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. 

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