Monday, July 29, 2013

The Story that Was Caught In Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)

If you’ve been following the Paula Deen scandal, in which she is being accused of making racial slurs, you may have heard Paula tearfully saying on the “Today” show, “If there’s anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me. … If you have never committed a sin, please pick up that rock, pick up that boulder and hit me as hard as you can.”[1] Where did she get that? She got she got it from this passage. Judging by how often we hear that statement quoted, we would have to conclude that this is one of the most cherished stories in all the Bible.

But, what if it was never supposed to be in the Bible in the first place? You might be surprised to know that there is a big discussion amongst biblical scholars – conservative, Bible believing ones, about whether or not this story belongs in the Bible. Now, immediately, someone will protest and say, “It’s there, and I like it, so that ends the discussion.” However, that is not how we engage biblical studies. We do so by looking at evidence, and we follow that evidence in pursuit of truth, no matter where it takes us, even if it leads us down an uncomfortable path. We know this text as “The Story of The Woman Caught in Adultery,” but the real question is have we actually caught the story itself in the act of adultery? By that, I mean, has the original text of God’s Word, the Bible, been adulterated by the addition of material that shouldn’t be there? I have attempted to break the issues down into four related “sub-questions,” in the hopes that as we answer them, we will understand what is going on here in our Bibles, how God intended for us to read and understand this portion of John’s Gospel, and what all of this means for us, being that we claim to believe that the Bible is the completely true, inerrant Word of God.

I. Question #1: What’s the problem with this story?

Perhaps you have noticed in your Bible that there are (in most versions) some notations or irregularities about these verses: lines that divide this story from the rest of the text, square brackets around it, along with footnotes or marginal notes that say something to the effect that, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”[2] Take a moment and see if your Bible has those notations or not. If you are using the King James or New King James versions, you probably will not find that notation, but that is another issue for another day. Now, when we encounter notations like these, we are prone to react in protest: “Don’t you go taking things out of my Bible!” But a related question is, “Would you allow someone to add a single word to your Bible?” I hope your answer is no. If you wouldn’t, then how would you feel if someone added twelve entire verses to your Bible? Hopefully, that would not set well with you. And yet, that may well be what happened with this story.

Some of you may remember a discussion similar to this when we were going through the Gospel According to Mark and came to the final passage, Mark 16:9-20. The issues there were similar to these. It has a questionable origin in the early manuscripts. It would be really nice if there was a vault somewhere that contained all the original documents that were written by the Apostles and their associates, but we do not. God, in His wisdom and providence, has not seen fit to preserve them. But we do have an amazing paper trail of manuscripts that helps us understand with a high degree of certainty what those original documents said. Modern English translators have access to 5,600 Greek manuscripts and fragments, and over 19,000 early translations of the New Testament, in addition to the writings of the Church Fathers which are so saturated with Scripture, that it has been said that even if we were to lose all of the New Testament manuscripts and translations, we could reconstruct the original text using only the quotations of the Fathers.[3] And on that basis, we have confidence that our Bibles are accurate and reliable, and when we read them, we are reading the Word of God. The translators who produce them are highly skilled at weighing manuscript evidence, and do a remarkable job at reconstructing the original text. But, there are issues like the one involving these verses that do arise. Most of the time, it is a word or phrase that is in question. Only twice, 12 verses here and 12 verses in Mark 16, do we have large chunks of text that are questionable. So how does this happen?

Variations arise most often by accident. Bear in mind that in the history of the world, the printing press is still a relatively modern invention, being less than 600 years old. So, before that time, Bibles and other works of literature were meticulously copied by hand. As any one who has ever tried to copy something by hand can attest, sometimes the eye jumps to the wrong line on the page, and information is omitted; a word may be copied twice instead of once, or once instead of twice; letters or words might get transposed. These are human errors, and they happened not infrequently. But, there were other times when intentional variations happened to the text. Now, this is not a case of malicious monkeying with the Word of God. Most often, the scribe was simply trying to be helpful, adding a word or an explanation, or making a change that would help the reader. Their motives were good. Unfortunately, their methods were not. But, the paper trail of manuscripts that we have available to us today, not to mention the plethora of manuscripts that have been lost to history, have always been able to provide a “check and balance” system to catch those variations and correct them when they arose, so that we have a well-preserved Scripture.

So, what happened with the story of the woman caught in adultery? Well, if we go back to the earliest manuscripts we have, quite frankly, the story isn’t there. In those oldest documents, the next verse after John 7:52 would be John 8:12. John 7:53-8:11 is entirely missing, and that is pretty much across the board in all of the early Greek manuscripts and the early translations. The first Greek manuscript that we currently possess that contains the story of the woman caught in adultery is from the sixth century, and is known to be an inaccurate manuscript with a lot of problems. We have reason to believe that there were some, albeit a few, manuscripts before this time that had the story in it (even though we do not possess those manuscripts today). It is referred to by Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine before that time. In fact, Augustine went so far as to formulate a theory as to why it was missing in so many manuscripts. He proposed that there were some scribes who thought that the passage was scandalous because Jesus was considered to be too easily dismissive adultery, and for that reason, the text was omitted. However, there are problems with Augustine’s theory. First, if that is the case, it would be the only case known in which scribes deleted an entire passage on moral grounds. Second, Jesus’ words, “Go and sin no more,” can hardly be considered easily dismissive, especially when compared to the story of the woman at the well. There, once Jesus identifies the woman’s adulterous sin, no more mention is made of it. Third, even if scribes were prone to remove morally questionable passages (which they were not), it would make more sense for them to remove the text beginning at John 8:2, because there is no issue of morality at stake in John 7:52-8:1.

Once the story begins to show up in the manuscripts, it seems to spread very slowly, only becoming common in the standard manuscripts around the turn of the tenth century.[4] Thus, in addition to all of the known manuscripts before the sixth century, a vast majority of those prior to the eighth century lack the story. In most of the manuscripts that did contain the passage, the scribes inserted symbols to indicate that they were uncertain of the authenticity of the story.[5] We might call that piece of evidence “exhibit A.” But it doesn’t stand alone. Add to this what we might call “Exhibit B,” the fact that none of the church fathers who wrote a verse-by-verse commentary on John’s Gospel deal with the story. All of them, without exception move immediately from John 7:52 to 8:12. There is mention and some discussion about the story in the writings of a 4th century theologian from Alexandria (Didymus the Blind), but it is found in his commentary on Ecclesiastes (of all places). One of the earliest known commentaries on the passage as it is situated in John was by a 12th Century monk, and even he noted that in the more exact manuscripts he consulted, the passage was not found, and where it was found it was marked with symbols to indicate questions about its authenticity. The evidence we draw from the fathers certainly aligns with that of the manuscripts – that the origins of the passage look suspicious. That’s “exhibit B.”

What we might call “exhibit C” concerns the placement and wording of the passage. In the manuscripts that contain the passage, it does not always occur here after John 7:52. In fact, there are no less than five different locations where the passage is found, with some placing it in Luke, and others placing it in at least three different contexts in John. It seems that no one was really sure where it belonged. And as Leon Morris notes, “if they could not agree on the right place for it, they could not agree either on the true text for it.”[6] Within this relatively brief story, there is wide variety of wording among the manuscripts that contain it. This is unusual for John’s Gospel, which apart from this story has fewer textual variations than most other New Testament books. So, we’ve got a mess among the manuscripts as to where the passage belongs and what it is actually supposed to say. That’s problematic compared to the rest of Scripture.

Now we come to “exhibit D”: the grammar and vocabulary of the passage. Every verse of the story of the adulterous woman (with the exception of 8:5) contains at least one word that does not occur anywhere else in the five books of the New Testament written by John. So the vocabulary is not completely that of John; nor is the style. There are a number of grammatical structures and even vocabulary preferences that are prominent in John’s writings that are absent from this story. If we were to find this passage laying in the desert somewhere and had to find a place in the Bible to put it based on style and vocabulary alone, we would find more similarities with Luke than with John.

So, we have looked at four pieces of evidence: the manuscripts, the fathers, the variations in placement and wording, and the grammar and vocabulary issues. All of them lead us to the same conclusion. This story was not originally a part of John’s Gospel. Those little footnotes and explanations in your English Bibles do not indicate that anyone is trying to rip an authentic passage of the Bible. Rather, the evidence suggests that somehow an inauthentic passage got inserted into the Bible. Thankfully, it’s a relatively harmless one; no one is going to be led astray into error or sin by reading, believing, or following it. Had it contained grossly erroneous information, there is no way it would have ever survived – but it is an adulterated text nonetheless. That’s the problem.

II. Question #2: Where did this story come from?

It is pretty easy to conclude from the evidence that the story is not original to John. It is much harder to discover where it did come from. An easy solution would be to just say that someone made it up. But, this doesn’t seem like the kind of story that would have been invented out of thin air. The stories that were invented along the way were either attempts to fill in gaps of Jesus’ life that were not recorded by the Gospels (i.e. stories about His childhood), or else those which put words in Jesus’ mouth that were intended to add credibility to divergent doctrines (which we find in the Gnostic writings). This story doesn’t do either of those things. The things that Jesus says and does here are in harmony with what we find Him saying and doing elsewhere in the Gospels. It has a ring of truth to it, and while we cannot prove that it is an actual historical account of a true historical event, neither can we disprove it.

We know that we do not have a complete record of everything Jesus ever said or did. John tells us this. In John 20:30, he says, “many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book.” In John 21:25, he writes, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” So, it is entirely possible that there were stories floating around – true stories based on the recollections of eyewitnesses – about things that Jesus said and did which are not recorded in the Gospels. For example, in Acts 20:35, Paul says, “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” But that statement is not found anywhere in the Gospels. It was likely part of a true story about Jesus that was floating around and widely known in the first century.

While our evidence shows us that the story was not a part of John’s gospel originally, there are traces of evidence that show that the story existed in other writings. There was an early church father named Papias, who may have been an acquaintance of the Apostle John. We have lost all of his writings, but the Church historian Eusebius notes that Papias had related the “history of a woman who had been accused of many sins before the Lord, which was also contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.”[7] It is important to note that neither Papias or Eusebius claimed it was from the Gospel of John (or even of Luke) but from “the Gospel according to the Hebrews.” Now, this is not the book of Hebrews that is in our Bibles. It is a writing that circulated during the second century, which (like the writings of Papias himself) has also disappeared, portions of it being preserved in the writings of the Fathers. So, we do not know for certain that the story Papias mentions from the Gospel According to the Hebrews is the same story as that one here in John 8. After all, the only sin that she is accused of before the Lord is adultery, while Papias says that she was accused of “many sins.” So, if the story refers to the same event, it is obvious that there were variations in detail. The same is true of the story related by Didymus the Blind near the end of the fourth century. He relates a variation of the account in his Ecclesiastes commentary, but there are differing details. And then there is another version of the story found in a third century writing called Apostolic Constitutions, or Didaskalia, which is similar to but not an exact duplicate of the account here in John 8.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the account as we have it here in John was an independent witness to the same event, which was floating around orally before being written down at some point by someone. By whom? Some have suggested that the story as we know it was written by Luke, given the stylistic and grammatical similarities between this story and Luke’s Gospel. Perhaps in his thorough research, which he describes in Luke 1:1-4, Luke encountered this story, wrote it down, and then for some reason, left it on the cutting room floor before finishing his Gospel. Then again, Luke’s use of Greek is the finest in the New Testament (not surprising given that he was both a native Greek speaker and highly educated). To say that something is “Luke’s style” might just mean nothing more than it was written in very good Greek.

This leads us to conclude with some degree of certainty that there were multiple versions of this story, or else several similar stories, floating around – some, perhaps even all, of which may have been true stories. It seems at least plausible, if not probable, that at some point, someone made an effort to harmonize these various stories into a single account that preserved the best details of each one. This explains why there are so many variations in wording among the manuscripts that contain the story, and presents a possible scenario that explains the existence of the story in other early documents. But ultimately, we have to say that it is all theoretical at this point, and we may never actually know the true origins of the passage as we here have it. We can affirm that the story might have actually happened, in a way identical or somewhat similar to what is recorded here. But, for reasons of His own choosing, God did not see fit to inspire any of the Gospel writers to include this narrative in their writings. It was only later that some scribes decided that it should be put in somewhere, perhaps influenced by Augustine’s suggestion that it had been taken out at some point. Though they could not agree exactly on where or what version of the story to include, by medieval times, it had become part and parcel with the biblical narrative.

III. Question #3: What are we left with if we remove this story? 

Let’s suppose that your copy of John’s Gospel in your Bible was directly translated from the earliest known manuscript we have of it. It would not contain John 7:53-8:11. Now, aside from a couple of pithy quotations, what would be lost? Would we have lost the fact that the Pharisees were hypocritical, judgmental legalists who sought to condemn everyone other than themselves, while at the same time setting traps for Jesus? No. We have plenty of other Gospel stories that teach us those things. Would we have lost the fact that Jesus condemned hypocrisy and self-righteousness with equal intensity as sins like adultery? No. This is commonly seen in all four Gospels. Would we have lost the fact that Jesus was willing to befriend sinners and offer them the opportunity for repentance and new life? No. We have plenty of stories that teach that. Would we lose the fact that Jesus loves sinners but hates sin? By no means. We see it often elsewhere in Scripture. So, what would we lose? In short, we lose nothing that isn’t found elsewhere in the Gospels.

What would it do to the flow of the passage, or to the meaning of John’s Gospel? First, as to the flow of the passage, if you read John’s Gospel in one sitting, you will notice that it flows pretty well with the passage in place. But you would actually discover that it flows even better without it. Remember that the surrounding context of this narrative is the events that transpired at the Feast of Tabernacles, about six months before Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and crucified. By the time of Jesus, two ceremonies had evolved in this festival which were not prescribed in the Mosaic Law, but which were the highlights of the event for most of the people. The first was the daily water ritual, in which water was drawn from the pool of Siloam and carried in procession back to the Temple where it was poured out on the altar. On the last day, “the great day” of the feast (cf. Jn 7:37), this was carried out with extra emphasis and jubilation. The Hebrew Mishnah said that “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life.”[8] It was in the wake of this ritual that Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the fount of living water (7:37-39).

The other ritual which had arisen over time that was so popular with the people was the ceremony of illumination. Ancient Jewish sources describe how the Temple court was illuminated on the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, and every night thereafter, with lamps that burned so brightly that every courtyard in Jerusalem was lit up by the glow.[9] It is fitting that in this context, Jesus would proclaim the words of John 8:12, “I am the Light of the World; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

Without the story of the woman caught in adultery, we have a smooth flow of context with Jesus reorienting the water ritual (7:37-39), followed by private disputes about His nature and claims (7:40-52), then followed by His reorienting of the illumination ceremony (8:12), and lastly by a public dispute about His nature and claims (8:13ff). This is in keeping with John’s stated purpose for his Gospel: “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” The material in John’s Gospel from Chapter 5 through Chapter 11 revolves around a yearlong cycle of Jewish Festivals. In Chapter 5, there is an incident which involves the Sabbath. In Chapter 6, the scene shifts to Passover. The setting for Chapters 7-9 is the Feast of Tabernacles. Chapter 10 finds Jesus in attendance at the Feast of Dedication (which we more commonly refer to as Hanukkah). Then, Chapter 11 begins to lead into the following Passover, which will culminate in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. So this entire section of John’s Gospel from Chapter 5 to Chapter 11 deals with Jesus confronting and reorienting these observances in such a way that He is seen as the ultimate fulfillment of them. In the present context, the Feast of Tabernacles is at the center of attention. John seems to have chosen two specific incidents that occurred as the Feast of Tabernacles was drawing to a close as a way of driving home his point that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

The story of the woman caught in adultery does not help the flow of the narrative or further the argument that John is making with the Festival Cycle, but rather interrupts the flow of what would otherwise be a powerful presentation of John’s stated purpose for writing. So, while it is “good” the way we have it, it seems that it is “better” without it. However, we would not even suggest such a thing if the case for it not being authentic was not so strong. And that brings me to my final question.

IV. Question #4: What does this mean for the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible?

In 2 words, very little. We are not here claiming that we have the authority to go through and remove passages anywhere and everywhere in our Bibles for any or no reason. Let’s not make the mistake of liberalism and excise from our Scriptures any passage that is remotely uncomfortable or challenging. This passage is neither. As I said, were it not for the evidence, no Bible-believing Christian would make such a suggestion about this or any other passage of Scripture.  When we claim to believe in a Bible that is infallible and inerrant, we are not claiming that our English translations or any other particular version is completely free from error. What we are claiming, in the words of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, is “that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture,” that is, the original document as penned by the original human writer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.[10] The evidence of our manuscript paper trail affirms that the overwhelming majority of our Bibles are without question the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. But that same evidence points out to us a word or phrase here and there, and (in the case of John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20) two lengthier sections of twelve verses each, which were almost certainly not original in the autographic texts. Whether intentionally or accidentally, they crept in at various points in Church History and leave us, at least in the case of this passage, with a story that has been caught in the act of Scriptural adultery. Given the evidence that we have, we need not be ashamed, nor feel that we are being hypocritical, when we say we affirm the truthfulness of the entire Bible, while maintaining that this passage (for example) is not inspired Scripture, and while it may be true, we do not insist that it be considered so.

It is not likely that we will ever see a day when the passage disappears from our Bibles. I think if that day were coming, it would have already come. But, it will (hopefully) continue to bear notations to indicate that it is not original or authentic, and we need to take those statements seriously. Believe me, the critics of the Bible are aware of these issues, and my personal opinion is that it is better for the average church-going Christian to hear about the issues from friends rather than enemies. We are, after all, to be a truth-loving people, and therefore we cannot stick our heads in the sand to ignore plain evidence, even when it leads us to conclusions we would rather avoid. But integrity demands that we recognize, acknowledge, and deal with the issues when they arise.

Again, to reiterate, of the 7,956 verses in the New Testament, there are only 24 (the 12 here and the 12 at the end of Mark) which seem to be inauthentic. That is slightly less than 1/3 of 1% of the New Testament. In other words, 99.997% of the New Testament as found in your Bible is assuredly original and authentic. I can affirm with a clear conscience that the Bible I hold in my hand is God’s Word to humanity. It is, according to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3, “able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” because it is an inspired Scripture that is breathed-by God through human authors, and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” We can affirm, with our Baptist Faith and Message, that the Bible is a perfect treasure of divine instruction, having God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Trust your Bibles. It was given to you from God Himself. But it came down to us through human scribes and translators who sometimes made mistakes. While God has not left us with the original documents, He has preserved for us a body of evidence that is only increasing, which helps us know with certainty what the originals said. And by and large, overwhelmingly so in fact, they said exactly what your Bible says. We never have to fear or hide from the truth. The truth is on our side. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (Jn 14:6). He prayed to His Father for us, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (17:17). And these things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

[1] Accessed July 8, 2013. Relevant remarks begin at 11:58 and 13:16.
[2] This notation is found in the NIV.
[3] David Alan Black, New Testament Criticism: A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 24.
[4] Darrell Bock, Jesus According to Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 462.
[5] Daniel Wallace, “My Favorite Passage that’s Not in the Bible.” Accessed June 5, 2013.
[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 883.
[7] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, iii.39.17. This quotation is from the new updated edition translated by C. F. Cruse (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 106.
[8] Sukkah 5:1. Cited in Daniel Fuchs, Israel’s Holy Days in Type and Prophecy (Neptune, NJ; Loizeaux Bros., 1985), 76.
[9] Mishnah, Sukka 5.2; Talmud Jer. Sukk. 55b; Sukk. 53a. Cited in Aflred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 589; Bock, 464.
[10] Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X. Accessed July 10, 2013. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review: C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

I've just finished this book on my Kindle, and I have to say, it was an absolutely splendid read. As one who has devoted much personal and academic study to Lewis and his works, I came to this book expecting it to merely rehearse the same old facts of Lewis' life that have been told and retold numerous times already. I confess, I was merely reading it because I wanted to see what a scholar like McGrath could do with the data. Of course, the basic biographical dates and facts are there, but McGrath presents the information in a wonderfully synoptic way -- framing the story of Lewis's life within a survey of the cultural climate in which he lived and an erudite analysis of Lewis's major works. McGrath has successfully avoided three pitfalls of other biographers of Lewis. First, he does not make him out to be a plaster saint. Lewis's character flaws are exposed, albeit not excessively. McGrath's biography is simultaneously honest and honoring. Second, McGrath avoids attempts at speculative Freudian psychoanalysis of Lewis by which some have sought to titillate their readership. McGrath does not hide from the strange and sordid facts of Lewis's infamous relationship with Mrs. Moore (and her entire family), the homosexuality of one of Lewis's closest friends, the deep void left by the death of his mother, the bizarre eruption of Joy Davidman onto the stage of Lewis's life, and Lewis's schoolboy escapades. He simply does not expound on these things with sensationalized theories that would seek to fill in the gaps of Lewis's story that were known only to Lewis himself. He acknowledges that some have done so, but challenges the merits of those suggestions. Third, McGrath has not penned a biography in the vein of some who offer a glimpse of "my C.S. Lewis," i.e., the one I knew better than you. McGrath claims no secret knowledge of Lewis and acknowledges his dependence on other biographers. He maintains a healthy, objective distance from Lewis, even in the face of his evident regard for him. In conclusion, I would highly recommend this book to those who desire to know more about C. S. Lewis, his life, his work, and his time. It also stands to be recommended for any who enjoy a good biography. I have read very few that are better written than this one.         

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Accompany Them With Singing by Thomas Long

Several years ago, I was invited to attend a seminar for pastors hosted by a large funeral home in our city. I decided to go, if for no other reason than out of sheer curiosity as to why the funeral home would be hosting a seminar for pastors. The speaker was Tom Long, and the content of that seminar was an overview of the major themes of this book. I was so captivated by what he was saying, I had to purchase the book.

When I attended the seminar, and subsequently began reading the book, I was still reeling from a couple of funerals I had recently performed in which the requests of the surviving families for a "personalized" service had completely bypassed "sublime" and made a bee-line for "ridiculous." Hearing Dr. Long speak, and reading his more thorough explanations, about what went wrong with funerals, what they are supposed to be, and how to fix them, was so refreshing and practically helpful. The book deals with funerals from a distinctly Christian perspective, and does so historically, philosophically, theologically, pastorally, and practically. I have recommended the book to nearly every pastor I know, and I never miss an opportunity to implement some of its many helpful applications in my own ministry as I conduct funerals. Long helps us to not only do better what we do, but also to do it with more understanding of why we do those things. It is the ideal balance of theory and practice.

There are a few places throughout the book where Long's personal theological commitments surface, and I would charitably classify some of his views as "left of center." Despite his thoroughly "gospel" vocabulary, there are indications that Long is "inclusivist" in his soteriology, with periodic flashes of what could be understood as universalism here and there in the book. There is also a steady stream of sacramentalism that would be questionable to many Baptists (myself included). In short, Long represents the theological commitments of mainline Protestantism, and as someone who stands outside the mainline, I find many places where my theology differs, and I consider Long to be not just wrong but dead and dangerously wrong. Thankfully those places are infrequent in the book. So, the book is not without its shortcomings. And yet, on a scale of 1-5, I would STILL give it a 5! It really is that good.

At times, Long is firm in biblical conviction about a belief or practice that has Scriptural underpinnings. Then there are moments when he is firm, yet realistic when it comes to matters of traditional practice. And there are moments of refreshing candor when he acknowledges liberty for personal preferences and local traditions to arise. But the clarion call of this book is that there is something different about the funeral of a Christian. And that "something different" is to be experienced, shared, and even celebrated by the entire community of faith as we walk them to the edge of eternity and bid them farewell.

There are four kinds of people who should read this book. The author's intent is undoubtedly for his book to be read by pastors. However, there is benefit to be found beyond the clergy. If I were in a position of authority with a funeral home, I would require this book to be read by every staff member. Thirdly, if you are a Christian and you foresee a day in your own future wherein you would have to carry out the responsibilities of laying your loved one to rest, you would certainly benefit from the entire book. Fourth, knowing that one day you will attend your last funeral (as the guest of honor no doubt), reading this book could be of tremendous help to you as you talk about your wishes with your family.

So, bottom line -- 5 stars, Must reading for pastors and church leaders; good reading even for those who are not. My hope is that the book will be read widely, the ideas will be championed broadly, and that we might see a "Reformation" of funerary practices in contemporary American culture. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Lord's Supper: What It Is and What It Is Not (1 Cor 11:17-34)

Audio available at

1 Corinthians 11:17-34
The Lord’s Supper – What it Is, and What it Isn’t

What is a healthy church? Since at least the time of the Reformation, if not before, it has been widely accepted that there are two consistent hallmarks of a healthy church: the right preaching of the Word and the right practice of the ordinances. When we speak of ordinances, we are talking about those things that the Lord Jesus Christ instituted for His Church and commanded the continuance of in the church. Baptists have traditionally understood there to be two ordinances found in Scripture: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And a church’s health is based in part on how they understand and carry out those ordinances, along side of the preaching of the Word. Now, that is not to say that these two things alone make a healthy church, but where these two are lacking, a church cannot be healthy, no matter how many other things they get right. And, where these two things are practiced, it seems inevitable that a church will be equipped to move in a healthy direction in other things as well. So, periodically, it is important to devote our preaching of the Word to the practice of ordinances so that we are reminded afresh of the biblical meaning and manner of them. In our text today, we have read the closest thing we have to a biblical instruction manual on how to observe the Lord’s Supper. And from this text, we are able to draw out some important truths and reminders about what it is and what it isn’t.

I. What It Isn’t (vv17-22)

Paul tells us in v17 that he is not able to praise the Corinthian church about their practice of the Lord’s Supper because they come together “not for the better but for the worse.” In verse 20 he says that they really aren’t observing the Lord’s Supper, no matter how many little wafers they eat or how much grape juice they drink. The reason he makes this statement is because in their coming together they are abusing the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and practicing it in an unholy, unhealthy way. There are two specific ways they do this. As we see them, we come to understand what the Lord’s Supper is not:

            A. It is not a practice for a divided church (vv18-19)

Notice he says in verse 18, “when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.” In Chapter 1, Paul barely gets the introduction out of the way before he says,

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and "I of Cephas," and "I of Christ." Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Someone has brought him a report that the people have divided up against one another under the banner of each one’s favorite preacher. Some liked Paul, while others preferred Apollos, and then there were those who more fond of Peter (Cephas), while some tried to be super-spiritual and say that they didn’t like any of those guys – they were followers of Jesus only. Note that he responds there to the situation by saying, “Has Christ been divided?” And of course, the answer is no. So, then why is His body divided? Are we not all followers of Jesus? Are we not united by the Gospel? He says, “I wasn’t crucified for you, and you weren’t baptized into my name.” Paul is protesting the use of his name and his personality and ministry as a basis for division, as if to say, “Look, if you are a Christian, then what binds you together with other Christians is not your opinion about a preacher or an issue. It is your faith in Jesus Christ, who was crucified for you and into whose name you were baptized.”

Let me relate what Paul was saying about the Corinthians to us, though God forbid that we should ever be divided in this kind of way. It happens out west, though. It would be like some saying, “I am of Pastor Russ,” and others saying, “I am of Dr. Jack,” and some saying, “Not me, I’m a Henry Newton guy myself,” while others may say, “No, for me it is Dr. Early.” And people would then go splitting up into these different camps. But it doesn’t have to be about a leader. The same could happen with an issue. You could have the pro-missions group, and the anti-missions group; or the pro-pipe-organ group and the anti-pipe-organ group. Or you could have the pro-magnolia tree group and the anti-magnolia tree group. Any time, for any reason, that the church is breaking up into battle camps, and drawing lines between the members, you have a divided church. And a divided church cannot practice the Lord’s Supper. Because a divided church has lost sight of what the Lord’s Supper is all about; they’ve actually lost sight of what the gospel, the church, and the Person of Jesus Christ is all about. You see, folks, it really doesn’t matter what you think of the pastor, or what your opinion is about the budget, or the building, or the ministries of the church. None of those things binds us together as a people of God. We are bound together, in spite of any and all differences by our faith in Jesus Christ. So if there is division, it means we have lost sight of Him. And if we lose sight of Him, we cannot rightly observe the Lord’s Supper. It is not for a divided church. It is for a church that is united in Him.

            B. It is not a practice for an individualistic church (vv21-22) 

As you read verses 21-22, you might get confused. Paul says that one is hungry and another is drunk. One is hungry because all the food was gone before they got there; and another is drunk because he drank all the wine. Now you might be wondering how many little crackers can one person stand to eat; and how many thimbles full of wine would it take for someone to get drunk. But that’s not what Paul is talking about. In that day, the Lord’s Supper was observed, not in the context of a worship service like this one, but in the setting of what we might associate with a potluck meal. They called it the agape meal. It was a time of sharing, where everyone brought what they could afford to bring to share with others, and so all God’s people could enjoy a common meal. That’s what we do with the potluck meal still today. My pastor used to talk about his dad, and said he was like a magician. He could take a loaf of white bread and a pack of cheap bologna and turn it into a four course meal. He did that by taking it to the church pot-luck.

But here’s what was happening in Corinth. Some would get there early. As the best foods came in, they would eat it all, and they would drink all the wine. By the time the late arrivers came in (and every church has them), the food was all gone and people were drunk! You might say, “Serves them right! That will teach them to get there on time.” But Paul says, “NO!” What this is teaching us is that we don’t love our brothers and sisters. Can we not deny our gluttonous appetites for a half-hour in deference to our spiritual family and just wait for them? In verse 33 he says this: “Wait for one another!” Undoubtedly someone would say, “Well, no, you see, I have this medical condition and I have to eat at a certain time, so I can’t wait.” Paul says to that one in verse 34, “If you’re hungry, eat at home before you come so that your selfish interests do not bring judgment on the whole church. You see, even dogs know how to salivate when Pavlov rings the bell. You who are in Christ are being transformed from your natural state into something supernatural. Can you not do better than a dog or a mere pagan? Can you not wait for a brother to arrive? Can you not moderate your appetite so that all can be served? If you can’t, you need to take care of that before you come, because the Lord’s Supper is for a people who love one another, care for one another, serve one another, share life with one another, and wait for one another. We are not merely a mob of individuals. We are one body in Christ Jesus. And the Lord’s Supper is not for an individualistic church.

So, if there is a church full of strive and selfishness, they might eat little wafers and drink little cups of grape juice, but they aren’t partaking of the Lord’s Supper. 

II. What it is (vv23-32)

Down through Church History, and still today, there are a lot of mixed up notions about the meaning and the manner of the Lord’s Supper. Its caused church splits, denominational schisms, and even, in at least one case, a major war (seriously, you can Google “Causes of the Hussite Wars” and part of it was over the meaning and manner of communion). But the meaning and manner of the Lord’s Supper is spelled out clearly here in this passage, and the conflicts and controversies that have erupted over the centuries have boiled down to either a disbelief in the truthfulness, sufficiency, or authority of Scripture. But if we let God’s Word have the final say, we will understand these things. Paul says in verse 23 that this is what he has received “from the Lord” and delivered to us.

            A. The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper (vv23-26)

We notice right away that this practice finds its immediate origin in the Last Supper that the Lord Jesus shared with His disciples. It was “in the night in which He was betrayed.” But that was no ordinary supper. It was the Passover meal. The Passover commemorated the deliverance of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, but on the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus radically redefined Passover. No longer would it be about the blood of the lamb that was put over the doors of the Israelites to save them from the plague of death. Henceforth, it would be about the blood of the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, which saves us from the oppressive tyranny of sin, death, hell, and Satan. It was not the sacrifice of an animal that would save humanity from destruction, but the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Himself.

Thus, He took bread and said, “This is My body.” Jesus says in John 6 that He is the Bread of Life. It is significant that He was born in Bethlehem, the meaning of which in Hebrew is “the House of Bread.” It was in that place that God took on a body – He became flesh. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” [Jn 1:1,14]. The writer of Hebrews points us back to this reality, reflecting on Psalm 40, as he writes, “when He comes into the world, He says, "SACRIFICE AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME.” [Heb 10:5].

God took on a body. And He lived among us. And He died. That precious body was put to death. Nails were driven through the hands that reached out to touch and heal us; a spike through the feet that walked our dirt and sod. The head which looked at us in love and spoke to us the words of life was crowned with thorns. And all that He did in this body, and all that He endured in it, was all for us. So, as we partake of the bread in the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember this. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” He says. Remember the body of the baby, virgin-born in Bethlehem’s stable; remember the body of the teacher, the healer, the friend of sinners; remember the body of the Lord, crucified, dead, buried. All for us.  

And then He took a cup filled with the fruit of the vine, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Critics and scoffers criticize the Christian faith as a slaughterhouse religion because of the crimson flow of blood that streams through the pages of the Bible from the beginning to the end. But the critic and the scoffer do not comprehend that to remove this blood from the faith is to remove any and all reason to even consider the Christian faith. From the slaughter of the first sacrifice in Genesis 3, which provided a covering for Adam and Eve, a principle was established that without the shedding of blood, there could be no forgiveness of sin. The blood of each lamb, each goat, each bull at the Tabernacle and Temple of the Old Testament pointed the people to a God who took sin seriously, but was willing to forgive the one who approached Him in His prescribed way. But never was it to be understood that the blood of those animals was sufficient in and of itself to cleanse sin. It was symbolic. It was pointing them to a day which was to come when the chosen one of God – the Messiah – would take their sins upon Himself and shed His own blood for the remission of sins. This is what Isaiah foresaw in the 53rd Chapter of the book that bears his name. And 700 years after he wrote about the suffering redeemer, Jesus came. The blood that He shed on Calvary’s cross is the atonement for all the sins of the past that had been covered with the blood of bulls and goats and lambs. And it was the payment in full for the sins of all those who would come to trust in Him as Lord and Savior.

And this blood was the seal of the New Covenant which God had promised through the prophet Jeremiah. This covenant binds us to God by faith through a personal and intimate relationship. And Jesus said as He passed the cup to his disciples that the cup was a symbol of His blood sealing the new covenant for us. Our sins are forgiven by this blood and we are bound to God through it. We therefore look back in remembrance as we partake of the Lord’s Supper – we remember His body and His blood.

We worship a Savior who died, but yet who is not dead. We worship a risen Savior who has promised us that He is coming again, and we are looking forward to that day. And each time we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are proclaiming this multidirectional reality to the world. Paul says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” We are proclaiming that He died in the past for us, and that He is coming again in the future. That’s why we gather, that’s why we continue in the faith, why we continue to serve Him, why we continue to remind ourselves of what He has done for us. We derive confidence that, just as He fulfilled every promise of the past leading up to the cross, so He will fulfill every promise for the future, including that He will come again and take us to be with Him forever.

So, this is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper – we are remembering through these symbolic elements of the bread and the cup what Christ has done for us, saving us through His incarnation, death, and resurrection; and that He is coming again for us in fulfillment of the promise of His covenant. Now, Paul goes on from this to discuss …

B. The manner of the Lord’s Supper

By “the manner” of it, we mean the way we should partake of it. He is not addressing whether or not we should all come forward or be served at our seats, whether or not we should use fermented or unfermented wine, whether you should dip the bread in the cup and receive them both at the same time, or any other of the practical issues that have divided Christians over the centuries. There seems to be some measure of congregational freedom in developing some of these practices, but regardless of those logistical specifics, there are some essentials that cannot be compromised on our manner of receiving the Lord’s Supper.

We are told that there is an unworthy manner by which one may come to the table, and if we do not guard against this, it could mean severe consequences. Now, I want to be sure to point out that this does not say anything about unworthy people. We are all unworthy of what God has done for us in Christ. We are saved by grace, and the very word “grace” means that we do not deserve it. But even unworthy people can approach in a worthy manner. The “unworthy manner” is approaching the Lord without examining one’s own life. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That may be the case, but Paul says here that the unexamined life is not worth bringing to the Lord’s Table.

If we have sin in our life that we have been unwilling to deal with before God, then we come in an unworthy way. If we have put the things of God far from our minds and have not paused to freshly consider the salvation that Jesus accomplished for us, then we come in an unworthy manner. And this examination needs to extend beyond the individual dimension to the corporate. The Christian life is to be lived in community with brothers and sisters in the family of God. Have we neglected this spiritual family? Have we severed ties with believers over unimportant matters? If we have broken relationships that we have been unwilling to take responsibility in, or unwilling to take the initiative in restoring the relationship, then we come in an unworthy way.

And if any of these things are true in our lives, then we have the opportunity for repentance and restoration with God and with one another. But if we neglect that opportunity, then our hearts become harder and we drift farther and farther away from the place of spiritual health. Paul says it is for this reason that many in the church are weak and sick. Our spiritual well-being has an influence on our physical condition. And a number, he says, sleep. This does not mean that they fell asleep during the sermon; it means that they died! The deaths of a number of believers, Paul says, has been hastened by hard-heartedness. It leads to spiritual and physical weakness, and it leads to illness, and if it goes on unchecked, can lead to death.  And so the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper gives us opportunity to regularly examine ourselves to see what areas of our lives we need to address in order that our hearts may not grow hard and these severe consequences may be remedied by repentance, reconciliation and restoration.  

So, as we conclude the message and prepare for the meal, let us be reminded: this is not a practice for a divided or individualistic church. It is a family meal, for those who have committed themselves to loving the Lord and loving their brother and sister by the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all who have trusted in Jesus Christ. We are remembering what He has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection, and longing with great expectancy His return. And as we remember and anticipate these things, we have to look within ourselves. Are you a follower of Jesus? Have you dealt with your sins by bringing them before the Lord in confession and repentance? The promise of God is that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Have we restored broken fellowship that may have separated us from other believers? If not, then at this time why not commit to do that, and see it through?

Monday, July 08, 2013

Persuaded to Believe; Pressured to Disbelieve (John 7:45-52)

Around the world, people have this idea that Christians are out trying to pressure people into conversions. You let one Hindu in a South Asian village convert to following Christ, and the entire village will be at his door wanting to know what those Christians did to him, how they bribed him, or what methods they used to force him to believe. I suppose it is not altogether different here. I was reading a book review the other day about a book that was written to set forth and defend the claims of Christ. The reviewer said that the book could be improved by removing some of the heavy-handed attempts to pressure the reader into conversion. So, apparently, one cannot even state or defend the claims that Jesus Himself made without being accused of this sort of pressure tactic. And yet, as we study church history, we find two things occurring. One, there are periods of history in which the church was blinded by its own might and attempted to use heavy-handedness to force conversions. And, two, whenever this took place, the results were disastrous for all parties. Force is an impossible motivation for belief. A person cannot be “forced” to believe, though they can be “forced” to say that they believe and even to externally behave as if they believed. But the original beliefs are still present, and the life-practices based on those original beliefs are going to find a way to work themselves out, either through underground practices or through religious syncretism – a melding together of otherwise incompatible beliefs and practices. And this has happened over and over again throughout the centuries, and the church has been incredibly weakened and corrupted by it. So, even though the world thinks of us as a powerful movement seeking forced conversions, hopefully we have learned that no one wins in that kind of game. Jesus didn’t do it. The early church didn’t do it. We mustn’t do it. But the world accuses us of doing it anyway. We seek to persuade by our witness for Jesus in word and deed. But we do not pressure. It does not work.

The ironic thing is that the world actually employs this kind of force and pressure upon people to not believe, to not convert, or, if a person is already a follower of Christ, to abandon Him. The earliest Christians were presented with simple options: deny Christ and live, or cling to Him and die. And in some parts of the world, the pressure is still the same today. Here in America, it is often more subtle. Renounce, or (more often) radically compromise, your faith and your convictions, and you will be rewarded. Cling to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and you will be criticized, ostracized, and stigmatized. We all know of situations where this has happened, and some of us have experienced it personally. In fact, I would say that if you have lived a consistent Christian life over some period of time, you should have experienced this to some degree by now. If you haven’t, there can only be one of two problems: you have already made compromises of the faith that you are perhaps unaware of, or you are too insulated from unbelievers and need to get out of your holy huddle and spend some more time with lost people.

While we seek to persuade others to believe, there is a great pressure placed on people today to disbelieve. And as we see in our text, this has always been the case throughout history. So, let’s look into this text and see the elements of persuasion that lead some to believe, and the tactics of pressure that are employed to prevent others from believing.

I. The elements of persuasion.

I went to an appointment with a new doctor on one occasion, and as he reviewed my new patient paperwork, he picked up on the fact that I was a pastor. Turns out he had been a medical missionary. In fact, he had been a medical missionary in an area I had been to in Kenya. As we talked and shared our testimonies with one another, I noticed that he made some kind of mark on my chart. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I put F.D.F.X. on your chart. That means, in a code that only I can understand, that you are a fully devoted follower of Christ, and when you come in, I know that I can speak openly with you about my faith and about the Lord.” That’s a pretty good system. I like that code: FDFX. Some of you are FDFXs. But, we need to acknowledge right up front that as far as we know, thus far in John’s narrative, no one in this passage we have read today are fully devoted followers of Christ. Yet, several of them seem to be “almost persuaded.”

Back in verse 32, the chief priests and the Pharisees sent guards to arrest Jesus. Now, some number of days later, they’ve come back empty handed, to the obvious disdain of the authorities. “Why did you not bring Him?” they exclaim. They were given an order, and they’ve had plenty of opportunity, but they have failed to carry it out.

The response that given by the guards must have come as a great surprise. The officers say, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” It seems that as they went out to take Him, they were actually taken by Him; they could not arrest Him because they were arrested by Him. And notice that it was not so much the matter of His speaking--what He said—that affected them so much; it was the manner of His speaking—how He said what He said—that took hold of them. This was not the first time this had happened. In the synagogue at Capernaum, the people were “amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). As He taught in the synagogue in Nazareth, “all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips” (Lk 4:22). Never has a man spoken the way the Lord Jesus speaks. It is still true. There hasn’t been one since Him. But, then again, the reason why there’s never been a man speak like Him is that He is not merely a man. Though He is fully human, He is also fully God. There is power in His Words because He is the Word made flesh. His Word is that which brought the universe into existence. His Word has the ability to create something from nothing; to uphold all things; to transform people, things, and situations from the inside out; His word can bring the dead to life, both physically and spiritually.

The Temple Guards have heard the Lord Jesus speaking, saying things like, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38). He said it with unprecedented power and authority, and they were affected by what they heard. I don’t know if any of them completely believed in Him and committed themselves to following Him at that time, but they were persuaded enough to defy their superiors and the orders they’d been given. That fact is all the more surprising when we consider that these are not just hired hands, sent out like mercenaries to carry out orders and ask no questions. The Temple Guard was a special detail of carefully selected, religiously trained Levites.[1] It was this elite group of scholar-soldiers that find themselves being persuaded by Jesus to consider placing their faith in Him.

Now, not only had Jesus had a persuasive impact on the Temple Guard, there was another man present among the Sanhedrin’s leaders who had experienced his own private encounter with Jesus. His name was Nicodemus, and we first met him in Chapter 3. He had come to Jesus late one evening. Perhaps it was a mutually convenient time for them to meet casually, but the possibility cannot be ruled out that he came at night under the cloak of darkness to avoid being rebuked by his fellow leaders. Do you remember what he said to Jesus when he came to Him? He 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). You see, here is a man being persuaded. But in Nicodemus’ case, unlike the Temple Guards, he is not being persuaded by what Jesus has said or how He said it, but by the things Jesus has done. And Jesus proceeds to tell Nicodemus the full-on truth, just as He proclaimed in the hearing of the Temple Guard. He told Nicodemus that in order to see and enter the Kingdom of God, one must be born again. He described to him how the Spirit comes upon a person and produces new birth. We are left with the impression that Nicodemus had his mind blown that night, and didn’t really comprehend what Jesus was saying. But here we see him again, and it seems that the things Jesus did that initially persuaded him, and the things that Jesus had said to him that night, were still fresh in his heart and mind. There was still a nagging sense in his soul that Jesus could not be ignored or discarded.

Had Nicodemus at this point secretly believed and committed himself as a follower of Jesus? We do not know. But we know that the words and works of Jesus were still working on him. We know this because of what he said to his colleagues who were leading the charge against Jesus. He said, “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” His fellow leaders are convinced that Jesus is a lawbreaker and those who follow Him are ignorant of the Law, but Nicodemus catches them in hypocrisy here. Let’s not break the Law to catch the lawbreaker, or ignore the law to spite those who are ignorant of it. The Law explicitly forbids false accusations (Ex 23:1) and bearing false witness (Ex 20:16). Judges were commanded to investigate charges thoroughly (Dt 17:4) and hear matters completely, making judgment on fair and righteous grounds (Dt 1:16). So, because Nicodemus has been somewhat persuaded by the words and works of Jesus, he prompts everyone to slow the process down and to abide by the very Law they are so zealous to enforce on others. He says, in effect, “Why don’t you guys just listen for yourselves to what He says, and see for yourselves what He is doing?” He knows that these things are changing his perspective on Jesus. He suspects that the words and deeds of Jesus may have a persuasive effect on the other religious leaders as well.

You know, if you go to a Christian bookstore you can find dozens, maybe hundreds, of books on how to persuade others to follow Jesus. Every day there is a conference somewhere in the world that you can go to that will teach you how to be more effective at it. We get mail and phone calls every day here wanting to sell us a pack of study guides, some DVDs, or whatever that is the next biggest and best thing to win more people to Christ. And you know, some of those things aren’t bad. Some of them are better than others. But, there is nothing – never has been, never will be ANYTHING – more effective and more persuasive than presenting people with the words and works of Jesus. Tell them what He said; tell them what He did. Challenge them to read the Gospels for themselves, and see for themselves in Scripture what He said and what He did. We are led by some to believe that we have to be experts in how the universe functions and answer every question about molecular biology and quantum physics to persuade people to believe, but that is just so not true. Our witness is to be focused on Jesus Christ. Tell them what He said; tell them what He did.

As most of you know, at one point in my life, I was an atheist. When Christians would try to witness to me, I could argue them into tears. I could raise questions that no one could answer. And God saved me anyway—even without answers. I met people who loved me and who talked openly about things Jesus said and things Jesus did. I began to read the Bible for myself and I read about the things Jesus said and the things He did. And though I didn’t have any answers to my questions, I could no longer use them as excuses to turn away from Jesus Christ. “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” First we have to hear from Him, and then find out what He has done. And if you are a follower of Christ, you have the opportunity to share those things everyday with someone. That’s not pressure. But it is persuasive. And God might just use the words and works of Jesus, encountered through an honest reading of Scripture or in a friendly conversation with a Christian, to persuade some person to repent and believe.

II. The tactics of pressure.

While Nicodemus and the Temple Guards are themselves under persuasion to believe, and are perhaps unintentionally persuading others by their testimonies, we also see in this text here a great pressure applied upon them by the religious leaders to NOT believe. It is very ironic that Christians, who are often accused of pressuring others to believe (when in fact we believe it is impossible to do so), and those who are on the cusp of coming to faith, often face the most extreme measures of pressure and intimidation to abandon their faith in Christ. It is a last-ditch effort by Satan, the great enemy of God and of the faith, to mobilize antagonism against a believer or one who is being persuaded to believe. We must not underestimate the intensity of spiritual warfare that is going on in conversion. Satan holds all of humanity captive under sin, and when one has been liberated from his grasp, he has lost them forever. No one can ever snatch them from the hand of Christ. So, there is a relentless assault on the Christian faith – not only aimed at those who already believe, but also in an effort to discredit the faith and so to hinder others from coming to Christ. The tactics are largely unchanged since the days of Jesus. Believers and those who are strongly considering Christ face the same pressures today as Nicodemus, the Temple Guard, and the multitude of people who had cast their lot with Jesus faced here in our text.

It was 18 years ago this week that I began my theological education, and I remember one of my first professors saying, “No one is ready to preach until he is ready to be thought a fool.” And today, you don’t even have to be a preacher – just publicly identify yourself as a follower of Christ, or acknowledge that you are strongly considering Him, and you will be thought a fool in the eyes of others. The accusation that is cast by the religious leaders is intended to belittle and demean those who would be followers of Jesus. They say that they are deceived, ignorant, accursed, and prejudiced.

Notice in verse 47 how the Pharisees say to the Temple Guard, “You have not also been led astray, have you?” It is a word that is used elsewhere to describe a sheep that has gone away from the fold. Words that are used to translate the word in the New Testament include “mistaken, misled, misguided,” and most frequently “deceived.” In verse 12, it was said of Jesus that He “leads the people astray,” and this was a capital offense under Jewish law. It is one of the indictments that led the authorities to pursue Him unto death. It is interesting that the Pharisee’s rebuke of the Guard is not that they have defied orders and let the opportunity to apprehend Jesus pass by. Rather it is because these men, who ought to know better given their religious training, have been duped by Jesus. It is as if they should have known better than to fall for His teachings. You may have known someone, or may have experienced this yourselves. People speak of a person’s faith in Christ with almost an embarrassed apology. They had so much potential, they were so intelligent, they had a bright future ahead of them, oh but something happened. They became … a Christian. A number of years ago, one of the world’s most influential atheists, Antony Flew, acknowledged that he had come to believe that there really is a God. After a lifetime of launching arguments against belief in God, he had a sudden change of mind. Almost immediately, his former compatriots in atheism began to ridicule him. They said that he was an old man, whose memory had begun to fail him and whose senses had left him; that he was merely hedging his bets as he neared closer to death; that he had been taken advantage of by religious zealots who put words into his mouth and tricked him into affirming them. But of one thing they were certain – that Antony Flew could have never changed his mind, apart from manipulative trickery. He died in 2010, and as far as we know, he never came to faith in Jesus Christ. And though he clearly and repeatedly articulated that the evidence of design in the universe had led him to believe that there was some sort of divine being who existed, he continues to be ridiculed by academic atheists. So, one of the tactics of pressure applied on those who believe and those who are coming close to faith is to belittle them with allegations of deception.

If that tactic is ineffective, we are not surprised to see a charge of complete ignorance leveled against believers. In verse 48, the Pharisees say, “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him has he?” In other words, “If Jesus was really the Messiah, if He was anything other than a charlatan, don’t you think that we of all people would be following Him?” But no, they aren’t following Him. Who is following Him? Verse 49 says, “This crowd which does not know the Law.” The Greek word rendered “crowd” is a word for a “mob”; we might render it “rabble.” This statement shows how condescendingly the leaders of Israel thought of the common people. This crowd could easily be led astray because they are so ignorant! They don’t even know the Law! The Pharisees know the Law, and if anyone else knew the Law they would never believe in Jesus. They think they have a monopoly on the truth, and while everyone else may be wrong in their beliefs and opinions, it is unthinkable that they themselves could be wrong. And we find this still today. If you believe that Jesus is Lord, that He was born of a virgin and that He rose from the dead, that the Bible is true, that God created the world and all that is in it, prepare to be labeled as ignorant. A person can make any claim whatsoever (no matter how ridiculous) and be taken seriously by the world – unless that person makes a claim for Christ or the Word of God. Some of you college students have experienced this in the classroom – even in the religious studies department. You have heard it said that religion in general, or Christianity in particular, is just a crutch for weak-minded people. The default assumption is that if you have any mental sense about you whatsoever, you could not possibly believe in Jesus.

And their argument intensifies at this point. Those who have been persuaded by Jesus are said to accursed here in verse 49. J.B. Phillips suggests we should understand accursed here to mean that this crowd is “damned anyway.” In other words, why should we listen to what they say about Jesus; they are accursed and condemned people, and there is a special place in hell for the likes of them. That is how the religious leaders viewed those who were favorable toward Jesus. And that is how the follower of Christ will be viewed today. In our world of tolerance, relativism, and pluralism, all religious systems and views of morality are considered valid and worthy of a fair hearing, with the exception of biblical Christianity. Christians are called intolerant and narrow-minded because we believe that the Bible is true, and that Jesus is the only way to know God and enter heaven. But we did not make that message up. That is the message that Jesus Himself proclaimed. We are told that all other religions are more tolerant and open to the validity of other messages, but that is simply not true! Don’t think for a moment that Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism do not have exclusive truth claims. It is inherent in every belief system. Do you notice that no one is permitted to speak negatively in public about any belief system whatsoever? And yet if someone speaks negatively about Jesus or the Christian faith, they are championed as a hero, their books skyrocket the bestseller list, and suddenly they become a new voice of authority in society. Who cares what the Christians say? They are a damnable people anyway. And thus we face the same arrogant condemnation that the crowd, the Guard, and Nicodemus faced in this text.

Speaking of Nicodemus, we must note how quickly he speaks up when the Pharisees say, “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him.” Almost as if to say, “Not so fast!”, he interjects. Now, he’s not preaching a sermon or calling the leaders to faith in Christ. He is merely pleading for a fair trial. And look what it gets him: he is accused of being a prejudiced bigot. They say, “You are not also from Galilee, are you?” In sports, we often accuse the referees or umpires of “home cooking.” They aren’t calling a fair game because they secretly hope their own favorite team wins. So, the Pharisees accuse Nicodemus of “home cooking” here. If he is going to cast his lot with a Galilean, he must be a Galilean himself! They say essentially, “Look it up!” “Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee” (v52). Now, this is the height of absurdity. First of all, if they will “look it up,” they will see that there have been a number of prophets to come from Galilee. Jonah was certainly a Galilean, and Nahum, Hosea, and the great Elijah may well have been of Galilean origins. But this is somewhat beside the point. The fact of the matter is that Jesus is not a Galilean. He was born in Bethlehem, just like the prophet Micah said that Messiah would be. If they would take the time to investigate Jesus for themselves, even as they have challenged Nicodemus to investigate the Scriptures, they would know that.

But you notice their hypocrisy shining through in all of this. They accuse Nicodemus of speaking favorably about Jesus because he is prejudiced—he must be a Galilean. But their own prejudice against Galileans is exposed. They have rejected Jesus on the simple basis that He has, at least recently, resided in that despicable town. And so it often is that the most outspoken critics of the Christian faith are actually themselves more prejudiced, hypocritical, and intolerant than the Christians that they so vehemently belittle. Enemies of the Gospel continue to pressure those who believe, and those who are being persuaded to believe, to abandon the Lord Jesus. Jesus said this would happen. He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11-12). Let them say that you are deceived, you are ignorant, you are accursed, or whatever else they can come up with. The ancient philosopher Celsus once said of Christianity: “Let no one come … who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent …; but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence…. [T]hey manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid,.”[2]

We are not shamed or silenced by baseless criticisms and belittling accusations such as these. Rather, we are encouraged by them. We say, with the Apostle Paul, “that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:26-31). The Gospel that we proclaim and by which we live is foolishness to the wisdom of the world. This must not surprise us. Instead we must go on proclaiming what Christ has said and what Christ has done, for this Gospel is the world’s only hope. As Paul says in 2 Cor 5, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” We do not, and we cannot pressure them, but yes, out of love for God and love for a lost and dying world, we do seek to persuade. Paul says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

We must stand with confidence in the face of the pressures of a world that is increasingly hostile to Christ and say with confidence, “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” Hear what He has to say; consider what He has done, and then formulate your opinion. Though the Gospel of a crucified Christ is foolishness to the world, it is by that foolishness that we are being saved, and by that same Gospel the world stands condemned already because of their unbelief. As William Barclay said so well: “To stand up for [Jesus] may bring us mockery and unpopularity; it may even mean hardship and sacrifice. But the fact remains that Jesus said He would confess before His Father the man who confessed Him on earth, and deny before His Father the man who denied Him on earth. Loyalty to Christ may produce a cross on earth, but it brings a crown in eternity.”[3]

[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 237-238.
[2] Accessed July 6, 2013.
[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Volume 1; Daily Study Bible Series; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 254. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Divided by Christ (John 7:40-44)

Most of us learned early in childhood to stand with hand over heart facing the flag of the United States of America and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In recent years, we witnessed great controversy over the Pledge, as numerous court cases have been heard regarding the wording of it. Irreligious families have protested their children having to recite the words “one nation under God,” and court rulings have come down on both sides of the issue, with the most recent ones upholding the phrase, but granting freedom to individuals to refrain from reciting the pledge. Yet, as the past few election cycles have shown us, and as we see in political rhetoric across the nation’s airwaves every day, perhaps the “under God” phrase is not the most controversial part of the Pledge. The most controversial element of the Pledge may well be the word “indivisible.” The very “liberty and justice for all” that the Pledge proclaims has become the basis for division between red states and blue states, people on the right and on the left, and in all sorts of other factions. It remains to be seen if America will continue to be “one nation under God, indivisible.” Whatever will happen to America is yet unknown to us, but it is fully known to God. Division may not be far off in the grand scheme of history, and God is not obligated to prevent it from happening.

Division is often unpleasant. We see it affect nations. We see it affect families. We see it affect churches and every other institution of society. Unpleasant as division may be, it is often a necessity, especially where truth claims are involved. People fall into opposing factions of those who believe the claims and those who do not. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once commented on a church, in which it was reported that there was no division and no quarreling. He said of that congregation that “there were no religious bickerings because there was no religion; there were no religious strifes because nobody had anything worth striving for. And that,” Spurgeon said, “is not a state of things over which I can rejoice.”[1] Where matters are of great importance, we must expect there to be great divisions. And there is nothing so important as the Person, the work, and the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must not be surprised to find the entire world divided over Him. After all, He promised that this would be the result of His coming. He said, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53). So we must not be surprised to read the words in our text today: “a division occurred in the crowd because of Him” (v43). The Greek word there is schisma. It is the same word that Jesus used to describe the tearing of a garment (Matt 9:16; Mark 2:21). The crowd is torn apart like a garment over the singular issue of Jesus of Nazareth.

What we see in this crowd of people is a microcosm of the entire world – people divided by Jesus. So, let’s look at the division that occurs in this crowd, and then draw some applications to how the world is divided by Jesus today.

I. Some think that Jesus is significant, but not the Savior (v40).

I can still remember the conversation I had many years ago with a Muslim in East Africa about who Jesus is. “He is merely a prophet,” the man said. I said, “That’s an interesting word, ‘merely.’ What do you mean by that?” He said, “Well, I believe that Jesus was a prophet, who came from God, to enlighten people about the truth. But I do not believe that He was God or the Son of God.” So I said, “Let me get this straight. You believe He was a good man?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You believe He was a good teacher?” He said, “Yes.” I asked again, “You believe He taught the truth?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Then what do you do with the fact that He taught that He was Himself truly God, the Son of God, and the only way to know and access God?” Uncomfortably, the man’s only available recourse was to say, “Well, you say He said that, but He never said that. You Christians have corrupted Bibles. Jesus never said those things.” I said, “How do you know?” He said, “If He had said them, the Quran would tell us.” I said, “How do you know the Quran is not corrupted, or that the Bible is not true?” He finally conceded that He could no longer argue the point with me; he had run out of answers; but his mind was still made up. Jesus was significant, but not the Savior.

I think about that man, and many others like him with whom I have had similar conversations, whenever I read statements like this one in verse 40. Because of the things that Jesus said, some of the people were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.” Now, they are not saying that Jesus was merely “a prophet.” He was a prophet, yes, but they are saying He was something more than just a prophet. He was not just another one in the line of Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so on. He is, they said, “THE Prophet.” This is a very specific and significant person in redemptive history. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses gave a stern warning to the people of Israel that they were to avoid the spiritual practices of the pagans from the surrounding nations. They were not to use divination or witchcraft, omens, sorcerers, spells, mediums, and the like. These were things that the pagans did in order to find some supernatural word to direct them. But God said that these things were forbidden for the Israelites. Instead of these things, God would speak to the Israelites for Himself. Now, previously, when He thundered audibly from Mount Sinai, the people said to Moses, “Please give us some mediator between ourselves and God for we cannot bear a direct confrontation with Him.” So the Lord had determined to provide for Israel a heritage of prophetic ministry. Moses tells the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.” The Lord said “I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut 18:15-18). This promise lays the foundation for the entire lineage of Hebrew prophets. But, there is a greater sense in which all of these prophets, from Moses to Malachi, were foreshadowing the coming of an ultimate prophet. He would be a “second Moses,” a deliverer of the people.

If you remember back in Chapter 6, when Jesus fed the multitude, miraculously multiplying two fish and five loaves of bread, the people “saw the sign which He had performed,” and they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Just as Moses had been able to provide bread miraculously for the people in the form of manna (though it was God and not Moses who provided it), the people concluded that Jesus must be the second Moses, because of His miraculous provision of food. But Jesus chastised those people and rebuked them because they were not interested in spiritual truth – they were just interested in filling their bellies. Thus, the bulk of Chapter 6 is devoted to Jesus expositing what the true bread of life is – namely that is Him. They should not come to Him expecting Him to give them food. They must come to Him believing that He is the food that their lives so desperately need. Most of that crowd abandoned Jesus because they could not wrap their heads around the truth He was proclaiming to them (6:66).

But now Jesus is surrounded by a different crowd of people. Among this crowd are some who are more wise, more discerning, more spiritual (we might say) than those others. They are not driven by the hunger of their bellies. They are not persuaded by signs and wonders that they have seen. They have heard Jesus speak. What did He say? “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38). He said this on the day of celebrating that Moses had provided water from a rock in the wilderness on two occasions (though it was God and not Moses who provided it; Exo 17; Num 20). In the minds of some who heard him, since Moses could provide water from the rock, and since Jesus claims to be able to provide water as well, He must be the second Moses, the long-awaited Prophet who was to come. He is “the Prophet.”

You know, there are many in the world today who have nothing but good things to say about Jesus. They recognize that He is a significant person in the history of the world. He said important things. He challenged the status quo, confronted corrupt institutions, started an influential and important historical movement. He is on any short list of historical figures that a person needs to know about in order to be historically and culturally literate. Significant indeed, but not the Savior – that is how Jesus is viewed by many today. They view Him as an enlightened person, a prophet perhaps, who has come to enlighten us. But Jesus is so much more than this. He is not merely enlightened, He is the Light. He is not merely a prophet, but the ultimate prophet, not only speaking for God, but speaking as God in the flesh. And He can enlighten us, but He has come to do more than this – He has come to save us and rescue us from our sins through His life, death, and resurrection. So, if you or someone you know is one of those who believe that Jesus is significant, but not the Savior, I would like to challenge you to go back to the Gospel accounts in the Bible and read for yourself what He said about who He is and what He came to do. You are to be commended for recognizing that He is significant. But He is so much more than this. He is the Savior that all of us need to rescue us from sin and reconcile us to the God who made us.

II. Some think that He is the Christ, but not the Crucified One (v41a)

When we speak of Jesus Christ, we need to understand that “Christ” is not His last name. It is a title. We are saying that Jesus is “the Christ.” The Greek word Christos corresponds to the Hebrew word Mashiach, from which we get the word “Messiah.” Both words mean “the Anointed One,” and speak of a person who will be anointed by God to reign over His people. And apparently, one group of people who heard the words of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles concluded that Jesus was this anointed Christ, or Messiah.

Now, to us, it would seem that these groups are saying the same thing, and so the division is unnecessary. One group says He is the Prophet, one group says He is the Christ. We say, “What’s the difference?” because we understand both titles to refer to Jesus. However, it is likely that Christians were the first to equate these two titles to one person, because Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of both promises. Prior to His death and resurrection, however, Jewish people believed that the Prophet would come, and that the Messiah would come, but they were not the same person. In fact, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was found one document which speaks of a coming prophet and TWO coming Messiahs – one who would be a priestly Messiah in the order of Aaron, and the other a kingly Messiah from the line of David.[2] Most people in Jesus’ day viewed the Messiah as a great political and military ruler who would come and deliver the Israelites from the oppression of foreign powers. Throughout Israel’s history, the nation had been dominated by one foreign nation after another – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and at this time in history it was Rome. The heartcry of the people of Israel was that they might be liberated and set free from this oppression, and they longed for the coming of a deliverer who would make it happen. After seeing and hearing all that Jesus had done and said, there was one group of people at least who were convinced that He was the Christ, the Messiah!

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Revolution. Before this would-be Messiah could ever overthrow the Romans, He went and got Himself killed! Not only that, but it was almost like He tried to get Himself killed. He was going around telling people that He was going to get killed when He got to Jerusalem. They thought He was the Christ, and then He ended up crucified. And in their minds, there could be no such thing as a crucified Christ. Those two words go together about like the words “crash landing.” If it’s a crash, it’s not a landing; and in their minds, if its crucified, its not a Christ. And yet, it is through this crucifixion that Jesus accomplished the Messianic deliverance for which He came. He did not come to deliver from Rome or from any other nation’s oppression. Had they been set free from Rome, they would have still been enslaved. Just like the entire human race, we are all slaves to sin, captive under the oppression of Satan. This is what we need to be liberated from. And Jesus makes that liberation possible through His life, death, and resurrection. In living for us, He fulfilled the righteous demands of God’s law on our behalf. In dying for us, He took the penalty that our sins deserve upon Himself. In rising from the dead for us, Jesus has defeated our sins and their penalty of death and hell forever, so that we can be set free, saved, and secured to Him throughout this life and in heaven forever. They thought that Christ could not be crucified. Jesus demonstrated that He is the Christ by His crucifixion.

Was He the prophet, the priest, or the King? He is all three. The prophet who came as the Word made flesh; the priest who not only offered but became the sacrifice for sin; and the King who has established His Kingdom in the hearts of those who follow Him, but who is coming again in glory to put all nations under His feet. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:23-25).

If you look at Jesus as the victim of a tragic historical accident, a case-study in “what might have been,” a martyr who died for a noble purpose before He could achieve His ultimate potential, then you are sorely mistaken. The death that He died was the very reason for His coming and it is the very basis of our hope. Our only hope to be rescued is through His cross. If you think that He cannot be Christ because He was crucified, the fact is that He is Christ because He was crucified, and was crucified there for you and me and for our sins, to save us.

III. Some think He is a liar and not the Lord (vv41b-42)

Among the people of the world today there is a very small minority who have only negative things to say about Jesus. Most people who know anything about Him express something positive about Him, even if they come short of being a full fledged follower of Christ. But then there are those who, for whatever reason, have such hardened and bitter hearts toward the Lord that they just cannot stomach Him. They despise Him and want nothing to do with Him at all. They seek to discredit and destroy Him. We find such ones as these in the crowd around Him in our text. While some say He is the prophet and some say He is the Christ, we find this one group saying, “No, none of the above. He is a liar!” And they think they have proof. They’ve studied their Scriptures. They are more learned than many of their peers and they are able to say about this Jesus that He cannot be the Messiah for He is from the wrong place and the wrong people. They’ve searched the Scriptures and they know that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Micah 5:2 makes it plain. But everyone knows where Jesus is from, right? Is He ever called Jesus of Bethlehem? No, He is called Jesus of what? Nazareth! Everyone knows that Jesus grew up in the Galilean town of Nazareth, and what do the people say about Nazareth? “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). So these people say, “Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He?” They are convinced He is a liar and a deceiver, so they want Him dead.

Not only is He supposed to be from Bethlehem, but also from the descendants of David. And who are Jesus’ ancestors? Well, the crowd doesn’t really know. They have heard stories, though. They’ve heard some stories about His mom, you know, that she wasn’t married yet when she got pregnant with Him. And they might have heard about His dad, some carpenter in Nazareth who hasn’t been on the scene in a long time. But every time they ask Jesus about His lineage and where He is from, He just keeps talking about God being His Father and Heaven being His home. They must think He is some kind of lunatic, but all questions of His sanity aside, He is definitely not who He says He is, because He’s from the wrong place and the wrong people. Or so they think.
It is a terribly tragic thing, and I have met numerous people who fall into this category, people who know their Bibles but do not know Jesus. Had they put as much effort into knowing Jesus as they had put into finding reasons to reject Him, they might have discovered that Jesus actually satisfied the very criteria they used to disqualify Him. We can chalk it up to laziness on their part. They went with things as they appeared on the surface without probing further. Do they want a Messiah who is from Bethlehem? Do they want one who is a descendant of David? In Jesus they could have both, for He actually did come from David’s lineage; and He was born in Bethlehem. Now, like David, Jesus left Bethlehem and never returned to it; but that was His place of birth. But the people were too lazy to investigate and discover these truths. John Calvin says, “Our nature is such that in small things we are ashamed of our laziness, but with the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven, we sleep on unconcerned.”[3]

I’ve often wondered, why didn’t Jesus just break out His birth certificate or something and show them that He really was a descendant of David, born in Bethlehem? The fact of the matter is that it wouldn’t have changed a thing. Their minds were made up to reject Him. It would have been no sure fire proof that He was the Messiah if He could prove He was a Bethlehem born descendant of David. We really have no sledgehammers when it comes to defending the claims of Christianity and of Jesus Himself. There is no card we can play that says, “Wham! There’s your proof!” Jesus didn’t do things that way, and we can’t either. The realization and acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a matter of faith, prompted by revelation from God, not by argumentation or debate.[4] When Peter confessed at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus did not say, “Well Peter, upon what evidence do you base this claim?” Nor did He say, “My, my Peter, you must have seen some pretty compelling proofs and heard some really convincing arguments.” No, instead Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). He had heard the words of Jesus; He had seen all the signs. But it was the revelation of God the Father that accomplished the work of bringing Him to believe. And so it will be with you and your friends and loved ones. You can argue ‘til the cows come home, and present one evidence after another, but unless the Spirit of God moves upon a human heart that heart will remain dead in trespass and sin and will belligerently refuse to believe upon the Lord Jesus. Arguments and evidences have value – they take away excuses for unbelief. They provide assurance to those who already believe. But they will never compel an unbeliever to believe. If God moves upon his or her heart, that person will believe with or without evidence or argument. And if He doesn’t move upon their hearts, all the evidence and arguments in the world won’t change their minds about Jesus.

So, if you are like these folks and believe that Jesus is a liar and not the Lord, make sure that you haven’t taken the lazy way out – have you really investigated the basis of your unbelief? You might find that the very things you are claiming keep you from believing in Him will be the things that lead you to Him as God reveals His truth to your heart.  

Jesus divides people. He divided this crowd. He’s dividing up the whole world. He said He would. Throughout Scripture, He promises that He divides believers from unbelievers; those who walk in the light from those who walk in the darkness; the sheep from the goats; the wheat from the tares; the children of God from the children of the devil.[5] Jesus said, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and He who does not gather with Me scatters” (Matt 12:30). There is no middle ground. “People confronted with the revelation of God in Christ do not have the luxury of remaining neutral” about Him.[6] We live in a world divided by Christ. But here’s the beautifully unusual thing about that: In the midst of this world, where people of one and the same nation, one and the same family, etc., who ought to find many reasons to be united, so many are divided from one another because of Jesus Christ. And yet, you have this thing, created by Christ Himself, for Himself, called the church. Within the church of Jesus Christ, you find those of different skin colors, different ethnicities, different places of origin, different languages, rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, the well educated and the not-so-well educated, male and female. And the miracle is that with all of these things which would ordinarily be seen as dividing lines, there is this profound unity. There is a love for one another. There is a warm embrace and this one calls that one brother, and the other sister. In a world divided by Christ, there is this little haven, the church, where people of vastly dissimilar backgrounds are actually united by Christ. In spite of all their differences, they have this one thing in common: they have turned away from sin and trusted in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. And the promise they have received is that they will be together, with one another, and with Him, forever as one indivisible nation (if you will), under God.

So as the lines are drawn between the entire human race, in the end, there will only be one great division. Those who are His and those who are not. Among those who are not, there will be any number of factions of those who have widely varying opinions about who Jesus is. What they will have in common is that none of them believe He is who He said He is. None of them have received Him as Lord and Savior. So, it may be that someone here is a part of that great mass of humanity. Have you really considered who Jesus is and what He has said and done, and that He has done it all for you? Would you be willing to read the Gospels with an open mind and ask the Lord each day to show you the truth about Jesus as you read them?

But, among those who do belong to Him, no matter what other reason they have to be divided from each other, they are bound together in unity in their faith and love for the Lord Jesus who has rescued them from sin and reconciled them to God forever. In a world that is divided by Christ, are you among those who have been united by Him? Are you willing to labor to preserve and defend that unity, and even to expand it to encompass others?  

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Volume 2; An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 2.589-2.590.
[2] 1QS 9:11. Robert Mounce, “John” in Expositors Bible Commentary (Revised Edition; Volume 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 466.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 199.
[4] Mounce, 466.
[5] John 3:18, 36; 1 Jn 5:10; Jn 8:12; 12:35, 46; Eph 5:8; 1 Thes 5:5; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 Jn 2:9; Matt 25:32-33; Jn 10:26; 1 Jn 3:10; Jn 8:44. John MacArthur, John 1-11 (MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 2006), 318.
[6] Mounce, 466.