Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What Do You Say About Jesus? (John 7:11-13)

Every year, TIME magazine publishes a list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In order to compile this list, they conduct on online survey in which people choose from a list of candidates and select whether they think that person should or should not be included on the list. Examining this list every year gives us a pretty interesting snapshot of our world and our time. This year’s poll results were released last month, and the person who received the most votes for inclusion also received the most votes for exclusion – in fact, he got more votes to exclusion than he did for inclusion. His name is Mohamed Morsi. Do you know who he is? Since last June, he has held the office of president of Egypt. The person with the second most votes for inclusion was Markus “Notch” Persson. Do you know who he is? He is the creator a video game called Minecraft. If you want to know about that game, just ask my kids. Third on the list was a guy named Kim Dotcom, who created a controversial website called Megaupload. So of the top three vote-getters for inclusion in this list, none of them are people whose names are what we might call “household words.” In fact, you have to drop down to the sixth name on the list to find someone nearly universally recognizable – Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. Twelfth on the list is Barack Obama, coming somewhat embarrassingly behind martial arts actor Jackie Chan and the Korean one-hit wonder pop star Psy. Well, what do you have to say about Mohamed Morsi? What about Markus Persson? What about Kim Dotcom, or Psy? Maybe you’ve never given them a passing thought. I’m facebook friends with some of you, so I already know what you have to say about Barack Obama. But when we think about the most influential people in the world, I wonder if we might be overlooking the most influential person who ever lived – Jesus Christ. Two thousands years after His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is still having more of an impact on the world than anyone on TIME magazine’s list. And though there are, sadly, still some places in this world that you can go where the people have never heard of Him, most people in the world have heard at least something about Him, and would have something to say about Him. Though we may have widely differing views about President Obama, Kim John Un, or anyone else on TIME magazine’s list, ultimately those opinions do not matter for eternity. What we have to say about Jesus Christ does. Life and death, heaven and hell, all depend on what we say about Him.

The late James Montgomery Boice describes an incident that took place when the staff of his radio program, The Bible Study Hour, went out into the streets of Philadelphia and asked people, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Among the responses were things like, “Jesus Christ was a man who though he was God.” Some said, “I think that’s something that you have to decide for yourself, but he had some beautiful ideas.” Some said, “He is the one that we look up to as our leader,” while others said, “He is an individual who lived 2,000 years ago, who was interested in the social betterment of all classes of people.” Others said, “He was well-liked; he meant well; he was a good man.” But Boice says that the really interesting thing about this survey was that no one said, “I couldn’t care less.”[1] Everyone surveyed knew that Jesus is someone who matters in history, and had something to say about Him. Of course you realize that not everything everyone has to say about Jesus is true. As R. C. Sproul points out, “people are prone to declare their belief in a Jesus who has nothing to do with the Man depicted in the biblical record.”[2]

Several decades ago, the German liberal theologian Ernst Käsemann argued that we really cannot know anything about the historical Jesus; He may not have existed, for all we know. But Käsemann suggested that the name “Jesus” has become a symbol of human liberation from all forms of oppression. Therefore, if a person believes in the liberation of people from political, racial, or even sexual oppression, then that person really believes in Jesus.[3] That’s just absurd. But that is the kind of radical redefining that takes place among people who have this haunting suspicion that they ought to think positively about Jesus, but the Jesus they meet in Scripture is at odds with their ideology. So, rather than changing their ideology, they attempt to change Jesus into something that fits into their theology. And I regret to say that fifteen years of pastoral ministry has convinced me that even in the pews of Bible-believing, evangelical churches, there are many who do not know what to say about Jesus, or worse, say utterly ridiculous things about Him. And then there are those who say nothing about Him when it matters most.

When we come to this brief text that we have read in the seventh chapter of John today, we find several groups of people saying many different things about Jesus. John says that there was “much grumbling among the crowds concerning Him.” Jesus was the buzz in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. Everyone had something to say about Him. Some of them were saying the same things that people still say about Him today. As we look at what they were saying, we’ll be reminded of things that our friends and family members, public officials, and outspoken groups in our day say about Him. But the most important thing is not what any of them say about Jesus. The most important thing is what YOU say about Him, and whether or not you will say it when it matters most.

I. Some say, “Where is He?”

These days, you will often hear someone say that they are seeking Jesus. But in most, if not all cases, what they are seeking is something that only Jesus can provide, and they are hoping to find it somewhere other than Jesus. After all, if they can acknowledge that they are seeking Jesus, then finding Him will not be difficult at all. He is not playing hide and seek with humanity, as if He did not want to be found. Nothing would please Him more than to be found by you. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” The fact that someone can say that they are seeking Jesus, but have not yet found Him only confirms what Paul said in Romans 3:11, “There is none who seeks for God.” As C. S. Lewis said, “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’” But, as a former atheist, Lewis said, “To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat. … I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’”[4] And Jesus Christ is a great interferer. To truly seek Him is to invite interference with your life. To find Him is to find that interference invading you from all angles.

In verse 11, we read that “the Jews were seeking Him.” Now, that’s not nearly as positive a statement as we might think at first glance. First, by “the Jews,” John means the Jewish authorities – the Pharisees, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin (Jerusalem’s ruling council). They were not seeking Jesus because they thought Him to be the great destination of life’s spiritual journey. Rather, they had a score to settle with Jesus because He had interfered with them. On His last visit to Jerusalem, recorded back in Chapter 5, Jesus had healed a lame man the Sabbath. When they asked Him what right He had to violate the Sabbath by performing miracles on the Sabbath and making this lame man arise and carry His mat on the Sabbath, Jesus simply pointed to His own divine authority. And John 5:18 says, “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was not only breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” That is why John 7:1 says that Jesus could go about freely in Galilee but not in Judea. Galilee was under a different jurisdiction. They could not lay hands on Him there; but if He ever returned to Judea, it was their intent to seize Him and put Him to death. They knew that it was His custom to come to Jerusalem for the feast, so they were on the lookout for Him. Verse 10 tells us that He had not come publicly, but in secret. But they knew He had to be there, so they were asking, “Where is He?” Literally, the Greek text reads a little more antagonistically. They are asking, “Where is that man?”, as if they so despise Him that they are unwilling even to speak His name. Which man are they seeking? That one, the one going around meddling with our beliefs and practices and claiming to be God in the flesh. They say, “Where is that man? We want to find Him. He must be around here somewhere, and if we can get ahold of Him we will shut Him up forever!”

This is what some still say about Him. If they have any interest in discussing Christ at all, it is only to raise an argument in order to squash it. We see it in the militant and aggressively anti-Christian movement that calls itself “The New Atheism.” One of the chief spokesmen of that movement is Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. He claims that a serious case could be made that Jesus never really existed at all, though he is reluctant to say that he believes this. And Dawkins also says that if Jesus did exist, “somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”[5] This is the same man who believes that all religious belief is the product of a “virus of the mind” that infects the brain of some people.

Unfortunately, Dawkins is not alone in his attack on faith in general and Christian faith in particular. Another New Atheist, Sam Harris, proclaims that the Jesus of Scripture is violent and the God who is His Father is evil. Another, the late Christopher Hitchens added his voice to Harris and Dawkins in agreeing that training up a child in Christian belief is the equivalent of spiritual child abuse. According to this movement, the hope of the human race has to be found in the intellectual extermination of all religious belief. Though New Atheism is not the only movement seeking to silence the voice of Christ in the world, it is of late the most influential one. A surprising number of these critics of Christ in the world today are people who grew up in Christian families and churches. We might wonder, “What happened?” And it is a distinct possibility that in some cases, like with the rulers of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, the Jesus that they came to know was a great interferer. He was met as One who wanted to meddle with their deeply seated beliefs and their cherished behaviors – and not just to meddle, but to entirely overhaul. Rather than bowing the knee to Him as Lord, it became more expedient for them to vehemently renounce Him altogether. But, in all of their vehemence, there is the accidental admission of a singular and undeniable truth: Jesus Christ cannot be ignored. Say what you will about Him, but you must say something about Him. It is a matter of life, death, and eternity.

II. Some say, “He is a good man.”

For the last 2,000 years, the most commonly held opinion about Jesus is the one that is expressed by this group we meet in verse 12. These were saying, “He is a good man.” You have heard this; maybe you have said this. By this statement, those in the crowd are saying something like: “He teaches positive ideals; He lives a good moral life; He has done good things for some people. Thus, He is a good man.” Now, there is truth in this statement, but not the whole truth. Jesus was a good man, but He is so much more than a good man; He is the God-Man. He is fully God, and fully man; not half-and-half, but all-and-all. Remember that this is why the Jewish leaders want to kill Him: He claimed to be equal with God. Now if He truly is God, incarnate in the flesh as a man, then we must recognize that He is certainly a good man. But if we only see Jesus as a good man, and do not recognize Him as God in the flesh, we come up against a serious intellectual and moral conundrum. Good men, who are only good men, do not go about saying the kinds of things that Jesus said. If the things Jesus said are not true, then Jesus is not only not God, He is also not good. He is at best a compulsive liar; at worst, a dangerously deranged madman; a megalomaniac who is plagued with delusions of grandeur.

John Stott said that the “most striking feature of the teachings of Jesus is that He was constantly talking about Himself.” And what is astounding is the kinds of things that Jesus was saying about Himself. Jesus spoke of God as uniquely His own Father. He used a word for God that no one else used. When He spoke to the Father, He called Him abba, a term of intimacy and affection similar to the way a child calls his or her father, “Daddy.” To people of that day, referring to God with this kind of familiarity would have been considered irreverent at best, blasphemous at worst. And Jesus said that if you believe in Him (that is, if you believe in Jesus) then you will be given the right to call God your abba, your Father, as well. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus taught others that the entire Old Testament was written to prepare people to recognize Him as the promised Messiah and to place their complete faith and trust in Him (Luke 24:27). He said that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46), as did the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:21), and that Abraham believed in Him (8:56), but also even that the Spirit of God and God the Father gave their testimony Him. He commanded others to follow Him, to abandon their families, their jobs, their possessions, and if necessary their lives for His sake. Most astoundingly, He claimed to have the ability to forgive sins, which everyone knows that only God can do. But, you see, He also claimed to be God. He said that God’s Kingdom was His kingdom and that to believe in God was to believe in Him, and vice-versa. He even received the worship and faith that others bestowed upon Him, rather than rebuking them for blasphemy.

Now, you have to say something about those claims. If they are true, but only if they are true, then you can say that He is a good man, but you have to also say that He was so much more than that. You would have to say that He is the God-Man, because that is precisely who He claimed to be. But if those things are not true, then by no means can anyone say that Jesus was a good man. Stott says, “The claims are there. They do not in themselves constitute evidence of deity. The claims may have been false. But some explanation of them must be found. We cannot any longer regard Jesus as simply a great teacher, if He was so grievously mistaken in one of the chief subjects of His teaching, namely Himself.”[6]

Yet, we are surrounded by vast multitudes today who want to insist that Jesus was simply a good man, and nothing more. And that is the one thing that is absolutely impossible to say about Him. These are not the things that good men say unless they are true. And if they are true, then He is a good man, yes, but the God-Man also. I want you to be prepared to explain that to people in your life who think Jesus is just a good man. You must be able to explain to them that this is not an option. If He is good, then He is God. If He is not God, then He is not good. It is as simple as that. Some of you here today perhaps have not recognized this about Jesus. You have a generally positive outlook on Him as a good man, but you have never recognized that He is God in the flesh, who has come down to make atonement for your sins through His death on the cross. I want you to see the absolute folly of that. He cannot be merely a good man. If He is not the God-man, then we have nothing positive to say about Him whatsoever. He was deranged, or else evil, and intent on leading the world astray by His psychotic ramblings about Himself. And we find that there are some who say even this about Him.

III. Some say “He leads the people astray.”

Most of us never had the experience that some Christians around the world have. For many of us, the happiest day of our parents’ lives was the day we gave our lives to Jesus Christ. Here on Mothers’ Day, some of you are able to remember how, like Timothy in the New Testament, we were nurtured in the faith by a godly mother (2 Tim 1:5; Acts 16:1). However, for many in the world, it was not this way; perhaps a few here today can relate. For them, becoming a follower of Christ was something that saddened or shocked their families. Their families were convinced that they had been deceived into believing something false that runs against family tradition or cultural beliefs. Just a few years ago, some of us were involved in a situation with a young international student who found himself in this dilemma of wanting to believe in Christ, but fearful of his family’s reaction to the decision. They were convinced that he’d come to America and fallen into the hands of ill-intentioned Christians who were trying to brainwash him. It is something I have seen this on every international mission trip I have ever been on. For some of us, perhaps, it was not that our parents were concerned that we had become Christians, they just feared that we might somehow be duped into becoming a religious fanatic. I’m not sure how you can be anything other than a fanatical follower of Jesus, unless you have not truly comprehended who He is or what He has done for you, but that is a big fear of some. If you start talking too much about Jesus or spending too much time at church, start doing risky things like traveling to third world countries to share the gospel or reaching out to homeless people, they think you’ve been somehow led astray.

In Jesus’ day there were many who believed that He was out to lead people away from truth – a “truth” that was defined and explained by the religious traditions of Israel and enforced by powerful religious authorities like the Pharisees and Sadducees – into great error. They said of Jesus that He was a charlatan, a conniving trickster, out to gain a following for Himself by leading people astray. This is the polar opposite of those who said He was a good man. This view of Jesus sees Him as the worst possible kind of man.

Now, it must be admitted, that if Jesus was a deceiver, He was a very good one. He managed to live His entire life without anyone being able to point a finger of blame at Him for any wrongdoing. He was able to perform miracles that authenticated the things that He said. And, He had been able to draw a vast multitude of followers to His side. How could He say and do all of these things if it were all merely a smokescreen for some ulterior motive of deception? After all, even Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (Jn 3:2). Was he deceived as well? How could they explain this? Well, actually, they couldn’t! That’s why eventually they had to resort to saying that He does these things by the power of Satan—that He is demon possessed. It was obvious that He had power, but they did not believe that He could have power from God, so it must be from the devil. Yet, the ironic thing is that Jesus said that it was the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel who were leading people astray. He said it was them who had lost the true meaning of God’s Word and were seducing people to abandon the truth. He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15). Well, who’s deceiving whom? In the minds of many, Jesus was the deceiver. And this was a crime punishable under the Law by death (Deut 13:1-11).

Later on, this would become one of the most prevailing opinions among Jewish people about Jesus. The Babylonian Talmud says that Jesus was crucified on Passover Eve because He was a deceiver who practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.[7] The Church Father Justin Martyr of the Second Century noted that the Jews “dared to call Him a magician and a deceiver of the people.”[8] And this is still an opinion held by some today.
But more often, we hear this spoken, not of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but of His Church. Anti-evangelism laws are on the rise across the globe, and recently there has been renewed discussion in the freedom of American military personnel to share their faith with others. How dare we claim that our beliefs are the exclusive truth and seek to seduce others to follow Jesus? We must have evil motives, they say. We must only be interested in getting their money, or in gaining strength for our movement so that we can have more political or cultural sway. But, these types of statements are not new for the followers of Christ. In the Fourth Century, the North African Bishop Augustine wrote, “If to seduce is to deceive, Christ was not a seducer, nor can any Christian be. But if by seducing you mean bringing a person by persuasion out of one way of thinking into another, then we must inquire what the way of thinking is that you are calling them from and to. If from good to evil, the seducer is an evil person; if from evil to good, he is a good one. If only we were all called, and really were, that sort of seducers!”[9] 

It is not we who aim to deceive. Deception is not what Christ is seeking to do to the world! Rather, Christ has come to announce that the world has been deceived in a myriad of ways by the father of all lies, the devil. Through false belief, corrupted belief, through immorality, through oppressive regimes, and a host of other means, Satan has blinded this world to the truth of Christ, and thus the world replete with deceived people. Christ has not come to deceive, but to deliver from deception. And this is the mission of His church. And if we are going to be faithful to this mission, then we must speak for Christ – openly, publicly, boldly, courageously. And though everyone at the Feast of Tabernacles had something to say about Jesus, speaking openly, publicly, boldly, courageously about Him was something that no one was willing to do.

IV. No one wants to say anything openly about Him.

Notice in verse 13 that John writes, “No one was speaking openly of Him for fear of the Jews.” Again here, “the Jews” refers to those powerful religious and political leaders who controlled every aspect of life in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. So fierce has their hatred of Jesus become, that they will not only persecute those who publicly identify with Him, but there is a fear among the masses that they will come hard and heavy after any and all who, “by their topic of conversation, make Jesus a more important figure” than they wanted Him to be.[10] No one was willing to speak above a hushed tone about Jesus because they were afraid of finding themselves on the wrong side of the authorities. They knew that they were out to kill Jesus; they did not want to find that a cross was awaiting them too. But, if you are a follower of Christ, you have not been called to avoid or escape that cross. You have been called to embrace it. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk 9:23; cf. Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34).

For most of us, we have lived our entire lives without this fear or threat. We’ve never had to plan or prepare for a day which could be our last simply because we speak publicly a word about Jesus. But I fear that the present trajectory of our world and, indeed, our nation, casts a shadow of this cross across our lives. The days could be drawing near when speaking publicly and boldly for Christ in America will be a criminal act, as it is in much of the world, and has been for the last 2,000 years. Already, if you speak publicly about the sinfulness of homosexuality, the truthfulness of the Bible, or the exclusivity of Christ, you can expect to be shunned by the world around us. Can the day be far off when it will not be more severe? And yet, I do not say this to inspire panic in your hearts. I say this to encourage and embolden you. Could it be that the days are coming in which God will give American Christians the same opportunity to demonstrate with the ultimate testimony the preciousness of Christ? Our season of exemption from the experience of the majority of Christians in the world and throughout history may be ending within our lifetimes. But if we should see it happen, we must say what we have to say about Jesus openly, publicly, boldly, courageously, no matter the cost. Because in that day, everyone will still be saying something about Christ. Only those who have been redeemed by His cross will be able to give the true testimony that He is who He said He is – the God-Man, by whose death and resurrection alone we may be saved from sin and granted eternal life in heaven in the presence of God. And we must say it loudly and clearly, all the more as those days dawn.

In the year 155, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was arrested for being a follower of Jesus. When they came to arrest him, they found him resting in his home. Rather than trying to escape, he said simply, “God’s will be done.” He had a meal prepared for his captors and was granted an hour to pray in solitude. Taken into the arena, the Proconsul admonished him, “Reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” In response, Polycarp said with courageous confidence, “86 years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? … You threaten me with a fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.” God forbid the day should ever come that we find ourselves in Polycarp’s place. But if that day should come, may God give us the courageous faith to say what must be said of Jesus Christ, and to say it boldly and fearlessly.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John [Volume 2] (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 554.
[2] R. C. Sproul, John (St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary; Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009), 131
[3] Sproul, 131.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), 124-125.
[5] http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/10/24/richard-dawkins-jesus-would-have-been-an-atheist/ Accessed May 9, 2013.
[6] John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1971), 23-33.
[7] Cited in D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to Jesus (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 310 fn.1.
[8] Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, LXIX. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html Accessed May 9, 2013.
[9] Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 28.11.
[10] Carson, 310. 

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