Monday, August 27, 2012

The All-Surpassing Supremacy of Jesus Christ (Jn 3:31-36)

Audio  (there have been problems with our iTunes podcast; we are trying to resolve them)

Earlier this month, I was suffering from a widespread epidemic which afflicted many around the world. The symptoms ranged from sleepless nights, to dark circles under the eyes, unusual bursts of excitement, and a near constant sense of distraction. The condition is known as Olympic Fever, and after battling it for two weeks, I am happy to say that I am now fully recovered. Maybe some of you suffered from it as well. We have 530 days to rest up and be prepared for the next outbreak that will occur in February, 2014. Why do so many of us succumb to this fever? I suppose it is because the Olympics are a celebration of human greatness—at least athletic greatness. During the Olympics, we hear people described with amazing superlatives. The winner of the sprints is the fastest man or woman on earth. The winner of the decathlon is the world’s greatest athlete. This year, we saw one American athlete become the most decorated Olympian of all time. We saw a 71 year old Japanese equestrian become the oldest Olympian of all time. It seems that every day in the Olympics, someone makes history and raises the bar of human achievement. And we wonder, as we watch records set, are we seeing a level of greatness that no one else will ever surpass?

But if we can force our attention away from the fleeting fame of human celebrity for a moment and fix our gaze upon Jesus, we find the only One who can rightly claim all-surpassing greatness and supremacy. There is no one greater; no one more worthy of fame and glory; no one who will ever surpass Him. This is why our only fitting response to Him is worship! The word “worship” comes from an old English word that means “to ascribe worth.” When we worship Christ, we are saying, “Jesus, You alone deserve this. You alone deserve to be praised, to be exalted, to be reverenced and adored. You alone deserve to be made famous and demonstrated as glorious in the world. You alone deserve the devotion of our entire lives!” The words of John 3:31-36 have been inspired, they’ve been breathed by God, for the express purpose of engraving this truth on our very souls. Jesus Christ is supremely glorious. We don’t even know who spoke these words. There are no quotation marks in Greek. Did John the Baptist say them? Did Jesus say them? Did the Apostle John say them? We don’t know. But we know that these words find their origin in God Himself, as the Holy Spirit inspired them to be recorded for us in this text for our edification. And there is absolutely nothing more edifying for a Christian than for he or she to become ultimately convinced of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. This is the key for our worship, for our evangelism, for our discipleship, for our very lives: beholding and exulting in the all-surpassing glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are three specific aspects of His supremacy that I want to focus on as we work our way through this passage of Scripture today.

I. Jesus comes from above, and is therefore above all (v31).

Consider the words of our text. Jesus has come “from above.” If we were looking at a map, you could say that Jim and Eric and I have just come from above. We were in Vermont, way up above North Carolina. If you go with us to Nepal next year, you can tell people when you come home that you came from above. You will have trekked to Langtang, which is about 12,000 feet above sea level, as opposed to Greensboro, which is about 900 feet above sea level. But Jesus has not come from “above” in any of these senses. He didn’t come from somewhere North of here. He didn’t come from a place of higher elevation on the earth. He came from somewhere above and beyond the earth. He came “from heaven” (v31). He said in verse 13 that He descended from heaven. Verse 34 says that He was sent by the Father. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to being sent by the Father 23 times. Seventeen times in John, Jesus uses a form of the Greek verb apostello, from which we get the word apostle, to describe how He was uniquely sent into the world on a mission by the Father. There are verses that speak of Him coming down from heaven, and coming into the world, and coming from the Father. As Jesus draws near to His death, He speaks increasingly of returning to the Father. In John 16:28, He says, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.”[1]

Because of His unique heavenly origin, Jesus is like no one else. “He who is of the earth is from the earth,” verse 31 says. All humanity is limited and finite. Take John the Baptist for example. He is a good example, for Jesus said of him, “among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Mt 11:11; Lk 7:28). Yet, even John said concerning Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John must decrease, for though he may be the greatest person ever born up until that time, he was merely earthbound: finite and limited. But Jesus must increase; He must be recognized for His all-surpassing supremacy, for He is from above, and is therefore above all. If you were to line up all of the greatest human beings who ever lived, and rank them according to their greatness, you would have to confess at the end of the line, “There is one who is greater still.” In Revelation 5, John witnesses a scene unfolding in heaven, in which he sees God Himself, seated upon His throne, holding a scroll with seven seals. And an angel announces, “Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?” And John began to weep, for there was no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth who was found to be worthy. It wasn’t that no one was willing. I imagine there would be many who would volunteer for the task of unrolling the hidden mysteries of God contained in that scroll. But the angel didn’t ask who was willing; he asked who was worthy. And John wept at the pathetic state of humanity, for there was no one worthy. But one of the heavenly beings said to John, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals” (Rev 5:5). And John turned to behold this Lion of the tribe of Judah, and he saw a Lamb who had been slain. And all of heaven burst forth in a song of worship to this Lamb, singing, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. … Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:9, 12).

Jesus is above all because He is unique in His heavenly origin. He comes from heaven. He is sent by God the Father, and He receives the worship due Him because He is God the Son, the incarnate God who came down to live for us, to die for us, and to conquer death for us. As we behold Him in his all-surpassing supremacy, we see the stark contrast between Him and the pitiful, earthbound state of all humanity. He is supremely glorious, He is above all, for He comes from above.

II. Jesus testifies to what He has seen and heard, therefore He speaks the words of God (v32-34).

There’s an interesting verse that always stirs up a somewhat humorous debate among biblical scholars in Titus 1:12. There Paul says, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars …’” And then he says, “This testimony is true.” The debate goes like this. If Cretans (people from the isle of Crete) are always liars, and a Cretan is the one who said this, then is he not also always a liar? And if he is lying when he says “Cretans are always liars,” why then does Paul say, “This testimony is true”?  Of course, Paul, and the Cretan prophet he is quoting, are speaking in generalizations. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule, for even liars tell the truth sometimes, and perhaps there are a handful of Cretans who aren’t always lying. Sometimes we joke about politicians and say, “You know how to tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” But the indictment against Cretans in Titus 1:12, and against politicians or whoever we make the but of the “moving lips” joke, is actually accurate for all humanity. In Romans 3:13-14 Paul indicts the entire human race with a string of Old Testament quotations, saying, “their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” In the famous passage on the taming of the tongue in James 3, James says, “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” In other words, you might be able to keep yourself from sin in many areas of life, but none of us can keep from sinning with our mouths. He goes on to say that “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity”; it “defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” He concludes, “no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:6-8). Yes, and you carry that thing around in your mouth! So we might say, “How do you know when a human is lying? His or her lips are moving.”

Let’s paraphrase the proverbial question: “How can you tell when Jesus is telling the truth?” The answer is, “His lips are moving.” His all-surpassing supremacy is seen in His testimony. John 3:32 says, “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies.” What has He seen and heard? Well, He came from heaven, so He has seen and heard everything in heaven and earth and all points between as a first hand eyewitness since before creation came into existence. He has, for all eternity, heard the unbroken communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He has heard the counsel of God, because He is included in that counsel as God Himself. He has seen the glory of heaven because it was His native country. When Jesus speaks to us about God, about heaven, about God’s purpose and plan, about the state of humanity and the world, we can believe His testimony, for He is speaking about what He has seen and heard. This is not conjecture or speculation; it is not the result of reasoning or argumentation. It is a first-hand, eye-witness account. And therefore, verse 34 says that He “speaks the words of God.” When Jesus speaks, God is speaking. Hebrews 1:1 says that God has spoken in the past in many portions and in many ways through prophets, but now, in these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son.

Now, in verse 34 there is an interesting phrase. We are told that Jesus speaks the words of God, “for He gives the Spirit without measure.” That can be interpreted a couple of different ways, but only one way is correct. Some interpret this to mean that Jesus is the one who gives the Spirit without measure to His people, that is, to those who believe on Him and receive His testimony. It is true that Jesus does impart the Spirit to His followers. He promised that He would, and He has. Every believer in Jesus has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Those are true statements, taught plainly in various other passages of Scripture, but not this one. For one thing, it doesn’t make sense here. The phrase, “He gives the Spirit without measure” is connected with what comes before it by a causal conjuction, “for.” So does this mean to say, “Jesus speaks the words of God, for He gives His people the Spirit without measure”? No, it doesn’t make sense that way. Also, while we are promised and assured that Jesus does give the Spirit to His people, it is not without measure. Ephesians 4:7 says, “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Thus, the Holy Spirit is in each believer, manifesting Himself through us in particular, but limited ways.

So what does this phrase mean? It means that Jesus speaks the words of God because God the Father has given Him the Spirit without measure. Because there is a perfect communion between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the entire life and ministry of Jesus was carried out in the unmeasured and unlimited power of the Holy Spirit. Three times in Isaiah, it is prophesied that the Messiah would be the One who was completely under the unlimited control and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus used two of these prophecies in His own description of Himself. The Holy Spirit’s presence and power in the life of Jesus was demonstrated visibly at His baptism, when John the Baptist saw the Spirit descend upon Him in the form of a dove, and remain upon Him. In Peter’s sermon in Acts 10, he says, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power…” (Acts 10:38). So, we have this confidence that He speaks the words of God because He speaks of what He has seen and heard, and He has received from the Father the Spirit without measure.

Now, we believe that Jesus is the Living Word of God, the Word made Flesh as John 1:14 says. And we believe that He speaks the Word of God, as this text indicates. But we also claim that the entire Bible is the Word of God. How do we make that jump from believing that Jesus speaks the Word of God to believing that, say, Moses, Paul, John, or Ezekiel is speaking the Word of God as they write the books of our Bible? It is actually a very logical progression of thought. For this same Holy Spirit, Who was present in the life of Jesus without measure, is said to have inspired the prophets of old as they wrote. Second Peter 1:21 says that “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men spoke moved by the Holy Spirit from God.” Thus, Paul could say in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is inspired by God. Now, Paul was speaking specifically of the Old Testament writings, for the New Testament was still being written. So how do we move from this to a confidence that the New Testament is also the Word of God? First, by believing what Jesus said, since He speaks the word of God and His testimony is true. Jesus says to His disciples in John 14:26 that the Holy Spirit will “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” Again in John 16:13, Jesus tells His disciples that the Spirit will “guide you into all the truth … and He will disclose to you what is to come.” So, Jesus was promising His disciples that the Holy Spirit would inspire and direct them as they wrote what would become the New Testament. And as a proof that they believed and experienced this, we have statements like Paul’s in 1 Timothy 5:18, in which he says, “The Scripture says … ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages,’” using that term Scripture which he says elsewhere refers to the inspired Word of God, to describe a statement that is only found in the Gospel of Luke. And Peter, in 2 Peter 3:15, says that Paul has written some things which are hard to understand and which people distort, “as they do also with the rest of the Scriptures.” In Peter’s view, what Paul has written is inspired Scripture. So, in Christ we have God’s Living Word made Flesh. When He speaks, He speaks the Words of God. And as the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we have the written Word of God. And that is essential, for apart from the written Word, we would have no access to or reliable information about who Jesus, the Living Word, is or what He ever said.

Now, we contrast the all-surpassing supremacy of Christ’s testimony, the very Word of God, with that of any human words. John 3:31 says that the one who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. There is a limitation, a finiteness, to the testimony of earthbound beings. Everyone, even a Cretan, can speak truth sometimes, though none of us speak truth at all times. But when Christ speaks, we see His supremacy, for He speaks the words of God. To deny the words of Christ, or the words that He has given through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is to deny God Himself, and essentially to call Him a liar. And though, generally speaking, John 3:32 can say truthfully that “no one receives His testimony,” there are rare exceptions that prove the rule. For the one who does receive His testimony (v33) “has set his seal to this, that God is true.” To set one’s seal upon something refers to the ancient practice of affirming something by impressing one’s signet into hot wax. It was a way of saying, “I affirm that this is authentic, authoritative, and trustworthy.” The one who has received Christ has, in a sense, set his seal by staking his or her eternal hopes on the supremacy of Christ and the truthfulness of His word.

III. Jesus is loved by His Father, therefore He has been given all things (v35)

At the baptism of Jesus, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit was demonstrated visibly through His descent in the form of a dove. But simultaneously, the love of the Father was demonstrated audibly as the Father spoke from heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22; cf. Mt 3:17). At the Mount of Transfiguration, the unveiled glory of Christ was displayed to His inner circle of disciples, as they were joined by Moses and Elijah. Here stands Moses, Israel’s lawgiver, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, and Jesus on top of the mountain. And the voice of the Father speaks again from heaven saying of Jesus, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Mt 17:5; cf. Mk 9:7).

You may recall a few weeks ago I preached a sermon entitled “The Greatest Sentence Ever Written,” on John 3:16. The reasons I proposed for John 3:16 being the greatest sentence ever written included that it expresses the greatest fact the world could ever know (that God loves the world), and that it describes the greatest gift ever given (He loves the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son). It is God’s nature to love (1 John 4:8), and before there was ever a world to love or a human race to love, God was love, and experienced perfect, unhindered, and unmediated love within the relationships of the Triune Godhead. There are so many ways to get the Trinity wrong. There’s only one way to get it right. There is one God who exists eternally as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, not one God manifested three ways at three different times, but one God, eternally existent in three persons. And for eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the perfect love of one another within their Triune relationships. It is the nature of God to love. The Father loves the Son. And it is the nature of love to give. He loved the world so He gave His Son. He loves the Son, so He gives all things into His hand.

What has the Father given to the Son? “All things.” So, what has He withheld from the Son? “Nothing.” All that the Father has a rightful claim to, and that is everything that exists, all authority, all dominion, all glory, all honor, He has placed into the hand of the Son because He loves the Son. For that reason, He is above all. As Philippians 2:11 says, God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. He has set Him above all else as Lord and Judge. Jesus said in John 5:22 that the Father has given all judgment to the Son. At life’s end, every human being will stand before Him to give account. And the basis of that judgment will consist of what we have done with the Son, whom the Father loves, whom the Father sent, through whom the Father speaks, to whom the Father has given His Spirit, and to whom the Father has given all things.

The one who has received His testimony has staked his eternal destiny on the truth of God in Christ. And therefore, the promise of verse 36 is that he who believes in the Son has eternal life. We are of the earth, and from the earth, finite and limited like every human being who came before us since Adam. But as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:49, “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy (man, Adam), we will also bear the image of the heavenly (man, Jesus).” The promise of the Gospel is that the sinfulness of our human condition will be taken away through the blood of Christ because of His death for our sins, and we will be covered in the righteousness of His sinless life, and transformed into His likeness, gradually here and now, but entirely and completely when we stand before Him in glory. And thus we will have life eternal in His presence through faith in Him.
But notice the contrast. What is the opposite of one who believes? Notice that is not “one who does not believe,” but rather “one who does not obey.” The opposite of belief is not disbelief, but disobedience. Because if you really believe Jesus is who He says He is, and you really believe what He speaks, and you believe that He really did all that He claimed He would do for you, then you would obey Him. Not in order to earn eternal life, but because you have received it by faith in Him! But because our obedience is weak, He has even come, in the person of the Holy Spirit, to live within those who believe in order to compel and empower obedience in us and convict us of our disobedience. But the obedience begins in the confident belief, and reverential love for the all-supreme Christ. That belief drives our obedient behavior. Calvin writes of how the pious mind “restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but, because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord. Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.”[2] This is why disobedience is a big deal for Christians. Because wherever there is disobedience in our lives, there is a hint of disbelief. So the answer is not to try harder or do better, but to become more singularly fixated on the all-surpassing supremacy of Christ; for where we are absolutely enamored by Him, our belief is strengthened, and our obedience follows.
But the other alternative to genuine faith that leads to eternal life is defiant disobedience that rejects the Son. This one, rather than having eternal life, will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him. Kostenberger defines “wrath” as “God’s holy outrage against rebellious humanity.”[3] Maybe you think that sounds a bit harsh. Not when you consider things from God’s perspective. As Carson writes, “God’s wrath is not some impersonal principle of retribution, but the personal response of a holy God who comes to his own world, sadly fallen into rebellion, and finds few who want anything to do with him. Such people are condemned already.”[4] And rather than being rescued from that condemnation by turning to Jesus in faith, having beheld His all-surpassing splendor, they have considered Him, and willfully and defiantly turned their back on Him in disobedient rejection. They are condemned already, John 3:18 says. And if they do not repent and turn to the Lord during the days of life they have been granted, His wrath will abide on them. It doesn’t have to be that way. But there are only two alternatives: genuine faith, and defiant disobedience. Behold the all-surpassing supremacy of Jesus Christ, and choose.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 1: The Coming of the Light, John 1-4, (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 266.
[2] Calvin, Institutes, 1.2
[3] Kostenberger, 140.
[4] Carson, 214.

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