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.

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