Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Testimony of the One Who Came From Heaven (John 3:11-13)

You can’t believe everything you read. You’ve heard that before haven’t you? It was even the subject of a segment on a rerun of 60 Minutes last weekend, chronicling the scandal circling around Greg Mortenson and his bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Many people have believed every word of Mortenson’s book, and sent him gobs of money, but now things are coming out which make it seem like he has embellished, exaggerated, or worse, perhaps even flat-out lied, about some of his experiences in Central Asia. John Krakauer has written a book about it, and I would read it, but then I’d have to decide who’s telling the truth, and I don’t want to spend the energy on it. There’s really only one book in which I believe everything I read: the Bible. But all the others need a critical eye and a healthy sense of discernment. Apart from the Bible, you just can’t believe everything you read.

I think deep down, we all know this. But sometimes, we let our guard down and become gullible, believing everything we read in some popular books. Recently, I’ve been noticing this happening with a lot of books that describe people’s experiences with temporary visits to heaven or hell. The genre is not new. “Near Death Experience” stories have been popular for a long time. I’ve known of many bestsellers in recent decades, but even in the ancient and medieval world, there were stories being told about people visiting heaven and returning to share their experiences. But in recent years, it seems that the subject has gained a renewed interest, especially among Christians. One book describes an author’s 23 minute visit to hell. Another describes a man’s 90 minute visit to heaven. And most recently, we have the story told in a book entitled Heaven is For Real about the experience of a four year old boy who visited heaven when he flatlined during surgery, but came back to life with a story to tell about his experiences.

When 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper (not to be confused with John Piper, no relation), was all the rage, someone purchased a copy of it for me as a gift and said I would be encouraged and blessed if I read it. I admit, I was skeptical before I began to read it. But a few pages in, my skepticism evolved into frustration and outrage. There were internal contradictions in his own recounting of the events, but more importantly there were numerous descriptions of heaven which flatly contradict what the Bible tells us about heaven. Most shockingly, Don Piper says that during his 90 minute visit to heaven, “I didn’t see Jesus, but I did see people I had known.” Yet, in Scripture, nearly every passage that speaks about heaven makes much of the reality that there we will be in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, precious little is said about our relationships with each other in heaven. And when I read the book of Revelation’s description of heaven, I find it hard to believe that someone could tour it for an hour and a half and never stumble upon Jesus. So, did this happen or didn’t it? Is it a lie concocted to sell books? Was it a dream, a hallucination, or some other physiological or psychosomatic phenomenon? Was it a satanic delusion? We don’t know. We just know that the heaven described in that book bears little similarity to the heaven described in the Bible. In the more recent book, Heaven is for Real, some elements of Colton’s recollections seem to align with biblical descriptions of heaven and others that do not.

I’ve been a bit dismayed by the uncritical, undiscerning acceptance of these books by the Christian community, and frustrated that they have fostered the perception outside of the church that these are accurate representations of the Christian perspective of heaven. Two months ago, my closest friend died suddenly and unexpectedly. And within 24 hours, a well-intentioned soul who I do not believe is a Christian, attempted to console me by saying, “If you need some comfort while you are grieving, or have any questions about heaven, I’d suggest you read Heaven is for Real.” While I was grateful for the sentiment and obvious concern that was shared by this person, I could not help responding in a perhaps inappropriately direct way. I said, “I want you to know that I have already been engulfed in a great comfort from God Himself and the promises of His Word. His Word has answered every question I have about heaven and has told me all that I need to know about it. So, I would suggest that perhaps you turn to the Bible as a basis for your own comforts and hopes.”

Of all the books that describe near death experiences, temporary sojourns in heaven or hell, and the like, relatively few are written by Christians; most are written by followers of other religious systems or new age mystics. All of them tell stories that differ greatly in detail. One says heaven is like this, another that it is like that. One says he didn’t see Jesus. Another says he sat on His lap. Who is telling the truth? We can never really know. But thankfully, we have God’s Word. I know that heaven is for real, not because I know or read about someone who went there and came back to tell us stories. I know that it is real because I know Someone who came from there and told us about it, and has returned there. That is what Jesus says in John 3:13. “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” You can believe Jesus, or you can believe what has been written by others. But they can’t all be right, and as a follower of Jesus, I am going to commit my allegiance to His testimony.

The text before us today has a broad array of applications. It must not be separated from its context. It is part of a longer conversation that we began exploring several weeks ago between Jesus and Nicodemus. The crux of the conversation is the repeated insistence on the part of Jesus that in order to see or enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again. Nicodemus struggled to accept these teachings. He questioned Jesus repeatedly, finally asking in verse 9, “How can these things be?” And the words we are looking at today are part of Jesus’ answer to that question. While the context drives us to apply this to our understanding of heaven and the new birth, the applications go far beyond this to a variety of important aspects of living by faith in Christ. We won’t exhaust them all, but we will touch on some of them. Here we have the testimony of the One who came from heaven. Jesus speaks of His own unique and ultimate authority to address the issue, the sufficiency of His testimony on heavenly things, and the problem of human disbelief.

I. Jesus is the unique and ultimate authority on heavenly realities (vv11a, 13).

I am scheduled for jury duty tomorrow. I don’t know why I just dread this. There are probably lots of people who enjoy this kind of thing and would welcome the opportunity, but I am not one of them. As a juror, you have to listen to witnesses testify about a thing that happened, and then go lock yourself in a room and determine who is telling the truth. And some will believe this one and others will believe that one. But there is one, and only one, witness whose testimony is always reliable. We can always take His word as truth. That witness is Jesus. When He speaks, we have good reason to believe what He says.

After speaking at length with Nicodemus about the necessity of a new, spiritual birth, Nicodemus has responded with incredulity, “How can these things be?” In verse 10, Jesus suggests that as the teacher of Israel, he should be aware of these truths which have been revealed in God’s Word. Jesus uses a solemn statement of authentication as He speaks to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly” (in the Greek, it is Amen, amen), “I say to you.” The word amen means “to affirm or agree.” Jesus is saying that His very own perfectly divine nature is the ground for the truth of what He is saying. And then He says, “We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen.” Nicodemus is struggling to believe what Jesus is saying, and Jesus assures Him that He is giving a true testimony, because He is an eyewitness of these heavenly things. He is speaking of things that He knows and that He has seen.

But how can Jesus know these things with such certainty. After all, Proverbs 30:4 asks rhetorically, “Who has ascended into heaven and descended?” The answer is, “No one.” [Make sure you catch that, NO ONE!] And Jesus says the same here in verse 13: “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” We’ve talked at length before about how Jesus uses this phrase “Son of Man” to refer to Himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 7 about the coming Messiah. Here He seems to be saying, “If you don’t believe what I am telling you about heavenly things, who will you believe? No one else can speak to you about it with eyewitness accuracy, because no one else has been there. No one, that is, except Me, because I came from there.” Jesus did not ascend to heaven from a home on earth and then come back to earth to tell others of what He saw and did. Heaven was His home in the first place.

I only know one person from the state of North Dakota. When he meets someone new, he often says, “Have you ever met anyone from North Dakota?” And most people say, “No, I never have.” He says, “Well you just did!” That’s kind of like what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying, “Have you ever met anyone who’s been to heaven? Well, you just did. I am from there originally!” No one else has been there to tell us about it. He alone came from heaven to earth to enlighten us on heavenly realities. That makes Him the unique and ultimate authority on heavenly matters.

II. Jesus’ testimony of spiritual truths is sufficient (v12).

I like pizza. Do you like pizza? In fact, let’s just call Dominos and order a bunch of pizzas right now, and they’ll have it here by the end of the service. But I can remember a time when I didn’t like pizza. I was in high school, and I worked at a pizza restaurant. Every afternoon and evening, I was making pizza, and every afternoon and evening I was eating pizza. I ate so much pizza that I eventually quit that job and it was a long time before I could eat pizza again. Now I have it about once a week or so, and I eat a few pieces, and I think to myself, “Oh this is so good, I could eat the whole pizza,” but then I remember, that a few pieces is all I need. It may not be all I want, but it is all I need.
Sometimes we are like this with the Bible. We enjoy what we read in it, and we think, “Wow, this is really great stuff, I wish there was more of it! I wish I could know more about this or that subject!” I think that is what is driving the craze in the publication of these books about heaven. We want to know more than what the Bible tells us. So, let’s read what a 4-year-old has to say, and what a middle-aged man has to say, and here’s a guy who went to hell, so let’s see what he has to say, and here’s some other folks who saw the light on the O.R. table, and let’s hear about what they saw! And somehow, we think that is better. It tickles our fancies, it scratches our itches and satisfies our curiosities. But what we are really saying when we run to these books and things is that God’s Word is not enough. The fact is, if what we are reading in these books is saying the same thing that the Bible says, then we don’t need it, and if they are saying something contrary to what the Bible says, then we don’t want it. Here’s an interesting thing, maybe a coincidence, or maybe God inspired this knowing that we’d be inundated with all these books. Earlier I referenced the rhetorical question in Proverbs 30:4, “Who has ascended into heaven and descended?” And in the very next two verses, Proverbs 30:5-6, it says, “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge Him. Do not add to His words or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.” Right after telling us that no one has been there from here and come back down to tell us about it, the Holy Spirit is telling us to NOT add to God’s Word. I think that is fascinating. Don’t you?

Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 12, “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Jesus has been talking about spiritual realities that are unfathomable to the human mind. He uses earthly realities to illustrate them. He is talking about the regeneration of a spiritually dead sinner into a living child of God, so He uses the imagery of a child being born, and He says we must be “born again.” This is accomplished miraculously, sovereignly, mysteriously by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus says this is similar to how the wind operates in the world. It blows wherever it wants to blow, and you don’t know where it is coming from and where it will go next, but you see the effects of it and hear the sound of it. He says the Holy Spirit moves like that. He moves as He wishes, and you cannot see Him, but you see the effect He has on those to whom He gives this new life. Nicodemus can’t wrap his head around these things, even though Jesus has used earthly realities to illustrate them. Maybe he’s thinking, “Let’s stop talking about babies and wind, and talk about real spiritual matters.” But Jesus is saying, “What I have told you is enough! If you don’t believe these foundational truths, simplified and illustrated by undeniable earthly realities, how will you believe if I start talking to you about unfathomable spiritual realities?”

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough information. We have, in God’s word, all the information we need in order to know God, to trust God, to obey God, and to serve God. This is what we mean when we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture. If there was more that we needed to know about heaven, about salvation, about eternal life, about living by faith and obedience to Christ, then the Bible would have told us. Over the last 35 years, evangelical Christians have fought many internal battles over the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word, and thankfully in many circles, including among Southern Baptists, we have concluded that God’s word is true and authoritative. But it seems that we have been avoiding an equally important question: “Is God’s Word enough?” Many churches and individual believers seem to live and believe as if it is not. We need to be developing a stronger confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. All that we need to think and believe about essential doctrines is laid out for us there. All that we need to do to be obedient to God is there. And if God’s Word is enough, then we must add no words to it, and give no other words equal value to it. To depart from God’s revelation is to enter into man’s speculation. At least four times in the New Testament, we are warned against the dangers of human speculation because our faith needs to be anchored in the revealed truth of God’s Word.[1]

I was reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology the other day on this subject of the sufficiency of Scripture. I love that book, but it isn’t the Bible. I trust Grudem, but I know that Grudem can be wrong, so I measure everything he says with what Jesus says and what the rest of Scripture says. But here’s what surprised me as I was reading Grudem. He was talking about how cults and false religions will claim to trust the Bible, they actually demonstrate that they do not trust the Bible by assigning equal value to other writings. But then he says, “in Christian churches a similar error is sometimes made when people go beyond what Scripture says and assert with great confidence new ideas about God or heaven, basing their teachings not on Scripture but on their own speculation or even on claimed experiences of dying and coming back to life.”[2] That was not a reaction to the recent wave of publications. Grudem published that in 1994, before any of the books whose titles you would recognize were published.

I think this is what Jesus is driving at with Nicodemus. “Nicodemus I know you want to know more, and you think you need to go deeper than what I am telling you, but if you don’t believe what I have already said, then you won’t believe if I tell you more.” You might say, “Well, I might agree with that when it comes to Jesus, but you are talking about the whole Bible, and the whole Bible is not a record of Jesus speaking.” Actually, in a sense it is. The entire Bible is the written revelation of the Word of God. There is no dichotomy between Jesus’ words and the words of Moses, David, Paul, or John. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The Greek word there is theopneustas, and the NIV translates it literally: All Scripture is God-breathed.

Jesus Himself taught this repeatedly, but one particular passage of interest is in Luke 16 as He is telling the story about the eternal destinies of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. That rich man was crying out from hell, in agony and torment, asking if Lazarus might be permitted to come to give him a drop of water to cool his tongue. And when this was denied, the rich man said, “Then I beg … that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” But the response from heaven is this: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, “They have the Scriptures, the Word of God.” But the rich man protested, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And again the answer from heaven is, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” The perspective of heaven and those who are there is this: all that anyone needs to know to find eternal life has been revealed to us in Scripture. The perspective that says, “It is not enough! We need to hear from those who have been there and returned,” is the perspective of those in hell.

We must trust that the Lord has told us what we need to know in order to know Him, to trust Him, to obey and serve Him, in His Word. Are you content with what God has  revealed for you in His Word? There are some things that the Bible doesn’t address at all, and others that it only addresses briefly, but we have to bear in mind what Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord.” We must accept that God has revealed to us in His Word exactly what He deemed sufficient for us to know on these matters.

This brings us to the final truth here in the testimony of Jesus, the One who came from heaven:

III. Jesus’ testimony is believable, even when we can’t understand it (v11b-12)

I recall being in Introductory Hebrew at seminary one day and feeling like my brain was going to explode. It was only a few weeks into the semester. I’d barely learned the alphabet when I ran across this sentence in my textbook: “The letter nun may appear after the normal vocalic endings. This special form, when it appears, is usually at the end of a sentence or paragraph and is called a paragogic nun.”[3] And that was it, and then the author moved on and started talking about another subject. I get this cramping feeling in my brain just thinking about it. I read and reread that sentence over and over again, and couldn’t make sense of it. In fact, I couldn’t explain it to you even now. But I never once had the thought, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t believe him. I reject the notion of a paragogic nun altogether.” I didn’t understand it, but I believed what the author said because I trusted that his grasp of this language was significantly higher than mine, and respected him as the authority on the subject.

Sometimes, we encounter spiritual truths in God’s Word that we do not understand. Nicodemus did in that conversation with Jesus. But we must not jump from failure to understand to failure to believe. Jesus says that is the problem that Nicodemus has, but not only Nicodemus. The word “you” that occurs from the middle of verse 11 through verse 12 is plural in the Greek. It is best translated “ya’all.” Jesus is saying, “I have spoken of things that I know and things that I have seen and you should take My word for it because I am the only resident authority on the subject of heavenly realities. But ya’all do not accept this testimony!” In verse 10, Jesus questions how Nicodemus can be such a prestigious teacher and not understand these things. That is a problem. But the bigger problem is beyond his lack of understanding. It is in his lack of belief. He and many others like him do not believe what Jesus has said about the kingdom of God and the new birth, and more information is not going to change that fact.

It is one thing to not understand the truth of God. I mean, there are some matters that are just beyond the grasp of the finite human mind. But it is something altogether different to reject those things simply because we do not understand them. Carson writes, “The failure to believe was more reprehensible than the failure to understand, since it betrayed a fundamentally inadequate appreciation of who Jesus is.”[4] Nicodemus came in talking about Jesus being this great, godly teacher, but now, because of his disbelief, he is essentially saying, “I was wrong about you being a great, godly teacher. You are in fact a deluded liar.” And ultimately, this is what it comes down to. We can say all the nice and positive things about Jesus that we want to, but if we do not believe what He has said, this proves what we really think of Him. That is why Jesus said in John 8:31-32, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

You may say, “But I cannot believe what I do not understand.” Perhaps you should consider the example of one of the most brilliant scholars in Christian history, Anselm of Canterbury. His motto was I believe in order that I may understand. There are many who would condemn this statement as “intellectual suicide,” but that would be to misunderstand Anselm’s point. If you read Anselm, you will not come away thinking that he has committed intellectual suicide. You will recognize that you are in the presence of human brilliance. But Anselm’s idea of faith seeking understanding would lead us to begin at the starting point of believing that God’s Word is true because of His very nature and the nature of the Person of Jesus Christ. We believe, because God is believable. He is true and trustworthy. And so we approach His word with confidence, even when we struggle to understand it. And believing, we work toward understanding by comparing Scripture to Scripture, and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). But if we begin in unbelief, as Nicodemus seems to do here, then we shall never come to understanding, because we will not allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten us to His truth.

Therefore, we have no need to reject His word, simply because at times it towers above our ability to grasp it. We have no need to accentuate His word by giving the works of others equal value. Rather, because God is completely true and trustworthy, we can accept His word, believe it, hold fast to it, and be content that what we have in it is sufficient for us to live a life a faith, trust, and obedience to Him. If you want to know what heaven is like, turn to the Bible. It gives us a sufficient description of it. And more importantly, it tells us precisely what is required to get there. Jesus says, “You must be born again.” Because of His sinless life, His substitutionary death for our sins on the cross, and His glorious resurrection, we can be forgiven of our sins, made righteous before God, and receive this brand new spiritual and eternal life. It is a life that even death cannot destroy, for it shall go on forever in His presence in the glories of heaven. You can take Jesus’ word for that. After all, He’s the only one who’s truly been there, and who has come from there, to tell us about it.

[1] Romans 1:21; 2 Cor 10:5; 1 Tim 1:4; 2 Tim 2:23.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 131.
[3] Paraphrased from Allen P. Ross, Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 131.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 199. 

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