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. 

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