Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Wonderful Fragrance and a Horrible Stench (John 12:1-8)

Most of us remember that tagline from the commercials that spoke of  “a Kodak moment.” It is a moment that deserves being captured on film for preservation. A couple of weeks ago, as my wife and I were walking her dog (I don’t own a dog, but she does), we missed a really great Kodak moment. The dog stopped suddenly on the side of the road to take care of important business, and while she was doing her business, she was sniffing a flower in front of her. I really wish I had captured the picture. It was a moment of great contrast. On one end of the dog was a fragrant aroma, and on the other end of the dog was a horrible stench. That image deserved to be captured and preserved. It was a Kodak moment, but I missed it.  

In our text today we find a similar Kodak moment that has been captured and preserved for us. As we read it, we can see it in our mind’s eye in rich color and texture, and the account leaps off the page in multi-sensory detail. We can smell the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship in Mary’s act of anointing the Lord Jesus with her costly perfume, and we can detect that gut-wrenching, pungent stench of Judas’s hard-hearted and hypocritical grumbling. Nowhere in Scripture is there a greater contrast of human responses to Jesus Christ than we have preserved here in this text.

Let’s set the stage of the scene. In Chapter 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, which prompted many to believe in Him, while many others were calcified in their hatred toward Him. With a death-warrant looming over His head, Jesus withdrew from Jerusalem. But as Chapter 12 opens, the re-engagement begins as His hour draws near. He has returned to the environs of Jerusalem for the final time. John tells us in verse 1 that it is six days before Passover. So, on a Friday evening as the Sabbath begins, Jesus has re-entered Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem proper, and reunited with Lazarus and his family. As the Passover breaks on Saturday evening, a meal is held in His honor – a celebration of thanksgiving for restoring the life of Lazarus. Tomorrow, He will enter Jerusalem for the last time on what we observe as Palm Sunday. It is in this context that we see this great contrast of the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship and the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling. It is to those thoughts that I would like to devote our attention.

I. The wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship (vv1-3).

The word “extravagant” has a range of meaning. It can refer to something that is so excessive as to be wasteful or to something that is beyond what is reasonable. When I say “extravagant worship,” I do not intend to use either of those meanings. But the word “extravagant” can also mean something that is exceedingly high in value, price, or cost. And when it comes to our worship of Christ, extravagance is not unreasonable. Because the Lord Jesus has been extravagant in the outpouring of His grace, it is entirely reasonable for us to be extravagant in the outpouring of our worship. Not a drop of His blood nor a measure of His grace was wasted in our redemption, and not a pound of our worship is wasted in rendering to Him the worship that He is due. Extravagance is called for, but rarely evidenced. Our worship, when compared to the extravagance of which the Lord Jesus is worthy, may be more often characterized as miserly and stingy. But every now and then, we see a glimpse of Jesus receiving the extravagant worship that He deserves. And we see it here in the act of Mary.

We see her extravagant worship demonstrated first of all in the meal itself. Now, you say, “What is so extravagant about providing a meal for someone?” Indeed, in that culture and others where hospitality is cherished as a virtue, failure to provide a meal for someone who had traveled so far would be highly taboo. But this was not just a meal for a visiting traveler. This meal was for Jesus Christ: a wanted man and a fugitive. The order had gone out in verse 57 that if anyone knew His whereabouts, they were to report Him to the authorities. Not only did this group not report Him, they in fact hosted and publicly celebrated Him. After all, this is the Jesus who has given them back their loved one from death. Here at the table sits one, Lazarus, who just a few days before was dead and in his tomb, but who now (because of the power and grace of Jesus) is alive and well again! You see, extravagant worship recognizes the extravagant power and grace of Jesus and does not consider the consequences as it is poured out from a faithful heart filled with love and gratitude for Him.

If you know Christ today, then you have this in common with Lazarus: you were as dead spiritually as Lazarus was physically when the Lord Jesus called you to life in Himself. He has raised you up! Should we not rejoice and celebrate with extravagant worship? Someone will tell you, “Hey, you know, you should tone it down with all the Jesus-talk. You don’t want to be a fanatic. You’re going to upset someone and cause trouble.” Well, it is not our goal to cause trouble or to upset anyone, but we’ve been brought to life from the dead! How can we not make much of Jesus in extravagant worship? If you aren’t overflowing with extravagant worship because Jesus has given you life when you were dead in sin, check your pulse and make sure you are really alive! Come what may, extravagant worship can’t be contained, no matter the risks or dangers. Extravagant worship doesn’t consider the consequences.

Then notice that extravagant worship doesn’t consider the cost. This is really the point that John wants us to see here – Mary’s sacrificial outpouring of this “very costly perfume.” It’s made of pure nard, he tells us. The spikenard plant from which this perfume was made grows up in the higher altitudes of the Himalayas in Nepal, Tibet and Northern India. It was imported from there in that day, and was therefore very expensive. Mary’s got a lot of it – if you can picture a soda can, that’s about how much perfume Mary’s got, according to the original meaning of the weight and measure here. That’s a lot of perfume, a this is a very costly supply. The other gospel writers tell us that it is kept in an alabaster vial, so even the container was very valuable. We read in verse 5 that it was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was the average worker’s daily wage, so 300 denarii would be about a year’s salary for the average person. The latest research I could put my hands on placed the national average income for Americans today around $40,000. Do any of you have perfume worth that much? And here, as Jesus reclines at the table with His friends, Mary does the unexpected and the extravagant. She pours that very costly perfume out all over Him. John says she anointed His feet. Matthew and Mark say that she anointed His head. There’s no contradiction there. We’re talking about a soda can full of perfume. She has poured it all over Him from head to toe. Mark says she broke the vial, indicating that she spent it all on Jesus, even the container it came in. And then, in great humility and devotion, she begins to loosen the tresses of her hair (something very scandalous in that day), and she wiped His feet with her hair. Picture this precious woman on the ground before the outstretched feet of Jesus, massaging the perfume into His calloused feet with her hair. I dare say no one ever gave Jesus the worship He deserves more than this dear soul did. Extravagant worship never considers the cost, because Jesus is worthy of all we can give Him.

What is your most valued possession, the thing you treasure most in your life? Is it your home, your financial portfolio, your career, your reputation, your children, your family? Maybe something else? Could you give it away for Jesus? You say, “What do you mean? Jesus would never ask me to give those things up for Him!” Well, in fact, Jesus asks you to give everything up for Him, and He is worthy of it. He doesn’t really want your stuff, He wants your heart. But He says that where your treasure is, there your heart is also (Lk 12:34). If He is not your treasure, He will begin to call you to loosen your grasp on whatever is. In many cases, the question is, “How can I give this to Jesus in such a way that He can be glorified in it and through it?” Can Jesus be glorified in your home, or in your career, or by your finances, or through your family? He isn’t asking you to place the blade on the neck of your firstborn, but He’s calling you to hold nothing back from Him. If the day should ever come that God would call your children or your grandchildren to serve Him in a far-away and dangerous land, are you willing to give them to Him? If He should call you to walk away from your career and walk by faith into His service, could you do it? If He were to call you to make a bold stand for Him that could jeopardize your repuration, or your livelihood and lifestyle, could you do it? The list could go on and on. These are costly expressions of worship, some may even say extravagant! But extravagant worship does not consider the cost, because the extravagant worshiper knows that Jesus is worthy. Mary gave an unthinkably costly gift to Jesus in an outpouring of worship. Are we willing to do the same?

Extravagant worship doesn’t consider the cost and it doesn’t consider the consequences. And when it is poured out on Jesus, a wonderful aroma fills the air. Verse 3 says that the whole house was “filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The fragrance of her act of worship permeated the whole place, and she arose and went about serving, her hair wafted the aroma and kept it lingering long after her act of worship was completed. I’ve known a few folks like this in my life – not many, but a few. When you are around them, you just feel like you’ve been near God Himself because their lives put off this heavenly aroma of extravagant worship. I like being around those people. I want to be one of them. In the Law, the various sacrifices and offerings that were burnt on the altar of God were said to put off a soothing aroma before the Lord (e.g., Exo 29:25, et al.). I want my life to be like that. Jesus wants all of our lives to be like this! In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Pour it out as a soothing aroma, a wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship. Think not of the cost or the consequences. Jesus is worthy, in view of the excellencies of His great mercy and grace, and His power which has been revealed in us as He saves us and transforms us from that old way of death in which we formerly walked. Let us not be miserly in our worship of Him. Let us be extravagant and pour it all out for Him because He is worthy of extravagant worship! Let everyone around us smell it in our lives – the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship.

Oh, how I wish the passage ended there! But, sadly it doesn’t. It goes on, from this beautiful story of this wonderful fragrance to tell the sorry tale of …

II. The horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling (vv4-6)

One of our college students is presently over in West Africa, and this past week, she’s been texting me lots of pictures of the places she’s been visiting. I have been to some of those places myself. One of them was particularly memorable for me. She sent me a picture of a beautiful beach with a row of colorfully hand-painted fishing boats lined up along the shore. I remember that scene well. Soft white sand, palm trees lining the shore, and people frolicking about in the crystal-blue water. But the air on that beach is filled with a gut-wrenching stench, because there on the beach is a huge pile of garbage where everyone in the city dumps their trash, including human waste, rotting food, remnants of dead fish, and a host of other little nasties. Its kind of like what we have going on here in this scene in our text. There’s this beautiful scene of extravagant worship, but all of a sudden it is shot through by the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling over in a corner of the room. It must have been all that the dinner guests could do to hold down their meal as this noxious odor began to fill the room from the mouth of Judas Iscariot.

There is a lot that can be said about Judas Iscariot, none of it is good, and much of it is said here in this text. But before we delve into the sorry details of this scoundrel’s heart, let it be known well that Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve. He’d spent every waking moment of the last three years in the company of Jesus Christ. He’d seen every miracle and heard every blessed word that fell from the lips of our Lord. He’d earned enough trust among his peers to be given the responsibility of being their treasurer. The dark secrets of his unbelieving heart were known only to him, and not to anyone else. When, at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “One of you is going to betray Me,” there wasn’t a soul in the room who said, “I bet He’s talking about Judas.” They all said, “Lord, is it me?” In their minds, they could envision themselves betraying the Lord before Judas would. Judas stands as a stark warning to the Church of Jesus Christ. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul warned the Church at Ephesus, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:29-31). Where do these savage wolves come from? They come in among you, and arise up from among your own selves. They are in the church, and Judas was by no means the last of them. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of opening the newspaper and reading about another pastor who’s tarnished the name of Jesus because of his unbridled lusts and his love of money! I’m tired of reading blogs to see how another spiritual leader has made shipwreck of himself and his flock by falling into false teaching! And, as Chaucer said so well in The Canterbury Tales, “If gold rust, what shall poor iron do? For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust, what wonder if a layman yield to lust?”[1] Let us not be surprised, brothers and sisters, to find the same kind of Judas-heart hiding in the crowd of hundreds of church members in our day if there was one even among the circle of twelve disciples who walked with the Lord Jesus. But, like Judas, given the time and the opportunity, they will reveal themselves through their hypocritical grumbling. The horrible stench is impossible to mask.

Have you ever caught whiff of something that, at first, you can’t tell if it smells good or bad? I grew up on collard greens. The first smell of collard greens cooking brings me back to my childhood and I think of how pleasant it is. But the longer I smell it, the more noxious it becomes. It smells like someone is boiling dirty socks! And that is the way it is with the hypocritical grumbling that we see in Judas here. This kind of hypocrisy offers pretentious arguments. Judas says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” That smells pretty good with the first whiff, doesn’t it? He kind of has a point. A lot of good could be done with the proceeds of that sale. But there is a subtle kind of lie underneath this statement. It whispers beneath the words that Jesus really isn’t worthy of extravagant worship. There’s some other cause, some other need, some other issue that should trump the priority of Christ and the worship that is freely poured out on Him. And friends, you will hear this kind of pretentious argumentation from time to time as well.

In just a few weeks, we’ll be voting on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. This is a critical year. With the departure of the Chinese Church from our facility, we are looking at an immediate loss of 15% of our annual income. A budget of over a quarter-million dollars is simply not practical for us, and there are differing opinions of what needs to be cut and what needs to be raised. But the fact of the matter is that it cannot be business as usual. In our upcoming budget discussion, there will likely be some who speak passionately about the need to cut one item so that others can increase, and vice-versa. But friends, we must ask ourselves what the business of the church must always be about. We simply cannot sacrifice the advance of the Gospel, the discipleship of our members, and the worship of our Lord Jesus in exchange for pet projects and the luxuries of Christian comforts. We have to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is the worship of Christ and the evangelization of the nations beginning in our own community and extending to the ends of the earth. We simply cannot meet every need or supply every wish. My prayer is that we can articulate a war-time budget that demonstrates that the priorities of this church mirror the priorities of Jesus Christ. Let us not employ pretentious arguments that subtly declare that Christ or the Gospel is not worthy of all that we can give.

This kind of hypocritical grumbling that we see in Judas here offers pretentious arguments, and it conceals a sinful and selfish heart. In the accounts of Matthew and Mark, we are told that several of the disciples were thinking exactly what Judas was saying. Some of these guys really did care about the poor! They had learned from Jesus about the need to touch the untouchable and to care for the “least of these.” That was true for some of them, but not for Judas. Behind his words there was a sinful and selfish heart. Verse 6 says that he was not concerned for the poor. As the treasurer of the disciples, he used to steal money from their treasury for himself! Here’s a year’s salary being poured out – more money than Judas had seen in a long time! If only that much money could be put in the offering box, he could pilfer a little for himself off the top and no one would ever notice or miss it. But make no mistake about it, the only person Judas saw benefiting from the sale of this perfume was himself.

This kind of self-centered sin rears its ugly head in the cause of Christ from time to time. Of course, there are those crooked imbezzlers who make headlines, and likely more that never get caught. But often there is a more subtle way this works. Some have pet projects and personal interests that they seek to fund and fuel at the expense of other areas of ministry. Some oppose a strategic and necessary change because they personally benefit under the status quo. Some selfishly fight to preserve their favorite personal interests while more pressing things suffer. How many Kingdom focused ministries suffer because resources are pilfered for the building of private and personal empires? Every time we discuss sending a team overseas on a mission trip, someone will say, “Why should we invest the funds to sending a team overseas when there are so many needs here?” The assumption is that it is “either/or.” In point of fact, we are sending people across oceans, and across streets on mission, and very few of those who voice this concern are involved even in the local work. In some cases, these objections are raised naively and with pure intentions, but be not deceived. Sometimes there is a sinfully selfish heart underlying the stratagems, not unlike that displayed in Judas Iscariot here. The stench of it is hideous when it permeates the church of Jesus Christ.

Finally, this kind of hypocritical grumbling confirms the true condition of the heart. John barely gets the name of Judas Iscariot off the end of his pen before he can hold back no more and include the tragic reality of his hardened heart. “Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him. It was already in his heart to do it. He had very likely been wrestling with it for some time. He had his hopes fixed on power, prestige and prosperity in the courts of King Jesus as He seized the throne of Judea and chased out the Roman oppressors. But then Jesus started talking about being crucified, about shedding His blood to save people from sin, about a Kingdom that was not of this world, and Judas quickly began to lose interest. Visions of dollar signs had danced in his head, but with this display that he considered to be an extravagant waste, the camel’s back was broken. The concrete the flowed through his heart set permanently, and the decision was made to turn Jesus over to be put to death. No surprise that he did it in exchange for money, for money was his god.

The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim 6:10). The Lord Jesus had said within Judas’ hearing, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). Mammon is an ancient word for riches or wealth. It is no sin to have money, but it is a sin for money to have you. If you treasure it too greatly and cling to it too tightly, it will overtake your heart and crowd out any room for Jesus. It is far better to treasure Christ above all, as Hebrews 13:5 says, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” In other words, make sure, above all else, that you have Christ, and if He is all you have, be content with Him and nothing else. He will never leave you or forsake you. But if you love money, or (let’s face it!) anything else in the world other than Him, you will leave Him and forsake Him. Judas stands as a stark warning to us of this danger. The hypocrisy that prompts his grumbling here in the wake of an act of pure and extravagant worship fills the air with a toxic stench.

What is the aroma that your life emits? Is it the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship that is poured out in love and faith and gratitude in view of the life giving mercy, saving grace, and transforming power of Jesus? Or is it the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling? Mary is known to us forever as the hot-hearted, extravagant worshiper of Christ. Her fragrance fills the air with every mention of her name. And Judas, well his name is never mentioned in the Gospels without the sorry epitaph that he is the one who betrayed the Lord in exchange for money. With every mention of his name, there is this pungent odor of hard-hearted and hypocritical betrayal. They say that scent is the strongest sense tied to our memories. So how will you be remembered? What aroma does your life emit? The sweet and fragrant aroma of extravagant worship, or the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling?

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1:502-504. Online at http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury.php3?display?2?1?496?0?15?1????1. Accessed May 22, 2014. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Great Turning Point (John 11:54-57)

As we analyze the structure of John’s Gospel, we find four major sections. In Chapter 1, we have a prelude and introduction. From Chapter 2 through Chapter 11, we have a description of Jesus’ earthly ministry, focusing primarily on His radical teachings which are authenticated by His miracles or “signs.” Some have called these chapters “the book of signs.” And then from Chapter 12 through Chapter 20, we have the passion narrative – the account of Jesus’ final week from His entry to Jerusalem to His death and resurrection. Finally in Chapter 21, we have a postscript and conclusion. So, on that way of reckoning, the end of John 11 then marks the great turning point (and in some sense, the half-way point) in this Gospel. We will read no more about Jesus’ profound encounters with spiritual seekers. There will be no more public discourses about His nature or His mission. And there will be no more miracles, at least not until the ultimate and final one in this Gospel when He rises from the dead. Henceforth, His face is set like flint toward Jerusalem and the cross, where He will do what He came to do – give His life as a ransom for many. Thus, these brief verses that we have read today are of great significance as they close out the book of signs and the record of Jesus’ public teaching and miracles, and open the book of His passion – His suffering and death in our place for our sins. The Apostle John, writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, has written these words as the turning point of the book, and these words also parallel the great turning point that occurs in our lives. These words show us our great need for a Savior, they probe our spiritual motives, and they challenge our level of devotion. Let’s look at the verses and unpack those ideas.

I. There is a great human need for a Savior (vv54-55)

It is a really amazing phenomenon about the human race: inherently we are a very religious species. Every civilization that is unearthed by archaeologists has left behind an abundance of evidence of their belief in religious things. In fact, even those who claim to be irreligious or anti-religious, are in fact very religious. They hold to their tenets by a kind of religious faith as much as (or in some cases even more than) the most committed Bible-believing Christian. We are a religious species of beings, due in large degree to the fact that we are made in the image of God, and therefore are hardwired to inquire about spiritual things.

The interesting phenomenon of human religiosity goes even further than this. As C. S. Lewis so wonderfully points out in the opening chapter of his book Mere Christianity, there are two curious things found in every human being who has ever lived: “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way.”[1] To put the matter in biblical terms, we are aware in our own hearts that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). So there is this nagging sense in every human heart that we must do something about the sin that is present within us.

For some, they decide to tinker with the scales. They say that there is no objective standard of morality. This is why Paul addresses those in Romans 1 whom He says have “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness.” That is, by dismissing the standards of morality, they liberate themselves to live as immorally as they please. We see this on grand display today in our culture. Others will retreat to doing good deeds to assuage their guilty consciences, in hopes that at the final day, God might weigh their good deeds against their bad deeds and find that they have done more good than bad and thus earn His approval. This is the foundational hope of all devout Muslims. Still others will turn to religious rituals in order to find release from their sins. Maybe there is a cleansing ritual, a sacrifice, a vow, a prescribed order of penance, a payment, or the like which can wipe the slate clean for them. In all of this, we see evidence of the great human need for a Savior.  

Here in our text, we find just such a group of Jewish people. They are coming into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Passover was one of three Jewish festivals in which people were expected to travel, if possible, to Jerusalem. Every year, it was estimated that at least a million people came into the city for the occasion.[2] Of course, they were coming to commemorate God’s redemption of His people from bondage in Egypt. You will recall how the book of Exodus describes it. After Moses had confronted Pharaoh with the demand to release God’s people, and after the judgment of one horrible plague after another, there came this final, fateful night in which the death angel would sweep through Egypt destroying the firstborn of every household. But, God had made a provision to spare Israel this calamity. If they would smear the blood of a spotless and unblemished lamb over their doorpost, the destroyer would see the blood of the lamb and “pass over” the homes of the Israelites, who were saved by the blood of the lamb. And then, Moses would lead them out of slavery and into the land of promise. Every year, even to the present day, this is a high holy day for Israelites as they look back on God’s great act of redemption. The recollection of those events of the Exodus call them to worship God anew with thanksgiving and expectation.

But in our text, we read of a group of people who are “early arrivers” for the feast. Passover is a week away yet, but this group has come early, as verse 55 tells us, “to purify themselves,” so that they will not be refused entry to the temple area for the Passover observance. There were all kinds of defilements that would render a person ceremonially unclean. They included having contact with a dead body or because of a bodily discharge that they had suffered, or because they had come into contact with a person, or the belongings of a person, who had been defiled by these things. All Gentiles were considered unclean, so anyone who had contact with Gentiles was deemed unclean as well. These people have come because they are aware of their need to be made right before the Lord because of their personal uncleanness. If they were honest with themselves, there wasn’t a Jew in Israel, including the priesthood, who could say with integrity that he or she was clean enough to worship the Lord without being first purified. In that regard, they are not unlike the rest of the entire human race. We know that there is a defilement within us that would bar us from the presence of God. We know that something must be done about these sins and these defilements, but do we know what help or hope there may be? For these people, they are coming to their priests, who have prescribed certain rituals that they can go through involving sacrifices, offerings, washings, and the like, before they can celebrate the Passover.

While multitudes are coming into Jerusalem to be cleansed of their impurities, notice in verse 54 where the Lord Jesus is going. He is going in the other direction. He is heading out to the wilderness, to a place called Ephraim, where He intended to stay until the appointed time for Him to enter Jerusalem. You see, the Lord Jesus does not need to go to the Temple or to the priests to purify himself. Listen to the testimony of Scripture concerning His moral impeccability:

  • He “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21).
  • He was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
  • He was “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens,” and “does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, … for His own sins” (Heb 7:26-27).
  • He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth” (1 Pet 2:22).
  • “In Him there is no sin” (1 Jn 3:5).

These and other verses reveal to us that the Lord Jesus was entirely free from the defilements of sin in His infinite holiness and righteousness. He did not need to undergo purification, unlike the multitudes of people who were flooding into Jerusalem in advance of the Passover. Rather, Jesus is able to provide purification in a far greater and more ultimate way to those who are in need of it.

Because Jesus is the perfectly righteous and sinless Son of God, He is uniquely able to be the Savior that humanity needs. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death. When a human being dies, in a very real sense, he is dying for his own sins. But the Lord Jesus had no sins of His own for which to die. Therefore, He is able to be a substitute and a sacrificial Lamb, a Lamb of God without spot or blemish, to take upon Himself the sins of the world and bear them beneath the just judgment of God for our cleansing and purification. In the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, our sins receive their full penalty under God’s wrath, and we are forgiven because we are cleansed by His blood. And in exchange for our sins, God covers us in the very righteousness of Jesus, so that He sees us, as it were, not in the foulness of our sin, but as if we bore the sinless holiness of Jesus Himself. And by the sanctifying work of His Holy Spirit who indwells us, He is actually shaping us to reflect that holiness over the course of our entire lives. What He has declared us to be positionally in Christ, He is shaping us to be practically like Christ. There is no magic ritual, no man-made religion, and no moral reformation that we can undergo which has the ability to purify us. Our only hope for purification is found in the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. As Peter writes, “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:18-19).

Jesus is the greater purification that we all need. But He is also the greater Passover. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed. You see, in Christ, God is delivering us from a greater bondage than that of slavery in Egypt. He is delivering us from the bondage of sin and the destruction of death. Jesus is God’s Lamb, whose blood must be applied over the doorpost of our heart if we are to be saved and brought out of sin’s captivity and into the life that God has promised us – life abundant and eternal. The people of verse 55 have come to Jerusalem to purify themselves in order to observe the Passover, but some of them have walked right past the only One who can purify them. In a short time, the Lord Jesus Himself will come into Jerusalem to become our Passover in order to purify us from our sins and deliver us from sin’s slavery. He is the greater purifier and the greater Passover – the Savior that the entire human race needs to rescue and deliver us.

Now, this brings us to the second point, which we see in verse 56 …

II. There are various motives for seeking Jesus (v56)

I have been in ministry long enough to live through several church fads. One of the ones that is, thankfully, dying in our day is the “seeker sensitive movement.” At its peak, the leaders of this movement were saying to churches that we needed to be extremely sensitive in our preaching and our worship planning to not offend anyone and to not talk so much about things like sin, hell, wrath, blood, and things like that. After all, we don’t want to turn someone off to Jesus when they may genuinely be seeking Him. There are only a few dozen problems with that line of thinking. The most obvious one is that Paul says in Romans 3:11 that there is “none who seeks for God.” In the spiritual deadness of our sins, we would much prefer that if God really is there, that He would just mind His own business and leave us alone. If there is a true seeker, it is God-in-Christ. Jesus said that the Father is seeking true worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23), and Jesus said that He had come to seek and to save that which is lost (Lk 19:10). But also, if one would claim to be truly seeking Jesus, and yet would be turned off by the mention of things like hell, sin, wrath, and blood, we would have to wonder why on earth they were seeking Him? What is it that they hope that Jesus could provide for them, if not redemption from sin through the shedding of His blood, which saves us from the wrath of God in an eternal hell? By this and many other experiences, we’ve come to understand then that people are often seeking Jesus, but for widely varying motives.

Let’s take the group of people about whom we read in this passage. Verse 56 tells us that they were “seeking for Jesus” and they were wondering if He was going to show up at the Passover at all. Now, why were they seeking Him and so curious about His travel plans? Is it not obvious? They have heard that this is the One who has the power to raise dead people back to life and open the eyes of the blind. Maybe they want Him to do something for them, or at least to see Him do it for someone else. They want to be entertained, or to receive some physical or material benefit from Him.  

Others, perhaps, have other motives for seeking Him. They have heard the report circulating that the Sanhedrin has a warrant out for Jesus, and they are wanting to see some action. They are like those people on the interstate who slow down and rubberneck at the incident on the side of the road that has drawn the police cars, ambulances, and firetrucks onto the scene. They don’t want to get involved or do anything to help, they just want to see what all the excitement is about. Undoubtedly there were some in this crowd who just wanted to see some action, but to see it from a safe vantage point without becoming personally involved.

And then of course, there were those religious officials who had issued the warrant for Jesus. They too were seeking Him, and wondering if He would show up, because their hearts were intent on destroying Him. They are poised to ambush Him as soon as He shows His face. So there are all kinds of people seeking Jesus with all kinds of motives, both here in our text, and in our world today.

The heartbreaking thing about all of this is that with all these people seeking Jesus, no one was seeking Him for the right motive – that they might turn to Him in faith and repentance and be saved! And the same is true today. There are skeptics who feign interest in Jesus, expecting Him to do something amazing to earn their belief in Him. What an arrogant perspective, to think that the God of the universe must amuse and impress you in order to earn your approval, as if He needed it in the first place! Then there are those who are just sort of morbidly curious about religious matters. They have no desire to become involved or entangled with Jesus; they just like to observe the action from a distance. They like the music, the pageantry and tradition, the oratory, the testimony, but it is all for their entertainment purposes. And then of course, there are those critics, whose only interest in seeking Jesus at all is in order to debate about Him and to offer their opinions about Him, as if they think that they can stand in judgment over Him, rather than the contrary. What a rare thing it is to find someone who is seeking after Jesus for the right reasons: because they are broken over sin and find Him as their only hope of salvation and eternal life. That is because, as we stated earlier, that left to our own sinful devices, none of us ever would seek Him on those terms. We would much prefer to just be left alone by Him. But thanks be to God, Jesus can be something of a meddler in our affairs. If anyone ever does seek Him for the right reasons, it is only because the Lord Jesus has first sought after him or her, and begun to do that divine work of stirring up conviction and desire in their hearts, drawing them gently to Himself. If there is ever any true seeking of Jesus, it is a response to His greater seeking of us.

If you are a Christian today, give thanks to God that He moved upon your heart and provoked you to seek after Christ. It was not of your own doing, but His. For reasons known only to Him, God chose you in eternity past to be the special object of His divine grace and brought you to Himself in Christ. You sought, because He was seeking you. It may be that He is doing that work in the heart of someone present today. All of a sudden you find yourself with an insatiable hunger in your heart to know Christ. Maybe it is what brought you here today. Maybe you have been like one of these others that we have mentioned for a very long time, and you inexplicably find yourself now aware of your need to know Christ personally as the One who can save you from your sins. Give thanks to God for that work of grace that He is doing, and come to Jesus by faith in response to His drawing. Maybe you aren’t like that at all. Maybe you have no interest in Him whatsoever. I would wonder why you are here, and you may wonder as well. But could it be that the Lord is doing something in your heart that even you do not fully comprehend? Maybe the kind of faith in Christ that I am describing today seems foreign and impossible for you. Have you ever considered asking the Lord to impart that kind of faith to you? The Bible says that saving faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8-9), and I know of no other gift that God would rather give you than that. I don’t know that anyone has ever prayed that prayer and found God unwilling to answer it. I dare say that if you even desire to pray it, it is evidence that God is already answering it. Isaiah said, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near” (Isa 55:6).

Now, finally, let me close with this last point here in the text in verse 57 …

III.  There is a call to severe devotion to Christ (v57)

The orders have gone out: If anyone knows anything about Jesus, he or she is to speak up and testify as to His whereabouts so that that the Pharisees and chief priests can apprehend Him. Do you doubt the historicity of this account? Well, in fact, it is corroborated by at least one outside source, and a surprising one at that. In the Babylonian Gemara, which is a Jewish commentary on a Jewish commentary of the written and oral teachings of Judaism first put into written form around 500 AD, we read this:

Tradition reports that on the evening of the Passover Jesus was crucified, and that this took place after an officer had during forty days publicly proclaimed: This man who by his deception has seduced the people ought to be crucified. Whosoever can allege anything in his defense, let him come forward and speak. But no one found anything to say in his defense. He was hanged therefore on the evening of the Passover.[3]

While the details vary somewhat from our biblical account, and we have good reason to trust the biblical details moreso than these, we do see that even the Jews acknowledge that there had been an appeal made for people with information about Jesus to come forward and speak about Him. The Gemara specifies that they were seeking people who would come to His defense, and even as the Bible acknowledges, no one did. But it is not a far stretch for us to believe what is written here in our text, that the appeal was also for those who had evidence to condemn Him or to locate Him to come forward as well. But let us return to the point that there was not a soul to be found who was willing to speak a word on Jesus’ behalf. Surely some could. Surely there were many who had believed in Him, many who had been healed by Him, many who had seen Him do wondrous signs. Where were they? They were nowhere to be found. Maybe they were afraid. After all, in John 9, when the formerly blind man who had been healed by Jesus spoke on His behalf, he was excommunicated from the synagogue and his entire family was threatened. In John 12:10, we read that the chief priests were even conspiring to kill Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

We must conclude that those who could speak a word on Jesus’ behalf were silenced by intimidation. And so are many followers of Jesus today. It will come as no surprise for you to hear me say that this world is becoming increasingly intolerant of Jesus Christ’s radical and exclusive claims. I don’t know how long the Lord will tarry His return, or if we will ever see a change in trajectory in our culture, but on the present course, I do not find it hard to imagine that some of us will live to see the day when this very gathering could be viewed as a terrorist cell. The rhetoric that we are hearing in our day is akin to that of verse 57 – If anyone knows anything about Jesus, we dare you to speak up about Him.

But friends, times like these are when the mettle of our devotion to Christ will be tested, tried, and proven. Will we choose to obey Christ or Caesar? When the early church was threatened to remain silent about Jesus, the response from the church was clear: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac 4:19-20). Need I remind you that every apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ suffered greatly for their faith and their proclamation of the good news that Jesus is Lord? We have not been promised a safer journey. The threats and intimidation that we face today pale in comparison to what our brothers and sisters around the world face, but the future may find us in the same circumstances that countless Christians have endured over the centuries. But we must give heed to God at all costs and never stop speaking about what we have seen and heard and know to be true of the Lord Jesus Christ! He demands it of us, and the world itself requires it of us. If we are to be obedient to His commission to the church, we must speak up and speak out at all costs. And if the world is to be saved, we must speak up and speak out at all costs. The enemies of the cross dare us to speak a word on His behalf. The perishing multitudes around the world who have never heard the Gospel are begging us to speak a word on His behalf. This is no time for shallow devotion. It is a time for severe, death-defying devotion that embraces the risk for the sake of the glory of Christ and the salvation of the world.

Is there anyone here who knows anything about Jesus? You are summoned to testify on His account. It is not safe. It is extremely risky. But it is absolutely necessary if we as His Church are to be found faithful and if the nations are to know of His glory and grace. You have been called to severe devotion. Do you know anything about this Jesus? Speak up and make it known.

At this great turning point in John’s Gospel, we are reminded that there is a great turning point in our lives as well. At this great turning point, we are presented with the universal human need for a Savior from sin. And we are presented with the Savior, Jesus Christ, our Passover, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We are reminded that many motivations prompt people to seek Him. But none will find Him if the Church is silent. We are called to severe devotion. If you know Him, speak of Him. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Man's Plans and God's Purposes (John 11:46-53)


As we read the text before us today, there is a great temptation to see the events which are unfolding here, and those that will unfold in the subsequent pages of John’s Gospel, as a great tragedy that could have, and should have, been prevented. We can begin to view Jesus as a helpless victim to the wickedness of humanity’s worst representatives. While we do not want to minimize the moral culpability of those who determined to put Jesus to death, we must remember that God has a sovereign plan that far surpasses those of human beings. As the wise King Solomon writes in Proverbs 19:21, “Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand.” And that is as true for the events here in this text as it was for Solomon, or for you and me. What we have in this text is an example of men doing their best to plan, to plot, and to predict, but none of them have the power to bring those things to pass. God’s sovereign purpose and plan surpasses and overrides them all. Remember Joseph, in the book of Genesis, whose brothers plotted and schemed to destroy him. Joseph was able to say in retrospect, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). So the Lord Jesus, and all who know Him by faith, can view the events that surround Him on these final days of His earthly life and say, “Though others plotted evil against Him, God used all these things for good” – good for Jesus, good for us, good for the world. We can rejoice that the plans that arise in the hearts of men can never thwart the ultimate purpose of our sovereign God.

I. Men address their problems, but the Lord’s purposes prevail. (vv46-48)
The religious leaders of Israel had a big problem: His name was Jesus. He was saying and doing things that threatened their power and prestige in the nation. People were beginning to turn to Him and trust in Him, and to turn away from the empty religion of the Temple and its leaders. After all, no one else had ever demonstrated the kind of divine power and authority that Jesus did. Remember what just happened in the immediately preceding text. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead! And after He had done this, verse 45 says that “many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him.” Many believed, but all did not. Some instead decided to turn state’s evidence against Jesus. They are set in contrast with those in verse 45 who had come to believe in Him. In their hardened unbelief, they “went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done” (v46).

The Pharisees already knew that Jesus was becoming a growing problem for them. On other occasions they had conspired and even attempted to put Him to death. They had tried their best to marginalize and discredit Jesus and to divert people’s attention away from Him. But it wasn’t working! Therefore, there had to be a meeting. Verse 47 says that the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council. The word council in our English Bibles translates a Greek word which, if translated literally, would be Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish council in the first century. It consisted of 71 members, mostly from the Sadducees and Pharisees. Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees had very little in common. They had major difference in theology and in politics. But this one thing they had in common: Jesus was a threat to them both. And a common enemy has a way of uniting strange bedfellows, as it does here and elsewhere in the Gospels.

The Sanhedrin operated under the watchful eye of the Roman governor. One false move by the Sanhedrin, and the full force of the Roman government would crush them. That’s why they have convened this particular council meeting. Their prior efforts to divert attention away from Jesus are not working. They say, “What are we doing?” It could be translated as, “What are we accomplishing?” or “What are we going to do?” The problem is that this Jesus, “is performing many signs.” On other occasions, they had tried to explain away the miracles that He had performed, but here they tip their hand. We can see that they really could not write off His divine power that was being displayed through His miracles. Neither could they dismiss the profound effect His works were having on the multitudes. They said, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him.” It was bad enough that so many, like those in verse 45, already had! How many more would if He continued doing these things?

Herein is their problem: the more people follow Jesus, the fewer of them there will be who hold the religious leaders of Israel in high esteem. And if their power and prestige is challenged by the people, then civil unrest will likely ensue. Passover is coming, and Jerusalem will be filled with a million or more traveling worshipers (v55). Unrest at such an occasion could be devastating. If an uprising ensues, they conclude, “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (v48).

Strictly speaking, their “place” probably refers to the Temple itself, but indirectly it also refers to their place of prominence in the society. Without the Temple, the people will have no need for the priests or the scribes, and they will have no power, no prestige, no job, and no money. The Romans, who have been content to leave Israel with a large degree of independence and autonomy (as long as they paid their taxes and kept peace), could come in and crush the entire nation. There were plenty of examples around the world to prove that Rome was swift and brutal when it came to squashing insurrections. Jesus was a big problem that they had to address, thus they convened this council meeting of the Sanhedrin. They needed to preserve their place and their nation.

“Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand” (Prov 19:21). These guys can address their problems all they want to, but if it is not in God’s purpose to preserve the Temple, their position, or the nation, then it will not come to pass. And, in the end, in spite of attempt of the Sanhedrin to address their problem, they did not succeed and the purposes of the Lord prevailed. Some thirty-five to forty years after this council meeting, the Romans did come in and destroy the Temple and crush the city of Jerusalem. Some six decades after that (AD 132-135), the Romans came in again to crush a final rebellion, and Jerusalem was completely leveled. It became a capital offense for any Jew to live anywhere near Jerusalem.[1] But even these events occurred under the purpose of God.

With the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, that Temple and priesthood was entirely useless in the spiritual economy of God. That is why, in Mark 11, when Jesus drove the money changers and offering peddlers out of the Temple, He said immediately afterward, “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him” (Mk 11:23). He wasn’t talking about just any mountain, as if you could dispense with Pilot Mountain or Mount Mitchell. He was talking about this mountain – the Temple mount. The temple had foreshadowed the salvation that God would accomplish in Jesus Christ. Now He had come, and the expiration date of the temple and the priesthood had passed. So, in Mark 13, when the disciples were awestruck by the magnificence of the Temple, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down” (Mk 13:1). It was already determined, in the purposes of God that this place, and the prominence of these priests were destined for destruction. Jesus Christ would be the new High Priest, the new Sacrifice, and the new Temple for God’s people.    

We see it still today. People gather together to address their problems and formulate action plans to deal with their circumstances. The Bible does not tell us to not plan or to not address our problems, but we have to do so with the understanding that we can plan all we want to, and we should plan thoroughly, but ultimately it is God’s purpose and not our plans that will prevail in the end. And there are plenty of people who are addressing the problem of Jesus in our day. The exclusive claims of Christ and the radical demands of His word are inconvenient and troublesome for our fallen world that prizes inclusivism, a perverted notion of tolerance, and moral relativism. Councils are called together to determine what to do to intimidate and silence the Church on issues of morality and spirituality. Laws are passed and policies are instituted, and many Christians and many churches and denominations compromise their convictions and cower to the intimidation. But as we look at the quiet and confident resolve of the Lord Jesus in the face of hostility, we are emboldened to hold the line and know that in the end, the plans of men will fail and the purposes of God will prevail. So, the first lesson we see here in this text is that though men address their problems, it is the Lord’s purpose which ultimately prevails.

II. Men articulate their predictions, but the Lord’s prophecies prevail. (vv49-52)

I was in a very long line at Starbucks one day, waiting to place my wife’s very complicated beverage order – venti two pump solo mocha frappuccino with whip and drizzle. When it is crowded, Starbucks can be a loud place. There are lots of important people there talking about important things, you know. All of a sudden, the lady in front of me in line looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said, “Ugh! So many words! And most of them are just meaningless!” She’s right. There are a lot of people all around us using a lot of words, and saying very little. Even as we speak, on every major television network, there are shows being aired in which politicians, journalists, and pundits are making their predictions about where our nation is heading, what is going to happen on the present trajectory, and what we should do about it. But even though men should prognosticate with all eloquence as they articulate their prophecies and predictions about the future, ultimately the prophecies of God are what prevail. God is the one who says of Himself, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa 46:9-10).

Verses 49-52 present us with a man named Caiaphas, who was the high priest. He would hold that office longer than any high priest in the first century. This was undoubtedly a tribute to his character, which has been described as, “a rude and sly manipulator, an opportunist, who did not know the meaning of fairness or justice and who was bent on having his own way ‘by hook or by crook.’”[2] Caiaphas speaks up to the Sanhedrin: “You know nothing at all” (v49)! It is as if he is saying, “You are a bunch of ignorant twits!” And then he says something that is truly remarkable: “It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (v50). John offers us more information behind these words: “Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (vv51-52).

What is going on here? It sounds, at first hearing, as if Caiaphas is preaching the Gospel in a way that far exceeded the apostles at this point! But, the way we understand his words are in no way similar to the way he intended his words when he spoke them. For Caiaphas, the proposal of Jesus’ dying for the nation was not a message of salvation through the atonement for sins. The key phrase is expedient for you. He is speaking entirely from self-interest. Caiaphas’ proposal is that if Jesus is allowed to live, there will be a massive uprising and the nation will be destroyed (as the Pharisees had already stated), and therefore, it was better – better for the priests, better for the Pharisees, better for the nation – for Jesus to die than for the nation to be destroyed. Putting Jesus to death was as a political strategy to keep in Rome’s good graces.

Ironically, what for Caiaphas is just a political ploy is in truth a prophetic promise of God. Caiaphas probably thought that his words were coming from his own mind and heart, and out of his own mouth. However, John is aware (in retrospect) that Caiaphas was speaking better than he knew. These words did not come from his own initiative, but he was unwittingly speaking biblical truth about the purpose and plan of God. Without knowing the fuller sense of his words, he was actually prophesying and proclaiming God’s wondrous truth. When Caiaphas spoke, on this occasion anyway, God Himself was speaking, even if they were using the same words to say different things. Caiaphas had poured one meaning into his words, but God had poured an altogether different meaning into them. With the same words that Caiaphas had intended to bring an end to Jesus, God was declaring His ultimate plan and promise of salvation.

Jesus was indeed to die as a scapegoat, but not to pacify the Romans. He was to die as the sacrificial Lamb of God to take away the sins of His people – those who would believe upon Him, whether they be of this nation (Israel) or scattered abroad (Gentiles). Indeed, it is expedient – it is beneficial – to us all that Jesus die for us than for all of us to perish. Jesus Himself declared that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life (Jn 3:16). He would die so that we would not perish under God’s eternal condemnation for our sins, but that we might be saved through His sacrificial death. He was bearing our sins and receiving their penalty in Himself as our substitute as He died. Through the death of Jesus, God has gathered together into one family and one Kingdom the children of God, Jew and Gentile alike, who are scattered abroad.  

Men will announce their predictions and proclamations, but it is the Lord’s prophecies and promises that prevail. Pilate will mockingly install the placard above the head of the dying Lord Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews,” but it is God’s promise in a more sure and certain way that He is truly the King of all kings. The Pharisees will scoff at the foot of the cross saying, “This man saved others, but he cannot save Himself!” But God’s truth prevails. He could save Himself, but in giving up His life in death, He was in fact saving others in a way that they could not fathom. And still today, people will use many fine sounding words to predict and prognosticate about the present and the future. Most of those words will fall to the ground in vain. But some of them may speak truth in a way that they themselves do not know. In the end, however, it will not be the predictions and proclamations of men that win the day. It will be God’s promises and prophecies that are found to never fail!

III. Men adopt their plots, but the Lord’s plan prevails. (v53)

After all this deliberation among the council members, a conclusion has been reached and a plot has been adopted. It is not a new one. They had already settled their hearts on killing Jesus long before. Here, they were just affirming it: “From that day on they planned together to kill Him” (v53). This is the plot: together, they will bring Jesus to His death. It was thoroughly devised. As it plays out, we will see how they will involve one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and pay him to turn Jesus over to them. The choreography of the trial is already settled. They will bounce Him around from court to court in order to secure the verdict, and utilize false witnesses to testify against Him. Then, once they convict Him of a capital offense, they will turn Him over to the Romans to pass the sentence in order to keep the peace in the region. They had dotted all the “i”s and crossed all the “t”s in this plot. And it almost worked.

I say it almost worked. You might say, “No, it did work. They succeeded in killing Jesus!” Well, the fact of the matter is that their plot failed horribly, but God’s eternal plan prevailed gloriously. You see, Jesus did not die because of these men’s plot. He died because of His Father’s plan. He was consciously aware of what He had come to do, and He knew that the Father had set a time for it to happen. That is why, in John 7:30, when the crowds tried to seize Him, they could not because, as John writes there, “His hour had not yet come.” Again in John 8:20, they were unable to seize Him because “His hour had not yet come.” And in John 13:1, Jesus gathered His disciples together for a final meal because He knew “that His hour had come that he would depart out of this world to the Father.” These events were not transpiring according to the plot of evil men, but according to the eternal plan of His Father.

Looking back on the death of Jesus, the Christians in Jerusalem said in their prayer to God in Acts 4:27 that “in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” Note that well: Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and Israelites, had gathered together to do something against Jesus; but they could not do anything apart from what God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place. When Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate asked Him, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:10-11). Nothing in this wicked plot of evil men would have ever been accomplished if it had not been for the plan of God that brought His Son, the Lord Jesus, to die for us. Isaiah had foretold it, some 700 years earlier, declaring God’s truth that had been revealed to him. He spoke of the Servant of the Lord who was coming, and he said, “The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isa 53:10). Get that – it pleased the Lord to crush Jesus in death. Why? Because He was rendering Himself as a guilt offering (53:10). He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. The Lord caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isa 53:5-6). It was not the plot of men to put Jesus on the cross. It was the plan of God, so that our sins might receive the penalty that they deserve – the full outpouring of the just judgment of God – but that we might be saved because our sins were condemned in Christ, our Substitute.

The plot of men failed. They wanted to be rid of Jesus. But they could not be rid of Jesus. They thought they had gotten rid of Him by putting Him to death, but this was the plan of God, not the plot of men, at work. So, in Acts 2:23, the Apostle Peter declared that, “this Man [Jesus], delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” In the resurrection of Jesus, God demonstrated that He had vindicated His Son, He had destroyed sin and death, and He had prevailed in all that He had planned in order to redeem us from sin. That Sunday morning when the tomb was found empty and Jesus was found alive, the evil plot of men and Satan had failed miserably, but the eternal plan of God prevailed mightily.

And so it always does. “Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand.” The Lord Jesus has triumphed over all of the attempts of men to marginalize and silence Him; over all the predictions made about how wonderful life would be without Him; over all the plots of evil men, inspired by Satan, to destroy Him. And His purposes will always prevail. In your life, you may have attempted to neatly compartmentalize things and isolate Jesus over into one little corner so that He doesn’t begin to be too much of a problem for you. That won’t work. He will be Lord over your entire life, and will not relent until you yield to Him. Maybe you’ve tried to ignore Him altogether. That won’t work either. He is entirely unable to be ignored. The day will come when you must deal with Jesus. Maybe you have theorized about your future and what it will be like when all of your plans come together. Have you consulted with the Lord about your plans? Do they correspond to His plan? Are you open to Him invading and radically altering your plans? Know this – it is the Lord’s purpose and plan that will ultimately stand. Do not look upon the cross as a great tragedy that could have been prevented. Do not look at it as an accident of human history or as a result of wicked plans made by evil men. When you look upon the cross, you can glory in it, knowing that God, in His infinite love for you, had eternally planned this event. He turned every plan and plot and prediction of men on its head and His purpose prevailed so that you might be saved. The cross and resurrection of Jesus show Him to be the Victor, not the victim. And He will always be just that – always the Victor, never the victim; always in control, never being controlled. If you have received the Salvation that is offered to you through this eternal plan of God, you can exult and magnify the name of the Lord who endured the cross, despising the shame, so that you might live with Him forever. If you have never come to know this Jesus by faith, you can today, knowing and trusting that He endured all of this, under the eternal plan of God, to save you from sin. Know that evil did not triumph on the day that Christ died, and it never will. On that day, and on this one, and ultimately on the last day, you can rest assured that the purposes of God will always prevail.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Jesus: The Lord of Life and Death (John 11:33-45)

Just a few weeks ago, on March 13, Walter Williams of Lexington, Mississippi, died. Again. On February 26, his family members had watched him breathe what they thought was his final breath. He was zipped up in a body bag and taken to the funeral home for preparations. Several hours later, as funeral home staff prepared to move Mr. Williams body to the embalming table, they began noticing noise and movement inside the body bag. When they opened the bag, Williams opened his eyes. The coroner supposes that his pacemaker had malfunctioned, leaving him with no pulse at the time he was declared dead, and that some hours later, it kicked in again, jump-starting his heart just moments before he was embalmed. A few weeks later, he died AGAIN, this time, for good. Looking back on the first event, the coroner pronounced it a miracle.[1] If I were him, that is probably what I would have said too. It sounds better that way. In reality, it seems that it was more mistake than miracle. What we read about Lazarus was a miracle. It was not a medical malfunction or a coroner error that made him appear to be dead. He was DEAD. And He was raised by Jesus, who is the Lord of Life and Death. That is not just an empty claim. Jesus provided a powerful demonstration of the validity of His claim, and we see it here in the text.

I. Jesus’ love demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death (vv33-36)

Last Sunday, we looked at a portion of this text and talked about how Jesus intervenes in our grief. We mentioned that Jesus confronts our grief with sovereign initiative, by coming to us and calling for us in the midst of our grief. That is a great comfort, to know that we are not alone in our grieving, and that the Lord Jesus is there with us and He is reaching out to us. We also mentioned that Jesus responds to our grief with surprising emotions. We looked at the Greek word that underlies that ambiguous English phrase, “deeply moved” in verses 33 and 38, and discovered that it really means something like “anger,” or “outrage.” He is outraged at the cause of our grief. The cause of all of our suffering, sickness, death, and grief is sin. We have inherited corruptible bodies because of Adam, and are subject to sickness and death because sin is at work within us, destroying us from the moment of conception, even as its effects are corrupting the entire earth. As Paul says in Romans 8:22-23, “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Death is sin’s final blow on human beings, and the Bible calls it an enemy. Therefore, Jesus is outraged at the cause of our grief, because our suffering and death is the work of sin destroying God’s image bearers on the earth.

We also looked at the other emotions Jesus demonstrated here in this text. We noticed that He was troubled by our response to grief. Mary was grieving as if she had no hope beyond the grave for her brother, and she had begun to succumb to the temptation to question the Lord and His goodness and love. The other mourners were putting on a show of artificial and hypocritical sentimentality. It was troubling for the Lord to see this, even as He is troubled when He finds the same within us. Then we noticed from those two profound words, “Jesus wept,” that Jesus weeps with us in sympathy for our grief, mingling His tears with ours.

Now, as comforting and encouraging as those realities about Jesus’ intervention in our grief may be, if we believe that this is all that Jesus can do for us when sin and suffering destroy us in death and grind us in grief, then we have greatly missed the point. I want you to notice something that is said by the bystanders here as they see the emotions that Jesus is displaying. Look at verse 36: “See how He loved Him!” They have arrived at the right conclusion. Jesus did love Lazarus; it is plainly stated in verses 3 and 5. But they arrived at the right conclusion the wrong way.

Do you remember when you were in Math class in school, and the teacher would require you to show your work? The teacher wanted to know, not just that you could come up with the right answer, but that you could get to it the right way. Well, if these folks have come up with the right answer, how did they get to it? They based it on His emotions. They looked at Jesus’ tears and His countenance and concluded that He must have really loved Lazarus. He did, but His love is not chiefly manifested in His tears. His love for Lazarus, and His love for Mary and Martha, and even His love for you and me, is supremely manifested in that He is there.

When I say “there,” I don’t mean “there,” as in, “there with them while they grieve,” although that is certainly true. I mean “there,” as in, “there in Bethany, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem.” He loves Lazarus, and Mary and Martha, and you and me, so much that He is “there,” just outside of Jerusalem at this moment in history. Why is that significant? Ask His disciples. The last time He was in this part of the country, people tried to put Him to death. In verse 8, they tried to stop Him from going back there. They said, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” You and I might say, “Hmm. That’s too bad about Lazarus, but I just can’t go back there. It isn’t safe.” Jesus didn’t say that. Thanks be to God! JESUS DID NOT SAY THAT! He came, knowing that it would be a one-way trip. This is how we know that He loves us: not because He comes back to stand around the tomb and weep over death, but because He comes back to do business with death.

We are barely half way through John, but the remaining portion of the book takes place in the course of one week: the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. In John 12:12, we start reading about Palm Sunday. The raising of Lazarus is the final event prior to the beginning of “Holy Week,” which leads up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus had come on a one-way trip to die. But in His dying, He was loving us. Paul says that God demonstrates His love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). In His dying, He was dealing with our sins and their penalty (death) fully and finally. He came to take our place in death, to take our sins upon Himself and die as our substitute, bearing the wrath of God that our sins deserve in Himself. And by His resurrection, He slays death, and sin, and hell forever for those who trust in Him. Death is a defeated foe because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Oh, these people are so right! “See how He loved him!” Indeed, see how Jesus loved him, and how He loves us! But these people are also very wrong. He does not demonstrate His love because He has come to shed tears. He demonstrates His love most supremely in that He has come to shed blood for us! He has come to lay down His life so that the final enemy, death, can be defeated for us all. By His death and resurrection, Jesus was removing the sting from death for all who trust in Him. He demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death by loving us all the way to the cross.

II. Jesus’ glory demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death (vv37-44)

There were others standing around the tomb who were saying, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” (v37). It’s a fair question I suppose. They aren’t blaspheming Jesus; they recognize that He had demonstrated great power in the past when He healed the blind man in John 9. It is a question that is similar to the expression that both Mary and Martha present to the Lord in verses 21 and 32: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” These statements are similar, but there is one difference. The bystanders are talking about His power – could He not have prevented Lazarus from dying? Did He have that power? And the answer is, “Yes, of course, He could have prevented Lazarus from dying.” But Mary and Martha’s statement concerns, not His power, but His will. They assume He has the power, but they also make a presumption about His will. “He not only could have, He would have prevented Lazarus from dying if He had been here.”  The difference between His power and His will is important for us to know when we pray. There is no situation that we bring to Him that is beyond His power. If you wonder, “Can Jesus …?”, the answer is always, “Yes He can.” If the question is, “Will Jesus …?”, well, that is a matter of divine mystery in some cases. Just because He can does not mean that He always will. And we simply do not know if He would have prevented Lazarus from dying if He had been there. After all, Jesus is not limited by space; He can heal from afar, even as He did on other occasions. He could have prevented Lazarus from dying without coming to Him, but He didn’t. He doesn’t always do what we ask or expect Him to do, even though it is something He could do. This much we know, He will always do that which most vividly displays His glory and that of His Father. In verse 4, Jesus said concerning Lazarus, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” And that is exactly what He is getting ready to do here, in order to demonstrate powerfully that He is Lord over Life and Death.

Jesus asks, “Where have you laid him?”, and the people answer, wisely, “Lord, come and see” (v34). You and I would be tempted to say, “No, Lord, we can’t go there. It is too painful. You don’t need to see that. Let’s have some closure here and just stay away.” But the people said to Jesus, “Lord, come and see.” And so He came to this tomb of Lazarus, a tomb very much like the one He Himself would be placed in just over a week later. And He says, “Remove the stone.” Now they protest. Martha says, in my paraphrase, “Jesus, are you crazy? There is a rotting corpse in there!” She says, “Lord by this time there will be a stench for He has been dead four days!” Jesus doesn’t mind. What is it that you don’t want Him to see in your life? Do you have some sin, some hardship, some monumental grief in your life that you do not want to see because you think it is so filthy? Say with these mourners, “Lord, come and see.” Listen, as He says to you, “Remove the stone. I am about to show you my glory!” He says in verse 40, “Did I not say to you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

We know what is going to happen. We just read it a few moments ago. But, they don’t know what is about to happen. We can imagine their sense of shock and horror as that weighty stone is removed. But then Jesus shows His glory. He calls out with a loud voice, “Lazarus come forth!” And the Bible says, rather understatedly, “The man who died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth” (vv43-44). This man who was dead is now alive and well with them, and they have seen the awesome glory of Jesus!

His glory was manifested in His unlimited power. No stone or stench could stand against Him. No time or tomb could hinder Him. He is Lord of Life and Death and He is able to bring the dead to life. His glory was manifested in His unfathomable person. Notice His unique relationship with the Father that is shown in His prayer. He speaks to God as to His own Father, and speaks of the intimacy that He has with Him in prayer: “You have heard Me; I knew that You always hear Me.” Notice His unique revelation of the Father. In His prayer, He knows that He is being heard by people around Him, and He says, “Because of the people standing around, I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” Now, there is a lesson and a warning here for those of us who pray aloud in public. Remember that Jesus warned against praying so as to be heard by men, like the Pharisees did. Our intention in public prayer is never to impress people with ourselves by using flowery language and meaningless repetition. That is not what Jesus says He is doing here. He is praying aloud, in their hearing, in order to reveal something of Himself and His Father. So, when we pray aloud, we must not forget that our words will impact those who hear us. Let us choose our words, therefore, so as to make known the glory of God-in-Christ. Jesus was revealing something to them about Himself and His Father, namely that He had been sent by the Father. He was revealing His glory as He prayed and acted there at the tomb of Lazarus. His glory demonstrates that He is Lord over Life and Death.

Now, you might say, “Well, where was He when my loved one died? He didn’t crash the funeral and upset the outcome. They are gone, and they aren’t coming back!” Would that have been glorious, if He had done for your loved one like He did for Lazarus? You say, “Absolutely! What greater glory could He show than to put funeral homes and cemeteries out of business!” Well, you see, Jesus never promised that He would bring the dead back to life here and now. He promised something better, something more glorious. How could He do something better or more glorious than raising someone from the dead? We have to broaden the lens a bit on the Gospel of John to understand how the raising of Lazarus, or the raising of any dead person, brings a limited glory to Christ, but He is glorified even more greatly in something better that He has done.

Turn over to the next Chapter (John 12:23-24). Jesus will tell His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Do you see what He is saying? He is saying, after being glorified by raising Lazarus, that He still had not been glorified in the fullest sense. He was going to be glorified by His death. Again, turn to John 13:31-33. After the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately. Little children, I am with you a little while longer.” He is saying, “I am about to be taken away from you in death, and in that death, I will be glorified.” Once more, turn to John 17, and look at how Jesus begins His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His death: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (17:1). He goes on in verse 5, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Over and over again, Jesus spoke of the greatest demonstration of His glory being found in His own death, and His subsequent resurrection.

The raising of Lazarus was just a foretaste of glory. The greatest glory is demonstrated in Jesus’ own death and resurrection, by which He definitely validates His claim to be Lord over Life and Death. In the dying and raising of Lazarus, sure, a family was temporarily reunited. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, a fallen race of humanity was eternally redeemed. By this is He most greatly glorified. And He says to us, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will SEE the glory of God?” (11:40). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you have better promises than Lazarus had. Lazarus was brought back from death to earthly life, to once again inhabit a corruptible, sinful body and to live in a fallen world, only to die again. But Jesus conquered death forever, and was raised in an imperishable body, a glorified body that is fit for eternity and fit for the glory of heaven. And that is exactly how He has promised to raise you, and your loved one, and all who die believing in Christ. That’s what He means when He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, anyone who believes in Me will live even if He dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (11:25-26). You will inhabit a glorified body and you will see with those glorified eyes the very manifestation of the unmediated glory of God. You have to be glorified to see that. No one can look upon God’s glory in that pure and unmediated way and survive the encounter. You would be incinerated by the very sight of it. That’s why we get new bodies, bodies like Jesus had in His resurrection, so that we can stand before God and see His glory without being destroyed by it. That is a far better promise than a few more days or a few more weeks or years here on earth in a corruptible body. You will see glory. Because God has glorified the Lord Jesus Christ through His suffering and death and resurrection. If you believe, you will see the glory of God. And when you believe that, you know that He is Lord of Life and Death.

III. Jesus’ purpose demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death (vv42, 45)

Notice when Jesus prays, He says that He has chosen His words, “so that they may believe that You sent Me.” That word that is translated as sent has the sense of being sent to perform some specific task. So, get this, Jesus doesn’t just want us to believe that He is a man who came from God, who came from heaven, but that He came for a specific purpose. And the death and raising of Lazarus tells us something about that purpose. We come to find out through this amazing thing that Jesus did for Lazarus that Lazarus is not the point! The same is true for every miracle Jesus did! The thing Jesus did, in and of itself, was not the point. The point was always in what Jesus was revealing about Himself through the miracle. His miracles revealed something about His divine nature, His sovereign power, His unique person, or as in this case, He redemptive mission. That’s the point. It’s a picture – not a pencil sketch but a High-Definition, 3-Dimensional picture. So, here’s the three dimensions that Jesus is revealing about His purpose – His redemptive mission – here in this miracle.

First, there is a spiritual dimension. You see, what Jesus did for Lazarus was, in some ways unique. It was not like anything He did for anyone else. There were a few others who were raised from the dead, and in spite of their similarities, there were uniquenesses. In the physical realm, like no one else has or ever will experience, these miracles were unique. But, the physical realm is not the point, the spiritual realm is. You see, in the spiritual realm, what Jesus did for Lazarus is not unique. It is the same thing that He promises to do for every single one of us, and what He indeed has done already for a good many of us. You see, every single one of us comes into this world as dead spiritually as Lazarus was physically. The Bible says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. There is only one solution for death, and that is resurrection. And this is what the Lord Jesus has come to do – to give new life to people who are dead in their sins. Wrap it up, hide it behind a stone, do whatever you want to about it, but in our natural state, we are rotting, stinking spiritual corpses. But Jesus has come to roll away that stone that seals our hard, dead hearts and call us back to life, and He alone has the power to do it. Many of you heard the Lord Jesus call your name and bid you come forth. Others of you may be hearing Him call to you today. He is saying, “Come to Me and live!” That’s the spiritual dimension of this miracle.

Then there is a Christological dimension. Lazarus foreshadows what will happen to Jesus, but it will happen in a far better way in Jesus. Like Lazarus, He will die. But His is a better death. Lazarus died because he was sick, because sin was at work in him, just like it is at work in each of us. Paul says that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). So, in a sense, when Lazarus dies, and when we all die, we are dying for our own sins. But Jesus never sinned. So why did He die? In Jesus death, He was becoming our substitute in death. He died for our sins. He took our sins upon Himself and bore them under the outpouring of God’s divine justice that we all deserve. He died the death that Lazarus could not die, and that you and I cannot die. By His death, He defeats death, for He triumphs over it through His resurrection. Lazarus was raised, but not like Jesus! Jesus was raised with a transformed and glorified body that would never again see death. Lazarus would die again, Jesus never will. He is alive forevermore. As Peter says in 1 Peter 3:18, “Christ … died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” So, what Jesus is doing for Lazarus here foreshadows that greater death and resurrection for which He came, for which He was sent by the Father in the world. He was sent to die, so that He might be raised, so that we might be saved.

Then there is an eschatological dimension to this picture of Jesus’ purpose. Eschatological – that’s a big word, but don’t let it scare you. It the theological term we use to refer to the end of all things, the last days. What Jesus was doing for Lazarus is what He has promised to do for all who trust in Him, in a far better way. Four times in John Chapter 6, Jesus made this promise:
6:39 – “This is the will of Him who sent me, that of all He has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.”
6:40 – “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
6:44 – “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”
6:54 – “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

He can do this because He is Lord of Life and Death, and here at the tomb of Lazarus, He proves it. You will not be raised like Lazarus, but like Jesus – in a renewed, transformed, glorified body that will never be subject to death and decay. You will live forever on the other side of death in the presence of God-in-Christ, if you have trusted in Him to save you. When Jesus made this promise of never ending life to Martha in verses 25 and 26, He asked her very directly, “Do you believe this?” When He prayed in verse 42, He prayed that people would believe this about Him. And verse 45 says that “many … believed in Him.” Jesus never fails. What He sets out to do, He does. He intended that others would believe in Him as a result of what they saw at the tomb of Lazarus, and they did. He intended that many more would believe in Him as a result of what He did at His own tomb, defeating death forever. And many have, and many more will. And for those who do, their sickness will not end in death, as Jesus said in John 11:4. It will end with you seeing the glory of God face to face for all eternity.

Because Jesus is Lord of Life and Death, the writer of Hebrews says that He is the “mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.” Jesus doesn’t promise that you or loved ones won’t get sick and die. He doesn’t promise that He will show up at every funeral and give more earthly life to those who have died. He promises something better. For those who believe on Him, this is the promise: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away … Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:3-4). Isn’t that a better promise? It is yours, if you have trusted in Christ.

He is the Lord of Life and Death. He has destroyed death at its root by dealing with sin forever through the blood of His cross. He can be your Lord. He died your death so that you might have His life. Have you come to Him? If so, you can rest in His promise. Death is nothing for you to fear. We don’t celebrate it; it is still an enemy. But it is a defeated enemy because of what He has done for us. It is not the end. There is far more, and far better, life awaiting you on the other side of death if you have come to believe on Him. If you have never have, you can today. He stands on the other side of the stone, calling out for you to arise and come forth. He has removed every obstacle that stands between you and life everlasting. He is Lord of Life and Death. Trust Him to be Lord of your life, yes, and even Lord of your death today.

[1] Various online news reports.