing. The man’s hands were nailed to his cross. Jesus did not say, “You must first go participate in some ritual or observance.” No, there could be no going, for the man’s feet were nailed in place. Jesus did not say, “First you must turn over a new leaf and live a different way.” There was no time for better living. This man was dying. The only thing he could do was to believe upon the Lord Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life. And this, he did. He had placed his faith upon Christ and testified publicly to that.

Salvation by works is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The words of Jesus here assure us that there is nothing we can do to earn eternal life. But Jesus also assures us here of the truth that salvation is instantaneous and immediate. There are some who believe that there is a process involved, and some who believe that after this life there is a period of suffering in a mythical place called purgatory where we endure affliction to purge the sin from our lives before we can enter heaven. No, this is not to be found in Scripture. The Lord Jesus says to this man, whose sins are so evident, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” There is no process, no purgatory, no period of waiting. Salvation has come to him instantaneously and immediately. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” This man who is on the cross in the morning shall be in Paradise by nightfall. What a glorious promise this is for us. Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor, said that we must preach as a dying man to dying men. And such we are. But when death draws near, the true child of God who has trusted in Christ can know that when our eyes close on this world they will only blink, and open immediately to Paradise. Our last exhale of this world’s air, will be followed by the deep inbreathing of the air of Paradise.

But I confess to you that in most of our thinking about Paradise, about heaven, we have really missed the point. You see the point of heaven is not that you will be free from hardships, in a beautiful place, surrounded by your friends and loved ones. The most important aspect of heaven is that you will be with Christ. Hear the Lord Jesus as He says to this dying criminal, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” The emphasis is on those two words, with Me. This is more than was asked for! He merely asked to be remembered. Jesus says, “I’ll do better than that. I will take you with me, and we’ll go today.” There was much that this criminal did not understand about heaven, Paradise, the Kingdom of Christ. But this much was made clear to him: whatever that place is and whatever it is like, the most glorious aspect of it is that we will be with Jesus there. Hear the longing of the Psalmist as he cries out, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25). Why do you long most for heaven? Is it so that your aches and pains will pass away? Is it so that you can be reunited with Grandma or Dad? Is it so that you can behold the streets of gold? Or is it so that you can be with Jesus? John Piper has said it so well: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”[6] For the Christian, the answer to that question must be a resounding, “No!” Our hopes and our longings are not satisfied in a place, with certain particulars and people. Our hope and our longing is satisfied in a singular person – the Lord Jesus! And for those who believe upon Him and call out to Him in saving faith, we have this precious promise, “You shall be with Me in Paradise.” For the thief, the promise was that it was even to be experienced that very day, Today. Now this brings us to the scandal of grace.

III. Embrace the Scandal of Grace

I stood in the driveway of a man named Al just days after I preached his wife’s funeral. She was a Christian, he was not. As we stood there, I talked to him about heaven, about God, and about the Gospel which promises us eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Al said, “Preacher, I’m a good man. I help my neighbors when they need a hand. I do good things for people. I took care of my wife every day while she was dying of cancer. Do you mean to tell me that when I die I will go to hell, but a man on death row can just suddenly believe in Jesus and pray a prayer and be forgiven and go to heaven?” I said, “Al, that is exactly what I mean.” He said, “I cannot believe that.” And he turned away and walked into his house and closed the door. It is scandalous, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? And in fact it is not. But, when this life is over, and we set foot into eternity, the only person who will be able to rightly accuse God of being unfair is the person in heaven. The person in hell will realize at that moment that they are receiving exactly what they deserve. The person in heaven will realize that they have received nothing of what they deserved. They will realize just how infinite and amazing God’s saving grace is. It is downright scandalous. And we must embrace it as such.

Two men met Jesus at the cross on that day. Both of them called out to Him and asked for salvation. One said, “Are You not the Christ?” That implies that he thought there might be some truth to that claim. He said, “Save Yourself and us!” But he was asking for a salvation that God will not deliver. For Jesus to answer that man’s prayer would be for Him to remove Himself from the cross, undoing the purpose of God for Him to redeem the entire race of fallen humanity through His death. And for what? So that He and these two men could enjoy life here on earth for, at best, several more years. That man died that day, and he died unsaved. He would not be with Christ in Paradise. He would be separated from Christ in hell. But the other man said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” He was asking for the salvation which God provides. He was asking for the salvation that comes through the death of Jesus on the cross. He recognized that the glory of Christ’s crown is gained through the suffering of Christ’s cross. He recognized that salvation is not about increasing one’s creaturely comforts here on earth. It is about reckoning with the problem of human sin, and gaining entrance through the death and resurrection of Jesus into eternal life with Him in Paradise. And that man was saved. Was it fair that one was saved and the other wasn’t? No, because neither of them deserved to be saved. None of us do either. Grace invalidates all notions of fairness. It is a scandal. And it is a scandal that we must embrace.

I think that true, genuine, deathbed conversions are rare. I don’t think there are many. But I wouldn’t say that there aren’t any. One of the Puritans said, “There is one such case recorded that none need despair, but only one, in Scripture, that none might presume.”[7] Do you have a friend or loved one who is drawing near to death and is yet unsaved? Do not despair! It is not too late. It takes only a moment for them to believe and call upon Christ and to receive that precious promise, “Today, you shall be with Me in Paradise.” I think of my last visit with Tom Dixon. I went to visit him and I sat in the car praying, “Lord, I do not know if Tom is saved, but I am not leaving this hospital today until I know.” After we visited a while, Tom said, “Preacher, I was sitting out in the carport the other day wondering how I could have my sins forgiven.” And what a privilege it was for me to lead Tom to Jesus just days before he died. Don’t despair. We have this example in the thief on the cross. As long as there is life, there is hope. But we have only this singular example in scripture, so neither must we presume. We must not be like the teenage boy who told me one night down at Ardmore Park, “I am going to get saved one day. Maybe when I’m old, like 30 or something. Because first I want to have some fun.” I said to him, “You know what Jesus says? He says, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you!” (Luke 12:20). Why would you presume that you have years left to give your life to Jesus? You may not have months, weeks, or days left. You may not even have hours. Death is not obligated to give us a warning. It will come whether we are ready or not. Hebrews 4:7 says that God “fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying, ‘Today, if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts.” In 2 Corinthians 6:2, Paul says, “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation.” To put it off is to presume. Believe today and hear the words of Jesus, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” If you turn away, you do not know but that you may hear Him say, “You fool, this very night your soul is required of you.”   

Whenever I go away on a trip, when I return, my kids love to come sit down with me and see what I brought them back from my journey. I like to envision Jesus coming home to His Father, and maybe, just maybe His Father says, “Son, did you bring Me anything?” And I envision Jesus introducing this criminal to the Father and saying, “I brought this one.” And every time any one of us who has trusted in Christ passes through the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord Jesus stands to receive us and says to His Father, “Here, here is another one!” William Cowper was a man whose soul was afflicted throughout his life with debilitating depression. He was suicidal at times, and often at the end of his rope. But he held steadfastly to Jesus, and in moments of brilliant clarity, he wrote some of our greatest hymns. One of them says, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.”

[1] Herschel H. Hobbs, The Crucial Words From Calvary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 5.
[2] Charles Erdman, quoted in Russell Bradley Jones, Gold from Golgotha (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 29.
[3] Jones, 31.
[4] John Macarthur, The Murder of Jesus (Nashville: Word, 2000), 213.
[5] James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Heart of the Cross (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999), 25.
[6] John Piper, God is the Gospel (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005), 15.
[7] Quoted in Arthur W. Pink, The Seven Sayings of the Saviour on the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 42. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Father Forgive Them (Luke 23:33-34)


This week, Christians around the world begin a season that leads up to Easter, the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection. Last year, I remarked to Dave Shafer that I planned had planned a series of sermons leading up to Easter, to which he said, “If you weren’t a Baptist, you could call it Lent.” Indeed, that is what most Christians in the world call this season of 40 days that begins this week on Ash Wednesday and culminates in Resurrection Sunday. Lent is a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. Baptists, as you know, have not typically held to these seasons and special days of the church year, and there are both positives and negatives associated with that. You may hear a Christian friend who belongs to another denomination speak of “giving up something for Lent.” I like to say that Baptists have for the most part just given up Lent. Yet, there is something to be said for spending time in reflection and introspection leading up to Easter. For some, this can be a good season to practice a fast of some kind, and if the Lord should so lead you, I would in no way discourage you, but it is a matter of freedom, so we must not consider fasting a requirement during Lent. If you are so inclined, I would recommend John Piper’s excellent book A Hunger for God as a good biblical guide to fasting. As we go through these weeks, I will be departing from our study of John to engage with the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross that are recorded in the Gospels. Matthew records one of them; Mark records the same one; Luke records three additional ones; and John records three more. Lehman Strauss has written,

I like to think of these seven sayings as windows through which we are able to look into the very mind and heart of God. On that darkest day in human history man needed windows through which the light of God could shine. Blessed be His holy name, that light did shine! … And wherever these sayings of the Savior are retold, men are privileged to peer into the mind of the world’s Creator and Redeemer and see the heart of the Christian Gospel.[1]

The first of these sayings of Christ from the cross is found in Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. This single sentence is a prayer that is as profound as it is brief. In fact, most of the prayers of Jesus are brief. This should remind us that much can be accomplished in brief moments of prayer. It is not our verbosity but our consistency, sincerity and intimacy in prayer that is effectual. Here in this one-sentence prayer, the Lord Jesus says more than any of us have ever said in the longest prayers we have prayed. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. This prayer helps us to understand the heart of the Lord Jesus toward a sinful world. We do well to consider the timing, the subject, and the basis of this prayer.

I. Consider the timing of this prayer, or when Jesus prayed this prayer.

Have you ever experienced moments in which prayer was extremely difficult for you? Often we are able to pray when things are going well and our hearts are filled with joy. But what about when things get difficult for us? In those moments, perhaps when prayer is most needed, prayer becomes most difficult. But we see here that Jesus’ first instinct in the most difficult moment of His earthly life is to retreat to the intimacy of His relationship with His Father in prayer. Verse 33 tells us that Jesus prayed this prayer at that place called “The Skull,” the translation of the word Golgotha, which we also know as Calvary, as He was being crucified together with two criminals on each side of Him. I have read numerous books on prayer which talk about the importance of finding a time and place conducive to prayer: a comfortable spot in a quiet place, free from noise and distraction. This was not that kind of place. In fact, if we are honest, most of the time when we need prayer the most, we are not in that kind of place. The place where Jesus prayed was filled with all kinds of hideous noise – violent screams from the victims of crucifixion, mocking taunts from bystanders. And comfort was nowhere to be found at the scene of crucifixion. It was the cruelest form of execution ever devised in the minds of sinful men. After carrying the heavy cross to the place of death, the victim of crucifixion would be stretched out, the joints being ripped from the sockets to add to the pain and misery and make the process of dying all the more excruciating. Then, nails would be driven through the wrists and the crossed ankles of the victim as they were raised up in public shame and humiliation. The death would be long and agonizing. In addition to the traumatic loss of blood and agonizing pain, the cause of death in crucifixion was almost always suffocation. As the body weakened, it was harder to draw in breath. The victim would fight for breath, pressing against the spike in the feet to thrust the body upward and outward to inhale. Eventually, exhaustion, pain, and complete agony would make breathing impossible. Most often, the victims would use what little breath they had to cry out in agony or to curse the scoffers and the soldiers around them. But Jesus did not do this. With His labored breath, He began to speak, but the words He uttered were words of prayer to His Father.

The verb tense that is used in verse 34 indicates that Jesus did not just pray this prayer once; He prayed it repeatedly. Over and over again, He cried out to His Father. After all He had endured, not only the cross but the agonizing torture of being scourged and beaten before the crucifixion, He was still able to pray, and in His prayer to call upon God as His Father. He does not question or withdraw Himself from the intimacy of His relationship with the Father as we are inclined to do in our suffering. He does not wonder if God is there, or if God’s love for Him has wavered. He speaks in the confidence that the God who is enthroned over the universe and sovereign over these very events is still His Father. The intimacy of His relationship with the Father is His refuge in prayer, even in the most horrific of circumstances.

Are you able to pray in the midst of your suffering? If not, we have to wonder if we are really able to pray at all, because so much of life in this fallen world will involve suffering. Some of us experience it for different reasons, from different sources, and at different intensities, but we all experience suffering on a regular basis in this life. If we can’t pray when we are suffering, then prayer is of no practical benefit to us. And in the midst of our suffering, are we able to look heavenward and see a God there who is a loving Father to us? Are we inclined to think that He loves us less because He is allowing us to suffer? Do we question or shrink from the intimacy of a personal relationship with Him because hardships have come our way? We must be able, in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances, to know that our suffering and our hardships do not mean that His love for us is any less than it has ever been. We must look to Him as our Father, not only in the good times, but in the bad times all the more. And knowing human propensity to shrink from affection toward God and to resort to prayerlessness in our suffering, we must be mindful to pray all the more for one another when we know that a brother or sister is going through hardships. We may be praying for them in way that they cannot, or will not, pray for themselves.

Look at the Lord Jesus here on the cross! The most intense and extreme suffering that any human has ever experienced pales in comparison to what He endured on the cross. Yet in the midst of it, He is able not only to pray, but to pray with confidence in His intimacy with the Father.

II. Consider the subject of this prayer, or for whom Jesus prayed this prayer.

The Gospel According to Matthew records for us a lengthy sermon of Jesus that we call “the Sermon on the Mount.” In this great sermon, Jesus spells out what it means to be His follower and how we are to live for Him. He also challenges some common misunderstandings that had been applied to the teachings of Scripture. For instance, He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” He does not say that these things are written in the Law, but that you have heard these things taught. And indeed, the Law did say that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, but nowhere did the law ever say that we were to hate our enemies. That was something that the scribes had attached to the Word of God. So, in His sermon, Jesus said, “You have heard this, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Now, if we were sitting there on that hillside on a bright, sunny afternoon with Jesus, and we heard Him say that, it would be really easy to say, “Amen,” at that point in the sermon. But it is much harder to say “Amen” when we are actually called upon to do it. Is it really possible to love our enemies and pray for them?

Similarly, when Peter asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” the Lord Jesus responded, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now by this, Jesus was not saying that we should keep a record of how many times we have been wronged by someone, and how often we have forgiven them, so that when we reach 490, we are no longer bound to forgive them. No in fact, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells us that love keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus was using figurative speech to say, “There is to be no limit on how many times you forgive someone.” Again, it is easy for us to read that and say, “Amen! Peter, you keep on forgiving that person over and over again!” But it is another matter altogether when we are the ones being sinned against. We have a hard time forgiving once, much less seven, or 490 times! It is one thing to say this, and to agree with it, and quite something different to practice it. But as we see the Lord Jesus on the cross, praying to His Father, we see that He practices what He preaches.

“Father,” He says, “forgive them.” Who are them? The immediate context makes it clear that Jesus is praying for the very people who are putting Him to death. And who, we might ask, is responsible for the death of Jesus? Certainly the soldiers who drove the nails into His hands and feet are responsible, though they might assert that they were only carrying out orders. Certainly Pilate and Herod are responsible, though they may assert that they were only trying to preserve the peace. Certainly the religious leaders of Israel were responsible, though they would assert they were driven to do so by their zeal to preserve their religion from blasphemy and idolatry. The Jews have a part in His death, the Gentiles have a part in His death. But when we remember that God is the one who has orchestrated all these things in His divine sovereignty, and we remember why Jesus died – to bear the sins of all humanity as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – we also are faced with the fact that we ourselves are involved in putting Him to death. So for whom is Jesus praying? He is praying for every person who has a hand in what John Piper calls history’s most spectacular sin – the brutal murder of the Son of God.[2] And whether we want to admit it or not, our sin is equally responsible with that of Pilate, Herod, the soldiers, the religious leaders, and all the others who cried out for Him to be crucified. He is praying for a world that has declared an all out war against God. He prays for His enemies, just as He instructed us to do.

Now there is a sense in which we might say it is easy to pray for our enemies. That of course, depends on what we are praying for them. We might find great ease in asking God to flood them with judgment and misery. We may wish to pray for their death or for revenge to be exacted upon them. But this is not how Jesus prays for His enemies, and it is not how He would have us to pray for ours. He prays, “Father, forgive them.” And the astonishing thing is that He does not pray, as one writer says, “after His wounds had healed, but while they were yet open. Words of forgiveness came from His lips when the nails were being driven into His body, when the pain was the fiercest, when the jolts of anguish were the sharpest.”[3] This prayer for forgiveness did not come when remorse had set into hearts of the guilty and they had returned humbly in repentance. It was prayed while the hammers were still pounding the nails.

Has anyone ever wronged you? Surely they have. Living in this world is like living in a den of porcupines. Sooner or later, you are going to get stuck. But what have you done with those hurts? Have you harbored them in your heart, allowing that grudge to fester into a cancerous tumor on your soul? The Lord taught me early in my Christian life that my refusal to forgive someone does not hurt them, but it kills me slowly and painfully. “But Lord,” we protest, “they have not expressed any regret or remorse for their sin! Why should I forgive them?” The Lord will only point us to the cross, where we see the Lord Jesus crying out while the nails are being driven in, over and over again, “Father, forgive them.” No one has ever done to you what they did to Him. And in the midst of it, Jesus is able to release these individuals over to His Father and plead for their forgiveness. Will you harbor resentment and grudges for sins of far less severity?

III. Consider the basis of this prayer, or why Jesus prayed this prayer.

“Father, forgive them,” Jesus says, “for they do not know what they are doing.” Did the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross know what they were doing? Surely they did, for they had done this countless times before. They knew of the cruelty of this kind of death, and they performed their task with experienced precision. Did the religious leaders of Jerusalem know what they were doing? Certainly. The depths of their deceitful plotting indicated that they knew. They had to resort to bribery and manufactured allegations to bring against Jesus in order to secure His execution. Did the crowds know what they were doing when they cried out for Jesus to be crucified? Indeed. Many of them had heard His teachings and seen His miracles. Earlier in the same week, some in this unruly mob had undoubtedly welcomed Jesus into the city with cries of “Hosanna!” They knew when they called for the release of Barabbas that they were giving the life of an innocent man in exchange for a guilty one. Did Pilate know what He was doing? Surely he did. After his investigation into the case of Jesus, he pronounced that he had found no fault in Him. Nonetheless, he ordered the crucifixion. It seems that each one who has a part to play in this scene did, in fact, knew what they were doing. Why then does Jesus say that they didn’t know? Because, although each one knew that there was wickedness at work in this evil deed, they did not know the magnitude of it. They knew that they were putting to death an innocent man, but they gave no thought to the notion that they were putting to death the Lord of glory. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:8 that had they known the wisdom of God, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Does their ignorance of this absolve them of guilt? No, even in their ignorance of the magnitude of their evil deed, it is still sin. So, the prayer of Jesus is not that it be overlooked or ignored in heaven, but rather that it be forgiven. In God’s infinite holiness and justice, there is no sin that can be merely overlooked or passed over. It must be reckoned with. And in order for the guilt of one party to be forgiven, it must be satisfied by another. And that is what Jesus is doing here on the cross. As He suffers and bleeds, and as He dies, He is bearing not merely the scornful treatment of a wicked world, but He is bearing the divine justice of the wrath of God as He becomes the substitute for sinners. His prayer is that the Father will be satisfied by the substitute of the death of the Son in the place of these sinners. And not these alone, but all of us as well. For you see, in a very real sense, it may be said of us that we need forgiveness for our sins because “we know not what we do.” Surely, in all of our sin, we are aware that we are making a choice to commit an act of unrighteousness, or to forego an act of righteousness. Surely we are aware that there is a wild sense of rebellion in our spirit that refuses to be tamed in surrender to the holiness of God. But we are unaware of the magnitude of our sin. We are unaware of the depths of the offense that is committed because we lack awareness of the majestic holiness of God. We are unaware of the dangers of our sin, its effects on our own souls and on the wellbeing of others. We are unaware of the drastic penalty that our sins require. To us it seems a small matter, a minor offense, a peccadillo, just a tiny fracture of God’s requirements. But how does God see it? Look at the cross. Until you see every sin that you have ever committed, or will ever commit, as the deed for which Christ died and bore unspeakable agony and shame, you have known not what you have done. Our only fitting response then is to bow before this cross in humility and repentance and plead to the Father, “Lord, forgive us, for we did not know the magnitude of our sins! Forgive us Lord, on the basis of this righteous substitute who bore our wrath in our place. Forgive us Lord, for had we known the depth of our own wickedness, had we known the extent of our offensiveness before You, had we known the effects that this sin would cause upon ourselves, and others, and yes, even upon the Lord Jesus Himself, we would not have done it.” And henceforth, it is our Christian duty to know, to be no longer ignorant of the depths and dangers of sin, and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit whom Christ has imparted to us, that we might resist and overcome sin in our daily lives.

In the moment of His most intense agony and suffering, the Lord Jesus is not silent. And what does He say? He cries out to His Father in this prayerful sentence: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! In these words, prayed as it was under these circumstances, prayed as it was for the likes of these, for the likes of us, we see that no one is beyond the bounds of forgiveness. You may think today that there are unspeakable horrors in your past that the Lord could never forgive. Hear Jesus praying for those who are putting the nails into His hands! “Forgive them, Father.” There is hope for you in those words. And there is hope for the one who has offended you. If God can hearken unto the prayer of Christ for these, then He is anxious as well to hear you release the power of His forgiving grace to those who have wronged you. And He longs to hear you call out to Him in the intimacy of a relationship with Him as your Father, and you as His child, even when your circumstances have become most bitter.
You may wonder, “Did God answer this prayer?” I tell you that He did. Within moments, one of the soldiers who was putting Jesus to death would step back and behold the Lamb of God dying in his place and say, “Truly this was the Son of God.” Within days, the disciples who had denied Him, forsaken Him, and doubted Him, would bow before Him and worship Him as Lord and God following the resurrection. Within weeks, those Christians would proclaim the good news of Jesus throughout Jerusalem, and thousands would be saved, many of whom were likely present at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, including a great many of the priests (Acts 6:7). And His prayer has been answered over and over again, every time a sinner looks to the cross and finds there God’s provision for the forgiveness of his or her sins in the person of Jesus. It might even be that God answers the prayer of Jesus in the life of someone you know today. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. This is the prayer that the Lord Jesus prayed for you. Have you turned to Him as Lord and Savior and received this forgiveness? May this also be our prayer for a lost and dying world today, and may we offer our witness to the Lord for His use in bringing about the answer to it.

[1] Lehman Strauss, The Day God Died (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 8.
[2] John Piper, History’s Most Spectacular Sin (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 5.
[3] Erwin Lutzer, Cries from the Cross (Chicago: Moody, 2002), 36. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

This is the Son of God - John 1:29-34

On my last visit to Dakar, Senegal eight years ago, I struck up a conversation with the security official at the customs counter. As he looked over my passport at my full name, he asked, “What do your friends call you?” I said, “They call me Russ.” I have found that there are some languages in the world that do not have a corresponding short-u sound in their vocabulary, and so I am accustomed to people having difficulty with pronouncing “Russ.” It usually comes out “Roose,” or, if they are accustomed to rolling the “r”, “Doose,” or something like that. But this Wolof man just couldn’t seem to wrap his tongue around any pronunciation of my name, so he said, “I can see from your visa stamps that you have come to Senegal many times, so you need a Wolof name. Who is your father?” I said, “My father’s name is John.” He said, “Who is your son?” I said, “My son’s name is Solomon.” Being a devout Muslim, he recognized the name “Solomon” from the Old Testament, but he pronounced it “Suleiman.” He said, “Well, since Suleiman was the son of Dauda (which is the Wolof way of saying “David”), I will call you Dauda John-Son.” So, in addition to a number of souvenirs, experiences, and memories, I left West Africa with two new names. You can call me Russ Reaves, or you can call me David Johnson, or as a friend of mine says, “You can call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner!”

As we study the Bible, we find several people who go by different names. Saul is called Paul; Simon is called Peter; and so on. But no one has as many names as Jesus. If we were to restrict our study of His names and titles to only the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we would find at least 19 of these terms. In this chapter alone, He is referred to as the Word, the Light, the only begotten of the Father, the only begotten God, Jesus, Jesus Christ, the Christ, the Lord, the Lamb of God, a Man who has a higher rank than John the Baptist, the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, Rabbi, Messiah, King of Israel, Son of Man, Him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, and Son of God.

It may be helpful to place this account in chronological perspective with the events described in the other Gospels. John does not record the actual baptism of Jesus, but we know from this context that it has already taken place. We also know from the other Gospels that immediately after His baptism, Jesus went out into the wilderness to endure 40 days of temptation. So, we are about six weeks removed from His baptism at this point in the narrative. From the preceding context, John 1:19-28, we know that Jesus was present on the day before this account in 1:29-34. John said to the delegation from Jerusalem, “among you stands One whom you do not know.” And now, on the following day, Jesus comes out to the place where John is preaching and baptizing. When John sees Him coming, he identifies Him publicly using five distinct titles in these six verses.  These titles combine to give us a sharp image of His nature and His mission.

I. The Son of God has a divine nature.

There aren’t many days that go by that my son doesn’t hear someone say that he looks just like me. When I meet people who know my dad, I often hear them say that I look a lot like him. Even without those resemblances, if you were to sample our DNA, you would see that we are biologically related. We share the same the same genetic makeup. But what do we mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God? That is how John identifies him here in verse 34, and how Christians have referred to Jesus for two millennia. Does this title mean that Jesus has the same DNA as God, or that He and God look alike? Do we mean that Jesus was born the way that some of the demigods of pagan mythology were born, through an act of sexual relations between God and Mary? Muslims assume that this is what we believe, and Mormon doctrine comes close to this, but the Biblical description of the virginal conception of Jesus leaves absolutely no room for this view. No, the Bible is clear that the title “Son of God” means that Jesus is of the same eternal and divine nature as God the Father.

Though there are a number of mind-boggling mysteries in Christian theology, none is more profound than the mystery of the Trinity. The earliest Christians understood fully well that there is only one God. But as they searched the Scriptures, they found that the Father was spoken of as God, and the Son, Jesus, was referred to as God, and the Holy Spirit was also referred to as God. It took several centuries to hammer out an explanation for this that did justice to all of the biblical data, preserving the uniqueness of Father, Son, and Spirit, while maintaining that there is only one God. In the time of Constantine, the Christian faith was nearly ripped apart by a single occurrence of the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. Arius was a popular teacher in Alexandria (in Egypt), and he taught that Jesus was of a similar nature with God. The Greek word He used was homoiousios, meaning “similar nature” or “similar being.” Other Christians were convinced from Scripture that this teaching was incorrect. They understood Scripture to teach that Jesus was fully divine, and of the same nature with God the Father. Thus, these Christians emphasized the Greek word homoousios, meaning “the same nature” or “the same being.” Have you ever heard someone describe a small matter as “one iota”? That’s the difference in the spelling of homoiousios and homoousios: one iota. Though there is only one iota of difference in the spelling of these two words, the difference in meaning is of infinite importance. That is why this one iota nearly split the Church of Jesus Christ irreparably in two in the fourth century. Edward Gibbon discusses this controversy in his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, where he speaks of “the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited.”[1] Is Jesus kind of like God, or is He fully God? You can see that this is no small matter. To be wrong on the one end is idolatry, and to be wrong on the other is blasphemy.

The Council of Nicea in 325 affirmed that the Scriptures taught that Jesus is fully God. The Nicene Creed, which is the only creed affirmed by all Christian groups in the world today, explains that Jesus is, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” The matter of Jesus’ deity was settled fully and finally. But then there arose questions about His humanity, and thus the matter of His nature – whether He was only God, only man, or somehow both God and man – was taken up again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The conclusion of this council, known as “the Chalcedonian Definition,” it affirms the dual nature of Jesus, saying that He is “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.” The definition goes on to explain that He is, “of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin.” Throughout history many have objected to the idea of Jesus being fully God by saying that these explanations from the church councils are man-made doctrines. But we counter by saying that the councils were not inventing doctrine, rather they were seeking the best way to express what they understood the Scriptures to teach. And, among other things, they understood the Scriptures to teach that Jesus, the Son of God, is no less than fully God, yet distinct in person from the Father and the Spirit, and there is only one God. This is what God’s word had been saying in many portions and various expressions all along, but the councils systematized these various expressions and portions into precise and concise explanations of Christian doctrine. We need look no further than those who opposed Jesus during His earthly life, for they understood that when He spoke of God as His Father, that He was claiming to be God Himself. “Son of God” means that He is God the Son, of the same nature and essence as God the Father and God the Spirit; one God in three Persons.

A number of years ago, as I sought to teach the members of another church some basics of Christian doctrine, I began by giving a quiz about their beliefs. One of the questions I asked was: “True or False: Jesus is God.” In addition to a handful of church members who wrote “False,” a surprising number of them left the answer blank, and several wrote in, “He is the Son of God.” When I teach in the classroom, my students like it when I let them known in advance what questions will be on the test and what the right answers to those questions are. I won’t be giving you any quizzes in the near future, but if I do, please know that the answer to the question, “Is Jesus God?” is “YES!” And the correct way to express that is in all caps with an exclamation point! He is fully God, who became fully man in the incarnation, while maintaining His full deity.

This is why John the Baptist says of Him in verse 30, “After me comes a Man (yes, Jesus is fully man through the incarnation) who has a higher rank than I.” What is John’s rank? Well, Jesus will later say that John was the greatest person ever born. But John says Jesus has an even higher rank. John was a prophet of God, a man who received a word directly from God and delivered it on His behalf. Throughout Israel’s history, the prophet of God was the most important man in the land. But John says, “Jesus has a higher rank than that.” He does not merely deliver a word from God, He is the Word of God, God Himself, incarnate to dwell among us. John 1:1-14 makes this abundantly clear, as do many other passages of Scripture.

But then notice the next thing John says: “He has a higher rank than I for He existed before me.” We don’t know how many people standing around John understood the significance of this expression, but we who possess the New Testament certainly do. In Luke’s Gospel, we read that the announcement to Mary concerning the virginal conception of Jesus came in the sixth month of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, John’s mother. This means that John was six months older than Jesus. We also know that John came on the scene in public ministry some time before Jesus did. Thus John says here, “After me comes a Man.” But this Man who was coming after John, six months younger than John, actually “existed before” John. This is nothing other than an explicit identification of the eternal divine nature of Jesus. He existed “in the beginning” as God and with God according to John 1:1. Not only did He exist before John, Jesus will say of Himself in John 8:58, “before Abraham was born, I am.” He testified of Himself, John the Baptist testified of Him, and John the Apostle testified of Him that He had no beginning. He has simply always existed. There is only one name for a being who is eternal, who has no beginning and no end, and that name is God. John’s testimony clearly depicts that Jesus, the Son of God, has a divine nature and is God Himself.

II. The Son of God came on a redemptive mission.

When my wife was a child, her grandparents had a farm where they raised pigs among other things. A little baby pig was born that didn’t appear healthy, and so Donia’s parents brought that little pig home from the farm and kept it as a pet for a short time. They named it Isaac, and took care of it and nursed it to health before returning it back to the farm. Donia recalls asking her grandparents on occasion, “Whatever happened to Isaac?” And they would kind of glance at each other and try to change the subject. As she looks back on it now, she realizes now that Isaac grew up to fulfill the mission for which he was born, namely to become someone’s breakfast. Pig farmers aren’t breeding pets. They are breeding bacon and sausage. Little Isaac, like all of his kin, was born to die. What does Isaac have to do with Jesus? Well, my point is not that because Christ came, the dietary Kosher laws have been abolished so that we can now enjoy eating Isaac with a clean conscience, though I am grateful for that often overlooked blessing of being in Christ! My point is that Jesus is like Isaac. He was born to die. But John did not declare him to be the “Pig of God.” That title probably belongs to Martin Luther, whom the pope declared to be a wild boar loose in the Lord’s vineyard. John identified Jesus to be “the Lamb of God,” and in those days, most lambs were born to die as sacrifices upon the altar of the Lord. So too the Lord Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

From the time of the first sin, God had instituted a way of making atonement for sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, the Bible says that the Lord God made garments of skin for them. When we see Adam and Eve covered in fig leaves in artwork, that undermines the redemptive plan of God. They weren’t covered in leaves; they were covered in the skin of an animal. This Hebrew word that is used in Genesis 3:21 is translated as skin, hide, and leather throughout the Old Testament. And where did this hide come from? An animal had to die. God had commanded Adam and Eve, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). And to be sure, spiritually they died immediately as evidenced by the separation in their fellowship with God. They hid from Him in shame. But as for physical death, they did not die, but a substitute died in their place as a sacrifice. We are not told what kind of animal it was, but when their son Abel begins to worship the Lord in an acceptable manner in Genesis 4, he brings to the Lord an offering from among the firstlings of his flock. He brought a lamb. When Abraham took Isaac to offer him on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22, he told his companions, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Notice his faith. God has said, “Take your son and sacrifice him.” Abraham says, “Me and my son are going to make an offering, and both of us are coming back.” Isaac said, “My father, … behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself a lamb for the burnt offering my son.” And God did. As Abraham prepared to offer his son, the Lord sent His angel to stop the procedure, and there was a ram – a male lamb – with his horns entangled in the thorny thicket. God had provided His lamb, and Isaac was saved.

As the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, they were told that each household must sacrifice a lamb and the blood of the lamb must be spread above the doorways of their homes. God was going to have the firstborn of every household in Egypt killed that night, but where a lamb had been slain and its blood applied, that lamb’s death became a substitute to save all within the household. When the law came to Israel, it came with ordinances and instructions for sacrifices of various kinds. There were certain offerings which were made with bulls and oxen. Certain others were made with goats. The poor were permitted to bring birds. But it was the lamb that was offered day in and day out as a perpetual sacrifice to God on behalf of the people of Israel. One every morning, one every night, who knows how many lambs had been slaughtered and how much blood had been spilt in these daily offerings? I will tell you who knows: God knows! Because every single one of those lambs and every single drop of that blood was pointing the faithful people of God forward to a coming day when once again, God would “provide for Himself a lamb for the offering.” And when He was offered, there would be no more need for lambs and rams, and bulls and goats. Isaiah was given a word from God that he records in the 53rd chapter of his book which speaks of a Servant of the Lord coming who would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastised for our well being, and scourged for our healing. Isaiah said, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” And he says that this Servant will be like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and that the Lord would crush His own Servant as a guilt offering for humanity. Fast forward 700 years. Here stands John the Baptist out in the wilderness. He sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Jesus came on a mission of redemption. He is that Lamb that the Lord has provided to be the sacrificial offering for our sins. He bore our sin to the cross and died in our place. He became our substitute, bearing the wrath that our sins deserve under the righteous judgment of God. Peter said that we were not redeemed from our futile way of living by perishable things like silver and gold, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19). The writer of Hebrews says, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He (Jesus), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11-12). Jesus came to die, and to die for our sin, as a Lamb of God, in order to take our sin away forever. And having done that on the cross, conquering sin and death forever through His glorious resurrection, His redemptive mission was completed. Unlike those priests of old whose work was never done, and so they stood every day to offer one lamb after another, this Lamb made one perfect offering, finished His redemptive work, and sat down on His eternal throne at the right hand of the Father.

He takes away the sin of the world. Let there be no question as to the sufficiency of His atoning work. His death was sufficient to save the entire human race. But the entire human race is not saved. In fact, Jesus Himself will say quite plainly that in the end there will be far more who are lost forever than who are saved. He will say in Matthew 7:13-14, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” The difference between those many who are lost in destruction and those few who find eternal life is found in the other aspect of His redemptive mission that John proclaims. Those who find life are those who have been made new in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.

John says that Jesus, whose life and ministry was characterized throughout by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. God had imparted special revelation to John, indicating that the one on whom he saw the Spirit descend and remain upon was the Messiah. And when John had baptized Jesus, he saw this take place as the Spirit descended in the form of the dove. It was not as if Jesus did not have the Holy Spirit upon Him prior to that moment. For eternity, He had been in constant uninterrupted fellowship with the Father and the Spirit. The demonstration of the dove, accompanied by the voice from heaven by which the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” was not for Jesus’ sake. It was for John’s sake. John said, “I did not recognize him.” That’s an odd thing for John to say. He and Jesus were cousins. They knew each other. And all the time growing up, John never knew that Jesus was the Messiah. He knew there was something unusual about Him. When Jesus came to be baptized, John was reluctant to do so. John’s baptism was one of repentance for sin, and as far as he was aware, Jesus had no sin of which to repent. But at the persistence of Jesus, John relented and baptized Jesus, and when he did, he saw the sign that God had promised him. He saw that this was the One who was endowed with the Spirit. This was the anointed one of God, the Messiah, the Christ. And because of His unique endowment of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is able to impart the Spirit on whosoever He chooses.

Jesus said to His followers, “It is to your advantage that I go away (referring to His death); for if I do not go away, the Helper (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). And on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came. The church was baptized in Him, as each one received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And since that day, every person who has turned by faith to the Lamb of God for salvation has been baptized in the Holy Spirit as He promised. The Holy Spirit convicts us, leading us to repentance. He grants us faith to believe upon Christ. He regenerates us, giving us new life. He indwells us as the seal of our redemption. He baptizes us into the body of Christ, the true church of God, and He empowers us to live in righteous victory. There are some who say that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is something that happens after salvation, and is evidenced by spectacular gifts and signs, particularly that of speaking in tongues. However, without going into a prolonged discussion on the issue of tongue-speaking, it is sufficient to point to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:13, where He says, “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, … and were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Then he goes on to say 1 Cor 12:30, “All do not speak in tongues, do they?” So, according to Paul, all Christians are baptized in the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised, even though all do not have the same gifts of the Spirit. According to the Scriptures, there is no salvation apart from the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and His presence is the certainty of our redemption. 

Christ came on a redemptive mission. That redemption was accomplished in the atoning death of the sacrificial Lamb of God. And that redemption is applied to us through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, by which we are reconciled to God through faith in Jesus. John testified to Him, speaking of His magnificent divine nature and His redemptive mission. We give the same testimony of Him. He is the preeminent and eternal Son of God, who became flesh to become the Lamb of God who would take away our sin and impart to us the Holy Spirit. How glorious is this good news? We proclaim it afresh to you today. If you have never trusted in Christ as your Lord and Savior, then we bid you to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He bore yours sins on His cross, that through His death, He might give you life through His Spirit. Would you receive Him today? And if you have, then would be His witness and testify to Him as John did, pointing to Him by your words and deeds so that all will know Him as the exalted and eternal Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit?

[1] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1914),  2:373. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Greatest Person Ever Born (John 1:19-28)


Who was the greatest boxer to ever take the ring? The man with the reputation of being the greatest of all time is Muhammad Ali. If you were to ask Muhammad Ali who was the greatest boxer of all time, he would undoubtedly tell you that Muhammad Ali was the greatest of all time. He famously made that claim about himself on several occasions. Let’s broaden the question beyond the realm of boxing. Who is the greatest person ever born? I imagine that this is a question that would evoke many responses in the world. We could think of a multitude of great leaders, famous figures, and noteworthy celebrities in history, but each one of us would merely be offering our own opinions. I imagine that if we were to ask that question here in the church, we would likely all agree that Jesus is the greatest person ever born. In fact, even outside the church, many would name Jesus as the greatest person ever born. But if Jesus had been asked, during the days of His earthly life and ministry who the greatest person ever born had been, we would be surprised at his answer. I don’t know that Jesus was ever asked that question, but He did state His answer to the question in no uncertain terms. And unlike Muhammad Ali, Jesus did not point to Himself. Jesus said in Matthew 11:11, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women (and that’s everyone who ever lived with the exception of Adam and Eve) there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” Would he have been in your top five? Top ten? Top one hundred? Maybe, if you’ve read that statement of Jesus before. But if you hadn’t, or if you had forgotten it, I doubt any of us would have said that John the Baptist was the greatest person ever born. What do we really know about him? The Bible tells us about the circumstances surrounding his birth, and then nothing for some nearly 30 years while he is out living in the desert. Then the Bible tells us a little bit about his ministry of preaching and baptizing, and very briefly about his death at the hands of Herod Antipas. So we know a little about the beginning, a little about the middle, and a little about the end of his life. Compare that to what we know about some other great men and women of history. For example, Carl Sandburg wrote six volumes on the life of Abraham Lincoln. Any given chapter in those volumes would be longer than the written data on the life of John the Baptist.

So, who is John the Baptist? We are not the first to ask that question. In the text of Scripture we have just read, we find that a group of priests and Levites had been sent by the Pharisees in Jerusalem to ask him the same question: “Who are you?” His answer is informative. It tells us a little about his unique greatness—his significance in the redemptive plan of God. It also tells us about One who is even greater than the greatest person ever born.    

I. Who is John?

Following the last of the prophets of the Old Testament, there were about 400 years of prophetic silence in Israel. There was no new message and no new messenger from God throughout that entire time. But all that changed when John the Baptist burst onto the scene. During Advent, we looked at the passage in Luke’s Gospel about his birth. His parents had been unable to bear children and were advanced in years. One day, while his father was on duty as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, an angel appeared to him and announced that a son would be born to them in their old age. It was nothing short of a divine miracle. The angel’s message had made it clear that this child would grow up to be significant in the plans and purposes of God. When the infant John was presented for dedication in the temple, the people were astounded. Luke tells us that the news was the stuff of gossip all over the hill country of Judea, and they kept saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” But then, so far as we know, John faded into oblivion. For nearly 30 years, he really didn’t do anything noteworthy. Perhaps people forgot about the fervor that had surrounded his birth, or maybe they thought it had all amounted to much ado about nothing. Luke 1:80 tells us that he went out to live in the deserts, “until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” And that day finally came. Luke 3 tells us that it was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests. These were important people, doing important things. But little did they know that out in the desert, a more important man was about to do a much more important thing. While all these men were bedecked with all these great and honorific titles and bore tremendous responsibilities, Luke 3:2 says that “the word of God came to John … in the wilderness.” It was the first time in four centuries that God was speaking, and He was speaking through John.

John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2), and he was baptizing those who repented. Matthew tells us that large crowds from Jerusalem, and all Judea, all the district around the Jordan were going out to him, hearing him preach and being baptized. This caught the attention of the religious officials in Jerusalem, and so they promptly dispatched a team of priests and Levites to go and investigate. And the first thing they want to know is “Who are you?”

A story is told about the son of one of England’s kings who grew tired of life in the palace. He used to sneak out and play in the streets with some of the poor children, those who were known as “street urchins” by the society of that day. Those boys never knew who he really was. On one occasion, their mischief landed them in some trouble with a police officer, and the officer said to the king’s son, “Who are you?” The boy said, “I’m the Prince of Wales.” The officer didn’t believe him, but the boy kept insisting, “I am the Prince of Wales.” Frustrated, the officer turned to little street urchin boy, and said, “What about you? Who are you?” The child looked up at the officer with his chest out proudly and said, “Oh, me? I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury!”[1] John the Baptist was not like that boy. He did not make false and grandiose claims about his identity. He began by insisting on who he was not.

When the priests and Levites asked, “Who are you?” verse 20 indicates that he was emphatic: he confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” Now that’s an odd thing for John to say. When people ask you, “Who are you?” you probably aren’t tempted to respond, “Well, I’m not the Archbishop of Canterbury, that’s for sure.” That would be a ridiculous thing to say because no one would have assumed that you were the Archbishop of Canterbury. Why would John answer this question by emphatically declaring, “I am not the Christ”? The only reason John’s statement makes any sense at all is that some people were beginning to think that John was the Christ, the Messiah that Israel had been waiting for throughout its entire history. Luke 3:15 tells us that the people were in a state of expectation, and all were wondering in their hearts about John as to whether he was the Christ. If there was someone out in the wilderness claiming to be the Christ, this would be a big deal to the leaders of Israel and to the Roman authorities. Though there was a widespread state of Messianic expectation, there were many divergent ideas about what kind of Messiah people were expecting. Some were expecting a military revolutionary who would come in and overthrow the oppressive power of Rome, and this kind of dangerous subversion would need to be nipped in the bud before it ever spread. But John makes it clear as he insists, “I am not the Christ.”

They asked him then, “Are you Elijah?” That might seem like a silly question to ask. Elijah lived some 800 years before John. But, according to the Old Testament, Elijah never died. He was whisked away to heaven in a chariot of fire, and the prophet Malachi had foretold that Elijah would return in the future to prepare for the coming Messiah and for the day of judgment. To this day, many Jews who do not believe that the Messiah has come will leave an empty chair at the Passover table, just in case Elijah pops in for the feast. But there was something about the ministry of John that evoked the thought in the minds of some that perhaps he was the return of Elijah that Malachi had prophesied. John had burst on the scene from relative obscurity, like Elijah had, and he even bore a physical resemblance to the biblical descriptions of Elijah. Their preaching was similar in tone, content, and urgency. But, when John was asked, “Are you Elijah?”, he responded, “I am not.”

Now this is very interesting, because later on Jesus will say that John was, in fact, this Elijah (Matt 17:10-13). So who is right, Jesus or John? Well, in a sense they both were. John was not the literal Elijah who had come back to earth from heaven. He was a different person. But John had come, as the angel had told his father, in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) as the forerunner of the Messiah. This is why Jesus said in Matthew 11:14, “If you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.” It could very well be that John was not even aware of the Elijah-like significance of his ministry. Leon Morris makes an excellent comment on this as he says, “No man is what he himself thinks he is. He is only what Jesus knows him to be.”[2] So, yes, John is Elijah, but no he is not, at least not in the sense that the interrogators mean. He had come in the spirit and power of Elijah to perform the promised role of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah. Was this what Malachi had promised, or would the literal, historical Elijah yet return? Well, if Jesus said that John was the Elijah who was promised, then I want to side with Jesus on that. But, the actual, historical Elijah did, in fact, return, together with Moses to testify to the glory of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. In addition, there are many Christians who are convinced that Elijah will be one of the two unnamed wonder-working witnesses described in Revelation 11 who will come before the final judgment and the end of all things. They may be right, but this much is certain. We are not waiting for the return of Elijah that Malachi had promised. Jesus said John fulfilled that promise, and Elijah himself did appear at the Transfiguration. So, if you are keeping a tally of prophecies that have been fulfilled, you can put two check marks beside the promise of Malachi 4:5, and maybe leave room for a third check mark to be put there in the last days.

Then they ask him, “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Again, his answer surprises us, because John was a prophet. But they did not ask if he was a prophet. They asked if he was the prophet. By “the prophet” they were referring to a very particular individual. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses had told the people that God would send forth “another prophet” like himself to speak God’s words to the people. Some believed that this prophet would come, like Elijah, to precede the Messiah. Others believed that the prophet would be the Messiah. In the unfolding revelation of God’s word, we will discover that the latter belief was correct. This promised prophet was indeed the Messiah, and the words of Deuteronomy 18 would be fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Thus John was able truthfully assert that he was not this prophet. Are you the prophet? “No.”  

You can imagine the growing frustration that the group of priests and Levites must have felt. They were sent to find out who John is, and so far, they have only found out who he is not. We learn in verse 24 that they had been sent by the Pharisees, and they are going to be in real trouble if they go back and report to the Pharisees, “Well, we asked John who he is, and all we know is that he is not the Christ, not Elijah, and not the prophet.” So, exasperated, they say again, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” In other words, “Stop telling us who you are not, and tell us who you are!” His answer is remarkable. And it brings us to the second emphasis. For in his response, not only do we find our who John was, we also find out what John did.

II. What did John do?

“I am a voice.” Do you think of yourself as “being” a voice? You have a voice, but would you define yourself as “a voice”? Probably not. We can almost sense a prompting on the part of the interrogators to interrupt John at this point and say, “Yes John, we all know you have a voice! We hear you speaking!” But John continues, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness.” There are two places called Bethany mentioned in the Gospels. One is near Jerusalem, but verse 28 tells us that John was baptizing at Bethany, beyond the Jordan. This was way up north, on the Western side of the Sea of Galilee, a long journey from Jerusalem. Again, the entourage may want to interject here, “Yes, John. We have travelled all the way out in this uninhabitable environment from our comfortable confines in Jerusalem. We get it! You are a voice crying out in the wilderness!” But as John continues, everyone becomes aware that he is not merely stating the obvious. He is making a profound statement of identification. “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” Now at last, John has explicitly identified himself as the fulfillment of a specific biblical prophecy. All four Gospels refer to John as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. Here John makes the statement for himself.

Isaiah 40:3-5 says, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The language suggests making the roads ready for the arrival of a distinguished visitor. In ancient times, a delegation would be sent ahead of a king to fill in the holes in the road, to make new roads where the old ones were impassable, so that the king could arrive at his destination without delay or danger. This kind of thing still happens. When President Obama visited Forsyth Tech back in 2010, Donia got stuck for hours in traffic because the interstate was completely closed off to prepare for his journey from the airport to the campus. A few years back, as I was traveling out to the little town of Bafata in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, some boys had created a makeshift drawbridge with a rope, and they told us that for a small contribution, they would fill in the massive pothole in the road so we could pass smoothly. While we were explaining to them that we didn’t mind the pothole, another vehicle approached, paid the fare, and the hole was filled with shovels-full of sand. Before we could pass, however, the boys raised the rope again and removed all the sand from the hole since we were unwilling to pay for the rough places to be made plain.

John is saying, “I am that voice that Isaiah spoke of. I am calling out to you, ‘Get ready, for the Lord Himself is coming! Make all the necessary preparations in the highways of your hearts, for His glory is about to be revealed, and you will see that glory with your own eyes!” So John is a voice in the wilderness, and he is preaching that the Messiah is on his way. But his ministry is not one of preaching only. He is also performing an action. He is baptizing.

Now up until that time, baptism had been a rather unusual practice in Israel. It was reserved primarily for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism as a symbol of them being purified from their ethnic uncleanness. Some Jews did practice a form of baptism, but in all cases of baptism (Jew and Gentile alike), it was a self-baptism—the dunking of oneself into water in a symbolic act of cleansing. John was the first to come baptizing others. That act indicated that he believed he had some official authority to do this. The delegation want to know, “If you aren’t Christ, and you aren’t Elijah, and you aren’t the Prophet, then why are you baptizing?” They want to know where his authority to perform this action comes from. Of course, we learned in the prologue, in verse 6 that John was “sent from God.” He will say on the day following this exchange with the interrogators that God had sent Him to baptize in water. The delegation is accountable to the Pharisees who sent them, and John is accountable to an even higher power: he is accountable to God who sent him. So he acknowledges here, “I baptize in water.” Yes, he says, I am doing that. But he says that this is a rather secondary matter and that there is something more important that they need to be concerned about. “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” It’s as if John is saying, “You really don’t need to be concerned about my ministry and my authority, because the One who is coming after me is right here among you, and it is His ministry and His authority that matters the most.” So much greater than John is Jesus that John says, “I can’t even untie His shoes!” That was the task of slaves, a humbling and demeaning task, but John says, I’m not even worthy to do that!

So you see, the Pharisees had heard about John, and they wanted to find out more about John. He was an important person. If you were to ask Jesus, he would tell you that John was the greatest person ever born up to that point in history. But if you were to ask John, he would tell you that the only greatness about him was the significance of his task. He had been sent by God to preach and to baptize to prepare the way for an even greater One who would come after him. In the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, John was preparing the way for the Lord. And John says to this delegation of inquisitors, “He is coming. In fact He is right here among you. And you are overly concerned with who I am, but you need to be more concerned about the fact that you do not know who He is!” In Chapter 3, we will find him saying, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” His desire to decrease, while increasing the world’s awareness of the all surpassing greatness of Christ contributed to his greatness in the eyes of Jesus. John’s testimony could be boiled down to this: “It really isn’t important who I am and what I am doing. What is important is who Christ is, and what He is doing.” John was not the Christ; he hadn’t come to save anyone. He was merely a voice crying out in the wilderness that Christ the Lord was coming and that the world needed to be ready to receive Him.

Now, it is interesting that when Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!”, He immediately followed by saying, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” In the eyes of Jesus, John was the greatest person who had ever born up until that time. But in the eyes of Jesus, even the least significant one of those who have turned to Him in repentance and faith to follow Him is greater than John. And that which made John great will be the mark of the greatness of the followers of Jesus. There may be a few, or many, who want to know who you are and what you are doing. But we learn from John the Baptist that the greatest thing we can do for the world is to testify to them that we are merely a voice crying out in the wilderness, and we are crying out to them to turn and trust in this Lord, Jesus the Christ. Like John, we have been sent by God for this purpose. Like the delegation that was sent to John, the world we are crying out to does not know this Jesus. It is our task to make Him known. He is the incarnation of God Himself, who has come to save humanity through His sinless life, His sacrificial death for our sins, and His glorious resurrection.

Do you feel unimportant and insignificant? Do you wonder if your life matters or has any value at all? Remember that statement: “No man is what he himself thinks he is. He is only what Jesus knows him to be.” John didn’t think he was anything great or significant. But Jesus considered Him to be greater and more significant than John was even aware. And Jesus said that if you belong to His kingdom, you are great, and greater even than John the Baptist, who was, in his time, the greatest person ever born. But your greatness is rooted in your God-given mission to testify to Jesus.  So go out and do something great today. This very week you have the opportunity to do something that is eternally significant and remarkably great. Let your voice be heard crying out to a dying world lost in the wilderness of sin, “Know this Jesus and turn to Him to be saved!” It may be that someone here today within the sound of my voice does not know Him. And we have done a number of important things in this hour of worship, but nothing greater than this: we invite you to turn to Jesus as so many of us have, and be saved from your sins through faith in Him. He died to bear the penalty of sin for you, and He has conquered sin and death for you through His glorious resurrection from the dead. When your life is over, it really won’t matter if you know who I am or who any of us are. What will matter is whether or not you knew Jesus, and whether or not you received Him as your Lord and Savior. I want to challenge you to consider responding to Him in repentance and faith today if you never have before. And if you have, then I want to close by challenging you to do the greatest thing any person could ever do – share the good news of Jesus with someone else!

[1] This story has been told numerous times in one form or another by different authors. One such telling can be found in Stuart Briscoe’s book, Time Bandits (Multnomah, 2005).
[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 135-136.