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. 

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