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. 

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