Monday, July 21, 2014

Who Is This Son of Man? (John 12:32, 32-34)

What is in a name? William Shakespeare asked the question famously in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” You probably have several names by which you are known to others. Recently we had some title work done on a vehicle that cost us more than we expected. Donia had filled out the paperwork, and I am known to her as Russ. But, to the State of North Carolina, I am James Russell. We had to pay extra to correct that paperwork. To my parents, I’m known as “Son,” to my kids, “Dad,” to you, “Pastor.” Some of you probably even have a few more creative names for me. Once you realize how long this sermon is going to be today, you may have even more.  

When we read the New Testament, we find that Jesus has many names and titles. He had a simple, yet significant name: Jesus. “Christ” is not His last name, but His title: He is Jesus the Christ. Other titles are ascribed to Him: Lord, Lamb of God, Savior, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Son of God, and so on. Seven times in the Gospel of John, He uses metaphoric titles to describe Himself: Light of the World, Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, the Door of the Sheep, the Way, the Truth and the Life. But when Jesus speaks of Himself, most often there is one phrase that is used. He refers to Himself most often as “the Son of Man.” Interestingly, in the Gospels, no one else ever calls Him that, and no one else is ever called that. It is His preferred term of self-designation. He doesn’t ask others to call Him that, but He calls Himself this in all four Gospels. In fact, the title is used by Jesus to refer to Himself over 80 times in the Gospels, 11 times in the Gospel According to John. In the two times in John’s Gospel that the term is used by others, both in 12:34, they are simply making reference to His own use of the phrase.

Now, of all the titles that Jesus could have used to refer to Himself, and of the several that He did use to refer to Himself, why is it that “Son of Man” was seemingly His favorite? To answer that question, we have to understand that Jesus did not coin the phrase. It was in use long before Jesus’ birth, and by the time of His earthly ministry, it had certain undeniable connotations. We find the phrase “son of man” in the Old Testament some 106 times. In a good number of them, the phrase is simply a way of referring to a human being. For example, in Jeremiah 50:40, God pronounces judgment upon a nation saying, “No man will live there, nor will any son of man reside in it.”

The lion’s share of uses in the Old Testament is found in Ezekiel (90 of 106 occurrences). Throughout Ezekiel, God uses “son of man” to address the prophet. In this sense, the phrase means something like “a man,” but it seems to mean something more. It is not just a man, or any man, but a certain man – God’s chosen and called prophet, who stands in the gap for God, to speak for Him and call people back to Himself. He is a man, but he is a particular man on a mission for God.

Then we come to Daniel, which is the most significant of all in the development of the idea of the “son of man.” In Daniel, the prophet saw a vision of the rise and fall of earthly powers, represented by great beasts, and then finally he saw the Ancient of Days, God Himself, enthroned and attended by many thousands of angels. And then in Daniel 7:13-14, the prophet says that he saw

One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.

In this passage, it is obvious that the “Son of Man” whom Daniel saw was not just a mere man. He was before the throne of God and was given glory and an everlasting Kingdom over all peoples, nations and tongues that all the earth might worship and serve Him. And it was based on this passage that the concept of the “Son of Man” began to take shape. In the Jewish writings that arose between the times of the Old and New Testaments, “Son of Man” began to be used as a formal title for the Messiah. Many Old Testament texts were understood anew based on this development.

So, when Jesus came onto the scene of human history in His earthly ministry, He could have rightly employed any number of titles to refer to Himself, and all of them would have been accurate. He could have called Himself the Son of God, and even seemed to subtly identify Himself as such and allow others to call Him that. He could have called Himself the Messiah or Christ (which is simply the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah), which He did on a small number of occasions, and He allowed others to call Him this. He could have even called Himself God, and certainly a number of His statements were tantamount to this very claim. But most often, Jesus called Himself the Son of Man. This phrase said everything He wanted to say about Himself, if one had the perception enough to hear and understand it. It also avoided the potential controversies that could have arisen by using some of the other phrases, and which in fact, did arise whenever those terms were being tossed around. The word “Messiah” or “Christ” meant different things to different people, and most of those ideas were wrong. Many assumed that Messiah was a military warrior who was coming to overthrow the oppression of the Romans and establish a political, nationalistic empire for Israel. Jesus had come to do far more than this! One scholar writes, “Jesus was in constant danger of being forced into limited or illegitimate messianic role (John 6:15). … With the term [Son of Man] Jesus dissociated his nature and mission from purely earthly, nationalistic notions.”[1]

“Son of Man” was precise enough to identify Jesus as the divine Messiah foretold in Daniel, the God who had become a man through the miracle of the incarnation, and who, like Ezekiel, was God’s chosen and called final prophet to call the people to repentance and pronounce the coming judgment. There is no other single title that could express the fullness of His nature – fully God and fully man – like “Son of Man.” As one scholar says, “Jesus used the term as a messianic title for himself, so that he could speak modestly about his person and mission, yet convey the exalted content he wished to reveal about himself.”[2]

While the saying was lost on many of Jesus’ hearers, there were plenty of folks who understood exactly who Jesus was claiming to be when He called Himself the Son of Man. Their question in verse 34 indicates that they understood that “Son of Man” was equivalent to “Christ.” They figured that much out, but there was something that they could not figure out. They correctly understood that Jesus meant, when He said that He would be lifted up, that He was going to die. And this did not fit into their theology of a Messiah. Their understanding was that the Christ was to remain forever, not die. And so they ask this profound question: “Who is this Son of Man?” In other words, “What kind of Son of Man do you claim to be, that you should be both the everlasting Christ and the one who is going to die?” This question is significant, not just for them, but for the whole world, including each of us. The answer to this question determines how we spend our lives here in this temporal world and how we will spend them in eternity. I would venture to say that of all the questions asked in the Bible, this ranks among the most important, and it is one of the most important questions that any of us could ask as well. So, let’s explore how the Bible answers this question.

I. The Son of Man is the Christ who remains forever.

If you live long enough in this world, you come to learn the hard lesson that there are few things that “last.” Things are always changing. Relationships change, governments change, institutions change, cultures change. And with every change, there are sometimes gains, and often there are more losses than gains. We lose people we love. We lose things we trust. We lose objects of hope and certainty. We are constantly reminded of the lack of permanence in the things of this world. And that sense of permanence is what we all seem to be longing for. We want something that lasts forever. In that, we would find security, peace and rest. God’s Word has promised that there is Someone and something that will last forever. There is a Savior who was to come into the world and usher in an everlasting Kingdom. This is what the people were longing for. It is what we are all longing for.

The crowd around Jesus knew their Bibles to a degree. They said, “We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever.” Now, they don’t cite chapter and verse. In fact, there were not chapters and verses in the Scriptures at that point. They developed gradually between the 1200s and the 1600s. The people refer to “the Law,” which we could understand as the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of Moses), but they are speaking more generally about the whole Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Often “the Law” is an umbrella term that encompasses all three divisions of the Old Testament: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (sometimes referred to as “the Psalms,” because the Psalms are the largest part of it).

Well, in fact, the Scriptures had foretold that the Christ would remain forever. Consider some of the prophecies:
·         2 Samuel 7:12-13 – When God made His covenant with David, He said, “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.” This passage begins the understanding that the Messiah would be a descendant of David.
·         Isaiah 9:6-7 – “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”
·         Ezekiel 37:25 – “They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever.” (Of course, since this prophecy came long after David’s death, the idea is that a descendant of David, which Jesus was, would reign forever.)
·         Daniel 2:44 – “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.”
·         Daniel 7:13-14 – The passage we looked at before in the introduction, says of the Son of Man, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”
·         Psalm 110:1-4 – A messianic prophecy, the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’ The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, ‘Rule in the midst of Your enemies.’ … The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.’”

So, as Andreas Kostenberger writes, “Probably reference is made not so much to any one passage as it is to the general thrust of Old Testament messianic teaching.”[3] In this sense, they are absolutely correct: the Christ will be one who remains forever. And Jesus came into the world as this everlasting Christ. When His birth was announced to Mary, the angel Gabriel said, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

Jesus spoke of Himself as having come into the world from God the Father in heaven. In John 3:13, He said, “No one has ever ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” In this and other passages, He was teaching that He had no beginning – that He was eternally preexistent. And He also taught that He had no end, and would remain forever as prophet, priest, king, and judge. In John 5:26-27, He said, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.” In Matthew 24:30, He says that the Son of Man will come “on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” And in Matthew 25:31, He says, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne,” and then He says He will exercise judgment over all the nations. In Revelation 11:15, the announcement goes forth from heaven: “The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

So, who is this Son of Man? Well, as the Scriptures plainly foretold, He is the Christ who remains forever. And this is Jesus. But, here is where there question gains strength. If He is to remain forever, how then can it be said of Him that He will be lifted up? That brings us to the second point here.

II. The Son of Man is the Christ who is lifted up.

When Jesus said in verse 32 that He would be lifted up, John tells us in verse 33 that He was indicating the kind of death by which He was to die: crucifixion. The cross of Jesus Christ is the core of the Christian faith. Remove the cross, and we have no message, and no meaning for existence. Thus, the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified. It strikes the hearers of this message as strange. A crucified Christ? A God who messed around and got Himself killed? It is no wonder that in the early days of the church, one cynic inscribed graffiti on a wall in Rome depicting a man with the head of a donkey dying on a cross, with another before the cross in a posture of worship with this inscription: “Alexamanos worships his God.” That’s what the world thinks of our worship of a crucified Christ. Indeed, Paul says that we preach Christ crucified, “to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.” There was no room in the minds of most in that day, and in the minds of very few today, for a Christ who was crucified. After all, had not the Scriptures had foretold a Christ who would remain forever?

As we have already seen, the Scriptures had indeed foretold of such an eternal Christ. But, the mindset of this crowd around Jesus here seems to reflect at best a very selective reading of the Scriptures. For, as we shall see, the same Scriptures also foretold of a suffering Savior who would die for the sins of His people. In Luke 24, Jesus told His followers, “‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. … He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled … Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again the third day.’” (Luke 24: 25-27, 44). Notice His emphasis on the word all: ALL the prophets, ALL the Scriptures, ALL things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms. When Jesus referred to the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, He was referring to the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament or the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh because that word in Hebrew is an acrostic for the three divisions: the Law (the Torah), the Prophets (the Nevi’im), and the Writings (the Ketuvim, of which the Psalms comprised the largest portion). T-N-K: Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim; Law, Prophets, Writings. They made it a word: Tanahk. It means the entire Hebrew Bible, which we refer to as the Old Testament. Jesus said that it was necessary for ALL the things which were written about Him in ALL the Scriptures to take place. He had not come to fulfill a part of them – the “remaining forever” part. He also had to fulfill the parts that foretold His suffering and death. Let’s consider some of the many passages that foretell this:

  • Genesis 3:15, the first promise of salvation following the first sin, in which the Lord says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” Thus, the promised Redeemer, the seed of woman would suffer as He dealt the fatal blow to Satan.
  • Daniel 9:24-27, in which the prophet speaks of a period of 70 “weeks” of years, that is, 70 series of 7-years, saying that from the time of the decree for the restoration of Jerusalem to the coming of Messiah the Prince will be 69 weeks, or 483 years. If they would calculate the years, it would bring them to the precise time at which the Lord Jesus was born. But then Daniel says that after this, the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and another prince will come and destroy the city and the sanctuary. Of course, this would happen in 70 AD, though the people of Jesus’ day would have hardly believed it. But, Daniel’s prophecy, in hindsight is clear that by the year 70 AD, Messiah would have both come, and been cut off, or died.
  • Zechariah 12:10, where the Lord says, “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like bitter weeping over a firstborn.”

But then we come to the high-water marks of Hebrew prophecy and poetry. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are both prophecies, and they are both poems. One was written by King David, the other by Isaiah the prophet, two of the most significant men in Hebrew history. We need to keep in mind that neither of these men ever witnessed a crucifixion. That form of execution did not exist during their lifetimes. Yet, listen to how clearly the depicted the suffering and the death of the Messiah.

Here are some of the most poignant verses of the 22nd Psalm, written approximately 1,000 years before Jesus died:

1  My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (you recognize these words, which Jesus would speak on the cross as He died) …

6 But I am a worm and not a man, A reproach of men and despised by the people. 7 All who see me sneer at me; They separate with the lip, they wag the head, saying, 8 "Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him." (which of course is exactly what the people said to Jesus as He died)

9 Yet You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother's breasts. 10 Upon You I was cast from birth; You have been my God from my mother's womb. 11  Be not far from me, for trouble is near; For there is none to help. …

14 I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws; And You lay me in the dust of death. (and you recall how Jesus’ heart poured out blood and water as He died; and how He said that He was thirsty while He was on the cross)

16 For dogs (which was a standard Hebrew term for Gentiles) have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. 17 I can count all my bones. They look, they stare at me; (This is a vivid depiction of a crucifixion from someone who never had seen one; remember that none of Jesus’ bones were broken on the cross. So torn apart was His body that the bones were visible)

18 They divide my garments among them, And for my clothing they cast lots. (which, of course, they did with Jesus’ garments)
We are omitting much of the Psalm for time’s sake today, but we shouldn’t have to. Every line of it points to the Christ who was to be crucified. And then we enter the holy of holies of all biblical prophecy and poetry, Isaiah 53. It was written 700 years before Christ came and died. Yet, consider the vividness of the prophet’s words in these verses:
3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But 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. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? 9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. 10 But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.

It should be apparent by this point that the Scriptures plainly foretold that this Christ who would remain forever would also suffer and die! So, how can a crucified Christ also be the Christ who remains forever? It would be impossible if it were not for one simple fact: He rose from the dead. Death was not the end for Jesus. On the third day, He rose again. He told His disciples on many occasions that He would suffer, die, and rise again. For instance, in Matthew 17:22, He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” The resurrection is the answer to the question of the skeptics in the crowd in our text. Through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus is the Son of Man who is both the Christ who remains forever and the Christ who was lifted up. He can be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins, and yet remain forever, because He is alive after death through His glorious resurrection.

You see, both truths are essential. The word “Gospel” means “Good News.” But it would not be “good news” at all if only one of these facts were true. If Jesus remained forever as King and Judge of all nations, without being lifted up to die for sinners, there would be no redemption, no forgiveness, no hope for any of us other than the deserved fate of eternal hell. If He was lifted up to die, but does not remain forever, then sin and death win, and we are (in the words of 1 Corinthians 15), still in our sins, and of all men most to be pitied. But because He was lifted up to die for our sins, there is salvation and the promise, not only that He remains forever, but all of us who believe in Him can enjoy being in His presence forever.

What kind of Son of Man is this? It is an important question. At some point, I suppose that every person who has ever heard of Jesus has to ask this question. Not everyone comes down to the same answer. Frankly, many are just dead wrong. In Matthew 16, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, and others Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Today, the answers vary even more. Some say a prophet, some say a teacher, some say a martyr, some say a good man, some say a fraud and a charlatan. But then Jesus asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” That is an important question. Who do you say that He is? Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” How would you answer? More important than how you would answer is how Jesus Himself would answer. Who is this Son of Man? He is the Christ who was lifted up to die for our sins, and He is the Christ who remains forever. If your answer to who He is differs from His, then you are either claiming that Jesus is a liar, or else you are wrong. This is a terribly important matter to get right or wrong! All of life in this world and the world to come hangs on the answer to this question. So, do you believe that Jesus, the Son of Man, is the Christ – the One who was lifted up to die to save you from sin, and the One who remains forever as Lord, as King, as Priest, and as Judge?

[1] J. Julius Scott, “Son of Man,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. Walter Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 412.
[2] James C. DeYoung, “Son of Man,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (ed. Walter Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 4:1983.
[3] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 386. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Kind of Death By Which He Was to Die (John 12:27-33)

A few years ago, someone came to me after the service with a question. They said, “I hear you use a word to describe God often in your sermons, and I don’t know what it means. The word is sovereign. What do you mean when you say God is sovereign?” In short, to say that God is sovereign is to say that He has absolute authority and rule over His creation. All that takes place in the universe does so because God has either made it so or allowed it to be. In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, all things occur in keeping with “His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”[1] To say that God is sovereign is to say that nothing ever takes God by surprise, nothing ever compels Him to act other than He intends to, and nothing ever occurs outside of His knowledge, His power, His purpose, or His control in the universe.

Now, from an earthly perspective, there are times when our circumstances tempt us to question this. Tragedy strikes, and we are instantly prone to ask, “Where was God when that thing happened?” And the answer to that question is the same as it was 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross. If there was ever a moment in history when it looked like things had gotten out of hand, had taken Him by surprise and escaped His ability to control, it was when Jesus Christ, whom we proclaim to be both the Son of God and God-incarnate, was nailed to the cross by the traitorous act of one of His own followers, the clamor of a riotous crowd, the corruption of political authorities, and ultimately the swing of a soldier’s hammer. But we need to be reminded of Peter’s words in Acts 2: though Jesus was “nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men” who “put him to death,” He was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). In going to the cross, Jesus was completing the purpose for which He had come. He was accomplishing salvation for all humanity by becoming the substitute who would bear our sins under the outpouring of the Father’s righteous judgment so that we might be saved from sin, death, and hell. The cross did not take the Father by surprise. As Isaiah foretold it 700 years prior to the event, “The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief, if He would render Himself as a guilt offering.” And because Jesus, the Son, is One with His Father, He too was well aware that death was the reason He had come into the world.

Jesus spoke often of His own death. After Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we read in Matthew’s Gospel that “from that time on Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21). He knew that the day was coming, but until the Father’s appointed time for His death arrived, Jesus operated in full confidence that nothing would preempt the Father’s plan. But, now Jesus is aware that the hour of His impending death is drawing near. In John 12:23, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” By this, of course, He was referring to His death, and subsequent resurrection and ascension. The hour was at hand for Him to complete the mission for which He came into the world.

In His dialog with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-15). Moses lifted up the image of a serpent in the wilderness as if it had been impaled on a pole, and whoever would look upon that serpent would be healed from the bite of the poisonous snakes in the wilderness (Num 21:6-9). Jesus was saying that He would be lifted up, as if on a stake – the cross, as it happened to be – for the salvation of all who would come to Him by faith. Here again, He takes up the language of being lifted up. He says in 12:32, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John adds the interpretation in verse 33: “But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.” He was talking about being lifted up on the cross. Everyone who heard Him understood exactly what He meant. In verse 34, they express disbelief that the Messiah could experience this kind of death. But Jesus spoke with no uncertain terms that the Messiah had come to die, to be lifted up on the cross. Jesus’ words here in this passage paint for us the picture of the kind of death by which He was to die.

I. Jesus died a death of unswerving obedience (v27)

Sometimes when I am driving, Emily tells me how to get where I am going. Some of you have met Emily and know of my love/hate relationship with her. Emily is the name that Garmin gives to the female British English voice on my GPS. There are times when she comes in very handy. There are other times when I know how I want to go, and I don’t want to go the way Emily wants to go. So, Emily says, “Turn right,” and I go straight, and she says to me with that condescending tone, “Recalculating,” as if to say, “You stubborn little man, you never listen to me.” Then there are times when I ignore Emily and go my own way, and I end up stuck at a dead end or trying to go the wrong way on a one way street. In those cases, I realize that I should have just continued on the route that Emily chose for me. I have to apologize to Emily for second-guessing her and trying to go about things my own way. Sometimes I just don’t like having to go along with someone else’s plan. Even when that someone is Emily.

Jesus’ entire life was consumed with obedience to the will of His Father. He never veered off the Father’s plan. The Father never had to “recalculate” the route based on a wrong turn by the Son. Jesus followed the plan of the Father with unswerving obedience. Now, we must remember that the writer of Hebrews says that He was tempted in all ways as we are (Heb 4:15). The Lord Jesus was constantly faced with the temptation to abandon His Father’s purpose. Those temptations were real and they were tremendous. He wrestles with it here. There is agony in His obedience, as He says, “My soul has become troubled.” This word troubled is a strong one, signifying horror and anxiety as He contemplates the cross. Calvin says, “Death was no game or amusement to Christ, but … He was thrown into the severest torments for our sake.”[2]
So wracked with agony is His soul that He is at a loss for words. He says, “What shall I say?” Grasping for whatever words will come, He utters a desperate prayer: “Father, save Me from this hour.” The agony of the cross is already coming to bear upon Him: the physical agony of the horrendous torture He will endure, but moreover the spiritual agony of bearing the weight of the world’s sin under the wrath of God. But no sooner than the plea escapes His lips, there is the immediate commitment to go on in obedience: “But for this purpose I came to this hour.” He is not being dragged into obedience unwillingly. He is actively embracing the purpose for which the Father sent Him.

When we speak of the kind of death by which He was to die, we must understand that it was a death of unswerving obedience to His Father’s purpose. That obedience was agonizing and it was active, and Jesus endured it for us and for our salvation.

II. Jesus died a death of resounding glory (vv28-30)

Every year, around the beginning of Advent season, one of our highlights is our Hanging of the Green. I have heard some members say that to them, that night signals that the Christmas season is upon us. Others have said that this beautiful sanctuary is never more beautiful than when it is decorated for Christmas. The event itself takes about an hour, but there are hours of work that go on in advance of it. In fact, we might even say that years of preparation have gone into each one. Sometime before the service, Ms. Elsie goes through the Chrismons that have been made by herself and others, making the necessary repairs to them and laying them out on the front pew. And then on the night of Hanging of the Green, there is this culmination where the tree is put up, and those ornaments are hung thereupon to adorn it. There’s nothing particular beautiful about an evergreen tree – a fake one at that. It is not more lovely than an oak or an elm. But, when it is adorned with the ornaments and the lights, it is made all the more beautiful.

I share that as an illustration of the great burning desire in the heart of Jesus Christ as He contemplates the cross. As He considers the agony, the suffering, the sin that He will bear and the wrath that He will endure on our behalf, His passionate plea is, “Father, glorify Your name.” Whatever may come, as long as the Father brings glory to His name, it is worth it. This has ever been the heartcry of Jesus. From His birth to His death, His aim was to manifest and magnify the glory of the Father. As we follow Jesus, we can do no better than this. Whatever may befall us, for better or for worse, our resolve should be to endure whatever is necessary to bring the Father glory. So, with these words of Jesus, we have glory asked – “Father, glorify Your name.”

And then there is glory answered. Verse 29 says that “a voice came out of heaven,” saying, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it.” From eternity past, God the Father has been relentlessly pursuing and promoting His own glory. The Westminster Catechism tells us that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. It could also be said that the chief end of God is to glorify Himself and to enjoy His own glory forever. Undoubtedly some will object to that statement. It makes God appear self-serving and egomaniacal. But if we pause to consider it, we may ask, “What else should God be about other than pursuing His own glory?” When humans prioritize any other thing over God’s glory, it is idolatry. Far be it for God Himself to be idolatrous! There is no greater pursuit for God to be about than to make His glory manifest in the universe. This, He has been doing since it all came into being. And this He has been doing in the life of Jesus since His birth. From the miraculous conception in the virgin’s womb, through His baptism, through His miracles and His teaching, God the Father has been making His glory evident in the earth through His Son. Three times in the Gospels, at the Baptism of Jesus, at His glorious transfiguration, and here, the Father speaks from heaven to affirm that His Son is bringing glory to His name. Here, He affirms, “I have already been glorifying My name in You.” And then He says, “I will do it again.”

Calvin says this: “He not only promises that Christ’s death will be glorious, but also commends the many ornaments with which He had already adorned it.”[3] You see, in the glory displayed through the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, with His wondrous words and wondrous works, the Father was preparing the ornaments. Now comes the tree. The glory displayed in Christ crucified is magnified by the glory by which the Father had already been glorified through Him. It would be impossible to estimate the number of crosses that had been raised in and around Jerusalem in that day and time, and impossible to estimate the number of people who had died upon them. But this cross, on which this One would die, was all-glorious and brought glory to the Father in a way that nothing else on earth could, because here was the Tree adorned with the beautiful ornamentation  of the glorious Christ Himself.

God is glorified as His attributes are displayed in the world, and at no point before or since have His glorious attributes been displayed more clearly than in the cross of Jesus Christ. Here is displayed for all the world to see the love of God, His mercy, grace, and compassion; here we see His righteousness, holiness, justice and wrath; here we see His wisdom, His sovereignty and providence. If you want to know what God is like, in all of His glorious perfections, look to the cross of Jesus Christ where God demonstrates Himself to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

So we have glory asked by the Son, glory answered by the Father, but then in verse 29 there is glory misunderstood by the people. The Father has spoken audibly from heaven, but the people just didn’t get it. Some thought it was nothing more than thunder. That tells us that they were not expecting the Father to answer the prayer of His Son, and had to seek some natural explanation for the sound that poured out of the sky. Others were saying that an angel had spoken, but they seem to have been unaware of what was said. Had they comprehended it, they would have known it was the Father speaking. They were spiritual enough, I suppose, but still unwilling to believe that Jesus had this kind of intimate access to the Father. Here was God announcing to the world that His glory was on display in the person of the Son, and the world missed the announcement by and large. The same thing continues to happen today. God has been glorified through the life and death of the Lord Jesus and has spoken clearly for the world to hear in the Gospel and the Word of God. But this glory is as misunderstood today as it was then. To some, the sound of the Gospel may as well be nothing but the rumblings of a distant thunder or meaningless spiritual talk.
We must ask, did God speak in vain? After all, Jesus said in verse 30 that the voice did not come for His own sake, but for theirs. It was not as if Jesus needed to hear the audible voice from heaven affirming Him. He rested continually in the loving approval of the Father until their intimate fellowship was severed momentarily on the cross. The voice was not for Him, but for them. But were the words wasted, given that they were so misunderstood? By no means! God’s words are never wasted. Undoubtedly there were some who did hear and understand, but even for those who did not comprehend, their callousness to the voice of God only served to further harden their hearts and increase their culpability in the judgment. How much more severe will the condemnation be for those who wrote off an audible voice from heaven testifying to the glory of God-in-Christ?

Jesus was consumed with a passion for the glory of God. He lived for the glory of His Father, and He died for the glory of His Father. He asked that, in whatever may come, including the agony of the cross, that the Father glorify His name. The glory which was asked for was answered with the affirmation from heaven, even though it was misunderstood by many. Jesus spoke of the kind of death by which He was to die. It was a death of unswerving obedience and a death of resounding glory. 

III. Jesus died a death of victorious accomplishment (vv31-32)

Apparently there is a big soccer thing going on in the world right now – the World Cup. You have to understand, I love sports, but I just can’t get into soccer. When I was a kid, I could count on one hand the number of kids I knew who played soccer, and every one of them was a little strange. But, nowadays I am the strange one, because soccer is probably the most popular sport in the world. And last week, the host country for the World Cup, Brazil, was soundly destroyed by Germany, 7-1. I didn’t watch it, but it was all over the sports news. Brazil suffered an embarrassing defeat. But when it is all said and done, no matter who wins, Brazil comes out on top. The country is forecasted to profit from hosting the event, to the tune of anywhere between 3 and 30 billion dollars. An estimated 3.7 million people will have streamed into the country, spending an average of $2,500 each while they are there. But this is just the beginning. The preparations made for the World Cup helped Brazil secure the 2016 Summer Olympics, which will provide an additional infusion of tourists and money to the nation. While the storybook ending would have had Brazil winning the World Cup, in the end, their defeat will be overshadowed by the gains that the country experiences.

When we consider the cross of Jesus Christ, we are tempted to think of it as a defeat. Here the Son of God is lifted up to die. Wicked men have done their dead-level best to kill the God of the Universe. Satan has carried out an evil plot that he had concocted in the Garden of Eden to strike at God and His image bearers in the world. An innocent man is convicted of trumped-up charges by false testimonies and corrupt courts, and sentenced to be executed by the most inhumane form of death ever devised in the depraved hearts of men. It looks like a defeat, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. It is a victorious accomplishment. Jesus speaks of three accomplishments of the cross here in verses 32-33.

First, He says, “Now judgment is upon this world.” The world thought it was passing judgment on Jesus with the cross, but by the cross, Jesus Christ was pronouncing judgment on the world. In other passages He said He did not come to judge the world but to save it. That’s because the judgment was already in effect. The entire human race was already under condemnation because of sin. If God was content for the entire race of men to be condemned forever, then the ministry of Jesus was entirely unnecessary. He came, as He said in Mark 10:45, “to give His life a ransom for many.” In the cross, the ransom was paid to redeem humanity from sin and its curse and penalty. Many would be rescued from perishing through the blood of His cross. But for those who reject Him, the condemnation remains, and is final. Now – with the cross in view – judgment is upon this world. Henceforth, humanity’s judgment is based on a response to the offer of salvation in God-in-Christ. Trust in this crucified Savior and be saved from the wrath that is to come. Reject Him, and the judgment is inescapable. Jesus is not the defendant, nor is He the victim. He is the judge, and His cross is the judgment. The cross of Christ stands at the center of history as the final basis for the eternal fate of all men.

Second, He says, “Now the ruler of this world will be cast out.” Of course, “the ruler of this world” is none other than Satan. God’s appointed ruler of this world was, in the beginning, mankind who was made in His image and commissioned to exercise dominion over creation. But Adam forfeited his authority in the world when he fell to Satan’s temptation in the garden. From that point forward, sin reigned in the human race and in the fallen world as we all walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:2. And as the nails were driven into the hands and feet of the incarnate God, Satan had to think for a moment that he had secured the final victory. But it was actually his own undoing. Sin and death were his seemingly insurmountable weapons by which he battled the human race in his long war against God. But in the death and resurrection of Christ, death itself was destroyed. Satan was disarmed and dethroned. Colossians 2:15 says that Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities, and made a public display of them, having triumphed over them. The writer of Hebrews said it this way: “through death [Jesus rendered] powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and … free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:14-15). In his First Epistle, John will write, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8). Until the consummation of all things, Satan still operates in the world in what amounts to the last ditch efforts of a defeated foe in a war that has already been lost. Jesus is the victor, and has triumphed over the devil by His cross.

Third, He says, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” In the cross, Jesus met the deepest need of humanity: the need for a Savior from the guilt of sin. Having paid the penalty of sin for us, and removed the transgressions that stood between us and the holiness of God, Jesus has made a way for us to be brought near through the blood of His cross. And in this cross, we see the infinite love that God has toward us. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Jesus said that greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for His friends. But Jesus has a greater love than any man, in that He died for His enemies, those who had sinned against Him – you and me. No one has ever loved you, and no one ever will, love you like Jesus. By this love, He is drawing us to Himself. He is drawing all men. Certainly, this does not mean “all men, without exception.” It means rather, “all men, without distinction.” It does not matter if you are Jewish or Gentile, male or female, old or young, rich or poor. There is a way of access to God by having your sins forgiven and being made righteous before Him. There is a way, and there is only one way. That way is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified for us and for our salvation.

The cross looks like defeat, but it is victory. It is victory because these great accomplishments came to pass through the cross: The world is judged, Satan is defeated, and you, if you will turn to Jesus by faith, can be saved. When Jesus said, “If I be lifted up from the earth,” He was pointing us to His cross. By that cross, He is drawing you – offering what you most desperately need: redemption from sin; and what you most insatiably desire: infinite and eternal love and fellowship with God.

By these words, Jesus was indicating the kind of death by which He was to die. It was not an accident, a tragedy, or a mistake in the plans of God. It was all taking place under God’s sovereign control and for His glorious purpose. It was a death of unswerving obedience, even in the face of great agony. It was a death of resounding glory, sought by the Son and sworn by the Father. It was a death of victorious accomplishment. In the cross the world is judged, Satan is defeated, and you can be saved if you will come to Jesus.

If you never have before, it would be my prayer that you would, even this day. But if you have, my hope is that you will consider afresh the kind of death by which Christ was to die for you. When you look at the cross, you can be reminded of His love, His faithfulness, His steadfast pursuit of the Father’s glory in redeeming you, and the sovereignty of God over a horrific scenario. As those truths take root in your heart and mind, you can face whatever comes your way. He spoke these things to indicate the kind of death by which He would die. Later, at the end of John’s Gospel, the Risen Jesus will say to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” John says, with eerily similar words: “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death [Peter] would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” (Jn 21:18-19). Like Peter, only Jesus knows the kind of death by which you will die. But, whatever the future may hold for you, whether a sweet or bitter providence, like Peter, you can follow Jesus and face the future that He holds in His hands with unswerving obedience, a burning desire to glorify God in your life and in your death, and proclaiming the victory of the cross until these poor, lisping, stammering tongues lie silent in the grave.

[1] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 117, 119.
[2] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 305.
[3] Calvin, 306. 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Bringing Others to Jesus (John 12:20-26)

Have you ever been going somewhere and made a wrong turn or missed your exit without noticing it, and suddenly found yourself lost in the middle of nowhere, with no idea where to go? Of course, you could ask someone for directions, unless you are a man. Asking for directions is on that list of things that detract from one’s masculinity. But then again, how do you know if you can trust the person giving you the directions in the first place? Of course, nowadays, you simply plug in the address to your GPS or your smartphone and you are well on your way. But I can remember that feeling of helplessness and vulnerability that comes upon you when you’re lost, and ashamed to admit it, or afraid to ask for directions. And I remember what that feels like spiritually as well.

I suppose it was around 20 years ago that I first read John Kramp’s excellent book called Out of Their Faces and Into Their Shoes.[1] In that book, the author compares what it is like to be spiritually lost apart from Christ and what it is like to be lost out on the road somewhere. He coins the phrase “lostology,” and enumerates a list of 24 laws of lostology. Here are a few of them, and they are true whether we are talking about someone who is lost geographically or spiritually:
  • No one gets lost on purpose.
  • It is easy to get lost.
  • You can be lost and not know it.
  • You cannot force people to admit they are lost.
  • Admitting you are lost is the first step in the right direction.
  • Just because you are lost does not mean you are stupid.
  • It is tough to trust a stranger.
  • If you are searching, the lost may find you.
It’s that last one that I want to focus on. Jesus said that He had come to seek and to save that which is lost (Luke 19:10). And His mission is our mission. It could well be that the reason the church is not reaching more lost people is that we aren’t really looking for them. If you are looking for them, they might just find you. That’s what happens here in John 12. Jesus and His disciples have just arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover – the final Passover in the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. It is early in the week. By the weekend, He will be dead, and then by Sunday, risen from the dead. And it is here in this setting that a group of people that the Bible simply calls “Greeks” come to one of the disciples with a plea: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The word “Greeks” was an umbrella term for all non-Jewish people. And the original language here implies that they were persistent: “they kept on saying, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’” They did not merely want to gaze upon Him; they wanted to “see Him” in the sense of meeting Him and conversing with Him.

If you are living on mission with Jesus, seeking the lost that they might be saved, you may have people who come to you in a similar way. Now, because most people who are lost don’t like to admit they are lost, they may not come right out as these did and say, “Could you please introduce me to Jesus?” They may, and I have had that happen on a rare occasion. More often, however, their plea to meet Jesus is veiled with other words and with unspoken communication. There is a hint of despair perhaps in their tone; an inkling of unsatisfied longing; a touch of heartbreak in their story. Beneath those words is the persistent plea, “Can anyone here introduce me to someone who can help me, who can change my life, who can transform me and save me?” In short, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In those moments, you can be a part of God’s plan to bring that person to Jesus, and in this text we see how it so often happens.

I. Bringing someone to Jesus calls for teamwork (vv20-22a)

Have you ever been faced with a daunting task, all alone, with no one to help you? Try as you may, you just can’t do it, and you grow more and more frustrated and discouraged and you just want to give up. I’m sure many of us have faced that in some situation or another. And it is easy to feel at times as if this is how it goes with the task of evangelism, sharing the good news of Jesus with others. It is easy to feel like you are all alone in the situation, with no one to help you, and you are getting nowhere with the other person. If that happens enough times, you will eventually just give up and throw in the towel on the whole evangelistic enterprise. Maybe that is where you are with a friend, a family member, a coworker or a neighbor, or just some casual acquaintance you have made in your life. There is good news for you if you feel that way. You are not alone in this task. Of course, first and foremost, you have the power of the Holy Spirit at work in and through you. In fact, this is a prerequisite to being a witness for Christ. In Acts 1:8, Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses.” It is impossible to be His witness in the power of your flesh. You must be filled with the Spirit to be an effective witness. But beyond this, you have other Christians that can come along side of you to help you in the process. And we see that taking place here in the text.

The Greeks first came to Philip. Why did they come to Philip, and not any of the others? As we study the Bible, we are like detectives sometimes, looking for clues. What is there in this text that provides the motive for them choosing Philip? We have this phrase describing him as being “from Bethsaida of Galilee.” Bethsaida of Galilee was located in very close proximity to large concentrations of Gentiles. Perhaps some of them recognized him and knew him from there. That may or may not have been the case, but we know from the account of Peter’s denials of the Lord that Galileans had a distinct accent. The people said to Peter on that occasion, “The way you talk gives you away” (Matt 26:73). Perhaps they overheard Philip talking to someone and they recognized his Galilean accent.

Whether it was the accent, or a previous encounter with Philip that sparked the conversation, the idea here is that there was a point of commonality with him. For some reason, they did not view him as a random stranger, but someone they could trust. And this is the way that we connect with lost people who need Jesus. We establish relationships with them based on points of mutual interest. I think we call that “making friends.” C. S. Lewis said that friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”[2] Are we open to befriending, and being befriended by, people who need to meet Jesus? As we get to know that person on the basis of one common interest, it will be our growing desire to share with them our most important interest in life: the Lord Jesus. They may even begin the conversation and ask you to tell them more about Him.

Now, to some of you, the very idea of that sounds extremely intimidating. Sometimes people say, “Well, I just don’t think evangelism is my spiritual gift, so I will leave it to others to do.” Friends, the spread of the Gospel is not reserved for those with a specific set of spiritual gifts. God intends to use all of His people, regardless of their gifting, in the advance of His kingdom. Now, whether it is spiritual giftedness, personality, or some other factor, some people are genuinely more comfortable in sharing their faith than others. Some are more effective than others. And some, while unable to reach certain kinds of people, are uniquely wired to reach those whom others cannot reach. As we discover in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” Whatever your giftedness, whatever your ministry, whatever your effectiveness, it is the desire of the Lord Jesus to work through all of His people to bring glory to His name as His gospel spreads to all nations.

Maybe Philip was like some of us. Not as comfortable, not as effective, not as outgoing as some of the others, and here he is in this situation with a group of Gentiles saying, “Bring us to Jesus!” So, I want you to notice what Philip does. He “came and told Andrew.” Now, there are 11 other disciples he could have gone to talk to – well, 10 anyway; I’m certainly glad he didn’t go talk to Judas about it. Why did he come to Andrew? Well, for one thing, Andrew was his friend. They were from the same town and had likely been acquainted with one another for many years. But secondly, there is a really interesting thing about Andrew. Andrew was always bringing people to Jesus. He brought Peter, his brother, to the Lord. At the feeding of the 5,000, it was Andrew who brought the boy with the fish and the loaves to Jesus. He was just one of those guys who seemed to have a knack for bringing people to Jesus, so he was the natural choice for Philip to go to with this situation of these Greek-speakers who wanted to meet Jesus.

The point of all of this is to say that we cannot do the task of evangelism alone. Almost every evangelism training tool I know of focuses on the effort of the individual. I think God has a better plan – He intends to use a team, and that team is His church. As each one of us does our part, serving the Lord with our unique strengths and gifts, and as each of us builds friendships with people who need Jesus, we come along side of each other and help one another bring those friends to Him. Do you have a friend or family member, a neighbor or a coworker who needs the Lord and you haven’t been able to reach them? Why not ask some of your brothers and sisters in Christ to come alongside of you, to join you for dinner with them, or for a social gathering of some kind, and keep doing that over and over again. There was an entire team of people who led me to Jesus, and most likely the same is true for many of you. It will be the case for those that we bring to Jesus as well.

This was brilliantly illustrated in Mack Stiles’ new little book on Evangelism. I would encourage every one of you to read it. I think it is in the church library, but if it isn’t I will fix that right away. In that book, Mack tells the story of Kelly. She was an exchange student from Brazil who came to Portland, Oregon. Her host family, Connie and John, took her to church with them, but she didn’t seem really interested. After her exchange year was up, they stayed in touch with Kelly and prayed often for her. Mack and his wife Leeann were speaking at their church one day, and over lunch, Connie shared with Leeann about Kelly. She said Kelly had become a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines and was based in Dubai. Mack and Leeann happen to live in Dubai. Connie and Leeann both wrote to Kelly and asked her to come to church at Redeemer one Friday, and she began doing so immediately. In fact, she started attending before Mack and Leeann even returned to Dubai. At the church, she met Hetty and Kanta, who invited her to lunch after the service. They offered her some books and invited her to their small group. By the time Leeann returned to Dubai, she met with Kelly over lunch, and Kelly essentially asked Leeann to help her understand the gospel and how she could trust in Jesus and be saved. Not long after, Mack baptized her. This is a wonderful story of how God used a team of people, over several years, multiple continents, and many opportunities, to bring a young woman to Jesus. But it is not a unique story. The same will be true for all of us as we labor together to bring others to Him. It takes a team to bring someone to Jesus. Are you a part of the team? I hope you are, and if you aren’t, I pray you will be.[3]

II. Bringing someone to Jesus requires prayer (v22b)

Philip and Andrew did the one thing here that we all must do if we would bring others to Jesus. They talked to Jesus about it. Not only can the mission of reaching the lost not be carried out successfully without prayer, but the opposite is also true. Prayer begins to malfunction in our spiritual lives when it becomes detached from this mission. Jesus has given us the blessed gift of prayer for the purpose of advancing His Kingdom. In John 15:16, Jesus says this: “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.” Did you catch that? He chose us, and appointed us to go and bear fruit – that is, to go and bring others to Him – and the reason is so that whatever we ask of the Father in the name of Christ may be given to us. The mission depends on prayer, and prayer depends on mission. By integrating these two things, mission and prayer, the results of the mission are shown to be dependent on the power of God that is accessed through the prayers of His people. And, when that happens, it happens in such a way that God alone can get the glory.

Now, I have no doubt that here in this very sanctuary are people of God who believe deeply in the power and privilege of prayer. But my friends, may I ask, what is it that we are praying for? If prayer exists for the purpose of advancing the mission of Christ, then is it not deplorable how little of our prayer time is devoted to this? I have said this for years, and I don’t think it was an original thought, but I have forgotten the source: “We pray harder to keep saved people out of heaven than we do to keep lost people out of hell.” Several weeks ago, I had the chance to visit the first church I ever served. In our fellowship with the saints there, one said to me, “I want to thank you for changing the way I pray. You said that we pray harder to keep saved people out of heaven than we do to keep lost people out of hell, and ever since then, I have prayed more for lost people than ever before.” It is no surprise that this person is a very effective and fruitful witness for the Lord.

John Piper, in his book Let the Nations Be Glad, refers to prayer there as a “wartime walkie-talkie” that God has given us “so that we can call headquarters for everything we need as the Kingdom of Christ advances in the world.”[4] But, as Piper says so well there, “the number one reason prayer malfunctions in the hands of believers is that we try to turn a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom.” Instead of using it “to call in firepower” as the mission of Christ advances, we are trying to use it to call “for more comforts in the den.”[5]

So my friends, do you know someone who needs to come to Jesus? I hope you do. And I hope that you have been talking to them about Jesus, and bringing them alongside of other believers who are talking to them about Jesus. But, we must understand that the battle for their souls is waged on our knees as we “come and tell Jesus” about them. It takes both: talking to them about Jesus and talking to Jesus about them. One without the other is never sufficient. But, our witness will be powerless unless we come to Jesus in prayer and tell him about those we would seek to bring to Him.

III. Bringing someone to Jesus demands a faithful proclamation of the full gospel truth (vv23-26).

There have been a plethora of books, videos, and training programs that have promised a quick and easy way to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. Though well-intentioned, I am sure, these have in some cases done more harm than good to the cause of Christ. Rather than presenting a quick and easy way to share the Gospel, in some instances they have actually presented a cheap and false Gospel. The evangelical church in America today has embraced a pseudo-Gospel that is little different from the theological liberalism of the early 20th Century that evangelicalism arose to counter. That pseudo-Gospel was well summarized by Richard Niebuhr in his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America:“A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[6] That is a very pleasant sounding message, isn’t it? But it is a siren song of destruction because there isn’t a shred of truth in it. We are surrounded by people every day who need to be, and a good many who want to be, brought to Jesus. God help us if we pander a half-truth Gospel to them and offer them cheap grace and easy believe-ism. The Gospel is a free offer of grace, but it is not cheap. It is very costly.

In response to Philip and Andrew, Jesus explains the cost involved in the true Gospel. First He speaks of the cost to Himself – the cost to Jesus. In verses 23-24, He says, “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.” Jesus is that grain of wheat. He has fallen into the earth through His death and burial, but in His suffering and death, His glory was breaking through. It took a Savior dying on the cross to rescue us from sin and death and hell. The horror of the cross, with all of its physical torture and agony, was only a part of what was going on there as Jesus died. He was being forsaken by His Father. He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Here was God the Son being forsaken by God the Father in a way that defies our comprehension, as Jesus bore our sin under the full outpouring of the just and holy wrath of God. Every sin that you and I ever committed received its full penalty then and there, and Jesus took it for you. And He was being glorified through it, because He was rescuing sinners by laying down His life in our place, and He was vindicated by His glorious resurrection, having defeated sin and death and hell forever. The Gospel is good news, and it is a free offer, but it is not cheap because it cost the Lord Jesus dearly. He is that grain of wheat that fell into the ground and died, and by His suffering He has borne much fruit – countless lives through the centuries and all over the world whose lives have been ransomed by His grace through His blood.

But the Gospel is also costly for those who wish to share it. It is an interesting thing about seed, be it a grain of wheat or a pumpkin seed or whatever. It must fall into the ground and die in order to bear fruit. But the fruit it brings is also filled with more seed, and each of those seeds must fall into the ground and die to bear fruit. So, we who belong to Christ are the fruit that has come from His death, and if we would bear fruit for Him, we must undergo a kind of death as well. In verse 25, He speaks of this kind of death. “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” What is it that keeps us from being the witnesses that Christ has called us to be? It is fear. And what is that we fear? We fear the cost – the cost to our reputation, the cost to our relationships, the cost to our security and standing, and in some cases perhaps a cost to our safety in certain contexts. We love our lives. But Jesus says if we love our lives, we lose them. That’s really not the best translation of that word there. More literally, if we love our lives we are actively destroying them. We are living for ourselves rather than for King Jesus; we are driving ourselves according to our own plans and agendas instead of His. We are forfeiting God’s best by abandoning the purpose for which He has called us. So, we must “hate” our lives in this world, knowing that the life we seek to gain and keep is beyond this world. The idea of “hatred” may seem too strongly worded for our comfort. After all, we were taught from a young age not to hate anyone, and here, Jesus is telling us to hate ourselves. In other passages, He calls us to hate others, and in some God Himself is said to hate some. But in the ancient Semitic idiom, to love one thing and hate another is to make a choice, to prefer one thing so strongly that our affection for the other appears like it is hated. Jesus is calling His people to love Him, to embrace His mission, to choose to live according to His plan and purpose in such a way that our regard for our own self, our standing, our security, appears as self-hatred. “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me,” Jesus says. He is going to the cross, to lay down His life for the redemption of humanity. He says, “Follow me.” Elsewhere He said that if anyone would follow Him, they must take up their cross. This is a call to die to self, and to embrace living by faith and obedience to King Jesus, and serving Him in all that He has called us to do. Chiefly, He has called us to bring others to Him as we bear witness for Him in the world. It is costly, yes, but obedience always is.

Finally, there is a cost to the one who wishes to come to Him. If someone can acknowledge in the heart of hearts, like the Greeks in this passage, that they really desire to know Jesus, we must not shrink from declaring to them the cost inherent the free offer of His grace. Freely, freely, Jesus laid down His life for you; freely, freely He offers to save you from sin and death and hell; freely, freely, He offers to wash you in His blood that you may be forgiven of your sins, and to clothe you in His righteousness that you might be welcome before God in heaven. It is a free offer. But, there is a cost. There is the cost of repentance. You must be willing to acknowledge that you are a sinner and that you desire to turn from the life of sin. There is the cost of renunciation. You must turn from all other beliefs and cling to Christ alone. There is the cost of reproach. You will not always be loved and appreciated in this world. You may suffer scorn and persecution for Christ in myriad ways. You will be called to the daily dying of yourself, your desires, your securities, your plans. You need to count the cost. But you also need to consider the alternatives. A difficult life here and now can compare neither to the eternal horrors of hell nor the eternal glories of heaven. Yes there is a cost, but in the end there is this assurance: “Where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor Him.” We endure the rejection of this world for the honors of heaven, the hardships here, for the presence of Christ there.

So, would you bring others to Jesus? God has uniquely gifted you and wired you to be part of His team – the Church – through whom He shines the glory of the crucified and risen Christ into the world. If you do your part, in fellowship with other believers doing their part, God will use His team to bring others to Christ. But not apart from prayer. We must talk to Jesus about those we would wish to bring to Him. We must plead for their souls before the throne of grace, with more fervency than we have prayed for any other thing. And then we must speak the whole truth of the Gospel: the cost of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice and the cost of following Him by faith and obedience, even as we embrace the cost of proclaiming that message.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Digital Church

This past Sunday, the Greensboro News and Record featured a lead story on the use of technology, social media, and electronic gadgets in church. I was literally bombarded with questions about the article on Sunday morning before and after our worship service. I probably tip my hand on this issue a bit when I admit that I do not read the newspaper, but rely on Twitter to bring me news of interest. The fact is, I love technology, gadgets, and social media, and I use them often for (and even at) church! I was an "early adopter" to harnessing the power of technology for ministry, dating back to my first attempt to create a free webpage for my church in 1998 posting sermons online way back when using RealAudio streaming, and "beaming" sermon and lecture notes from one Palm Pilot to another. So, I actually welcome and celebrate the new attitude that is emerging about the use of tablets and smartphones.

It is undeniable that we now live in a digital world. In a recent Supreme Court case regarding privacy and the routine search of mobile phones, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that smartphones have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy” (source). In the old days (which were just a few years ago), a church could simply ask congregants to power off their devices as they prepared for worship. Today, this would be, to extend Chief Justice Roberts' metaphor, akin to asking someone to sever an appendage.

There is legitimate concern that the use of phones and tablets during worship could be a distraction. Indeed, it can be one both for the user and those seated in his or her proximity. However, let us be honest -- distractions in worship are not a 21st century innovation. In Acts 20, we read of Eutychus who fell asleep and fell out of a window while Paul was preaching. In the intervening centuries, people have come up with all sorts of ways to prevent such defenestrations: coloring in the open spaces of letters on the bulletin, drawing pictures and passing notes on the backs of visitor cards and offering envelopes, daydreaming, etc. So, while we do not want to encourage people to play Angry Birds during worship services, if they do, it is merely a recent twist on an old issue. The only prevention of this is to have a safeguarded heart that is disciplined to stay "plugged in" to the act of worship that is taking place. Out of love for one's neighbor and a desire to not be a stumbling block, one should beware of such distractions. If one must engage in technological diversions during worship, he or she should at least have the decency to be discreet about it! It is one thing if you miss out on worship because you need to clear a level of Candy Crush. It is another for your Candy-Crushing to occupy the attention of those around you.

There are other distractions that need to be guarded against as well, on both sides. On the part of the user, one should be careful to keep their devices held so that others are not tempted to look at them, and one should be mindful of lights and reflections. In a darkened sanctuary (which many churches now woefully employ) the shining light of one's smartphone or tablet screen will inevitably draw attention from others and could be considered disruptive. Consider the atmosphere before powering up. Additionally (I regret that this even needs to be said), one needs to guard one's heart against pride. Far be it for me to make blanket accusations, but in a small percentage of cases (hopefully, it is just a small percentage), the person using the device may be intending to send out the signal to those nearby, "Hey, check me out! I have a nifty gadget! Are you not envious of how technologically savvy I am?" This is sinful, and needs repentance. Such repentance may necessitate a "fast" from technology in worship until the heart is remedied and purged of such an obnoxious attitude.

Then there is this: I have personally experienced the painful distraction of sitting behind someone who is using their phone or tablet in a perfectly legitimate way, but the glassy screen shines a terrible reflection of glare right into my eyes. In some cases, I have moved, while in others I have asked the person to adjust the angle of their device or situated myself so that the glare was blocked. And then, on the part of the "bystander," I would advise the simple advice of minding one's own business. It is tempting to look onto a nearby screen, but one needs to be more focused on his or her own Bible, hymnal, notebook, or personal meditation than on that of the neighbor in the pew.

There are actually many good, beneficial uses of technology and portable devices in worship. These are what excite me and why I welcome and celebrate these innovations:

1) Bible Apps - From YouVersion to the Logos Bible App to a host of others, many church-goers are relying on their smartphones and tablets as their primary Bible. Why begrudge this? This person has his or her Bible at-hand 24 hours a day. Few others could make such a claim. So prevalent is this phenomenon, that in one recent conference I attended, the speaker made the humorous quip, "Everyone please turn on your Bibles and scroll with me to the book of Isaiah." Searching by word, subject, chapter and verse is fast and easy on these Apps, and I am all for people finding more facility with their Bibles.

2) Note Apps - From the native "Notes" app on iOS devices to apps like Evernote and Google Drive, a person is able to take notes during worship and have those notes accessible at all times and retrievable by search or index. How many others carry their sermon notes with them everywhere they go?

3) Referencing - Sometimes during a sermon or even in the singing of a hymn, one will encounter a word or phrase that is unfamiliar or intriguing. How many of us have said, "I need to look that up when I get home," only to forget about it somewhere over lunch. The gadget-user has the ability to look it up on the spot. Rather than being a distraction, this can become an enhancement to their experience in worship. I have never met anyone who carries a Bible Dictionary and Commentary with them into worship, but the smartphone and tablet provides users with these and a host of references at the fingertips as needed.

4) Social Media - Several years ago, someone came to me with a concern about some of our young people who were "texting" during worship. I said, "Oh, that is a shame. I am sorry you were distracted by that. I will have a word with them." But then, after the service, I pulled up my Twitter and Facebook feeds and found that these young people had actually been tweeting quotes from my sermon and lines from the hymns we were singing. They were, in effect, becoming "broadcasters" of what was taking place in our worship service to an audience larger than our sanctuary would accommodate. I decided that I would not have that word with them after all. Instead, I had a word with the one who brought the concern to my attention. I asked, "How many people have you shared the message from last Sunday with?" The answer was none. I rest my case.

5) Photos and Videos - Rarely, if ever, do I see people bringing in cameras to a typical Sunday morning service. But, there have been several times when I have received via email or social media a photo of a significant moment in the service or a video of someone's baptism or a special music offering from a soloist or ensemble. One of my most cherished photos is from a service several years ago in which two of my predecessors at Immanuel joined me in the serving of the Lord's Supper. Had someone not had their smartphone or tablet with them and in use in worship, I would not have that moment captured. I would urge one caution here. I have noticed of late that the contemporary worship posture is often that of having both hands raised in the air, with the iPhone grasped between them recording the whole thing. I have no objections to recording things, but I doubt there is a need to record everything (unless in the case of #9 below). And, I can't help thinking that sometimes "capturing the moment" hinders us from "experiencing the moment." Better to be engaged in worship here and now, than to be preoccupied with preserving it for later.

6) "Check-In" Services - Whether it is Foursquare or the Facebook check-in feature, it is always a joy for me to see as I scroll through Sunday's timeline how many of my friends were gathered for corporate worship in a local church. I also marvel at the testimony that this can be to unchurched friends and loved ones. They are having brunch on their veranda in their bedroom slippers and they turn on Facebook and find that a dozen of their friends were in worship. I actually use an app called "Checkmate" that automatically checks me in on Foursquare whenever I walk in the door of the church.

7) Giving - Long gone are the days when people carry around a pocket full of cash or a checkbook. And, lets face it, churches are always asking for money for something. In addition to the giving of one's regular tithes and offerings, a financial tool like Paypal, a bank's mobile banking app, or similar app, enables someone to contribute "on-the-spot." The next time you see someone fiddling around with their smartphone, they may actually be making an offering to advance the spread of the Gospel around the world!

8) Messaging - Be it text messaging, iMessaging, or even email (do people still do that?), some people use their gadgets to send messages during worship. Isn't that a bad thing? Well it could be, but it is not inherently worse than passing a note down the aisle. But, often, during Sunday services, I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, and when I check it after the service, someone in the congregation has sent me a message with a question about the sermon, a prayer request or asking for information about a ministry or project in the church. I have done this myself. If the Lord lays someone on my mind that I have been praying for, or if I learn of a need, I will quickly jot out a message to them.

9) "Skype" and similar video conferencing apps - Let's suppose you have a friend at church who is out of the town or out of the country on business, on a mission trip, or on a military assignment. Or, perhaps your friend is sick and cannot attend church today. Wouldn't it be great if you could let them know everything that happened, sing for them every song that was sung, repeat the sermon verbatim to them, and even fill them in on the announcements and prayer concerns? Well, you can. Using Skype or Google Hangouts, Tango, or a host of other Apps, that person can be sitting at home, in the hospital, in a lean-to on a remote island, or anywhere else in the world, and catch the entire service -- even if your church doesn't do online live streaming of the services. As their very good friend, you merely pop up the app on your device, and connect them into the service. If you are going to do this, make sure your battery is charged, and you might want to sit somewhere where you can set your device up on a pew edge or a windowsill or something, and try to not be a distraction to others. But by all means, do it!

Maybe I have left something out ... if so, you can let me know in the comments. How do you use your smartphone or tablet in worship?

And, by all means, the next time you are tempted to condemn someone who does use these things during worship, keep in mind that they may be reading their Bible; they may be taking notes on the sermon, sharing a quote from the Scripture, the songs, or the sermon with more friends than you will this week; they may be capturing a significant moment with their camera; they may be making a contribution. But if they are playing Free Fall, ask them how to clear level 87, because I just can't beat that level!

Fire away in the comments! I'd love to get a rousing discussion going here on this subject!