Monday, August 26, 2013

The Problem of Human Lostness (John 8:21-30)

I heard an interview with a professional golfer a number of years ago who had gone through a career slump but was making a surprising comeback. The interviewer asked him, “To what do you attribute this recent resurgence?” He said, “I attribute it to my faith in Jesus Christ.” I was surprised to hear that, and encouraged to hear him speak of his faith in a public forum, but I also had a little bit of concern about his statement, and others that I hear from time to time like this. It sounds a bit like we are saying that Jesus came into the world to fix the problem of errant golf shots, or something like that. Also, what we are to make of the fact that this particular golfer’s resurgent success was short lived? Soon enough, he was playing poorly again. What are we to make of the fact that so many Christians are really not good golfers? What does that say about Jesus if He is supposed to be the ultimate cure for all hooks and slices on the golf course?

But again, we also hear pastors and preachers today saying that Jesus has come to solve the problem of your financial poverty, your lack of success in the workplace, or your besetting health problems. Are these really the kinds of problems that Jesus has come to remedy? If so, then why is it that so many Christians in the world live in poverty, struggle in the workplace (sometimes because of their Christian convictions), or suffer not only common sicknesses and injuries that effect all people, but also persecution even unto death because of their faith? Can we say that all of these people suffer in these ways because of lack of faith? To be sure, we are promised in God’s word that the follower of Christ has the hope of a better life to come where sickness and death will be eliminated, all needs will be met, all wrongs will be made right. But that promise is never made with the expectation that it will happen here on earth in this life. If we could have all of that here and now, what reason would we have to long for heaven? In this life, we all continue to inhabit corruptible bodies that are susceptible to sickness and death because of the effects of sin on the entire human race; and in this fallen world we are surrounded by the hardships produced by the corruption of sin since the beginning of humanity’s existence. If Jesus has truly come to fix the problem of poverty and sickness, slumping performance on the athletic field, and things like this, then we would have to make an honest assessment of the situations we see in our own lives and all around us and conclude that He is doing a very poor job of it. But maybe that is not the problem He came to deal with. In fact, the Bible is very clear that the problem that Jesus has come to deal with is the problem of human lostness.

When we look around at the things we are facing in the world (injustice, violence, terrorism, addiction, lawlessness, moral decay, etc.) these are not simply isolated problems in and of themselves. They are symptoms of a greater problem. The problem is human sin. And because of human sin, we are lost and in need of being saved. In Romans 3, Paul makes the case that it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Gentile, if you have access to the Law of God or not, or whatever your situation, he says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That puts us all in a desperate fix. We are cut off and condemned before God because of our sin. This is what we mean by being “lost.” People do what they do because they are what they are. Why do people act like they do in the world? Because they are lost! Why do the religious leaders of Israel so despise Jesus? Because they are lost! So, the mission of Christ was not to fix all of the symptoms, but to rescue humanity from the root cause of it all – lostness! And so, that distills for us our mission in the world as His Church. We will not, indeed we cannot, treat all of the world’s symptoms. Our mission is the same as His – deal with the root cause of it all. We are continuing and advancing the rescue mission that Jesus began in His coming to the world, in His life, death, and resurrection.

Lostness is a problem. It leads to a terrible consequence, it has tragic characteristics. But thanks be to God, there is a triumphant cure. This is why Jesus came. And we see this all unfolded here in our text.

I. Lostness leads to a terrible consequence.

Our text begins with the words, “Then He (Jesus) said again to them.” In fact, nearly everything in this passage is a repetition of things He has already said at other times and places. Here He says again, “I go away.” He is speaking of His pending death. It is now the end of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Fall of the year. By next Passover, just six months later, He will die on the cross. He knows it will happen. He says to them, “I go away.” Just a few paragraphs before, in John 7:33-34, He had told the same group of people, “For a little while longer I am with you, then I go to Him who sent Me. You will seek Me, and will not find Me; and where I am, you cannot come.” Why is it that they will not be able to find Him? Why can they not come to where He will be? He says here that they will “die in their sin,” and therefore, where He is going, they cannot come.

Perhaps the first question we need to ask is, “Where is He going?” In Chapter 7, and repeatedly in other contexts, He makes it clear, “I go to Him who sent Me.” So who sent Him? Over and over again, Jesus tells them that He has been sent by His Father, God the Father, from heaven. Here in verses 26-27, He speaks of “He who sent Me,” and John tells us that He was speaking of the Father. In verse 23, Jesus says, “I am from above,” and “I am not of this world.” So, when He says He is going away, and returning to Him who sent Him, He means that He is going to be with the Father in heaven, from whence He came.

But the terrible reality of this is that Jesus says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” So, if they cannot go to be with the Father in heaven, what other alternative is there? Jesus has essentially just declared that they are headed for hell! Why? Because they will die in their sin. So, the reality is not just for the religious leaders of Israel, but also for all who likewise die in their sin.

What does it mean “to die in sin”? Simply put, to die in sin is to die without having your sins dealt with before God. No one is able to stand before God in judgment and claim to have no sin. We are all sinners. You aren’t a sinner because you sin; you sin because you are a sinner; same as me. So we are born in sin, and we live in sin, and if we do not deal with that problem, we will die in sin. We have this “double curse” if you will, of what we might call “sin” and “sins.” In verse 21, Jesus uses the singular and says, “You will die in your sin.” In verse 24, He uses the plural and says, “You will die in your sins.” The primary sin that we have is that we are born with a corrupted nature that has us bent toward rebellion against God. We are natural born rebels. That is our “sin.” We do not believe, trust, or obey God because of this. And therefore, this gets manifested in our lives in a plethora of ways – our “sins.” You can look at another person and see their “sins.” You can even say, “Well, I don’t do what they do.” You are saying that you do not have their particular “sins,” but you do have “sins” of your own. Those specific “sins” might be different from person to person, but what is the same for all human beings is the “sin” that corrupts us all from birth. So our “sins” refer to what we do; our “sin” refers to what we are. Because of the “sin,” we have all the “sins.” And when we die, we stand before God in judgment.

The Bible says it is appointed unto man to die once and then the judgment. And if our “sin” and our “sins” have not been dealt with, we die in our “sin” and in our “sins,” and we face the wrath and condemnation of a holy God. The consequence of all of this is an eternal existence, not with the Lord Jesus and the Father in heaven, but separated from Him in that terrible place of judgment that the Bible calls hell. That is a terrible consequence indeed. Sometimes, when a non-Christian is faced with these truths, they react with hostility and think we are using scare tactics to compel them to believe. Well, friends, the reality is that we cannot scare someone into heaven or out of hell. In fact, I believe that there are people in churches everywhere who made some kind of decision or prayed some kind of prayer out of fear of hell, but who really have not been saved. They are still dead in sin because they have not been made alive by Christ. I wish I could scare someone into heaven or out of hell, but I cannot. No matter how horribly I depict it, and here today I have not even begun to describe the horrors of it, I cannot do it justice. It is not a scare tactic, but it is a dire warning. If you go to the doctor and he says to you, “You have cancer, and you need chemotherapy and radical surgery,” would you leave and say, “Oh, he’s just trying to scare me into making some kind of decision I don’t want to make?” No! You realize that the doctor is telling you the truth and trying to help you. And that is what we are doing when we tell a lost world about the horror of hell and the terrible consequences of dying in one’s sin.

But, it is not only the lost person who gets uneasy when we talk about these things. I have at times been criticized for emphasizing missions and evangelism too much. I wish those accusations were true. I would love to stand before the Lord and hear Him say, “You know you really overdid it on the whole missions and evangelism thing.” But the fact is I do not think it is possible to overemphasize these aspects of the Christian life. Why? Because hell is real, and every day people die in their sin and end up there. And I wonder sometimes if we all really believe that? I ask myself sometimes if I really believe it. Because the bottom line is that if we really believed it, wouldn’t we devote more of our time and energy to the tasks of missions and evangelism so that lost people do not die in their sin and end up in hell. What on earth should we spend more time talking about and doing than this? Pot-luck dinners? Carpet color? Music styles? If the Bible is true, and hell is real, and people who die in their sins really end up there, then missions and evangelism have to be our very reason for existence. Dying in sin is the terrible conclusion to the problem of human lostness. Jesus came for this purpose, and He has given the Church the means and the mission of rescuing the world from this end.

II. Lostness is marked by tragic characteristics (vv22, 23, 25)

You will come to notice as you interact with people from various cultures that there are different value systems that affect the way people view the world. In some cultures, values are based on principles of guilt and innocence, while in others values are based on honor and shame. In those cultures, it doesn’t matter so much about whether someone is guilty or innocent, but about what brings honor to those who the culture dictates deserves it, or what brings shame to them. Then in some cultures, values are based on fear and power. Guilt and innocence do not enter the equation so much as what has the power to help me overcome my fears. So, the more we are exposed to different cultures, the more we understand that values have a lot to do with where someone comes from.

Notice in verse 23 that Jesus says that He and His audience come from vastly different realms. He says, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” Quite simply He means that He is from above – heaven, where He lived in divine glory and uninterrupted fellowship with the Father as an equal person of the Triune Godhead; while His listeners are earthbound. Therefore, the value systems and perspectives that they have are different from His. They don’t see life or the world through the same lens that He does. And the same is true for all of us earthbound human beings. It is a characteristic of lostness. Because we are “from below … of this world,” we view the world, life, and reality through an obscured lens. It’s kind of like looking at the world through a fun-house mirror where things are distorted. Our perspectives and our values are distorted because sin has affected our world, our hearts, and our minds.

Look at this on display in the lives of the Pharisees that are interrogating Jesus here. In verse 22, after Jesus speaks of going away and them not being able to come to where He is, their immediate response is, “Surely He will not kill Himself, will He, since he says” these things? Earlier, when He said similar things to them, they said, “He is not intending to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks is He?” These were the only two places they could think of that Jesus might go that they could not follow – either He is going to where the Gentiles live, and they wouldn’t be caught dead there, or else He is going to kill Himself. For the average Jewish person in that day, the taking of one’s own life was believed to exclude them automatically from the future age of peace and righteousness. It was believed to earn one an eternal condemnation in the lowest regions of Hades. The Jewish historian Josephus said that one who commits suicide is “received by the darkest place in Hades.”[1] There are some Christians who believe this as well, but the Bible does not say this. We cannot claim biblical authority for that position, therefore we should be very cautious about pronouncing that condemnation on a troubled soul who takes their own life. We do not have time to belabor that point today, but I wanted to make sure you know – it’s not in the Bible.
The Jewish leaders have such a skewed, earthbound perspective on life and on the world that the only places they can imagine Jesus would be going that they could not follow is to Gentile lands or to hell. Note the irony of this. The Gentile nations are places that the Jewish people had actually been commissioned by God to go with the message of the one true God, so they could be a light to those who lived in darkness. But they never went (at least not willingly – Jonah went, we might say in a “fishy” set of circumstances; those of the Northern Kingdom went as captives to Assyria; and those of the Southern Kingdom went as captives to Babylon. It would have been much better for them to go willingly in obedience to the God who called them to be a light to the nations. They wouldn’t go there, but they should have. But that’s not the worst irony. The worst irony is that hell was the one place they thought they could never go. They assumed that because of their privileged position as Israelites – God’s Chosen People” – that they were assured of heaven. But this was never true. Heaven has never been gained by genetics or geography. It is gained through repentance and faith. That was true in the Old Testament, and it is true in the New Testament. But they think hell is the one place that they could never go, yet Jesus says it is in fact where they are going. But they don’t get that. Their view of themselves and the world around them is skewed because they are earthbound.

We see the same thing in lost people all around us today. You find many (outside and inside the church, sadly) who deny the existence of hell altogether (case in point, popular writers like Rob Bell). But denying that hell is there does not make it go away. You say it isn’t there, but Jesus says it is. Please don’t take offense with this, but I’m going to go with Jesus. And then, most people who do believe in hell believe that they are safe from it. They think it is for people like Hitler or Charles Manson, but not for decent folks like themselves. But if we think this way, we have a skewed perspective. We think of sin in terms of degree. People often say, “I’ve never killed anyone!” But, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that hating someone in your heart is the same root of evil as murder, and lust is the same as adultery. In fact, in James 2:10, the Bible says “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” When we look at ourselves from God’s perspective, we see that we are not nearly as “righteous” as we think we are. Hell is real, and most of the people who end up there think that they never could have ended up there. That skewed perspective on life, on the world, and on sin, is one of the tragic characteristics of lostness.

But there is also the tragic characteristic of a skewed perspective on God and on Christ, or to say it better, on God-in-Christ. Notice in verse 25 they say to Jesus, “Who are You?” But the sense of their question is more along the lines of “Just who do you think you are?” Now, there should have been no question about this by this time. Jesus says, “What have I been saying to you from the beginning?” In other words, “I am who I have been telling you I am all along.” And all along, what He had been telling them was that He was the divine Son of God, sent from His Father as the promised Messiah to bring salvation to the world. There is really no doubt whatsoever about who Jesus thought He was. But the Pharisees refused to believe that Jesus was who He said He was. So they ask Him repeatedly to tell them the truth about His identity. But His answer never varied. Even here, He says that He is the one who is revealing the Word of the Father to the World and who will ultimately stand in judgment over them (v26). They simply refused to believe Him.

Now it is a simple fact of debate that a maker of a claim bears the burden of proof. Jesus says He is the divine Son of God – God incarnate in human flesh. And He has born the burden of proof. He has spoken to them with unprecedented authority and validated His claims with miraculous signs and wonders. He has left no room for doubt whatsoever as to whether or not His claims are true. But, the Pharisees reject His claim, and insist that He is not who He says He is. Therefore, they are making a new claim, and they must now bear the burden of proof. Do they have greater proof to deny Jesus’ claims than He has offered to affirm those claims? They do not. Yet still, they do not believe. Their hard-hearted refusal to believe in Christ is a tragic characteristic of lostness. And it remains so with many today. People often ask us to prove that God exists, or that Christ is really Lord, or that the Bible is true. And no matter what evidences or arguments that we supply to them, they still are recalcitrant in their unbelief. But, friends, what we must do is to place the burden of proof upon their shoulders. We should be asking the one who refuses to believe to provide evidence to support their claims – that God isn’t there; that Jesus is not Lord; that the Bible is not true, etc. What we would find is that they do not have nearly the supporting evidence and argumentation to support their claims as we do. Now, we might expect that this would end the discussion, and that they would immediately come to believe. But they do not still, in many cases. Why? Because the tragic characteristic of lostness is a skewed perspective of God-in-Christ, and they are unwilling to bend their will to His Lordship.

So, we have this great problem. Humanity is hardened in unbelief and rebellion, unwilling and unable to seem themselves, the world or the Lord accurately; and therefore, many will die in their sins and find themselves consigned to eternal hell to bear God’s just wrath. It is a terrible consequence, playing itself out in the present through the tragic characteristics of human lostness. But thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ, we have a triumphant cure to this problem.

III. For Lostness, there is a triumphant cure. (vv24, 28-30)

The very reality of human lostness, the hardness of the sinful heart, and the horrors of hell is the reason why Jesus came. For all of this – for our sins, and for our salvation – He lived, and He died, and He rose again. Though His death on the cross was inflicted by the hands of sinful men, it was all part of God’s perfect plan to redeem humanity from this curse of sin and lostness. The cross never took God by surprise. It did not come upon Jesus unaware. In the Pentecostal sermon, Peter proclaimed, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). They nailed Him to the cross, but it was part of God’s predetermined plan and foreknowledge. In Acts 4:28, the church prayed, acknowledging to God that nothing was done to Jesus but that which (in their prayerful words) “Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” They were wrong when they thought He would kill Himself. But they were not aware that the circumstances of His death were completely known and controlled by divine providence. He would lay His life down, not in suicide, but in submission to the will and purpose of His father for the rescue of humanity from the problem of lostness.

Even here, six months prior to the event, He is able to speak with confidence about the coming day when He would be lifted up on the cross. So He says, “When you lift up the Son of Man.” By these words, He means that He will be lifted up on the cross. And when He is lifted up on the cross, He says, “You will know that I am He.” In the Greek, the word “He” is not represented, so literally He is again taking up the divine name of God for Himself here: “You will know that I Am.” And you will know, when He lays down His life on the cross that “I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” And you will know that “He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” Do you realize that no human being who has ever lived could say those words? No other person – not Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, or any other man of God in history before or since the Lord Jesus could say, “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” His entire life was perfectly pleasing to the Father. Therefore, He could die in the Father’s good pleasure as well. In fact, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “It pleased the Lord to crush Him, putting Him to grief, if He would render Himself as a guilt offering” (Isa 53:10). Because His entire life was perfectly pleasing to the Father, He could be that guilt offering, dying on the cross as a substitute for sinners like us, so that our penalty – the judgment and wrath that our sins deserve – could be poured out upon our guilt offering: the Lord Jesus. And even His being “lifted up” in death was pleasing to the Lord, because by it, we are rescued from sin and hell. Having risen from death, Jesus Christ has defeated sin and death and hell forever. The problem of lostness is conquered at the cross.

Jesus says that when He is lifted up, we will know this. He was lifted up, but many do not know yet. His words do not mean that everyone will automatically know Him once He has died. He means rather that the only way to know Him is to know Him as the Crucified One. If you want to know God, you must meet Him in Christ, and you can only meet Him in Christ at the cross where He bore your sins.

Over the last few weeks, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has made headlines for a controversial decision regarding the newest edition of their hymnal. They chose to omit one of the greatest songs of the modern era – “In Christ Alone” – because of the words, “On the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” They did not want a song that spoke of the wrath of God. But friends, we must speak of the wrath of God. The wrath of God that we deserve was poured out on the crucified Christ in our place. This is our only hope and our only means of life. If we remove wrath from the imagery of the cross, we make the cross nothing more than a tragic accident of history. We must know Christ, the One lifted up on the cross, the one bearing our wrath, if we are to be rescued from our lostness. Otherwise, as Jesus Himself said, “Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” That would be a tragic consequence to endure, when such a triumphant cure has been offered to you.

Friends, if you have never come to know Jesus – regardless of whether this is your first time in church today or if you have been here every Sunday for your entire life –it is of the utmost urgency that you know Him as your Lord and Savior today. You do not have to die in your sins. The Bible speaks of another way to die – to die in the Lord. Rather than speaking of this in horrific terms, the Bible says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord … that they may rest from their labors” (Rev 14:13). Will you die in your sins and face the terrible consequence of eternal hell, or will you die in the Lord and enter into His rest?

And if you know Him, the reality of lostness and the horror of hell must compel us to proclaim to the world – dying in their sin – that Jesus saves. You might fear that they will not listen; that they will not believe. One thing is certain, if they do not hear, they cannot listen or believe. They must hear. The Lord told the prophet Ezekiel that he must proclaim this truth to the people, lest they die in their sin. He told the prophet that if he did not warn a man who was dying in his sin, “his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezk 3:20; 33:6). I wonder how much guilty blood is on the hands of the church of Jesus Christ today, as we have devoted our attention to so much meaningless nonsense while multitudes in our communities, in our families, in our nation, in our world – dare I say even in our congregations – have died in their sins without being warned of the horror of hell or informed of the glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? But God also said to Ezekiel that if the watchman warns the people of their imminent doom and they do not heed the warning, then their blood is on their own heads, not on the hands of the watchman (33:1-5). Friends, we cannot make someone believe. We must, however, make sure that they have had the opportunity to do so. So, we will not apologize for speaking much of the tasks of missions and evangelism, and we will not speak less of it. Rather, let us as a church consider how little practical attention and action we give to these things and see to it that we incur no more blood on our own hands from those who die unwarned in their sins.

[1] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, iii.viii.5. Accessed online at, August 22, 2013. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Light that Shines in the Darkness (John 8:12-20)

A month from now, several of us will be on a mission trip to Vermont. Some of us were there last year, and I have looked forward to going back ever since. One thing I really enjoyed about Vermont is an experience that I don’t usually have around here. Out in rural Vermont, there are not many artificial lights to blur the view of the night sky. There, in the cool darkness of the late night hours, you can look up and see the sky set on fire with what appears to be the entire galaxy shining in incomparable brightness before your eyes. Almost everywhere you look, there are seemingly thousands of brilliant stars, and every few seconds, if you are still and patient, you see another one shooting across the sky. You have to remind yourself that this is the same canopy of space that is over you all the time. But in order to see it and appreciate it, you have to be in a dark place. The darker the atmosphere, the brighter the light shines.

In verse 12, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Light of the World. Earlier in John’s Gospel, the writer said of Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” We might summarize much of the earthly life and ministry with these words. The Light was shining in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend that Light. The darkness, in fact, exercised itself mightily in effort to extinguish the Light. But, as every person can attest, darkness can never overcome light. Light always chases darkness away. And try as the forces of darkness may, they could never extinguish the Light of Jesus Christ. They didn’t comprehend it, they didn’t acknowledge it, they didn’t appreciate it, but the Light continued to shine, and it shines still.

When Jesus claimed to be the Light of the world, it was a bold assertion. It was the second time that Jesus used the divine name “I Am” to refer to Himself. The first was in John 6:35 when He said, “I am the Bread of Life.” Five more times in John, Jesus will employ the name “I Am” in metaphoric language to reveal the facets of His divine nature and saving work. As we discussed a few weeks ago, making this claim when He did, at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus’ words indicate that He Himself is the living manifestation of the glory of God. It was a clear announcement that God had come to dwell in the midst of His people in the person of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, and the promised Messiah, the Savior of the whole human race. But, even though the Light of the world is shining in the darkness, and the darkness is not comprehending it. It is trying to extinguish the Light. The darkness is manifested here in this text in the Pharisees. But beyond this text, we see that darkness manifest in the entire human race. Apart from God’s grace that draws us to Christ, we are all lost in the darkness of sin. But the darkness seems to have lost sight of two fundamental properties of Light. As Jesus speaks, He reminds us of these fundamental properties of Light, and how they are true of Him as the Light of the World.

I. Light is a true witness of itself.

Imagine yourself sitting in total darkness with someone who had never seen light. Perhaps you are reminiscing aloud about the times that you enjoyed a day at the beach, or visited a museum and beheld something beautiful. The person sitting in darkness would have no comprehension of these things. They’ve never seen anything because all they have ever known is darkness. How would you explain the concept of “light” to them? Maybe you could recite the definition from Webster’s dictionary, which says that “light” is “something that makes vision possible; the sensation aroused by stimulation of the visual receptors; or the electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength that travels in a vacuum with a speed of about 186,281 miles per second, specifically such radiation that is visible to the human eye.”[1] Do you think that person would better understand what “light” is even with those definitions explained? Frustrated, you shove your hands in your pockets and discover there at your fingertips some source of light – a book of matches, a lighter, a cellphone, a flashlight, or something of that sort. You pull that out of your pocket and you say, “Here is light,” and you power on the phone or flashlight, strike the match, or flick the lighter. Now, the person understands what light is, because by it, the darkness of their entire existence has been pierced. Light has the fundamental property of being able to testify to itself. How do you know that you are in the light here? You simply look around and see not only light, but everything else because of the light. If the light were not there, you would not only not see light; you would see nothing else.

Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world.” His critics debated Him, saying, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.” Now, what they are actually attempting to do here is to turn Jesus’ own words back on Himself. Back in Chapter 5, after healing a lame man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, a dispute arose between Jesus and the religious authorities. John tells us that “they were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was not only breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (5:18). In that context, Jesus provided some defense for His audacious claims by saying, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true” (5:31). That statement really didn’t have anything to do with the truthfulness or falsehood of His claims. Rather, Jesus was saying that if all they had to go by were His own words, then that would not be sufficient evidence to convince them to believe. But Jesus went on to indicate that His words were not alone in testifying to His claims. John the Baptist had testified to Him; His works, including the very healing that they had just witnessed at Bethesda, testified to Him; God the Father had testified to Him; and the Scriptures had testified to Him. So what Jesus was saying in John 5:31 was that they did not need to take His own word alone as support for His claims. There was plenty of other evidence to convince them of who He was. But even though the Light was shining in the darkness, the darkness did not comprehend it. They did not receive Him, and they did not receive the additional testimonies that had been provided about Him. So here, they are still stuck on the idea that Jesus alone is testifying to Himself, and they turn His words back on Him, saying, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.”

But Jesus says here, “Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true.” Notice the words, “Even if.” He is not saying that He alone testifies about Himself. Indeed, Jesus made a point repeatedly that His identity and mission were validated, not by His own testimony alone, but by that of His Father, by that of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures, and that of the works that He was uniquely able to do. “Even if I testify about Myself,” He says, implying, “but I don’t.” In verse 17, He says, “Even in your law, it has been written that the testimony of two men is true.” This is a principle found several times in the Old Testament about cases that came before a judge, but time and tradition had expanded the principle to apply to any situation. And yet, could it not be the case that two or three witnesses could conspire together to confirm a lie? It happened in the trial of Jesus. So even this principle is not a sure test for truthfulness. But Jesus appeals to it and says, “I am not testifying of myself alone.” He says in v17, “I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.” 

And yet, He says, even if the only testimony of His identity and mission was that of Himself, still His testimony would be true. Think of it this way. If I say to you that I was hospitalized at Forsyth Hospital with debilitating arthritis on the day that Elvis Presley died, you might say, “Prove it.” I cannot. I don’t have photographs or medical paperwork to document it. If my parents were here, they could testify that my words are true, but they aren’t here. And so you might retort and say, “Well, if you cannot prove it, I do not think it is true.” Yet, it is still true. I know it is true. I was there. Sometimes I lay awake at night with my knees throbbing with that same inflammation that has afflicted me for 35 years, and I remember that hospitalization like it was yesterday. Your decision to not believe my words does not render my statement untrue. And Jesus says His words are true, even if there is no corroborating witness, because essentially He says, “I was there.” I know where I came from and where I am going.” And where He came from and where is going is one and the same. He came from the Father, and He will return to the Father. But He says, “You do not know where I come from or where I am going.”

Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World.” The Pharisees did not believe Him. But that does not make His words untrue. The unbeliever today needs to recognize this. Their failure or refusal to believe in God or to believe in Christ does not make Him go away. As C. S. Lewis said so well, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the wall of his cell.”[2] And here, the Light of the world is shining brightly in the temple court of Jerusalem, and yet the very religious leaders of Israel are trying to put out the light, as it were, by scribbling “darkness” on the walls of their existence. His glory is not diminished by one’s refusal to recognize or worship Him. In fact, the darker the setting, the brighter the light shines. It causes me to wonder – is it that the light seems brighter because of the darkness? Or is it that the darkness seems darker because of the brightness of the light? When we compare ourselves with other men, any one of us can see an entire spectrum of shades of grey. But when we compare ourselves with Christ, we see the entire human race as a mass of darkness. The Light of Christ’s glory is always infinitely bright. Our realization of the darkness of our own sin is magnified when we see it.

Consider even the emotions that this passage evokes in us. It seems that if we were to put any other man before the Pharisees and hear them interact with him this way, we would not think it so inappropriate. In fact, we may join in with them. We are sensitized to the offensiveness by the realization that the One they speak to in this way is, in fact, Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, the Light of the world. How dare such evil people speak this way to the Lord of Glory? Do they not know what they do? But we must remember, had we been there, it is not likely that we would have come to His defense. More likely, we would have joined in hurling insults at Him, for our darkness is as dark as theirs. You see, until His prevailing grace overcame us, we did not comprehend the Light, and we too tried to extinguish it. So, a recognition of the darkness of the human condition should not drive us to pride and boasting, as if we who are saved are somewhat superior to the rest of men. No, instead it should drive us to humility in recognition that we are in fact no better than any other, and for reasons only known to God, He has chosen to expel our darkness by His Light.

There is a darkness that cannot comprehend the Light. It asks in utter foolishness for Light to provide evidence for its own existence. But this is the one thing that Light will not do because it is the one thing Light does not need to do. All Light has to do is shine. That in itself is proof of its own truthfulness. It needs no supporting witness. Oh, it has supporting witnesses, it just doesn’t need them. How do you know the Light was shining? Did you see it? Well, if you saw anything at all, then that is proof enough that the light was there. How many of you saw the sunrise this morning? Not many. So how do you that the sun rose? You didn’t see it. No, but by it’s light, you see everything else. So, how do we know that Jesus is the Light of the world? What proof do we have? C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[3] Christ makes sense of the world in which I live. He makes sense of my experiences in this world. He shows me how dark my darkness really was by contrasting it against His Light. He offers me to follow Him, and never walk in darkness again but to have the Light of life (8:12). And apart from Him, I find no reason to hope, no basis for love, no source of joy, no satisfaction for the longing of life. And even if there were no one else to testify to His claims besides Himself, they would still be true. Light is a truthful witness to itself.

II. Light is a trustworthy judge of darkness

All this talk about “Light” and “darkness” may sound awfully judgmental, and in the day and time in which we live, we have been told that this is the one thing we must never, ever be. The only judgments that are allowed today is to judge against judgmentalism itself. After all, was it not Jesus who said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1, KJV)? It was, yet we tend to overlook the fact that the statement was made in a context filled with discussions about the need for making judgments in life. And then, in John 7, we saw that Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Jn 7:24). So, judgments must be made, but the problem is that most often they are not made correctly. They are made according to outward appearances, and this is not the way God judges. They are made on the basis of earthly, carnal standards, and God does not judge on these grounds, nor should we. Jesus is the Light of the world. All the rest are in darkness, unless and until they follow Him. Why does Jesus have the right to make such a sweeping judgment of humanity? Because it is a fundamental property of Light that it is a trustworthy judge of darkness.

Maybe you have experienced something like this. Sometimes when I am reading late in the afternoon, with only the light from the windows shining in. I continue reading, and all the while the sun is setting, and the room is getting darker, and I don’t even realize it. Then Donia comes along and asks, “Why are you reading in the dark?” I object, “Oh, it is not dark at all!” Then she turns on a light, and I think, “Wow! I didn’t even realize how dark it was until the light was turned on!” Light has a way of showing us how dark our surroundings really are. It is a trustworthy judge of darkness.

But here we find the darkness trying to pass judgment against the Light of the world. They are rejecting His claim to be the Light. But notice that Jesus says, “You judge according to the flesh.” In other words, their standards are those of fallen men in a fallen world. They see Him only as “flesh,” not comprehending that He is “the Word made flesh,” the incarnate God. And thus, their perspective on Him is skewed. We see it on display in their question in verse 19, “Where is Your Father?”

There are three ways that this statement could be intended, and all of them are fleshly and evil. First, knowing that Jesus had grown up with an earthly father-figure in His life – Joseph the Carpenter – perhaps it is him of whom they speak. “Where is Your Father?” Surely if they know of Joseph, they know that Joseph had died some years before this. If this is what they mean, then it is an evil stab at the heart of Jesus, as if to say, “Who cares what your father says about You. He is not here to come to Your aid now, because he has died.” That is an evil thing to say, and one rooted entirely in carnal judgment. But, then again, it might be that they do understand Jesus to be referring to God as His Father. If this is so, then still their words are evil. “Where is Your Father?” In other words, “OK, if God is Your Father, then prove it! Let’s call Him to the witness stand to come to Your defense! Can You make Him appear and convince us that You are who You say You are?” I get a bit emotional thinking about that line of argumentation, because that was the way I spoke to Christians when I was an unbeliever. It is pure evil, putting the Lord God to the test in accordance with the tactics of Satan himself. It is an utterly carnal and fleshly judgment.

But I am not sure that either of these evil intentions lay behind the question, “Where is Your Father?” I think it is something more sinister, more fleshly and evil, still. I believe they tip their hand in verse 41. There they say to Jesus something that seems to be totally off subject in the debate. They say, “We were not born of fornication.” That didn’t have anything to do with the discussion. There was no talk of sexual immorality going on whatsoever. So why did they say this? I believe they said it in an evil attempt to call into question the moral purity of the Lord Jesus because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding His birth. Surely by this time, stories about Jesus had preceded Him. They knew that His mother, Mary, was unwed when she became pregnant, that Joseph had acknowledged that the child was not fathered by him, and that there was some rumor flying around that they were trying to convince people to believe it was a miracle. They give no credence to that theory whatsoever. They are far too fleshly. But, very early in Christian history – perhaps even before the death of Christ, and certainly by not long after, a story was floating around that Mary had become involved sexually with a Roman soldier named Panthera while she was betrothed to Joseph and that he was the real father of Jesus. Is this what they were hinting at when they said, “We were not born of fornication” in verse 41? I believe that this is what they are getting at when they say, “Where is Your Father?” here in verse 19. “Oh You who talk to us about light and dark and claim God as Your Father, why don’t You just come clean about it all and tell us the real dirty story. Tell us about Panthera, that godless pagan Gentile whose illegitimate child You really are!” Does that make you cringe to think of Jesus on the receiving end of that sort of intense and sinister kind of judgmentalism? Remember, you have been given grace to believe the truth of God revealed in Scripture about Him. Otherwise, you would have been right in the mix with them. That is how dark we are until we comprehend the Light of Christ.

This is the fleshly kind of judgment that was aimed at Jesus. But notice what He says of His judgment. He says in verse 15, “I am not judging anyone.” Now, it may seem like He is judging here, but He says He isn’t. So, what’s going on? Remember back in Chapter 3, that Jesus said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:17-19). Judgment was not the purpose of His coming into the world at His first Advent. He did not need to come to judge the world, because we were already under judgment. “He who does not believe has been judged already.” And that judgment is evident in that when Light entered the world, men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. So, Jesus did not come for the purpose of judgment in His first coming, but rather to save human beings from the judgment that they were already under.

Yet, notice He does not say that He does not have authority to judge, or that He will never judge. In fact He says, “Even if I do judge, My judgment is true.” And one day He will. He is coming again, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And when He does, His judgment will be true. Light is a trustworthy judge of darkness. His judgment will not be based on fleshly standards, but on righteous ones. He says that He is not alone in His judgment, but He and the Father who sent Him are united in judgment over the human race. And the final summary of His standard of judgment is this: “If you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” But, the religious leaders of Israel fall short of this standard. In spite of their great claims of religiosity and spiritual supremacy, Jesus declares judgment on them, saying that they ultimately do not know God because they do not know Christ. And that judgment is true and trustworthy, and applies to all who do not know Christ. All are condemned in sin before God unless they have been saved by the work He accomplishes on our behalf through His sinless life, His substitutionary death, and His glorious resurrection. He died to bear our judgment in our place, so that we might be saved. That is why He came the first time – to rescue us from the righteous condemnation that we would otherwise bear before God. When He comes again, it will be to exercise the judgment with finality. Then, those who do not have the light of Life that comes through following Him will be cast, in the words of Jesus, “into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

It is really this simple: If you want to know God, you must meet Him through Christ. Calvin said, “Whoever aspires to know God without beginning with Christ must wander in a labyrinth … Again, because everyone is deprived of all right knowledge of God who leaves Christ and strives like a Titan after heaven, so whoever directs his mind and all his sense to Christ will be led straight to the Father.”[4] In Chapter 14, just before Jesus makes His way to Calvary where He will die for the sins of humanity, He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:6-9). Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. He is God in human flesh. And He lived, died, and rose again to bring us out of the darkness and into the Light of life.

There are these two fundamental properties about light that are true of Jesus as the Light of the world. (1) Light is a true witness to itself. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what everyone else says about Him. What matters is what He declares Himself to be. He says He is the Light of the world – God in human flesh. And His testimony is reliable. Do you affirm what He says of Himself? And (2) Light is a trustworthy judge of darkness. The Light of the world has shined upon humanity, lost in the darkness of sin. Compare yourselves with others and you might look pretty good. Compare yourself to Jesus and you see how far short we all fall of His glory. The Light has shined in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it. He says if you follow Him, you will not walk in darkness but have the Light of life.

[1] Accessed August 14, 2013.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 47.
[3] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.
[4] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 210.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What is a Church? (Philippians 1:1-2)


This week, a very significant anniversary in my life passed by. It was 8 years ago on a Friday night, August 5, that I first met most of you, and on Sunday, August 7, 2005 I preached my first sermon in this pulpit, after which you graciously affirmed me to become the tenth pastor of Immanuel’s rich history. As I thought about that day, I went back into my files and pulled out the sermon I preached on that Sunday, and the more I thought of it, the more I felt God leading me to revisit that text and message on this Lord’s Day as we take up the task of nominating our next group of deacon candidates. Though my official “anniversary” date here is not until September 11, I’ve spent this past week reflecting back on that first time I ever entered the sanctuary for worship eight years ago this week, and how delighted I have been every Lord’s day since to be with you. It is my earnest prayer and desire to spend many more with you. We have walked with many of you through good times and bad, and you have walked with us through our own good times and bad times, and we have never been more grateful than we are today to call you our church family and to call this place home. You all have been our church family longer than any other in our lives. So, I want you to know that at the Reaves household, when we say the word “church,” we think of “you.”       

So, what comes to mind when you think of “church”? Maybe you remember learning at a very early age a little rhyme where you join your hands together and say, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open it up and see all the people.” But that isn’t what Scripture teaches. If we were to use our hands to depict what the biblical understanding of church is, we would join them together and say, “Some have buildings, some have steeples, but if you really want to see the church, then you have to look at the people.”

The Apostle Paul first traveled to the Greek town of Philippi sometime around 50 AD. That journey is detailed for us in Acts 16. There, he and his traveling companions led three individuals to Christ, and two of those individuals saw their families come to faith as well. This small group of people became the core of the first church on European soil. This fledgling church in Philippi would become a great source of encouragement, blessing and joy in the life and ministry of Paul. Some 10 years after his first visit, after receiving an offering from that church, delivered to him at his place of imprisonment in Rome by one of their members named Epaphroditus, he is writing them to thank them, to encourage them, and to challenge them to preserve the unity that had been such a joy to him.

He begins this letter like most did in that day. He begins with his name, then he addresses the recipients, and then he gives them a word of greeting. But the Apostle Paul is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is not wasting words on small talk and the shallow exchange of pleasantries. Even his introductory greeting gives us a picture of what the church is. In these rich words, we see a portrait of the church of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that as we examine these two brief verses today, the same Holy Spirit that inspired these words will apply them to our hearts and help us to better understand what the church is.

I. The Church Should Be Understood In Regard to Its Composition

The church consists of people. But not just any people. Paul mentions here the church’s saints and the church’s servants.

            A. A Church is composed of saints (To all the saints in Christ Jesus)

When we hear the word “saint” today, it is likely to cause confusion. Most people, upon hearing this word, would immediately think of a football team in New Orleans, or of some dead Christian who is depicted in a statue somewhere. Others may think of a sweet grandmotherly type who never said a cross word to anyone (or if she did we don’t remember it) and made delicious cookies. “Now she was a real saint.” None of these reflect the biblical meaning of the word “saint.”

The word saint, as we see it used biblically, is a word that applies to every follower of Jesus Christ. These are the members of His church. It is the customary word used to describe Christians. After all, the word “Christian” only occurs three times in the New Testament – and it is never used by Paul. Paul uses the word saint some 60 times to refer to Christians—not to dead ones, but always to living ones. They are not the Christians who live in heaven, but the ones who live in places like Philippi, Rome, Colossae, Corinth, and Greensboro. In the eyes of God there are two categories of people in the world: saints and sinners, or as J. Vernon McGee says, “Saints and Ain’ts.” And the saints are the sinners who have been saved by the grace of God. Every person experiences life as a sinner; some encounter Jesus Christ and are transformed to be saints.

The Greek word underlying this word “saint” in the New Testament means “holy, separated, consecrated.” It describes someone who has been separated from sin, and set apart for God’s holy use. This is not a title that is earned by self-effort. It is bestowed to those who are in Christ. This is a positional reality for all believers in Jesus Christ. In addressing the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul referred to those who are saints by calling. The one who has turned from sin to place his or her faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – God has called him or her “saint.” This is the theological reality of justification. At the very moment one gives his or her life to Jesus, that individual’s sins are forgiven, they are declared “not-guilty” before God, and they are credited with the full righteousness of Christ. God no longer sees the justified soul stained crimson by their sins. Rather, He sees them clothed in impeccable righteousness of Jesus.

Though this is a positional reality, it is not always a practical one. After all, Paul referred to the Corinthian Christians as saints, and then went on to describe some of the sinful activity that they were engaged in. The Colossians are called saints, though Paul goes on to confront heresy that is beginning to spread through their ranks. But certainly we do not want our beliefs or practices to be the cause of one doubting the integrity of our Lord. He has called us saints; therefore we should live and believe as if we are. He has declared us holy; we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

It is interesting that saints are spoken of in the plural in all but one occurrence in the New Testament, and even that one singular use is in the context of all the members of the group. God does not show preferential treatment to those who come to Him. The old gospel song said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” At Philippi, there was Lydia, a wealthy Gentile business-woman who had come to embrace the true and living God of the Jews. On the banks of the river, she was quietly converted as she responded to Paul’s message of salvation in Jesus. There was the poor demon-possessed slave girl, whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to fatten the pockets of the charlatans who marketed her on the streets. She was quickly converted as Paul cast out the spirit which was controlling her. Then there was the Philippian jailor – a working-class family man, loyal to his government, diligent in his workplace. He experienced a “quaking” conversion as the jailhouse got rocked, and he sought out those rejoicing Christians to ask them how he could be saved. There were the families of Lydia and the jailor. Different people, different stories, different walks of life, different genders, different ages, different social and economic standings – but all saints in Christ Jesus.

You see the same thing as you look at Paul and Timothy, whose names appear in these verses. Paul had been a zealous and patriotic Jew, persecuting the Christians even to death. But when he saw the light of Christ, he was knocked off his high-horse on the Damascus road, and he was dramatically converted. Timothy was the son of a Greek father and a devout Jewish mother. One writer says he was half-Jew, half-Greek, but all-Christian. His name means “He who honors God.” In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul comments on how Timothy was taught the Scriptures from a young age by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. We might say he was developmentally converted as his family members sowed the gospel seeds into his heart, before he finally came to faith in Christ through Paul’s preaching in Lystra.

But it doesn’t matter how you came to faith in Christ – quietly, quickly, quakingly; dramatically, developmentally. What matters is that you have come to Him. If you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, we stand together on level ground before Him. We are saints in Christ Jesus and members together of His church.

When we think of the church, we have to think of its composition, and that includes its saints. But also,

            B. A church consists of servants

The call to salvation in Christ is a calling to serve Christ. There is no Christian who has not been called and equipped to serve. Some serve as a vocation, and some serve as volunteers. Some are in the spotlight, some are backstage, but all are necessary. The Christian church has always wrestled with the temptation to elevate those who hold positions or titles to be more important in the church than others, but this is a misunderstanding of biblical teaching and it has crippled the church at times. All of us have spiritual gifts, and all of us have a ministry calling. Some are called as pastors and some as deacons, but these are not more important than any other in the body of Christ.

In the passage before us, Paul mentions overseers (or bishops as your translation may have it) and deacons specifically. Several New Testament passages make it clear that the overseer or bishop is the same individual referred to elsewhere as an elder or pastor. In Acts 20, for example, Paul uses all three titles (pastor/shepherd, overseer/bishop, and elder) to refer to the church leaders in Ephesus. Peter does the same in 1 Peter 5. So the overseer or bishop here is the pastor. But notice that it is plural as it is in all New Testament churches. The idea of one individual being singularly responsible for the work of the ministry is foreign to the New Testament. In modern times, it is often necessary for a church to have only one pastor for logistical reasons, but whenever possible, having a plurality of elders or pastors is more reflective of the biblical ideal.

And then there are the deacons. Their ministry began in Acts 6, when the ministry needs of the congregation threatened to overshadow the important tasks of prayer and the ministry of the word. Biblically, deacons should see their ministry as the administration of caregiving to those in need, liberating the pastors to focus on prayer and the proclamation of the word. They are not the financiers or the church administrators, but the caregivers of the congregation. And their ministry is very vital in the Kingdom of God. The first martyr of the church was Stephen, and the first missionary was Philip, and both of these men were deacons. When deacons serve well, good things happen. Pastors are able to be devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word; the needs of the saints are met in the church; and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is advanced to the ends of the earth. Acts 6:7 provides this report on the work of those first deacons: “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly.”

These positions are pretty important. After all, they are mentioned here by name. But lest we get carried away, we should mark the fact that this is the only letter in the New Testament where these positions are mentioned in the address. But the most important word is not bishop or overseer or pastor or deacon. The most important word here may well be the little word “with.” The pastors and deacons are not over the saints; they aren’t under the saints; they aren’t  better than the saints. They are with the saints. Neither is more important than the other. All have a part to play in the church.

No one is allowed to pull rank on another. Look even at how the Apostle Paul speaks of himself. Here, there is no mention of his apostleship. He describes himself as a bond-servant of Christ.  We might expect him to say “Saint Paul to the servants at Philippi.” Instead he is the servant and they are the saints. He could have gotten away with pulling rank on anyone in that church or any other church since. Instead he only wants to be known as Christ’s slave. Paul is God’s property, and his life purpose is to please the Lord Jesus.

Paul is telling us in his humble introduction that position or title does not make one great. All who are in Christ Jesus are saints in Him. Therefore, though some serve in specific ministry roles with specific titles, none are more important than any other – all are bond-servants of Christ, serving one another in the church. This is the church as it is understood in regard to its composition.

But then we also find that …  

II. The Church Should Be Understood in Regard to Its Location

Last February, I visited Starbucks in four different countries on three continents in a two week span of time. I was in Starbucks here in Greensboro; I was in Starbucks in London, England; I was in Starbucks in New Delhi, India; and I was in Starbucks in Manama, Bahrain. Same menu, same coffee, different countries, different continents. It is kind of a surreal feeling to be in Starbucks in Bahrain. It’s like being in two places at one time. Well, when Paul addresses this letter to his friends, he is writing to the saints who are in Christ Jesus in Philippi. It’s like being in two places at one time.

You know, God could have arranged it so that at the moment a person is born-again, they are instantly transported to heaven. But He didn’t do that. He has chosen to save sinners, make them saints, place them in Christ Jesus, and then leave them for a little while in places like Philippi, or even in places like Greensboro as the case may be.

Philippi was built on a major highway that united Rome with the east called Via Ignatia. You can visit it today and see the ruins of the forum, the markets, its gymnasium, library, its many streets and baths. You can see the ruins of a temple built 2400 years ago for the worship of Apollo and Artemis. It was a city rich in history, associated with a Who’s Who of Western Civilization: Philip II of Macedon, and his more famous son, Alexander the Great; Julius Caesar; Antony and Octavian; Brutus and Cassius. The people of the city were an ethnically diverse blend of the native Thracians, Greeks, and Romans, living along side of those from many other places and backgrounds.

Religiously the town was very complex. Ancient Thracian cults were barbaric, sacrificing humans, worshiping animals, and carrying on in sexual perversion in the name of worship. The Greek and Roman gods were worshiped there, along side of the deities of ancient Egypt and many other civilizations, including the worship of the Roman Emperor. It is estimated that when Paul visited the city around 50 AD that there were more than forty different varieties of religious practice. Why would God leave His people in a place like that? Well, you see, these saints are not just in Philippi – they are in Christ Jesus. They are saved, sealed, and empowered by Him for the task of being salt and light in places just like Philippi. Places like that need to hear the message that the church has to announce – Jesus is Lord, and Jesus Saves!

When I think of Philippi, it reminds me of another city I know: one that is rich in history, situated on a major interstate, with a culturally diverse population, a complex religious climate. And I know if God had a purpose for a church in Philippi 2,000 years ago, He certainly has one for a church in Greensboro today. We are in Greensboro, and we are in Christ! It is like being in two places at one time. Wherever the Church of Jesus Christ is found, there is always a struggle to keep the church from being infected by its surrounding culture. But rather than being infected with Greensboro’s values, we have the privilege and opportunity to infect Greensboro with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. That is the mission of the church. That is the reason for the church’s existence. That is why we are two places at one time – in Christ Jesus and in Greensboro. That is what a church is in regard to its location.

In closing I would like to say one thing further about what the church is –

III. The Church Should Be Understood in Regard to Its Possession (v2)

            A. What the church possesses:

Typically Greek speakers would begin their letters with the word of greeting, charein. It means “joyful greetings!” Paul transforms the word to make it more significant for Christians – charis – Grace! Hebrew speakers would greet one another with Shalom, a greeting of peace. Paul uses the Greek equivalent word. Reflecting the diversity of the church – Jews and Gentiles united in Jesus Christ, Paul combines the greetings of those respective cultures and greets these saints with “Grace and Peace.” These two words – grace and peace – describe what Christians have.

Grace is the undeserved gift of God. While we were yet sinners, deserving of nothing but judgment and wrath, God demonstrated His great love for us, incarnating Himself to dwell among us – God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And He died for us, in our place, taking our sins upon Himself, so that we might be forgiven and have eternal life. We don’t deserve it – that is why it is grace.

Having received God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we have peace. Romans 5:1 tells us that because of Jesus Christ we have peace with God through Jesus Christ. We are no longer positioned against Him in sin. The good news of the Gospel is that, because of Jesus Christ, the war is over between us and God. The angels announced peace at Christ’s birth. He promised peace to His followers before the cross, and Peace was His first word to them after His resurrection. Having received God’s grace in salvation, we are now at peace with Him. That is what the church possesses: grace and peace. But notice not only what the church possesses, but also …

            B. Who possesses the church:

God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. These two statements differentiate Christianity from every other philosophy in the world. We proclaim that God is there, and that He is our Father. Among the many other religions of Philippi, deities were depicted in many ways, from the sublime to the ridiculous. But it was only in the Church of Jesus Christ that God was proclaimed to be a Father. He is our Father – He can be your Father. He cannot, however, be your Grandfather. If your parents are sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ, that doesn’t make you God’s grandchild. That makes you lost, unless you come into a personal relationship by faith with Him for yourself. And Jesus is the only way to have that relationship with Him because only in Christ have our sins been dealt with so that we can be reconciled to God. To them that believe, John 1:12 says, He grants the privilege of becoming the sons and the daughters of God. He is our Father. He possesses us. And that sets us apart from the rest of the world. 

And we proclaim to the world today the Lord Jesus Christ. This Jesus, born in Bethlehem’s stable so long ago, was more than just a good moral man, more than a great teacher or a noble prophet. He is the Christ – the Messiah – God’s anointed one to bring about the redemption of humanity. And He is Lord. Do you realize how radical and dangerous those three words, “Jesus is Lord” are? I’m in the midst of reading a fascinating book called The Insanity of God, written by one of your Southern Baptist missionaries writing under the pseudonym of Nik Ripken that chronicles the advance of the Gospel in hostile cultures. In describing his observations and interviews in modern-day China, he writes,

“Any religion that called for obedience and commitment to Someone (seen or unseen) who was above and beyond the government would be calling the power of the government into question. Such a threat could not, and would not, be tolerated. I suddenly realized how dangerous it would be simply to speak the words: ‘Jesus is Lord.’”

Indeed! And this has not just been true in modern China. It has been true in countless cultures throughout Christian history. That simple phrase “Jesus is Lord,” has been the cause of more Christian persecution and bloodshed in the history of the church than any other factor. Saying that “Jesus is Lord” places our allegiance with Christ over country, over king, over council, and over culture. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are declaring that He is the object of our worship and adoration, the object of our obedience and service, and the object of our complete and total allegiance. Paul tells us in Romans 10:9-10 that if we will confess with our mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved. When we say He is Lord, we are establishing Him as the sole authority and King over ourselves. And when more than one person makes that declaration together and stands united under His Lordship, there the Church of Jesus Christ is found. And we belong to Him. He possesses us.

As we bring this to a close, I want to concentrate our attention on some specific points of application:

·         First, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, God has called you a saint. Does your lifestyle affirm that? Are you living out practically what God has declared you positionally? If not, then during our closing time today, I would encourage you to allow the Holy Spirit’s convicting work to take place in your life as He indicates to you those things He wants to change in you. I would also encourage you to really evaluate your faith in Christ. Nearly every week I speak with someone who says, “I always though I was saved, but one day I just realized I never really was.” If you are uncertain of your salvation, why not find assurance today. Whether you were ever really saved before or not—you can know today that you are by affirming your commitment to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. The grace and peace that flows from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ is available to you today. You can possess it, if you will give over possession of yourself to Him by turning to Christ in faith.  
·         Second, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, God has placed you in the church to be a servant. Together today, let us give up unbiblical notions of hierarchy, power, and position, and covenant together to serve the Lord in the way that He has gifted and called us all. Yes, we have pastors and we have deacons. We need them. Today we will nominate more to serve in those roles. We need to be prayerful as we consider who those may be. But we must understand that there is nothing but level ground here at the foot of the cross. All of the saints are servants, with or without titles, and the church advances as we join together with one another in united effort to serve, worship, and proclaim Him. There can be no spectator spirituality, but there must be each one committed to serving the Lord and building up one another.
·         Third, ask yourself how God is using your life to reach this city? Why did God leave you here when He saved you? Is this city any different with you in it than without you? How about this church? Is the church doing all it can to reach the community? If not then we need not marvel at the depravity we see surrounding us. We need only to commit ourselves afresh to the task of taking the message of Christ to those who need Him.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Jesus: The Light of the World (John 8:12)


Have you ever experienced “total darkness,” the state of being completely isolated from any and all sources of light? It is a rarer experience than you might imagine. There are only a few places on earth that one can experience total darkness: the deepest points of the ocean, or in underground caves, mines or tunnels away and hidden from the points of entrance or exit, and not many places elsewhere. A few years ago, my family had the experience of total darkness while visiting Mammoth Cave National Park. After descending into one of the deepest points of the cave system, the artificial lighting was turned off, and our lanterns were gathered together and extinguished one by one. When the last lantern’s flame died, there was complete and total darkness. It was surreal. It makes one realize that even in what we normally call “darkness,” there is still some light. Nothing makes you appreciate light so much as being in total darkness.

While we may not all have the experience of witnessing total darkness in this physical way, the Bible tells us that we live in a world of spiritual darkness because of the presence of sin. In 1 Samuel 2:9, we read that the wicked are silenced in darkness. Proverbs 4:19 says that “the way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” In Romans 1:21, Paul says the lost mass of humanity has turned away from God, and their foolish hearts have been darkened. In Ephesians 4:18 he says that those who do not know the Lord are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God.” Jesus says in John 12:35 that “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” And this is the state of the entire human race, unless and until light enters in and shatters the darkness. And into this dark world, the Lord Jesus came and proclaimed, “I am the Light of the world.” This is the first reality that we see in this text:

I. Light has dawned on the world’s darkness in Jesus Christ.

Let us remember the setting of these words. The scene has not changed since the beginning of Chapter 7; multitudes have come together in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Every aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles was designed to remind the people of God’s faithfulness to Israel during the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings before they entered the Promised Land. One of the most joyous and festive aspects of this celebration was the nightly ceremony of illumination. In the Court of Women at the Temple, four enormous lampstands, each one 75 feet tall, were lit. The light was so bright that it was said that every courtyard in Jerusalem was illuminated from the glow of the Temple. As these great lights burned, the men of Israel would dance before them with lighted torches and sing songs of praise throughout the night.[1] This was repeated every night of the weeklong celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.[2] This ceremony of illumination was a reminder of how God had led the people in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.
That pillar of cloud and fire that led the Israelites was a visible manifestation of the presence of God among His people. This was known among the people of God as the “Shechinah Glory” of the Lord. God revealed Himself and His manifest glory in visible manifestations throughout the history of Israel, most often in the form of light, fire, cloud, or some combination of these.[3] As the Tabernacle was constructed, God promised that He would sanctify the Tent by His glory – His Shechinah – and He would dwell among the children of Israel and be their God (Ex 29:42-46). Once it was completed, the Shechinah Glory of the Lord took up residence in the Tabernacle, dwelling above the cherubim on the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle (Ex 40:34-35). And God’s Shechinah Glory would lead the nation of Israel through the wilderness every step of the way, as a pillar of cloud providing a shade to the nation in the heat of day and a pillar of fire providing light and heat in the dark of night.

When Solomon’s Temple was built, the glory of the Lord began to reside there in the Holy of Holies, just as He had done in the Tabernacle (1 Kings 8:11). And so this manifest presence of God’s glory remained among the nation for some time, though we are not told whether or not it was always visible. In due time, as Israel violated her covenant with the Lord by chasing after idols and disregarding God’s Law, God raised up the Babylonians to chasten His people by invading the land, destroying Solomon’s Temple and carting off the Jews to live in Babylon during that time we refer to as the Babylonian Captivity. The prophet Ezekiel was among them as they were taken away, and from Babylon, he was given a vision of what was going on back in Jerusalem. In his vision, he beheld the most alarming tragedy of all – the Shechinah Glory of God was departing from Israel. Ezekiel saw the Glory of the Lord lift up from the Holy of Holies and move to the doorway of the Temple (9:3; 10:4), and then to the eastern gate of the city (10:18-19), before moving out to the Mount of Olives (11:22-23), from which the Shechinah Glory departed from Israel and disappeared from Jewish history.[4]

In time, the Israelites returned from Babylon and reconstructed their temple, but it paled in comparison to the Temple of Solomon in many ways. Most significantly, the Shechinah Glory of the Lord was not present in this new temple. But it was through the prophet Haggai that the Lord spoke to the nation and said, “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former.” Here was a promise from the Lord that the glory of the Lord would return in a greater way to this temple than had been known in the previous one. Half a millennium later, Herod the Great would expand and beautify the temple, but the Shechinah Glory had not returned.

The exuberant celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles was always tempered by the reality that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned. And now, another Feast had come and gone. The great lampstands of the Temple were being snuffed out yet again, and the people would be reminded once more that they walked in darkness through a world without the manifest glory of God. And it was on this occasion, at this time, in the very court where those lampstands had burned, that the Lord Jesus again spoke to the people, and He said, “I am the Light of the World.”

The Feast of Tabernacles had been established and practiced among the Israelites for centuries. Only here and now at this particular time was the true meaning of it revealed to them. In Chapter 6, Jesus had told the people that He was the true manna from heaven, more satisfying than even that which miraculously appeared on the ground every morning during the Exodus. In Chapter 7, He had told them that He was the true rock, which being struck would bring forth living water more satisfying than that which flowed from the rock that Moses struck in the wilderness. Here in this passage, He is saying to them that He is the Light of the World, the true pillar of fire – the true Shechinah Glory of God. He is the true Tabernacle – the dwelling place of God among men. In John 1:1 we are told that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The eternal preexistent Divine Word, we are told in John 1:14, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The word that is used there “to dwell” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for Tabernacle. In Jesus Christ, God had pitched His tent among humanity; He tabernacled in our midst. And John says there, “and we beheld His glory.” The glory that was remembered by the kindling of the lampstands in the Temple courts was now surpassed by the return of the Shechinah Glory to the temple in the person of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

In Jesus, the glory of God was made manifest again to the nation of Israel, but not exclusively for the nation of Israel. He is the Light of the World. Into this world – the one in which you and I live; the one that is filled with darkness; the one for which Israel was chosen by God to be a missionary people, declaring the light of God’s truth to all nations; the one which has languished apart from the manifest presence of God in sin and moral decay – into this world, Christ has come, and the Light of the World has dawned. You are not cut off from that Light by your ethnicity, geography, or chronology. You do not have to be a Jew to behold the Light; you do not have to live in Israel; it does not matter that you live twenty-one centuries after Christ lived and died on earth. You walk in darkness; you live in a dark world; you are separated from the brightness of God’s glory because of sin. But, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold 7 centuries before Christ’s coming, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isa 9:2). Jesus Christ is that light.

II. People who live in darkness have to respond to the Light.

Have you ever come out of a dark room, say a movie theater perhaps, in broad daylight? You feel as if your retinas are being fried, and your first instinct is to slam your eyelids shut to block out the light. You have to consciously overcome that urge if you want your eyes to adjust to the light. And the same is true spiritually. When light penetrates the darkness, we have a choice to make: to remain in darkness, or to emerge from it into the light.

Jesus speaks of one response here: following Him. He is the Light of the World, and He invites all who live in darkness to come to Him and follow Him. In John’s Gospel, the idea of “following” Jesus is often synonymous with “believing in Him.” But when we speak of “believing in Jesus,” we need to be clear. We are not just talking about agreeing to certain historical facts. We are talking about a personal relationship with Him where there is a faith commitment, where there is trust. Thus, the imagery of following is appropriate. As the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, they didn’t know where they were going or what they would find along the way. But God was leading them by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, and they had to trust that He would lead them in the way that He wanted them to go. And their task was to believe that, to trust Him, and to follow. In a similar way, Jesus has become for us our pillar of fire, and on our journey through the wilderness of this world en route to the homeland that has been promised us, we must follow Him. But the road will not always be easy. He never said it would be. In fact, when Jesus spoke of following Him, He spoke of it in difficult terms. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, He must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Following Him means daily dying to self, and embracing the hardships that He leads us to encounter, following Him even if it means following Him on a path to death. We can do that because we know Him, and we trust Him. We know that to follow Him is to walk in the light, which is better by far than groping and stumbling about in the darkness. He has come to shatter the darkness of our sin by the light of His glory, and He bids us to arise and follow Him – to leave the life of sin behind and walk in His light.

It may not seem like much of a choice, given the alternative. An offer like this might seem to some of us irresistible. How could we not follow the Light of the World? Well, amazingly, multitudes upon multitudes opt for the alternative. In John 3:19, Jesus said, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Their deeds were evil, and they loved the darkness because it was a cloak for the evil of their deeds. They don’t want to come into the Light of the Lord because their evil deeds will be exposed. This is why, at the root of so much professed unbelief today, there is not an intellectual argument but a moral one. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” For so many people, it is not because there is no evidence, argument, or reason that might compel them to believe. It is because they know that to acknowledge God is to acknowledge that their sins have to be dealt with. And because they don’t want to deal with their sins, instead they look for reasons to not believe in God, to not believe in Christ, and/or to reject the truth of God’s Word. If they can cloud out the Light, then they can continue unimpeded in the enjoyment of their sin in the darkness.

I didn’t read any books about that or conduct any scholarly research. I lived it for many years! But as I have talked to others, I have seen that my situation was not unique. And as I read the Bible, God’s Word corresponds to my experience. It would have been a lot easier to just read God’s Word to start with and learn it that way, instead of the hard way. But I loved the darkness more than the light because my deeds were evil. So I argued my way out of the light, and hid myself away in the darkness. And the same is true for many people. I wouldn’t say it is true of every unbeliever, but it is true for many, and may be true for someone here today. But Jesus has come as the Light of the World to penetrate the darkness, and He offers you a choice. You can come out of the dark and follow Him. And there are great promises offered here to those who do. That’s the third and final point. First was that Jesus has come as the Light of the World. Second is that we are driven to make a response to the Light, and third …

III. There are great promises offered to those who follow Christ as the Light of the World

A few months ago, the floodlight on the corner of our house burned out, and, well, I hate to confess but, I just haven’t gotten around to changing the bulb yet. The result of this is that every night when I take the trash out, I have to fumble around in the dark, walking through spider webs, tripping over tree roots, bikes and scooters, basketballs, and trying to figure out what—or WHO—is rustling around in the bushes! It’s an unnerving experience. You would think I’d be more strongly motivated to replace that bulb. I guess I’ve just gotten used to walking in darkness, even though I don’t really enjoy it. I think there are a lot of people who are used to walking around in spiritual darkness – it’s all they’ve ever known. But if you could catch them in an honest moment, they might confess that they really don’t enjoy it. They just don’t know how to fix it. The fact of the matter is, they can’t fix it. The Bible makes it clear that there is nothing that we can do to bring ourselves out of the darkness of our sin. That is why the Gospel is good news. What we could not do for ourselves, Jesus Christ has done for us. When the best we can do is feel our way around in the darkness, the Light of the World has come and He promises us that if we follow Him, we will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.

At some point in our lives, we may have memorized a Bible verse in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School – Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Sometimes when you are walking in the dark, you need a light down on your feet so you can see where your next step will land; other times, you need the light to shine further down the path so you can see where you are going. The Psalmist says that the Word of God is both to us as we walk through this dark world. But, let us remember that the Word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Light that illuminates our way, so that we no longer walk in the darkness of sin, but rather in His Light. This does not mean that the written Word of God has been superceded by the Person of Christ. It has been incarnated in Him. The written Word points us to Him as the Light, and He points us to the written Word to instruct us in how to walk in the Light.

The same Apostle John who penned this Gospel picks up this idea once more in his first epistle, as he says, “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). As we walk in the Light of Christ, following Him in faith and trust, in fellowship with Him and with others who are walking in the Light, we are kept from sin, and cleansed from sin, by the blood of Jesus, which was poured out on the cross for our rescue as He died in our place. We have this promise: Jesus is the Light of the world. Follow Him and you will not walk in darkness. Job said, “By His light, I walked through darkness” (Job 29:3). As Israel’s way was illuminated by the Shechinah Glory in the pillar of fire, so our way is illuminated by the light of Christ. We do not walk in darkness.

And the promise continues: If you follow Christ as the Light of the world, not only will you not walk in darkness, but you will have the Light of life. In Chapter 1, John said of the preincarnate Christ, the Divine Word of God, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” The Light of life was something that Christ possessed in Himself. But here He says that those who follow Him shall have the Light of life as well. It is something that His followers possess, and the present tense suggests that they possess the Light of life perpetually. If you are a follower of Jesus, the Light of life is within you. You have HIM. That is why it is no contradiction for Jesus to say here, “I am the Light of the world,” and to say elsewhere to His followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). You are the light of the world, because the True Light of the world lives within you – Christ has taken up residence within you in the person of the Holy Spirit just as the Shechinah Glory inhabited the temple and tabernacle in days of old. It is not your light which others see, but His light in you. You are the light of the world in the way that the moon is the light of night. It has no light of its own, but shines as it reflects the light of the sun. So, you are the light of the world as you reflect the light of Christ, the Light of the world.

Though darkness may surround you, it will not envelop you, because you have the Light of life. Though death itself should threaten to shroud you in darkness forever, you have the Light of life in Christ, and the Light of life in Him will never be darkened. The Bible says that we will dwell forever in His light. In the book of Revelation, John gets a glimpse of heaven and says of it, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:22-23). He said, “And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5). In Jesus, because He is the Light of the world, we do not walk in darkness. We have the Light of life. And we will live forever in His light.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, bearing the wrath of His Father for the sins that you and I have committed, the Bible says that there was darkness over the whole land for three hours (Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44). He is the Light of the world, yet He endured the darkness of death under the judgment of God for us, so that by following Him, we might have the Light of life forever. He walked through our darkness for us, so that we might walk in His light. He says, “I am the Light of the World. He who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” The converse is true also. Everything and everyone that is not Jesus is not light. If we are following anyone or anything other than Him, we will walk in darkness (indeed, we cannot walk in His light), and we will not have the Light of life, only the darkness of death. So there is a choice to be made. Come into His light and follow Him. Or, love darkness more than light because of the evil of our deeds. That is the choice we all must make. Some of you have made it, and you are walking in the Light. But you know others who are still languishing in the darkness of sin. Jesus, the Light of the World, said that you who follow Him are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).

[1] Mishnah Sukkah 5.2, from The Mishnah: A New Integrated Translation and Commentary. Accessed online:, August 1, 2013.
[2] Alfred Edersheim, citing Talmud Sukkah 53a and Talmud Jerusalem Sukkah 55b, in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 589; cf. also Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 141.
[3] Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah (Tustin, Ca.: Ariel, 1983), 409.
[4] Fruchtenbaum, 420-421.