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. 

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