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. 

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