Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Carrying Holy Things (Numbers 7:1-9)

Below is the manuscript of a message I preached earlier today in the Chapel Service for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in Cary, NC.

Numbers 7:1-9
Carrying Holy Things
A Chapel Message for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
October 30, 2013

It is a joy to be with you all today, and I bring you greetings from all of your friends at Immanuel Baptist Church in Greensboro, where I have been privileged to serve for the last 8 years as pastor. I am grateful for the invitation from Dr. Hollifield to bring this message to you here in this service. Over the last year, it was a great privilege to serve on the Board of Directors, as I filled out an unexpired term for our region. The greatest blessing of that period of service was meeting many of you and coming to a better understanding of the important work that so many of you do here in the service of our Lord through the Convention.

As I prayed about what I might share with you today, I kept thinking about the awesome responsibility that all of us who are engaged in the work of the Lord have. Some of you are handling matters of eternal importance every day, and for many of you, that work is done behind the scenes. Folks around this state don’t know your names or faces, but your work impacts them. In fact, the impact of your work goes beyond this state and touches portions of our nation and our world where the needs are incalculable. I know first hand how easy it is to become discouraged in ministry, and to feel insignificant; or to feel frustrated and even overwhelmed by the needs and demands of ministry. We are working with broken people in a broken world. It gets messy sometimes. You’ve probably heard that old, tired adage that ministry would be easy if it weren’t for people. But it is people who make ministry necessary. It is when we are dealing with people that real ministry is taking place. The temptation is to see the needs of people around us as a distraction to our work. But the great reality that we have to keep in front of us is that meeting those needs is our work, and it is a holy work that God has called us to by His grace.

As I thought about these things, I felt the Lord leading me to this passage here in Numbers 7. I recently led a Bible Conference at Friendship Southern Baptist Church in Concord, and I asked the folks to raise their hands if they had ever started to read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation. Everyone raised their hands. I asked, “How many of you gave up before you got to the end?” And again, everyone raised their hands. So I asked them to tell me how far they got before they gave up, and invariably they all said that they never made it past Leviticus or Numbers. Sometimes, we get lost in all the details of these passages and we begin to think that there is nothing of value for us in these texts. I can relate to that feeling, and I have tried to battle through it many times myself. One exercise I have tried to implement to get me through passages that seem, on the surface, to be very mundane, is a little game I learned as a child watching Sesame Street called “One of Things Is Not Like the Other.” In that segment of Sesame Street, several items or objects would be displayed and you have to decide which one is different from the others. So, for example, in one episode, there was a hammer, a pair of pliers, a saw, and a shoe. So, when I come to a passage like this one in Numbers, I play that old Sesame Street game to look for clues that help me unlock the significance of the passage.

As I read this passage, I find that the heads of the households brought offerings before the Lord upon the completion of the tabernacle: six covered carts and twelve oxen to be divided up among the Levites for use in their service. So, according to the Lord’s command, Moses began to distribute them in verse 6. In verse 7, we find that he gave two carts and four oxen to the sons of Gershon, “according to their service.” In Numbers 4, we find that they were responsible for the curtains, the coverings, the hangings, and the cords of the tabernacle. So, now they have two fancy carts, each one with a two ox-power engine to transport those things from place to place. Then, in verse 8, Moses gave four carts and eight oxen to the sons of Merari, “according to their service.” In Numbers 4, the duties of the sons of Merari included the care of the tabernacle’s boards, bars, pillars and sockets along with their respective pegs and cords.  They now have four carts, each one with its own two ox-power engine under the hood, to transport those items.

But now in verse 9, we find one of these things that is not like the other. We come to the sons of Kohath. In Numbers 3:31, we read, “Now their duties involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all the service concerning them.” In Numbers 4:4, these things are described as “the most holy things.” These are the things that stand as symbols and reminders of God’s covenant with His people; these are the things by which people are permitted to approach God through their sacrifices and offerings. These are the things that represent God’s presence among His people; His faithful provision to them; His light that shines in their darkness; His mercy and grace to forgive them of their sins when blood is shed.

Now, on the day that Moses was giving out carts and oxen, he did something different for the sons of Kohath. Unlike the sons of Gershon and Merari, the sons of Kohath did not receive carts or oxen. Verse 9 says that Moses “did not give any to the sons of Kohath.” Why was this? Did he just not like them as much as he liked the others? Was it because the offerings were not sufficient? Did they simply run out before the Kohathites turn came up in the distribution? No, the answer is given to us here in the text: “He did not give any to the sons of Kohath because theirs was the service of the holy objects, which they carried on the shoulder.” It was the nature of their ministry that made the difference.

You see, sometimes we can get caught up in our boards, curtains, and poles of ministry. But notice that it was not the curtains, the poles, or the boards of the tabernacle that were considered “holy things” by the Lord. It was these objects that the Kohathites were responsible for – the things that represented God’s gracious actions toward His people; the things that represented God’s desire for the people to draw near to Him; the things that made the approach of sinful men to a holy God possible. The holy things that we deal with are not our buildings, our furnishings, or any of the material and external objects that we often associate with the church. Our holy things are the ministries by which we engage broken people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, the sons of Kohath were people just like us. Don’t you think that there was a moment there when they thought to themselves, “Wait a second! This isn’t fair! How come they get carts and oxen and we don’t!” I imagine there were times during their wilderness wanderings that the Kohathites were struggling under the burden of their loads, when some of those sons of Gershon and Merari came whizzing past them with their carts and oxen. They might have thought, “Oh, I tell you, I’d like to give them a piece of my mind about their fancy carts!” It is not unthinkable that they might have been jealous of them, and wished for a moment that they could trade places with them or have the luxuries that they had. I didn’t read that in a commentary or a Bible Dictionary. I read it in my own heart. I know how I would feel if I were them. And I imagine they were not immune to the same thoughts.

What we need is a reminder. We carry holy things. What a privilege of grace, that God would choose the likes of us to carry His holy Gospel into this broken world and present it before broken people! What have we done to deserve this? Absolutely nothing! Why do we do what we are doing? Because the Lord chose us and called us to do it. Some days, that may be the only reason we have to get out bed and do it. I tell young men who are going into the ministry to be very sure of their calling, because some days, it will be the only thing they have to motivate them. Let’s face it: Ministry is hard, messy work. It can be a great burden. There is never a time when we can stand back and say we’ve finished the task. There is always something else that needs to be done. There is another lost soul that needs to hear the gospel. There is another broken person that needs to hear godly counsel about how the gospel can be applied to their situation. There is another soul facing the valley of the shadow of death that needs to be ushered through it with gospel promises. We just want a decent night’s sleep and a real day off and a real vacation! We just want to throw our cell phones and laptops into the ocean for a week and take it easy. But the needs never go away, do they?

Such is the nature of working with holy things. And we need to be reminded – holy things cannot be put on a cart. They have to be carried on the shoulder. There aren’t any shortcuts or easy ways out. Those holy things are not going to move themselves. So, we’ve just got to get up under it and carry it. And all the while, let us be thankful that God has called us to do this. Sure it’s hard. Sure we want to rest. But it might be that we have to wait until heaven to enter that great Sabbath rest for which we so desperately long. Meanwhile, it is just more heavy lifting – carrying the holy things of Gospel ministry on our shoulders.

Let us not look for carts to make the carrying of holy things easier. That was done once. In 2 Samuel 6, David gave the order to transport the Ark of the Covenant on a new cart. It sure did make transportation easier! Instead of buckling under the load, the people had their hands free to play all manner of musical instruments and have a great and joyous celebration. But, let’s not forget, the oxen pulling that cart stumbled and nearly knocked the ark off the cart. And there was a well-intentioned, otherwise innocent man there named Uzzah who reached out his hand to steady it and God struck him down. You see, when we look for shortcuts in ministry, we may rejoice in the freedoms and luxuries we find. But the people to whom we are called to minister are the ones who suffer. David’s idea for a new cart didn’t hurt David. It killed Uzzah. David’s plan to take a shortcut cost the life of one of the men for whom he was responsible as a leader. If God wanted the Gospel to be conveyed to broken people in a broken world by shortcuts, He could have come up with any number of them. But God seems to consider our shoulders the most reliable means to carry the burdens of holy things.

Maybe you are discouraged, frustrated, or just plain tired today. Maybe you are on the verge of throwing in the towel, or worse, you are looking for a shortcut. Friends, let us be encouraged. It is a great and gracious thing that the Lord has done for us. He has given us charge of holy things. Carry them on your shoulders. You might be laboring day in and day out in the work of the Lord here in this Convention and wonder if any fruit will ever come from it. Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. Let’s continue carrying these holy things on our shoulders until Jesus comes.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Opening Blinded Eyes (John 9:1-12)

She was born in 1820, and died in 1915. She lived all but six weeks of her 95 years of life completely blind. When she was just six weeks old, she lost her eyesight due to a combination of a bad infection and a botched treatment by a pretend doctor. But, Fanny Crosby lived her life for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom she met at the age of 30. She was at a camp meeting, and while singing the final stanza of Isaac Watt’s hymn, “Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed,” she said, “I surrendered myself to the Savior, and my very soul was flooded with celestial light.”[1] She went on to write over 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, fifteen of which are in the hymnals there in the back of your pew. Some of them are your favorites. Someone once remarked to Fanny Crosby, “Miss Crosby, I think it is a great pity that the good Master, when He showered so many gifts upon you, did not give you sight.” She answered: “Do you know that, if at my birth, I had been able to have made one petition to my Creator, it would have been that I should be made blind. … Because, when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.”[2]

In our text today, we meet a man who was born blind. We might say that he was double-blind, for he was physically and spiritually blind. We know this because all human beings are born spiritually blind. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, unbelieving people are blinded “so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” In 1 Corinthians 2:14, we read that “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” We were born in this state, blind to our true sinful condition, blind to our need to be saved, blind to God’s truth revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Word of God. What this man in our text is physically, all of us are spiritually. Not only was he born blind, but we discover in verse 8 that he was a beggar. Because of his lifelong blindness, he was unable to support himself by any other means other than reaching out his empty hands to receive the gracious gifts of others. And spiritually, this is what we all are. We are blind beggars, capable of doing nothing to better ourselves before God or to earn His favor. We are only capable of reaching out our empty hands to receive the saving grace that He extends to us in His infinite kindness.

When we look at this born-blind-beggar in our text, we see a picture of ourselves in our true condition. It is a picture of hopeless desperation. But thankfully, this is not all that we see in this passage. For here we also see the Lord Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). He alone could meet the deep need of this man, and heal him, not only physically, but spiritually as well. And as the Lord Jesus opened the blinded eyes of this man, so He is able to heal us of our spiritual blindness as well. What He did for him, He does for us. We see in Jesus here a compassionate divine initiative; powerful divine action; and a miraculous divine outcome.

I. Jesus takes compassionate divine initiative (v1).

Our text begins with these words: “As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.” These words set the stage for what follows, but they also depict for us how Jesus Christ takes the initiative to intervene in our lives. He is sovereign; He always makes the first move toward us. In our spiritual blindness we do not see Him and we do not seek Him. But He is the One who said of Himself that He had come to seek and to save that which is lost (Luke 19:10). This is but one of many examples we find in the Scriptures of Him doing just this.

Notice how Jesus takes the initiative in going to this man. Let’s remember what just happened prior to this. In the last verse of Chapter 8, after a time of teaching and interaction at the Temple following the Feast of Tabernacles, the crowd has become so riled up against Him that they pick up stones to kill Him. This was the prescribed penalty for blasphemy, which they are accusing Him of because He is making obvious and direct claims to be God in the flesh. So, when they picked up the stones, somehow (we are not told), Jesus “hid Himself and went out of the temple.” So, Jesus is now a wanted man, and a vigilante mob is out to kill Him. What would you do if you were Him? You might high-tail it as far away from the area as possible. But Jesus hadn’t even left the Temple area yet. We know this because this blind beggar would likely be somewhere near the entrance to the Temple, where a steady stream of travelers would see him and give alms to him. Jesus stayed in the danger zone in order that He might show compassion to this man. Notice that Jesus didn’t just hurry by the man, preoccupied with His own concerns. We would understand if He had. He’s in a potential deadly set of circumstances here. You and I might say, “No time to chat, got a mob chasing me!” But Jesus sees the man and takes the time and the intiative to intervene in his life. I wonder how often we fail to do this? So wrapped up in our issues, we do not take the time to notice the hurting people around us. Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t do that? I pray God would develop this more in my life as well.

The man didn’t see Jesus – he was blind. But Jesus saw him. And not only did He see him, but He also knew him. He knew that this was a man who was not just a beggar, but was blind, and had been that way from birth. The man didn’t know anything about Jesus, but Jesus knew everything about Him. And you know, the same thing is true for all of us spiritually in our natural condition. We are situated in our places in life, spiritually blind, spiritually impoverished. We can’t see Jesus; we aren’t even looking for Him. We certainly don’t know Him. But in His compassion and by His sovereign and divine initiative, Jesus sees us. He’s never lost sight of you. You might be sitting in darkness and despair today, saying to yourself, “I don’t see the Lord.” Your hope is not found in your ability to see Him. Your hope is in His ability to see you. And not only does He see you; He knows you. He knows the shape you are in; He knows the concerns, the fears, the frustrations of your heart. Not only this, but He also knows your sin. You’ve never talked about it with anyone because you are ashamed of it. But you don’t have to tell Him about it. He already knows.

You see, Jesus knew more about this blind man than his physical condition. He also knew that, just like every other human being, this man has a sinful heart. He’s had thoughts and desires that are offensive to a holy God; He’s said things with his mouth that are an affront to God’s holiness. He’s done things that God has forbidden, and not done things that God has commanded. You might say, “How do you know all of that about him?” It is true of all of us. Romans 3:10-18 describes the state of the entire human race: “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” In other words, from head to toe, we are all radically corrupted by our sinfulness. It is summed up for us in Romans 3:23 – “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  

But notice that Jesus is not sitting back saying, “If you ever need Me, just let me know.” He isn’t saying, “Once you take care of your sin problem, come and find Me and then I will help you.” There’s no way you can take care of your sin problem without Him. He is the one who has taken care of it for you. He is taking the initiative, coming to you, seeing you, knowing you, and wanting to show His compassion to you. He loves you. He wants to take action in your circumstances. You might say, “Why should I believe that? I don’t know Him; I can’t see Him; I’m not even looking for Him.” But the fact remains that He knows you; He sees you; and He is seeking you. He has come to seek and to save that which is lost.

II. Jesus performs powerful divine action (vv2-7).

There are some people who, whenever some kind of crisis erupts, immediately begin to look for someone to blame. Rather than making sure everyone is okay, or even looking into what exactly took place or how to fix it, they begin trying to find who is at fault. The disciples of Christ in this passage are somewhat like this. When Jesus encounters this born-blind-beggar, they say, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” That’s a good question, isn’t it? It is part of a bigger question – one that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for centuries. If God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then why do so many bad things happen to seemingly “good” people? We call that question “the problem of evil.” And for many, the answer is to always assume that suffering is the direct result of someone’s sin. If someone is experiencing a hardship, it is assumed by some that they must be experiencing some kind of judgment from God against their sin. Now, make no mistake about it, there are some immoral actions that do result directly in suffering, either for the perpetrator or the victim, or both. For example, if a person makes the sinful decision to drive their vehicle while they are intoxicated, they could kill or seriously injure themselves or others. Who’s fault was it? The person who was driving drunk. That is one of many examples where we can clearly connect the dots between the sin and the suffering.
That’s what the disciples are trying to do here. Did this man sin in some way to deserve his physical condition of blindness? I have no doubt that there are sins that one could commit that would result in blindness. But this man has been blind since birth. Jesus says, in fact, it was not his sin that caused this. So, the other idea that the disciples put forth is that maybe his parents sinned, and their son’s blindness was a judgment against them. Now, there are sins committed by parents that can result in children being born with affliction. A mother who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol while pregnant can be the cause of a child being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Some sexually transmitted diseases can actually cause children to be born blind. But this is not the case for every person who is born blind. In this particular case, Jesus says plainly that this man’s blindness was neither caused by his sin or that of his parents. Though he and his parents had undoubtedly sinned, their specific sins are not the direct cause of his specific condition.
Now, there is an underlying truth here that we do not want to overlook. The fact is that all human suffering is in some way related to human sinfulness. When there is a direct connection between a sinful act and its consequences, it is easy to see. But moreover, we have to remember that death entered the human race because of Adam’s sin. And therefore, death is at work within all of us from the time of conception. It is because of sin that we all experience sickness, disease and ultimately death. But, though this is generally true for all human beings, we cannot say in all cases that a specific person is suffering in a specific way as a direct result of some specific sin. That is what the disciples are trying to say, but it isn’t true.
We’ve already given this difficult question about human suffering more attention here than Jesus did when He met the blind man. It is not as though Jesus deems the question unimportant. It is important, but the debating the theoretical issue of evil and suffering in the world can be a distraction that prevents us from actually doing something to come to the aid of suffering people. Jesus is not distracted by theoretical issues here. Does it really matter who is to blame for this man’s blindness? Is it not more important to act in a way to help him? The Lord Jesus never lets theoretical arguments distract Him from His business of transforming lives.  Rather than pointing blame or arguing about cause and effect, Jesus moves the focus to something more important. He says that this man’s condition provides an opportunity for the glory of God to be manifested in his life. He says, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in Him.”
Not only is the Lord Jesus is not distracted by theoretical issues; neither is He deterred from His redemptive mission. Notice in vv4-5 that He says, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me.” Notice the imperative: We must work. This man’s blindness is an occasion for displaying the works of God, and it is those very works for which Jesus Christ was sent by the Father into the world. This man suffers in the darkness of human blindness, and Christ has come to be the Light of the world. His time for ministry on earth is drawing to a close. Within 6 months, He will die on the cross. There is urgency here. “We must do this now,” He says. There is no time for meaningless debates. There is only time for powerful divine action.

And so, undistracted by theoretical issues, and undeterred from His redemptive mission, the Lord Jesus is also undaunted by desperate circumstances. There is no situation which is so bleak that He cannot intervene. This man was BORN blind! Notice the severity of his circumstances, revealed in the man’s own comment later in verse 32. “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” If there was ever a picture of human hopelessness, surely this man is a good candidate. Imprisoned by the darkness of his physical and spiritual condition, all he can do is sit and beg, hoping for the kindness of others to help him along in life. But He has just met Jesus, who will do more for him than sparing him a dime. The light of Christ’s mercy and grace will shine upon him in his darkness.

I don’t know what you were born with. I don’t know what darkness you find yourself in today. I do know this – we were all born in the blindness of sin. We are all desperate beggars before God. And I also know this – the Lord Jesus is undaunted by desperate circumstances. Whatever it is that you are facing today, you do not have a greater crisis than this: you were born in a state of sin, separated from the God who made you and loves you. You may feel hopeless; but He is not powerless. He is mighty to save! And if He can save your soul from hell and reconcile you to God, then certainly you do not possess any other hardship that is too difficult for Him. In this life, He may not choose to heal you of your affliction or take you out of your hardship, but it is not because He cannot. In fact, ultimately He will in the most glorious way possible, by taking you to be with Him in transformed glory in heaven. And if He doesn’t alleviate the temporal physical suffering you are enduring here and now, it can only be because He intends for those things to be opportunities for His grace and glory to shine through you as they usher your heart and your hope to Him and to your eternal home with Him. If He has not acted toward you or your circumstances in any other way, you need look no further than the cross to see how He has acted with compassionate divine initiative and powerful divine action to meet your greatest need!

III. Jesus Produces a Miraculous Divine Outcome (vv8-12)

Sometimes, God uses people like us to do the things that we know how to do, things we’ve been trained to do, things we are good at, to produce His desired effects. Those are fun things to be a part of. But in my experience, it is far more wonderful to be part of God doing something that only God could do, not because of our abilities, but in spite of our inabilities. There are some moments in which God providentially choreographs our circumstances in such a way that He alone can get the glory out of it. The account in our text is one of those situations. We have a man born blind. In the history of the world to that time, no one had been able to do anything to cure anyone in that predicament. Technology has come along now, where maybe his chances would be better today. But not back then. For congenital blindness, at least in that day, there was no ointment, no drugs, no lasers, no surgical procedure, that could offer him any hope of seeing. But there was Jesus.

Jesus does something unusual and inexplicable here. He spits on the ground and makes a paste of spit and mud and begins to rub it into this man’s eyes. Why on earth would He do such a thing? There are certain things you just don’t want in your eyes, and I would think that someone else’s fingers, mud and spit would be near the top of the list. I imagine this man might instinctively pull away as he feels the wet cold grime being massaged into his eyes, but he cannot. It is not for us to know why, in this circumstance, Jesus chose to use spit-mud to heal this man. On other occasions, He merely spoke and His will was done. At other times, it was a simple touch of His hand. Why is the spit-mud necessary? Maybe He is at work in your life in ways that are not enjoyable or pleasant at the moment. You might be enduring spit and mud right now. You might be thinking, “Why is that necessary?” But we have to trust that when the Lord Jesus hurts us, it is so as to heal us. We may never know why He has chosen to work in the varied ways that He does in our lives. As the great hymn writer William Cowper said, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform … Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.” It is not that spit plus dirt equals a wonder working cure for congenital blindness. It is that this is the Lord Jesus at work. If His methods here do not show us anything else, at least we are able to see that He is never without the resources and power that He needs to intervene and act on our behalf.

But there is something more that we see here. Not only did Jesus put spit-mud in this man’s eyes, but He also told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. Now, John inserts a phrase here in the dialog, telling us that Siloam means “Sent.” It was so called because the waters were “sent” into that pool from the Springs of Gihon through Hezekiah’s tunnel. Why would John tell us that? Whenever we see something like this, we have to use the context of the passage to determine why this detail is important. What else is “sent” in this passage? Look at verse 4: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me.” The Lord Jesus is the “Sent One” of God. This pool is a symbol of Christ. Just as this man must go to the waters that have been “sent” to cleanse himself of the mud and be made whole again, so must you and I flee to the One who has been sent to cleanse us and save us.

The word “Siloam” is derived from the Hebrew word “Shiloh.” Here in this text is the answer to a great riddle of the Old Testament. In Genesis 49:10, it is prophesied of Judah that “the scepter shall not depart from” him, “nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes.” Your English versions may be more interpretive there and replace the word “Shiloh.” They assume you won’t understand “Shiloh,” so they don’t use it. But it is best to just leave it as it is. Judah will carry the rod of authority until Shiloh comes, “and to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Shiloh is a person. So who is Shiloh? He is the Sent One, who comes from God as the Lord of all nations. The prophecy in Genesis says of Him, “He ties his foal to the vine, and His donkey’s colt to the choice vine,” indicating His humility. He does not come on a warhorse; he comes on a donkey, just as the Lord Jesus would enter Jerusalem for the final time. “He washes His garments in wine, and His robes in the blood of grapes.” You see, the Lord Jesus did not go to a fountain of cleansing water to wash Himself; rather, He washed Himself in the blood red stains of our sins, and carried them all the way to the cross where He suffered and died for us. And as a result of that, we can go the fountain of Siloam, the Sent One, and be cleansed of our stains and made whole by His saving power and grace. He is the long-awaited Shiloh, who has come as Lord of all nations, to save us from our sins. This blind man’s trip to the pool of Siloam is a picture of what we all must do to be saved. We must go to the One who has been sent for us, that by Him we might be saved and cleansed before God. This blind man came back from the pool “seeing.” He had been changed by the power of Jesus in a miraculous way. And the Sent One is still opening blinded eyes today. Our spiritual eyes that were blinded in sin have been opened and we see Him now as Lord and Savior, healing us of our iniquity through His life, death, and resurrection.

It was a miraculous divine outcome. You see in verses 8-9 here that there was really no other explanation. People were saying, “Is this the same guy that we used to see out here begging?” And people were saying, “No, it is just someone who looks like him.” And while they were saying all these things, the man was saying over and over again, “It really is me!” So they had to ask him, “How then were your eyes opened?” And in his answer, he gives credit where it is due: He says, “The man who is called Jesus did it.”  And he told them about the spit and the mud and the pool, and all that. But they didn’t say, “Give us some spit-mud too.” They knew that it wasn’t the spit or the mud or the pool. They knew that the effect had been produced by the man who is called Jesus. They said, “Where is He?” They want to find Him for themselves. But he said, “I do not know.” You realize, he had never seen Jesus. Jesus might have been standing right in front of him and he wouldn’t have known it. He did not know how to direct them to Jesus. But that did not change the fact that he had indeed met Jesus for himself and been transformed in a miraculous way. There was no other explanation and no other factor involved. Simply the miraculous and wonderful grace and mercy of “the man who is called Jesus.”

You know, some of you are like this man. You’ve been radically changed by an encounter with Jesus. People you have known all your life don’t know what to make of it. They wonder, “Is this the same guy we used to know?” And you are saying, “It is me!” And they are saying, “Then how did this change happen in your life?” And how shall you answer? You can answer the same way he did: “The man who is called Jesus.” But, should they ask you how they might find Him for themselves, do you know how to point them to Him? I want to say this both as a comfort and as an admonition. First, if you don’t know how to direct them to Jesus, don’t be dismayed. It doesn’t diminish the reality of what He has done for you. After all, this man had only encountered Jesus moments before. He hadn’t enrolled in Sunday School or Bible studies yet! So, sometimes, when people are young and immature in their faith, they may not be able to explain to someone else exactly what happened in their lives, or how someone else can experience it. I have no doubt that some of you have had a profound, saving experience with Christ, but you don’t have the foggiest notion of how to explain that to someone else. There is a point in which that is perfectly understandable. There is comfort in knowing that you don’t have to have all the answers, and sometimes you can say, “I don’t know,” when people ask you questions about your faith.

But take this also as a loving admonition. Just because you might be too young or too immature in your faith to point someone else to Jesus, you do not have to stay that way. In fact, if you’ve been a follower of Jesus for years and years, and you still don’t know how to point someone else to Jesus, then you are stuck in a prolonged spiritual infancy.  You need to be growing in your faith, and as you do, you will discover the simplicity of sharing with others how they too can find Him. You see, back in verse 4, Jesus did not say, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me.” He said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me.” The Lord Jesus intends to use His followers in His mission. He said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” God had come to dwell among His people. But He also said that a dark night was coming. He was taken out of the world, and for a brief period, the Light did not shine in the darkness. But shortly after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit came upon His followers. God came to dwell within His people. And Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be My witnesses.” And it was for this reason that the Lord Jesus, who said, “I am the Light of the world,” also said to His followers, “You are the light of the world.” While He is in the world, He is the Light of the world. Now that He has been taken out of the world through His death, resurrection, and ascension, you are the light of the world. You shine forth His light, and the light of Christ that they see in you points them to Him.

All of us were at one time just like this born-blind-beggar. We couldn’t see Jesus, but He saw us, and He acted toward us in compassion and power through His cross. He died for our sins so that we might be saved. He has opened our eyes by the Light of His glory and grace. He has done all that was necessary to save us! Ours is but to recognize our true condition, and go to the fountain of the Sent One, where we can be cleansed and made whole: the man who is called Jesus. He is more than a man, He is God in the flesh. And nothing is too difficult for Him. He can open the eyes of the blind. He did it for this man. He did it for many of you. He will do it for others as we point them to Him.

[1] Robert Cottrill, “Today in 1850 – Fanny Crosby Converted
[2] The Sunday School World, Volume 40, Issue 8. Online at PqLNAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA302#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed October 16, 2013. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Who Does He Think He Is? (John 8:48-59)

I don’t really know if there are any golf courses in heaven. Since heaven is a place where there is no sin and suffering, I would suspect that either there are no golf courses there, or else my own golf game will be greatly transformed there. But I heard a story once that takes place on a golf course in heaven. It seems that Joshua was caddying for Moses one day, and Moses had about 180 yards to the green. Joshua handed him his 3-iron, and Moses said, “What would Tiger Woods hit from this distance?” Joshua thought for a moment and said, “I think he would hit a 7-iron.” Moses said, “Give me the 7-iron.” Joshua said, “You can’t hit a 7-iron that far; take the 3-iron.” Moses said, “If Tiger Woods can hit a 7-iron that far, I can do it too.” Well, Moses hit the ball and it landed in a lake well short of the green. He went up to the lake and held out his 7-iron like the staff he used at the Red Sea, trying to part the water so he could retrieve his ball. About that time, Paul and Silas came up behind them and Paul said, “Look at that guy trying to part the lake – who does he think he is? Moses?” And Joshua just shook his head and said, “He is Moses, but he thinks he’s Tiger Woods!”

Who do you think you are? Maybe you’ve been asked that question before. Maybe you have asked it of others. In our text today, a group of people ask Jesus this question in verse 53. “Whom do you make yourself out to be?” Who are these people? They are a group of Jewish people who have heard Jesus make some startling claims about Himself, and who, at least initially, found themselves believing in Him (vv30-31). But as Jesus continued to speak with them, their belief in Him begins to evaporate. He has challenged them by saying that the genuineness of their faith in Him can only be proven by continuing to abide in His Word (v31). His Word, He says, is truth, and has the power to set them free from their bondage (v32). They assumed He was talking about an earthly kind of bondage. They protested, saying that as the descendants of Abraham, they had never been enslaved to anyone (v33). This was, of course, not true. The Israelites had been in bondage to many nations throughout their history, and were presently living under the dominion of Rome as a conquered people. But Jesus let that assertion go, because it was not His point. His point was that they, like the rest of humanity, are enslaved to sin, and that He has the power to release them from that slavery (vv34-36). But rather than continuing to abide in His Word, thus proving themselves to be genuine disciples of Jesus, they react to His Word with hostility. In their hearts is brewing a murderous hatred for Jesus. They slander Him in an attempt to discredit Him. And Jesus questions their claim to be the true children of Abraham because they lack the faith of Abraham, and He disproves their claim to be children of God because they do not recognize and receive Him as the Savior whom God has sent. Jesus has audaciously charged them with being children of the devil (v44). You can imagine, this wouldn’t go over well with anyone; especially not with people who claim to be citizens of God’s chosen nation, descended from the great heroes of faith through history. So, the debate continues to escalate in intensity, and here it is reaching a boiling point.

That’s where the conversation is as we begin to read these verses today. This is what prompts the question in verse 53, “Whom do You make Yourself out to be?” In other words, “Just who do you think you are?” They have their ideas about who Jesus is, and they voice them. But in His response to them, Jesus indicates that who they think He is, and even who He thinks He is, is not important. What is important is the truth – who He is in actuality. That is who God proclaims Him to be. Like these Israelites, you may have your own idea about who Jesus is. But, if our idea about who He is does not correspond to who God has proclaimed and revealed Him to be, then our idea about Him is wrong and needs to be corrected. This passage is the corrective to that wrong thinking about Jesus. 

I. Who do you think He is?

Suppose we were talking about the President of the United States. Suppose you were asked, “Who do you think he is?” I imagine that our opinions would vary widely, and would tend toward extremes of greatness or incompetence, with very few opinions falling in the middle. It really doesn’t matter who we are talking about, the fact is that if you live in the public eye, people are going to form opinions about you, and those opinions will vary widely. I would venture to say that in human history, there has been no person who has lived under more scrutiny than Jesus Christ. He is not an ignorable person. To know of Him at all is to have an opinion about who you think He is. This group of people certainly did, and they weren’t afraid to voice it.

In verse 48, they answered Jesus with these words. That means that they were responding to Him. What were they responding to? This is their response to the statements of Jesus that questioned their claim to be Abraham’s children and God’s children, and the statement that they were the children of the devil. So, they retort, “Do we not rightly say that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” That’s an interesting thing for people to say who just a few moments earlier (back in vv30-31) were saying that they believed in Him. These are present tense verbs, indicating that all the while, beneath the veil of belief, they have been saying these things amongst themselves. Now, they confess that they think they have been “rightly” saying these things. Things that they suspected were true of Him, now they are persuaded are correct about Him. And what are they saying about Jesus? “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Those are bold assertions about the character and nature of Jesus!

Thanks to Jesus and His story of the Good Samaritan, we probably don’t think that calling Him a Samaritan is too big of a deal. After all, in that story, the Samaritan was a good-hearted, compassionate hero. But you have to understand that this was not the way that the Jews of that day thought of Samaritans. The Jews despised the Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual. The Samaritans were the descendants of Jewish people who had intermarried with Assyrians following the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th Century before Christ. They were considered half-breeds in the eyes of a full-blooded Israelite because they were tainted with Gentile blood. Here, we find the third and final instance in this passage of the Jews casting an aspersion on Christ that was rooted in the unusual circumstances of His birth. As we pointed out in verse 19 (when they asked, “Where is Your father?”), and in verse 41 (when they said, “We were not born of fornication”), there were likely rumors going around that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, and that the man she married had admitted that he was not the biological father of the child. Of course, we know that He had been miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb while she remained a virgin, but there were some who had undoubtedly heard rumors that Mary had been engaged in sexual promiscuity with someone other than Joseph. One of the most lingering rumors had her involved with a Roman soldier. So, when they say that Jesus is a Samaritan, they mean that He is a half-breed. Because of this, they want nothing to do with Him, even as they refused to have any contact with the Samaritans or even to pass through their territory. What is really interesting is that when Jesus passed through Samaria in John 4 and spent time talking to a Samaritan woman, she immediately spoke of Him as being a Jew, and then came to know Him as her Savior.

The hatred that the Jews had for Samaritans was not only rooted in their ethnicity, but also in their theology. Over the centuries, the Samaritans had re-crafted many of the biblical narratives to make themselves out to be the true children of Abraham and heirs to his promises. They had their own temple, their own priesthood, and their own doctrines which were opposed to those of the Jews. Of course, their theology was utterly flawed, and for good reason the Jews considered the Samaritans to be heretics. But here’s the thing, with Jesus saying that the Jews were not truly the children of Abraham nor of God, the Jews are prepared now to claim that He is a heretic of the same vein as their hated Samartian neighbors. They think Jesus is a half-breed heretic. But this is not the worst of it.

They also claim that He “has a demon,” that is, that He is demon-possessed. This is one of many places in the Gospels where Jesus is accused of being demon-possessed. Some would soften the blow of this remark by saying that it merely meant that He was insane. However, in John 10:20, we see that some will say of Jesus that He “has a demon and is insane,” indicating that these are two different claims. So radical are the claims of Jesus that these people believe that it could only be a result of Him being driven by demonic powers. Now, here we will have to give this crowd of people some credit, in that they have come up with one of the only possible explanations for the person of Jesus Christ. For someone to do and say the kinds of things that Jesus said and did, only a very limited number of options are available. He could say the kinds of things He said if he was a lunatic. But, then again, if He were merely a lunatic, He could not have done the miraculous signs that He often did. Another option is just what these people say: that He has a demon. To make the kinds of radical claims that He makes, and then to provide convincing supernatural signs and wonders, indicates that some kind of supernatural power is at work. This kind of power, if not of God, could only come from Satan. So, we have to hand it to these people – they at least understand that He cannot merely be a man and do the things He does and say the things He says. They assume that He cannot be of God, since He is not on their side. Therefore, they conclude that a demonic power must be at work within Him.

So who do they think Jesus is? A demon-possessed, despicable, half-breed heretic. I would be willing to bet that no one in this room thinks that about Jesus Christ. In fact, I would even bet that you’ve never met anyone who thinks that about Him. So, who do you think He is? Everyone has an opinion, and the opinions vary widely, but we can’t all be right. Is He just a megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur? Is He a demon-possessed charlatan? There are really very few other options, unless He really is who He thinks He is. And if He really is who He thinks He is, and we think He is something different than that, it is of eternal importance and infinite urgency that we change our perspective. It really matters who you think He is. What matters more is who Jesus really is, and that you think that of Him. If you don’t think He is who He really is, then it makes no difference what you do think of Him. You might as well think He is a demon-possessed heretic. He So who does He think He is? We move to that question now.

II. Who Does He Think He Is?

John Calvin opened his monumental Institutes of Christian Religion with these words: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But,” Calvin notes, “while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”[1] What Calvin is saying there is that as we come to understand ourselves, it drives us to know more about the God who created us; and as we come to know God more, we grow in our understanding of ourselves in light of His revelation about us. But, true as this is for us, I suggest that it is infinitely more true of Jesus Christ. I would say that His true and sound wisdom consists also of His knowledge of God and His knowledge of Himself. If He is not who He thinks He is, then not only does He not know Himself, but neither does He know the God for whom He claims to speak. So, who does He think He is?

First of all, notice that He quickly dismisses the charge that He has a demon. He says, quite simply, “I do not have a demon” (v49). You might expect Him to say that, but here’s an interesting thing. Whenever Jesus confronted someone who had a demon, not one of them ever denied it. In fact, it was the demons who acknowledged themselves as Jesus confronted them. It is not like a demon to hide its own presence within a person. For Jesus to be able to say, “I do not have a demon,” it must be true. Additionally, no demon ever claimed to honor God. It would be counter to their very nature. Yet, this is precisely what Jesus claimed to do. He said, “I do not have a demon, but I honor My Father” (v49). And in verse 54, He says that His Father is the One of whom the Jews say, “He is our God.” So, there is no way that Jesus could have a demon, and at the same time claim to honor God and claim to be the Son of God. No demon has ever uttered such words.

Remember that there are only a few options as to who Jesus could be. He could be a lunatic. But, though lunacy could explain some of His radical sayings, lunacy does not come with supernatural powers to perform signs and wonders. That seems an impossible option. Now we see that being a demoniac seems impossible as well. This only leaves us one option. He is who He thinks He is. So who does He think He is?

Well, before He answers this directly, He issues a disclaimer. He says, “I do not seek My glory.” In other words, He is not just making empty boasts about Himself. He isn’t trying to win a popularity contest. In fact, if He was, He is doing it wrong. He is saying all the wrong kinds of things to make Himself look good in the eyes of the populace. It’s already gained Him a label of being a demoniac. Soon enough, its going to get Him killed. As He says in verse 54, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing.” He’s not seeking glory for Himself. But, He says, “There is One who seeks and judges.” In verse 54 He says, “It is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” It is God who is seeking the glory of Jesus, and it is He who judges the Lord Jesus to be worthy of this glory. So, we can trust Jesus’ words about who He is, because the Father is glorifying and judging Him rightly in these claims. Now, we are ready for the answer.

Jesus claims to be the One who can enable us to live forever. Look at v51: “Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” This is not the first time He has said something like this. In what I call the greatest sentence ever written, John 3:16, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” In John 5:24, He said, “ Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” In John 6:48-54, He said, “I am the bread of life … the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” He said, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh. … He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And then later, He will go on to say more of these kinds of things. In John 11:25-26, He will say, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” And then ultimately, on the night before His death, He will say to His disciples, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (14:6). By these and many other words, the Lord Jesus makes it perfectly clear to everyone who has ears to hear Him that He is the only hope we have for eternal life. The only hope that any of us have to be forgiven of our sins and gain entrance to heaven is through the person of Jesus Christ. This is because He will bear our sins on our behalf as our substitute in death, enduring the wrath of God that we deserve in Himself as He died on the cross, so that we could be cleansed by His blood and covered in His righteousness. Apart from Him, we have no hope of life beyond death. As John 3:16 made it perfectly clear, to not believe in Him is to perish. To believe in Him is to not see death, but to pass through it into everlasting life with Him in heaven.

Now, the Jews to whom He was speaking misunderstood Him once more, and they return the conversation to Abraham. Thinking that Jesus is only speaking of physical death, and giving no thought to eternal life, they say, “Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death. Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died?” They say, “The prophets died too,” implying, “You are not greater than they were, are You?” The questions are asked in a way that expects a negative answer. Surely Jesus is not greater than Abraham, is He? But in His response, He indicates that He indeed is greater than Abraham.

In verse 56, He says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it, and was glad.” In Genesis 12, when God first called Abraham, a promise was made. God told Abraham, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” This promise made to Abraham was that somehow, in some way, Abraham would be the cause of blessing to all nations. In Genesis 15, the word of the Lord came to Abraham, again with a promise: “One who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir. … Now look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them. … So shall your descendants be.” At this point in Abraham’s life, he was childless. But the Bible records of Abraham that at this moment, “he believed in the Lord; and He (the Lord) reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In that moment, Abraham was saved; He was justified (made righteous) before God through His faith in God’s promise concerning the offspring he would bear. In God’s time and in God’s way, Abraham saw the child of promise born, his son Isaac. God’s promise was coming true. But then God called Abraham to once again do something unimaginable. In Genesis 22, Abraham was told to take his only begotten son to Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice unto the Lord. As they came to the place of the offering, Abraham said to his entourage, “Stay here … and I and the lad will go ove there; and we will worship and return to you.” Get that. Abraham knows what God has called him to do. But he also knows that God has made a promise that through his descendants all the earth will be blessed. So He says in faith that they are going to worship, and that they are both going to return. When Isaac started to take inventory of the offering supplies, he said, “My father … behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb?” Abraham said with great and forward looking faith, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the offering.” And they came to the place, and Abraham bound his son and prepared to offer him to God, still believing that God would provide the ultimate sacrifice and that he and his son would come back together from this episode. And God stayed the old man’s hand and turned his eye toward a thicket where a ram was caught by his horns – caught by his horns so that he might be an unblemished and spotless offering. And that ram became the sacrifice, and Abraham and his son returned, just as he had believed. And he called that place, YHWH Yireh, “the Lord will provide.”

We find an interesting, God-inspired commentary on these events in Hebrews 11:17-19. There, we read, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED." He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.” Abraham believed in a God who had a plan for the offering up of an only begotten son, and a God who was able to raise an only begotten son up from the dead. But Abraham found out on that day that the plan was not for Abraham to see his only begotten son as that sacrifice, but that God would provide for Himself the lamb. He received Isaac back from the ordeal “as a type.” A type is something that corresponds, represents, and even foreshadows another. Abraham saw in Isaac, and in the ram in the thicket, a type – a foreshadowing – of what God was going to do. God was going to provide up His own only begotten Son as a sacrificial lamb to atone for the sins of humanity, and He would raise Him up from death.

On that day, Abraham rejoiced, because in the ordeal on Mount Moriah, he saw down through the corridors of time to the day of Jesus Christ. And he was glad – not because it meant that Isaac would not see death; but because it meant that all who believed in God as He had done, and who accepted this sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, would not see death, but have everlasting life in Him. The writer of Hebrews says of Abraham and of all the saints of old, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” Abraham had seen the day of Jesus Christ. And in Jesus Christ, he saw the fulfillment of every promise God had made to him. And he rejoiced and was glad in what he saw in Jesus Christ. He is One greater than Abraham. As He said in other places, He is the One who is greater than Solomon, greater than Jonah, greater than Moses. He is the One to whom all of God’s promises were pointing. As Jesus said in Luke 24, all that had been written in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms (to a Jew, that would indicate the entire Hebrew Bible), had been written about Him.

Of course, the audience to which Jesus was speaking missed the point again. Not understanding what He was saying about Abraham seeing and rejoicing in His day, they say obtusely, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” (v57). Jesus was probably in His early 30s, and in Jewish reckoning, a man didn’t hit the peak of wisdom and maturity until he was in his 50s. Jesus was still a young man. Abraham had been dead for 2,000 years. How could Jesus have seen Abraham? His response contains the most radical of all of His words here in this text. He said in v58, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” What is obvious here is that Jesus is claiming to have some kind of pre-existence. He had an existence that dated back prior to His birth in Bethlehem. He was in existence before Abraham was even born. But this is not just a claim to pre-existence. If it was, He could have simply said, “Before Abraham was born, I was.” That would have been better grammar, and far more easy to comprehend (even if not to believe). But He didn’t say that. He uses an awkward and unexpected grammar here and says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The Greek words are ego eimi. The Jews would have recognized these words, for these were the very words that were used to translate the Hebrew words of Exodus 3:14. When Moses asked God, “What if the people ask me who sent me? What shall I say to them when they ask me Your name?” God said, “I AM WHO I AM.” Translated: ego eimi. He is the Great I Am. And here Jesus takes up that same expression to say, “I saw Abraham and he saw Me, because you see, I am the preexistent divine God standing right here in front of you in the flesh. The God you claim to know, but really you do not – I am He. The God you claim to honor while you dishonor Me – I am that God, so when you dishonor Me, you are dishonoring Him. Before Abraham came into being, I am.”

Now you may say, “How do you know that’s what He meant?” Well, that’s what the Jews understood Him to mean. How do we know that? Look what they did: “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him” (v59). Stoning was a punishment reserved only for a few specific offenses, and one of those offenses was blasphemy (Lev 24:16). Later, in John 10, we will see them do it again. They pick up stones to kill Him, and when Jesus asks them why they are doing that, they say, “For blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (10:33). They understood exactly what they meant. In fact, if they had misunderstood, Jesus could have easily said, “Wait, wait, put those stones down. That’s not what I meant.” But He never did. Their attempts to stone Him only proved that they understood perfectly exactly what He was saying. But it was not the Father’s time for Him to die. So, somehow (mysteriously and miraculously – we are not told how), Jesus hid Himself and went out of the Temple. As Augustine said, “Jesus fled from the stones, but woe to those from whose heart of stone God flees!”[2] Because when Jesus vanishes from their midst, so does the hope of everlasting life and the hope of ever knowing the God that they claim to believe in.

Who does He think He is? He says that He is the only way to live forever, beyond death. And He says that He is greater than Abraham and all the prophets. He says that He is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But more than this, He says that He is God in human flesh. Is He a lunatic? No, that’s impossible. Is He a demoniac? No, that is impossible as well. That really only leaves one option. He really is who He thinks He is. And for this reason, the Father glorifies Him. And if God the Father can give glory to the Son, how much more ought we give Him glory? He is worthy of worship! The Bible says that “He existed in the form of God,” but He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:6-11).

Now, who do you think He is?

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.1.1.
[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 358. 

Monday, October 07, 2013

Family Ties (John 8:37-47)

When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the Star Wars movies. I can still remember sitting in the theater, watching that climactic scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker was engaged in that epic lightsaber duel with Darth Vader. Here was Luke, the clean-cut, nice guy, unlikely hero, trading blows with his evil nemesis. We were on the edge of our seats, and we just knew that Luke would win, evil would be vanquished, and there would be peace in the galaxy once more. But the scene didn’t end that way. As Luke clings to a pole on a ledge over this cavernous airshaft, Darth Vader said those four words that shocked us all: “I am your father!” And Luke argued and disputed it, crying out in disbelief, “No!” as he plummeted into the airshaft. Prior to that scene, Luke never knew who his father was. He had been raised by his uncle, and mentored by the great Obi Wan Kenobi. In the absence of his father, these men had shaped him into the person he had become. He bore far more resemblance of character to these men than he did to his actual biological father. Even though, biologically Darth Vader was his father, he was not following in his father’s footsteps, and in that epic scene, he vows that he will not come along side his father, but will do what is right.

This text reminds me of that scene a little bit. In this text, Jesus is talking to a group of Jewish people – a group that had come to some level of belief in Him, but it was not a genuine faith commitment. They begin to dispute His words about being set free by His truth, and they claim that they do not need to be set free because of who their father is. They are the children of Abraham, and they say that they have never been enslaved. Never mind that this is blatantly not true – for they had been continually enslaved to various nations throughout their history. Jesus was talking about being enslaved to sin. That is the true condition of every human being, no matter their ethnicity or history. And so Jesus begins to talk about the truth of who their father really is. And it is a difficult and painful truth for any person, Israelite or Gentile to swallow. But as painful and difficult as this truth is, it is necessary for us to understand the reality of our true spiritual condition, and the identity of our true father, in order to see our great need to be rescued by the saving work of Jesus Christ, and adopted by God into His family forever. The passage speaks to us about the things we put our trust in, and challenges us to make sure that we are not trusting in false assurances for our spiritual satisfaction.

Verse 38 sort of sets the tone for the whole passage. Jesus says, “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.” As we so often say, “Like father, like son.” Our character and conduct demonstrate our true position, either within the family of God or outside of it. Jesus’ divine Sonship can be demonstrated through the things which He says and does, which are things that He has seen with His Father. If we truly belong to God, then there will be certain “family resemblances” that are evident in our conduct, our character, and our conversation. And to this group of people, Jesus says, “You do the things which you heard from your father.” So, who is their father? We will see in this passage who they claim their father to be, but we will also see the cold hard truth about what their character and conduct demonstrates, and the family resemblance that they actually bear.

I. Biological descent from a godly heritage does not place us in the family of God.

As you might have already guessed, I love movies. One of my all time favorites is The Sound of Music. When the Von Trapp family fled from Austria, as depicted at the end of the film, they made their way to the United States, ultimately settling down on a mountainside in Vermont. Come with us next year to Vermont on our mission trip, and we’ll take you there to the Trapp Family Lodge. When we were there a few weeks ago, some of us had a close encounter with a real live descendant of the Von Trapp family there. Her grandmother was Maria Von Trapp. When she was pointed out to us, I had this immediate thought, “Oh yeah, she kind of looks like Julie Andrews.” Then I realized what a stupid thought that was. She is not related to Julie Andrews. She is related to the person Julie Andrews played in the movie! We wondered if we should go up and talk to her, but I could envision myself saying something ridiculous like, “So, how do you solve a problem like Maria?” Instead, we just said hello and went about our business, and let her go about hers. I don’t want to assume that she derives her entire sense of identity from being related to a family that had a movie made about them.

But some people do want to base their identity on their family ties, and even put their spiritual identity and their eternal hopes in their family tree. Perhaps you are the son or daughter of a preacher or a missionary. Maybe your grandfather was a faithful deacon, or your grandmother was a faithful Sunday School teacher. Maybe you were brought up in a family that loved the Lord in a Bible-saturated home. Praise God for that. But none of these things mean that you automatically have a right relationship with God. You have heard me say perhaps before that God does not have any grandchildren. He only has sons and daughters, and those are the ones who come to Him personally by faith in Jesus Christ. You can inherit a lot of things from your ancestors. You cannot inherit salvation from them. You cannot be a generation removed from God. Each person has to make that faith commitment to Him for themselves.

This is what Jesus is saying to His audience here in the early part of this text. When He spoke of being set free by His truth, they claimed that they did not need to be set free by His truth, because they were Abraham’s descendants. Here in verse 37, Jesus says, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants.” But then in verse 39, when they repeat that Abraham is their father, Jesus challenges that assertion and says, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.” He says that their deeds prove that they are not really Abraham’s children. So, is Jesus contradicting Himself here, or speaking out of both sides of His mouth? No, not at all.

The thrust of what Jesus is saying cannot really be detected in the English text. If we look at the underlying Greek words that Jesus is using here, we see what He is getting at. In verse 37, he says, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants,” and the Greek word is the word sperma. You recognize the connection with the English word sperm. It has to do merely with biology. They possess the same biological DNA with the family of Abraham. But, the word He uses in verse 39 is different. He says that they are not acting like Abraham’s children, and the Greek word there is tekna. This word speaks not merely of biology, but of relationship. The difference is not hard to see, especially in our day when multitudes of children are “fathered” biologically by men who have no desire to maintain a “fatherly relationship” with them. They are fathers in the sense of the word sperma, but their children do not have a relationship with them in the sense of the word tekna. So here, the Jews can look to Abraham as their father in the biological sense (they are products of his sperma) but not all of them have this kind of relationship to him in the sense of being his tekna. They have not learned from or emulated the character of Abraham.

In verse 37 Jesus says, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants (his sperma, his biological offspring),  yet you seek to kill Me.” Then in verse 39 He says, “If you are Abraham’s children (his tekna, his children who are related to him and who emulate his character), do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” In the account of Abraham in the book of Genesis, we see a man who believed in the Lord, and who was made righteous before God through his faith in Him (Gen 15:6). We see a man who obeyed God (12:1-9; 22:1-19), and who welcomed the divine messengers of God with hospitality (18:1-8). Abraham was not a perfect man, and the Bible records some of his flaws, but at the end of his life, God could say of Abraham that he “obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (25:6). But these things are not true of the group of his biological descendants that Jesus is confronting here in the text. Jesus has come as the ultimate messenger of God – God Himself in human flesh – and they are not receiving Him. Rather than continuing to abide in His word, as Jesus says in verse 31 (the true mark of being a follower of Jesus), they reject His word, and seek to kill Him. He says in verse 37, “My word has no place in you.” In rejecting Jesus, they are rejecting God, and thus proving that they are not ultimately Abraham’s children. Jesus says to them, “You are doing the deeds of your father,” but the clear implication is that their true father is not Abraham.

The really interesting thing about this is that Abraham’s true children (His true tekna) can be found even outside of Abraham’s biological descendants (His sperma). In Romans 3:28-29, Paul writes, “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” A right relationship with God is not a product of mere biology, and it cannot be obtained through an external ritual such as Jewish circumcision, or even Christian baptism, but it is something that is received through a personal relationship with God whereby we receive His saving grace through faith. In Romans 9:6, Paul says, “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel, nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.” There Paul uses the same two Greek words that Jesus uses here. Not all are Abraham’s tekna even if they are his sperma. So Paul says in Galatians 3:7 that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham, even those from many nations outside of Israel. The Jewish people can boast in being Abraham’s biological descendants, but if they do not have the faith of Abraham, then they are not his spiritual children. Non-Israelites who believe in God through faith in Jesus Christ are more Abraham’s children than are those who are his descendants through mere biology. Their descent from even such a godly ancestor as Abraham does not place them in the family of God by faith.

So there is a lesson for us here in this. If you had godly parents, grandparents, or some other faithful influence in your life, you should absolutely rejoice and give thanks to God for that blessed gift of His grace. But you should by no means be mistaken and think that your connection to those people automatically makes you a participant in the family of God apart from your own personal exercise of faith in Jesus Christ. When you stand before God in judgment, He will not ask you to account for the faith of your father or your grandmother. He will hold you accountable for yourself. You will not be able to slide in on the coattails of your godly ancestor. The question is, have you come to Jesus and trusted Him as your Lord and Savior, and do you have a personal relationship with Him for yourself? If you are trusting in your connection to some other godly person, even if that person is Father Abraham himself, then you are outside of the family of God. He does not have grandchildren, only sons and daughters who come to Him personally through faith in Jesus Christ.

II. Living in a land, or among a people, historically blessed by God does not place us in the family of God. (v41b-42)

Realizing perhaps that they were not getting anywhere with the whole “descendants of Abraham” argument, the crowd now ups the stakes. They retort to Jesus, “We were not born of fornication.” This is the second of three veiled attacks on the character of Jesus here in this chapter, aimed at the unusual circumstances surrounding His birth. It was perhaps becoming common knowledge that Jesus was conceived prior to the marriage of Mary and Joseph, and that Joseph had acknowledged that he was not the child’s father. The truth of the matter was that Jesus had been born in a miraculous way, without an earthly father, conceived as the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit while Mary remained a virgin. But it did not take long for rumors to begin swirling. One early story that began to circulate was that Mary had engaged in fornication with a Roman soldier by the name of Panthera. Whether it was this particular version of the story or some other that had captivated the imagination of this crowd of people, the question of Jesus’ true paternity is here raised in an attempt to discredit Him. “In the ancient Near East, ‘to question a man’s paternity is a definite slur on his legitimacy.’”[1] So in their protest, they say, “We were not born of fornication;” in the Greek, it is the word porneia (from which we get the word pornography), which is a broad term for sexual sin. Their statement seems to imply that even though He claims to be the Son of God, He really is not. They suggest that Jesus is the child of sexual sin, but they say, “We have one Father: God.”

Their claim to have God as their Father comes from Jewish history. In Exodus 4:22, God speaks of Israel as “My son, My firstborn.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord said, “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn” (Jer 31:9). King David had prayed, “Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel our Father forever and ever” (1 Chron 29:10). In these and many other passages of the Old Testament, God was spoken of as being the Father of the nation of Israel. About this there can be no debate. Jesus does not deny God’s Fatherhood of Israel. It was through His sovereign work that Israel came into being as a nation, and through His preserving grace that Israel remained a nation. But Jesus does take issue with the underlying assumption that the people seem to have, namely that simply because they are from the land and people of Israel, that they are personally part of God’s family of faith. As in the previous exchange about Abraham, here again Jesus says in essence, “Your character and your conduct disprove your claim.”

Jesus says in verse 42, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” In their hearts, there is brewing a murderous hatred for Jesus. Jesus says this is incongruent with their claim that God is their Father. God is the One who sent the Lord Jesus into the world. It is theologically accurate to say that God not only sent Jesus, but came in the person of Jesus. But Jesus is speaking with Trinitarian language here to say that He came from God, not on His own initiative, but was actually sent by God. In their attempt to discredit Jesus and their desire to murder Him, they are despising God’s heavenly Ambassador. It is the ultimate dishonor to God to reject and despise the One whom God has sent. That is not how one ought to treat his or her Father. Jesus claims to be the Son of God, and that claim is validated by His words and deeds. The Israelites claim to be the sons of God, and their claim is voided by their words and deeds.

Let’s bring this home to us. We live in a land that boasts of having been greatly blessed in our history by the hand of God. We sing it often enough: “America, America, God shed His grace on thee.” Whatever our personal opinion or theory on America’s spiritual heritage might be, it is right for us to give thanks to God for the freedoms and the blessings that we have experienced from His hand here in America. But we must not make the mistake of these Israelites and assume that just because God has blessed our nation in the past, that He is obligated to always do so. It is a mistake to assume that being American means that we are more loved and more favored by God than, say, people who live in Iran, Egypt, China, or Russia. It is a mistake to think that America is God’s favorite nation in the world, or that He automatically smiles on all that Americans do, or on all that America represents. We hear people saying all the time that America is, or was, a Christian nation. Whether that is true or false, the Church in America needs to be very clear to the world that we do assume that every American is a Christian or that the American government always acts on Christian, biblical principles. If you think, that because you live in a land and among a people that have been historically blessed by God, you are by default a member of God’s family of faith, then hear the Lord Jesus telling you that you are sorely mistaken. This is something that cannot even be claimed by Israel.

So, if these people are not the true children of Abraham, and not the true children of God, then who is their father? This is the startling reality …

III. To not be under the fatherhood of God is to be under the fatherhood of the devil (vv44-47).

There is such a thing as a false dichotomy. That is where two alternatives are presented as the only alternatives, when in fact other alternatives exist. So for instance, someone may ask you if you are a Republican or a Democrat. The question posed is a false dichotomy because it assumes that one must be either a Republican or a Democrat, and that there are no other alternatives. But there are other alternatives. Not every issue is a juxtaposition of two and only two polar extremes. But when it comes to being a child of God, there are really only two alternatives. If God is not your Father, then the devil is. Who said that? Jesus said that, right here in this text. In verse 44, He says, “You are of your father the devil.” Now, lest you think that this statement only applies to this particular group of people, and not to anyone else in the human race, hear what Paul says in Ephesians 2: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (that’s the devil), of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Who’s Paul talking about? He’s talking about every single human being who has ever lived, including you and me. All of us, at one time, were children of the devil, children of wrath. And the family resemblance could be seen within us.   

Jesus said to the crowd of people there, “You want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning.” They want to kill Him because it is in their DNA. From the beginning, their father was a murderer. The words “the beginning” take us back to the garden of Eden. There, God had set aside one tree of all that He had made and said to Adam, “In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” And what did Satan conspire to lead Adam to do? To eat of that tree and die. Adam, and indeed every human being since Adam, bears the unique image of God. The human race is an affront to Satan, because it reminds Him of the glory of God, the creator. Jesus said in John 10 that the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. He wants people to die; he wants the human race to be destroyed, because everywhere a human life exists, it is a representation of the image of God. And because Satan wanted to rid the world of the image bearers of God, he tempted Adam and Eve to defy God’s command and eat of the forbidden fruit so that they would die. And not them only, but through Adam’s sin, death has infiltrated the entire human race. Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

 Satan is a murderer. Wherever there is a murderous hatred in the hearts of men, there is the family resemblance. At some point in our lives, we have all wrestled with that murderous DNA that we inherited as children of the devil. When we have hated another person, we have committed murder in our hearts against them, and fantasized of ridding the world of that particular image bearer of God. We see it here in the desire of these people to kill the Lord Jesus Himself. Satan had been scheming to destroy the Messiah since before the birth of Christ. He sought to use Abraham’s sin with Hagar to thwart God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world. He sought to use the infanticide of Pharaoh in Egypt and the genocide of Haman in the days of Esther to rid the world of the Messianic promise. When Jesus was born, he inspired the murderous plot in the heart of Herod to kill all of the male children. These people want to kill Jesus because they seek to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Not only is Satan a murderer from the beginning, Jesus says that the devil “does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Lying is his native tongue. The first lie ever told on earth was told by the devil. God said, “In the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Satan tempted Eve with a lie. He said, “You surely will not die.” He told her that God was just holding them back from true greatness, because if they would only eat of that fruit they would be more like God. The truth was that they could not be any more like God than they already were. It was a lie. And every lie ever told by every human being who ever told it is a product of the devil who is the father of lies. We were all born fluent in the language of dishonesty. You know, I never really had a very strong Southern accent. What little I did have, I’ve worked hard to shake off over the years. But every now and then, I will say something that sounds like just pure hillbilly. Try all you want, your native tongue shines through. And when we lie, we are speaking with a hellish accent. It’s in our DNA, because by nature, we were born in this state of sinfulness, children of the devil. In our human nature, we fear the truth; we hide from it; we try to cover it up; we do not seek it. Jesus says, “Because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me.” Why do they not believe Him? Because He speaks the truth. In verse 43 He says they don’t understand Him; they cannot hear His word. It is like He is speaking another language. And that is the way that all of us respond to truth in our natural condition. We hate truth, because truth shines a bright light on the dark realities of our sinful hearts. It exposes the family ties that connect us, not to God, but to the devil. He says, “For this reason you do not hear” His truth: “because you are not of God.”

That’s hard to swallow isn’t it? Everything within us hears that, and we want to say, “That’s not true!” But Jesus says, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” Are we going to call Jesus a liar? We cannot! He speaks the things which He has seen with His Father. He tells us the truth which He heard from God – from God, from whom He proceeded forth and came from; from God, who sent Him. He speaks the truth, and His truth is true, whether we believe it or not. Our disbelief gives the lie to our false claims to be in right relationship with God. God cannot be our Father while we are resisting and rejecting the truth that confronts us in the person of Jesus Christ. And if God is not our Father, there is only one other alternative: the devil is. It doesn’t matter if we descend from a long line of godly men and women of faith. We cannot cling to our spiritual ancestors. It doesn’t matter if we were born in a land and among a people who were historically blessed by God. It doesn’t matter if we are Jewish, or American, or anything else. These things do not bind us to God. Trusting in them only proves that we do not belong to God, but that our father is none other than the devil himself.

That’s bad news. But there is good news. You see, in His infinite love, God desires to rescue the children of the devil and adopt them as His own sons and daughters. That is why Jesus said in John 3 that we must be born-again. We must be born anew by the Holy Spirit into the family of God. How does this happen? It is the result of God’s sovereign grace, drawing us to Himself. We are so deceived and so enslaved to sin that we would never come to Him unless He drew us. That’s why Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws Him.” And He said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out” (6:37). And so by God’s sovereign, saving grace, He draws us out of our old life of sin, and He draws us to Himself through Jesus Christ. We come to see Him by faith as our sinless Savior, who came from God – better, in Whom God came to us – and He lived and died and rose again on our behalf. He died so that the full measure of all of our sin – all of our lies, all of our murderous hatred, every bit of our unrighteousness – could be punished in Him as He died on the cross as our substitute under the wrath of God. Our hearts are opened to His truth, and we begin to hear Him, to understand Him, and ultimately to believe in Him. And John 1:12 promises us this, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

So, who’s your father? What are you trusting in? Are you trusting in your family ties to some godly person who lived before you – your parents, your grandparents, a friend, a mentor? Even Abraham’s descendants could not trust in this. Nor can we. Are you trusting in your national or ethnic heritage – that you are an Israelite, that you are an American, whatever? No, not even the Jews can trust in that. To trust in these things is to remain children of the devil. So how do you become a child of God? You trust in Christ and come to Him by faith as your Lord and Savior. Then God will adopt you into His family and lavish His fatherly love upon you. Is the Father drawing you today? Perhaps in your heart of hearts you can hear Him beckoning you, “Come home. Be born again. Become part of My family.” Jesus Christ is the way. And if you have come to God by faith through Him, you are now part of His family. He is your Father. Maybe you never had a father before, maybe you had a wonderful earthly father. It doesn’t matter. God will be a greater Father to you than you have ever imagined. He loves you. Rest in His love. He is with you. You aren’t alone. You have a Father in Heaven who will never leave you, and from Whom you can never be severed. He is for you. Trust in His goodness. Find in Him your complete satisfaction, knowing that you belong to Him forever. You’ve been rescued. You’ve been adopted. You are secure in His family, set free from the sin of your past through the blood of Christ that was shed for you. And as you rest in Him, He will transform you by His Word and by His Spirit, so that the family resemblance between you and your Heavenly Father will become more apparent with each passing day until you see Him face to face, and He receives you to your eternal home with a welcoming embrace. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 265; citing Leon Morris and Merrill Tenney.