Monday, February 24, 2014

The Deity of Christ (John 10:30-42)

Recently, the educational website held an essay contest in which writers were required to submit an essay on the theme of what it means to be a great teacher. The catch was that each essay could only contain six words. The grand prize winner received an iPad and $500 to contribute to educational charities for this entry: “I remember her fifty years later.” The trend of the six-word essay is catching on, and we are seeing more and more contests and promotions challenging participants to state something profound in a mere half-dozen words. What could you say about anything that really mattered in just six words? Well, don’t think it can’t be done. Here in our text, Jesus uses six words (whether in our English versions or in the original Greek) to disclose one of the most profound truths ever uttered in the history of human communication. The six words that He speaks in verse 30 are some of the most clear and direct that He ever spoke concerning His nature and identity. He said, “I and the Father are one.” Those six words essentially set forth the most central, the most unique, and the most controversial claims of Jesus Christ and the Christian Church. These are the words that are the core of our faith and practice. They are what sets Christianity apart from every religious and philosophical tradition in the history of the world. They are the words that have evoked animosity against Jesus and His followers since the first century of the Common Era. Here Jesus states in no uncertain terms His own deity – that He is God in human flesh.

So, in our time and from our text today, I want us to consider the claim to deity that Jesus makes, the confirmation He provides, and the confrontation that Jesus sets before us concerning His deity.

I. We must consider Jesus’ claim to deity (vv 30-31, 33b, 34-36)

Misunderstandings are hard to avoid in communication. Oftentimes, what is said is not exactly what is heard; what is heard is not exactly what was said. Communication experts tell us that the responsibility is on the person speaking to make sure that his or her meaning is expressed clearly to the hearer, and if there is a misunderstanding, it is the speaker’s fault. So, apply that to Jesus here in our text. There are many people who think we have radically misunderstood what He says when He says “I and the Father are one.” They think that Jesus was not claiming to be God, and in fact they say He never did. This line of thinking was popularized a decade ago in Dan Brown’s monumental bestseller The DaVinci Code. Well, if those critics are correct, then untold millions of people over the last 2,000 years have grossly misunderstood Jesus, which indicates that He must have been a very poor communicator. It would be hard to make a case for that position, when even those who do not believe in Him herald Him as one of humanity’s greatest teachers.

In order to see what Jesus meant when He said, “I and the Father are one,” we need to look at how the original audience understood these six words. Verse 31 says, “The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him.” When Jesus asked why they were seeking to stone Him, they said plainly, “ … for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (v33b). They clearly perceived Jesus to be saying that He is God in this claim. That, to them, was tantamount to the capital offense of blasphemy, punishable by execution in the form of stoning under the Jewish law. Leviticus 24:16 had commanded it: “The one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him.” Now, the verdict was to be determined by an official legal proceeding, and the sentence carried out as a judicial act. It was not to be carried out by a vigilante mob. But in Jesus’ day, the Roman government had the final say on matters of capital punishment, and the Romans could not be relied on to carry out the wishes of the Jewish populace on a religious matter. Thus, “mob justice,” though not permitted by Scripture or by Rome, was perhaps a more expedient means to the desired end. They were prepared to stone Jesus then and there upon hearing Him say, “I and the Father are one.”

Now, we must not rush past a very important word in these verses. That word is again. This was not the first time they had tried to kill Him on the spot. In John 5:18, we read, “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” In John 8, after Jesus had spoken at length about His unique relationship with the Father, He said these remarkable words: “Before Abraham was born, I am.” This was an explicit claim to eternal pre-existence, a quality that God alone could possess. The response there was the same: “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him.” You see, in all three instances when Jesus’ life was threatened by a vigilante lynch-mob, it was immediately following a very explicit claim that He had made concerning His own deity. And notice, in none of these accounts (including this one here in Chapter 10) did Jesus ever say, “Wait a second, hold on. You misunderstood Me. That is not at all what I meant. Let Me have a do-over and try to explain what I mean more clearly.” He said what He meant, and they heard Him correctly. He was very clearly claiming to be God.

Not only does Jesus not deny that this was His intended meaning, He goes on to clarify that this is exactly what He meant. He does so in a bit of an unusual way – a way that may not be appreciated by most of us, and which most of us (myself included!) would find very confusing. Let’s start by pointing out the parts of His argument that are easy to understand. Of greatest importance is that we recognize that Jesus points to Scripture (in this case, the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament) to defend His claim. This is instructive for us. We must point to Scripture to defend our Christian beliefs and practices, otherwise we have no basis for them at all. Article I of our confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message, condenses the biblical teaching on the authority of Scripture by saying that the Bible “has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.”[1] Jesus demonstrates His own high view of the Scriptures as He says in verse 35, “the Scripture cannot be broken.” In other words, it is infallible, inerrant, completely authoritative, and cannot be rejected, denied, or manipulated. If the Scriptures can be shown to negate His claims, then there is no merit in them whatsoever. If, however, the Scriptures validate His claims, then the claims must be given a fair consideration. So, Jesus shows us the importance of backing up the claims of our faith by pointing to God’s inspired, inerrant Word.  

Secondly, notice that He says in verse 34, “Has it not been written in your Law ….” Now, here, when He says “your Law,” His point is not that there is some difference between their Scriptures and His own. He is emphasizing that the Scriptures He is using to defend His claims are the same Scriptures which they themselves treasure. That much is easy to understand. And here is where the water gets a little murky for us, because what He says about the teachings of Scripture here, I confess, is one of the hardest texts in John’s Gospel, and refers to one of the hardest texts in the book of Psalms, if not the entire Old Testament. He is pointing to Psalm 82:6, which says, “I said, you are gods.” Don’t think that going to seminary and learning Greek or Hebrew helps make sense of this. It doesn’t. In Greek, Jesus’ words are “I said, you are gods,” and it reads the same way in the Greek Old Testament and the original Hebrew Old Testament. The problem is obvious. God is calling someone else “gods.” What is going on here?

As we look at Psalm 82, the context of the entire Psalm is God’s rebuke of Israel’s corrupt judges. God is announcing that He will judge the unjust judges of the nation who have shown favoritism to the wicked and deprived the weak and the poor of justice. He says in verses 6 and 7 of the Psalm, from which Jesus quotes here, “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.” In other words, God says to these wicked judges that in spite of the fact that God Himself has called them gods and the sons of God, they will stand before Him in judgment because they are not immune to death or condemnation because of their high position.” That much is clear. What is unclear to us is, when and why did God ever call them “gods” (elohim in the Hebrew language)? The answer to this is found in the Law codes found in the book of Exodus. For example, in Exodus 22:9, we read in our English Bibles that breaches of trust are to be brought before the “judges,” and he whom the “judges” condemn shall pay double to his neighbor. In the Hebrew text, the word that is translated as judges in our English Bibles is the Hebrew word elohim, which has within its wide range of meaning, “God,” or “gods.” So, when God says in Psalm 82 that He has called the judges “gods” (elohim), He is referring to passages like Exodus 22:9 in which that precise Hebrew term is used to refer to the judges.

So much for the question of when God said this. Now, why did God use this term to refer to judges? We must acknowledge that any time we ask the question why God does or says one thing and not another, unless Scripture provides a clear answer, we are merely speculating. But speculations are not always completely without value, and sometimes are based on sound reasoning. Here, it seems to be that God refers to the judges of Israel as elohim because they are commissioned by Him to act on His behalf in the carrying out of divine justice. At that time in Israel’s history, the judges were in a unique sense God’s human representatives who were to declare His word and mete out justice on His behalf. It was not that they were divine in and of themselves, but that their “office” and “responsibility” was a divine one, done under God’s commission and for His holy purposes.

Now, so much for the when and why God used the term elohim to refer to human judges; how does this fit into Jesus’ claim to deity? Watch how His argument takes shape here in John 10:35-36. He says, “If he (it should be “He,” referring to God) called them gods, to whom the word of God came ….” Remember, to whom did that word in Psalm 82 come? Wicked, unjust, corrupt human judges. If God can call them gods (elohim), who received that word of condemnation, and the Scripture cannot be broken, then “do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said ‘I am the Son of God.’” Jesus’ point is that if God Himself can call crooked judges by a divine name, and it not be blasphemy, how much more does a divine title belong to Him, who is not a corrupt judge, but rather the One who has been sanctified and sent into to the world by the Father? This is not proof that Jesus’ claim to be God is true; it is just proof that it is not blasphemous for Him to make the claim He is making, that He and the Father are one.

Of course in all of this entire exchange there is one overarching irony. The Jewish critics of Jesus assert that He, “being a man,” is making Himself “out to be God.” On the one hand, they are correct in that He very much is asserting Himself to be God. On the other hand, they are incorrect. He is not “making Himself out” to be anything. He is what He is; He is not a pretender. And if His claim is true, then He is not “a man” but something very much more than a man. He is not a man making Himself out to be God; He is rather God making Himself a man. He is the God who John says in Chapter 1 “became flesh and dwelt among us.” He is the God who, according to Paul in Philippians 2, “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” (Php 2:7-8). This was His claim. He and the Father are one. He claimed to be God and even those who heard Him say it knew exactly that this was what He meant. But He doesn’t simply claim it. He confirms it.

II. We must consider Jesus’ confirmation of deity (vv 32, 37-38)

Everyone who is a parent, or everyone who ever had parents (did I leave anyone out?) has probably heard or said at some point that great parental trump card in negotiations with children. When children persist in asking, “Why? Why? Why?,” surely every parent has reached the limit of patience and blurted out “Because I said so.” But, as children we understood, and as parents we are ashamed to admit, that “Because I said so,” is a poor defense for a position. When Jesus was questioned about why people should believe His claims about Himself and His mission in the world, Jesus never said, “Because I said so.” And He doesn’t do it here.

Notice what Jesus says as soon as the stones are picked up. He says, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” Jesus knows that they are attempting to stone Him because of His claim. But His statement here suggests that His works ought to have added sufficient credibility to His claim. After all, think about the location of His works: they were public; He “showed” them works. Think about the number of His works: “many” works. Think about the kind of works He did: “good” works. Think about the nature of His works: they were divine in origin and power; they were “from the Father.” Nothing Jesus did violated anything we know of the nature of God, but rather manifested that divine nature and supernatural power. What more could they have asked for to substantiate His claims? He had shown them many good works from the Father.

Consider the kinds of works that Jesus did. Taking John’s Gospel alone, the writer tells us that Jesus did so many miracles that, if they were all written down, the whole world couldn’t contain the books (21:25). John chose seven of them (not counting the greatest of all – His own resurrection from the dead!) to record for the purpose of proving that Jesus was the Christ, the divine Son of God (20:31). Jesus changed water into wine (2:1-11); He healed the nobleman’s terminally ill son (4:46-54); He healed the chronic paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18); He multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a multitude many thousands (6:5-14); He walked on the water in the Sea of Galilee (6:16-24); He healed a man who was born blind (9:1-7); and in Chapter 11, He will raise Lazarus from the dead (11:1-45). John wrote about these, and omitted many other good works from the Father that Jesus had shown the people, because he believed that even this handful of miracles was sufficient evidence to confirm Jesus’ claim to deity. The charge against Him voiced by the critics does not undermine Jesus’ credibility; rather it undermines their own. After all, as Carson writes, “Is there not something incongruous about religion that objects to the healing of long-term paralytics and the curing of someone born blind?”[2] Rather than rejoicing, for instance, when He healed the nobleman’s son, these religious leaders of Israel instead took exception to Jesus performing the miracle on the Sabbath! Instead of rejoicing that a man born blind had regained His sight by the power of God, they launched an investigation that resulted in them kicking that man out of their religious community!

Why should they believe anything Jesus has said about Himself? Well, if all we have are words, then even Jesus says that they have good reason to doubt. He even invites their unbelief and rejection in verse 37. He says, “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me.” It is as simple as that. He welcomes their unbelief, if He hasn’t confirmed His claims by publicly showing them many good works from the Father. But He goes further, saying that the same logic applies to the converse: “But if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works” (v38). In other words, “Even though you do not believe the things I say, how can you argue with the things I have done?” When He says, “Believe the works,” He does not mean that belief in vague supernatural realities like the existence of a divine being or the occurrence of unexplainable phenomena is sufficient to make us right before God. When He says, “Believe the works,” He is saying “believe the truth that the works are confirming about who I am.” The miracles do not point to themselves. They point to and authenticate Jesus as the divine Son of God, God in the flesh. That is why He says, “Believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” Believe what the works are showing you: that I and the Father are one; that I am indeed God in the flesh. Perhaps you say, “I cannot understand it, so how can I believe?” Jesus is saying that the evidence for belief is there – what He has done confirms what He said about Himself. You don’t understand in order to believe; you can believe it, so that you grow into knowledge and understanding of it. As Anselm wrote nearly a thousand years ago, “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”[3] We come to Jesus by faith, and we grow in that faith so that it becomes both confidence and comprehension of who Jesus is, what He says, and what He did.

Now, the direct claim to deity that Jesus makes in just six words, and the definitive confirmation of His deity He demonstrates in His works, confronts us in a profound and unavoidable way.

III. We must consider the confrontation of Jesus’ deity (v39-42)

Yogi Berra was once giving directions to his home to Joe Garagiola, and he told him, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s better advice than it sounds. At a fork in the road, you have to do something, otherwise you just stand there and do nothing. But when it comes to Jesus, the option to just stand there and do nothing is not available to us. When we are confronted by the divine claims of Jesus, we come to life’s ultimate fork in the road, and we have to take it. We have to make a decision: We will believe Him, or we will not. And in our text, we find examples of both.

Notice first that the crowd around Jesus there at the temple did not believe in Him. They heard the claim, they heard the defense of the claim, and they had seen the confirming miracles that substantiated the claim. But, when it was all said and done, they did not believe. Verse 39 says that they were “seeking again to seize Him.” They were undeterred in their unbelief, in spite of the reasoning and the evidence Jesus has provided to them. Their hatred for Him is unflinching, and they once more seek to put Him to death. They did not succeed, this time. Jesus “eluded their grasp.” It doesn’t say how, but we know why. It was not His time to die. That time would come, and they would succeed in crucifying the Lord of glory. Of course, their unbelief did not deter Him from His divine mission. Even in putting Him to death, they were merely carrying out the Father’s predetermined plan for Jesus. He came to die – to die for the sins of humanity, that He might bear our sin and its penalty in full on our behalf, and conquer it through His resurrection from the dead, so that we might be saved. They thought that their unbelief in Him gave them the upper hand, but it never does. Your unbelief in Jesus does not make Him go away. It does not deter Him from doing what He came to do. It does not silence Him. It merely compounds your guilt before Him, for in turning away from Him, you turn away from the only offer of eternal life that there is. Tragically, multitudes have come to the fork in the road and made the wrong turn. They have chosen the path that leads to destruction.

Others on the other hand, have chosen the alternate way – the way of faith. Like those out beyond the Jordan described in verses 40-42, they have come to believe in Jesus and accept Him as the Lord of glory and the Savior of the world. Notice the maturity of their faith: they said, “John performed no sign, yet everything John said about this man was true,” and they believed in Him. They did not need confirming evidence. They heard the testimony of John the Baptist, and that testimony pointed them directly to Jesus Christ. John had told them that Jesus was the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. And they had come to believe in Him. And many of you have come to believe in Him as well. You have heard His claim; you have read about His confirming works, and you have placed your faith in Him and have been saved. Now that you believe, you have embarked on a life of growth – you are perpetually gaining knowledge and understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done for you as you grow in grace.

But there are only those two options. He says He is God, and His miracles validate the claim. You either believe that or you do not. There really isn’t any other alternative. When you consider Jesus, you are confronted by an eternally important fork in the road. You don’t have a choice but to take it. Which path you choose is the most important decision you could ever make.

[1] “I. Scriptures” in The Baptist Faith and Message: 2000. Accessed online at 2000.asp. Accessed February 20, 2014.
[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 396.
[3] Anselm, Proslogion (Notre Dame; University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 115.

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