Monday, August 18, 2014

Unbelief Explained (John 12:37-41)

Would it surprise any of you to know that drinking and driving is dangerous? Perhaps no single issue has received so much attention and awareness in the past quarter-century than this. And yet, just two weeks ago a high-ranking law enforcement official in our state was caught driving under the influence of alcohol. I read that story and wondered how anyone in America in this day and time, especially a law-enforcement officer, could get behind the wheel of an automobile in an intoxicated state? Do they not know the dangers? Do they not believe the reports they have heard? And then there is this factor: one of the effects of intoxication is that it impairs a person’s judgment. They not only fail to make the right decision, but they actually cannot make the right decision. And then tragedy happens.

Let’s consider another tragedy – that of spiritual unbelief. Why is it that some people, in fact most people in the history of the human race, have believed in a supernatural being, while others simply do not consider it at all plausible? Recently some have speculated that there must be a specific gene that causes some people to be predisposed to spiritual experiences. Some evolutionary anthropologists have theorized that as humanity continues to evolve to higher levels of sophistication, we have outgrown our need for a deity and therefore more and more people do not believe. And then there are those who would say it boils down to evidence and information. They would say that those who do not believe have just not seen enough convincing evidence to change their minds. Some will even say that there is an over-abundance of evidence to the contrary that should convince more of us that God does not exist.

Even among those who believe in God or gods, there are vast differences of opinions about how many deities there are, what they are like, how they interact with the world. Who is right, who is wrong? I trust that most of you have decided that the message of the Christian faith is true, and all others are false. What convinced you to believe, and why have so many of your friends, neighbors, and relatives, not believed? Is it a matter of information and evidence? Is it cultural or genetic? Are you just smarter or luckier than they are, or is it vice-versa?  Or is it something else?  Some would ask us Christians, “How could you possibly believe in Jesus?” We need to expect that question, and 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we need to be ready to give an answer to that question. But it is just as legitimate to ask the unbeliever, “How could you possibly not believe in Jesus?” I suppose that the average unbeliever has never given much thought to how to explain his or her unbelief. And yet the text that is before us today actually goes a long way toward helping us understand this very thing. This is unbelief explained.

I. Unbelief is a willful rejection of divine revelation (v37-38)

Many people sort of have this assumption that we who believe have either rejected all of the evidence that should convince us not to believe, or else that we have been privileged to see some convincing evidence that others have not seen. I’ve had unbelievers tell me, “I wish I could believe what you believe, but I’ve just seen too much evidence to convince me otherwise.” Some have said, “I am open to believing, but God just has not given me enough reasons to believe.” It sounds plausible, doesn’t it? When we hear things like this, we are tempted to sympathize with them. After all, it is not their fault if they haven’t seen convincing evidence, is it?  We may go to the Lord in prayer asking Him why He has not done more to convince our unbelieving friend or loved one of His existence and His power to save. Some may be tempted to doubt even their own faith, wondering if they have been duped into believing something that isn’t real, or if we have been too gullible to see all of the evidence to the contrary. This text helps us to understand that ultimately unbelief is in fact a willful rejection of divine revelation.

Consider verse 37: “But though He (Jesus) had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him.” Some had seen Jesus turn water into wine; multiply just a small number of loaves and fish into a meal that fed a multitude of thousands; heal people with serious medical ailments at the touch of His hand or the sound of His voice; even raise the dead back to life. John says that there were many other things that Jesus did which have not been recorded for us in Scripture. He says, “If they were written in every detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). Yet, John considered that only the small portion of Jesus’ miracles that he recorded in his Gospel should be enough to convince anyone to believe in Him. He says, “Many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in His name” (20:30-31). 

It is undeniably true that, if an infinite God really exists, the only way for finite human beings to know anything about Him is for God to reveal that information to us. He did that supremely in the Person and works of Jesus Christ, and the revelation was by-and-large rejected. Now, we might say, “Well, so much for them, but what about my friends, my loved ones, my neighbors, who have never seen the miracles that Jesus did?” Some even point to the famous “pagan in the faraway land” who has never heard of Jesus. What about them? Surely they have not rejected revelation, have they? Isn’t it more the case that they’ve never received the revelation? No, this is not true. Every human being who has ever lived has received God’s divine revelation about Himself to some degree.

The Bible speaks of two kinds of revelation. There is His “general revelation” by which He makes Himself known to all men everywhere. We might call this “the works of God.” And then there is His special revelation by which He makes known the specific way of salvation through a personal relationship with Himself. We might call this “the Word of God.” Certainly, in the case of those in our text, they had received specific revelation in the Person and works of Jesus Christ. Not only did He speak the Word of God, but He IS the Word of God made flesh (Jn 1:1, 14). God has also made the specific revelation of His Word known through the Scriptures that He has inspired.

The nation of Israel is an example of those who had received God’s special revelation. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 9:4-5 that the Israelites had been given “the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, … the fathers, and … the Christ.” God had given them unprecedented revelation of Himself over centuries of history, culminating in the coming of Christ into the world through their lineage and in their land. And yet, so many of them remained in unbelief! En masse, they had received the Word of God (inscripturated and incarntated), and they had rejected the Word of God.

But the Word of God has also gone out to the rest of the world through the Church. In 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Paul says that the Scriptures are able to give one the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus, and ALL Scripture is “inspired by God” (it is theo-pneustas, God-breathed). In Scripture, God is speaking and revealing Himself. That word “Scripture” is used to refer to the writings of the Old Testament as well as the writings of the New Testament. Peter used the word Scripture to refer to the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16), and Paul used it to describe the writings of Luke (1 Tim 5:18, cf. Lk 10:7). So, everywhere the truth of the Bible goes forth, God is revealing Himself through the special revelation of His Word. And everywhere it goes forth, it is met to some degree with unbelief – a willful rejection of divine revelation.

But what of those who have not heard the Word of God? They’ve never seen Jesus, they’ve never seen or heard anything from the Bible, they’ve never heard the Gospel. Surely they have not rejected divine revelation have they? Well, in fact they have, because God has revealed Himself to all people everywhere through His works, which we call His “general revelation.” In Romans 1:18, Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Notice that he does not say that they do not have access to the truth, but they have suppressed or rejected the truth in exchange for unrighteousness, the practice of their sin. Well, what truth did they have? He goes on in the following verses to say, “Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). It is evident within them, because every human being is made in His image. A part of that image is the innate awareness of God and a moral conscience that affirms us when we act rightly and condemns us when we sin. But in addition to this, there is the creation, what has been made. So, as a result, Paul says that no one anywhere is without excuse when it comes to belief in God. His revelation has gone out into all the world, and it has been met with large scale rejection.

Unbelief is, according to God’s Word, not due to a lack of evidence, but is a willful rejection of the evidence given through divine revelation. This is something that was observed and foretold even by the prophet Isaiah. John says in verse 38 that the unbelief and rejection of these people took place to “fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: ‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The passage being quoted is from Isaiah 53. There are two distinct questions here: (1) Who has believed our report? The answer is very few. (2) And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? The answer is EVERYONE! They have all received some measure of divine revelation.
Remember the story Jesus told of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. When the Rich Man is being tormented in hell, he cries out to Father Abraham in heaven for him to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers of their need to repent and turn to the Lord in faith. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets (the Word of God); let them hear them.” The Rich Man protests and says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And Abraham says to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (the Word of God), they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” Hear that clearly: the real need is not for more evidence! They have evidence in what God has revealed, but they have rejected it! So, we will pray “O Lord! Please do some miracle or send some sign into my loved one’s life that will make them believe!” You can pray that until the cows come home from wherever they are, but the answer from heaven will be, “What good would more evidence do?” If they do not believe on the basis of the revelation they already have, including the Scriptural revelation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, then more revelation will not convince them. It will only make them more guilty before God because they have rejected even more evidence.

We must understand that unbelief is a willful rejection of divine revelation. Now the second aspect of unbelief we need to understand is a bit more complicated and controversial, and some may even find it offensive. But the Word of God makes this truth clear, and we cannot deny it, so we must accept it, even by faith, and seek to understand it.

II. Some who reject divine revelation are rendered incapable of belief by an act of divine and merciful judgment (vv 39-41)

Early in our lives, some of us were introduced to this very important question: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” That little tongue-twisting question actually teaches us something very important: the difference between “could” and “would.” That’s an important distinction and it is essential if we wish to interpret this passage correctly. In verse 37, it says that in spite of all the miracles that Jesus did, “they were not believing in Him.” That is, as we have said, they made a willful decision to reject divine revelation, and they would not believe in Him. But now we come to verse 39 and we read that they could not believe. One deals with what they chose to do, the other deals with what they were capable of doing. And apparently, they had become incapable of believing.

Now how had they lost their ability to believe? John says it was “for this reason.” And the reason points backward to their decision to not believe. Because they would not believe, now they could not believe. And he points once again to Isaiah the prophet, this time from chapter 6, when Isaiah was first called to be God’s prophet.[i]

The scene in Isaiah 6 is familiar to many of us. There we read that “In the year that King Uzziah died,” the prophet saw a vision of the Lord seated on His throne in heaven, surrounded by angels calling out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (6:1-2). Upon seeing this vision of the Lord and all of His glory, Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (6:5). Following this confession, an angel came to Isaiah and touched his mouth with a burning coal and declared him to be cleansed and forgiven of his sins (6:6-7). Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord, saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responded, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:8-9). This was Isaiah’s commissioning into the prophetic ministry.

It is interesting to point out that John writes here, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit who inspired the book of Isaiah, that Isaiah “saw His glory and he spoke of Him” (Jn 12:41). The surrounding context makes it clear that by “His” and “Him,” he is referring to the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord Jesus! It was Jesus who was enthroned in Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly temple, and it was the message of the Lord Jesus which Isaiah preached. While every prophet spoke in some way of Jesus, none spoke of Him more clearly than Isaiah. It was Isaiah who spoke of His virgin birth, His divine names and titles (7:14; 9:6), His mission to save Jews and Gentiles from their sin, and His substitionary atonement in His death on the cross (52:13-53:12). The message of Jesus is unmistakably clear in Isaiah. When the Lord Jesus inaugurated His public ministry in the Nazareth synagogue, He did so by reading from Isaiah 61 and declaring that it had been fulfilled in Him. Remember in Acts 8, Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch. What was he reading when Philip met him? Isaiah 53. The Bible says that Philip “opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture, he preached Jesus to him.” And that man came to faith in Christ on the basis of what was revealed about Him in the prophecy of Isaiah. The report was as clear as it could be. But as Isaiah said, “Who has believed it?”

Now, as the Lord commissioned Isaiah in Isaiah 6, the Lord said to him, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (6:9-10). So, let’s get that clear. God tells His prophet that the people to whom he is preaching will not believe the message, and in fact will be rendered incapable of believing. Welcome to the ministry, young man! Understandably, Isaiah was confused by this, and he said, “Lord, how long?” And the Lord said to him, essentially (and I paraphrase here), “Until I bring complete and utter destruction upon the nation of Israel, and all the people are hauled off into captivity.” This of course took place under the Assyrians and the Babylonians from the 8th to 6th Centuries before Christ, as the Lord brought judgment on the nation for its unbelief! But the Lord went on to say in Isaiah 6:13, “Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, and it will again be subject to burning, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.” So the message is going to be wholesale rejected by all who hear it, with the exception of a tiny remnant, a holy seed, of 10% of the nation.

Now, this is the exact passage that John points to in order to explain how Jesus’ message was rejected by so many. Was it rejected by all? No! There would have never been a church if it had been rejected by all. But it was rejected by most, and it still is. Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and spoke of Jesus, and only a tenth believed it. Jesus Himself had the same result, and so have most of us. We share the Gospel with many who hear it and in the end, only a small handful actually believe it. All are making a willful decision to reject divine revelation, but some – perhaps many in fact – have been rendered incapable of believing by divine and merciful judgment. Their hearts have been hardened and their eyes have been blinded so that they cannot believe.

Undoubtedly, many who hear this will bristle against it because it seems like we are talking about a capricious act of a supernatural tyrant, who is just arbitrarily manipulating people like mere pawns in His game of cosmic chess. It all seems very harsh and unloving. But it is not. Why? First, we must remember that God is not causing anyone to not believe who has not already decided to not believe. These are not morally neutral, or even good people, who are arbitrarily damned to hell. No, in fact, the Bible teaches us that we are all born sinners, and are all children of wrath from the moment of our conception because of the sinfulness that is inherent in us. Condemnation is what we all deserve because of our sins, and God, in His mercy offers a way of escape through salvation in Jesus Christ, who loves us, who lived for us, and who died for us, so that our sins could receive the condemnation they deserve at the cross, in the person of Jesus as our substitute, and yet we might be saved!

We need look no further than the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Moses to see an illustration of this. When God called Moses to deliver His people from Egypt, He told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exo 4:21). Yet, when we read the account of the Exodus, we find four times it is said that Pharaoh had hardened his own heart (Exo 8:15, 19, 32, et al.); four times it is said that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, but not specified whether it was hardened by himself or by the Lord (7:13, et al.); and nine more times it is said that God hardened his heart (9:12; et al.). What was happening was that God was judging Pharaoh by allowing the condition that he had chosen for himself to become permanent. It was as if Pharaoh had poured concrete into his own heart, and God merely allowed that concrete to set. That is why the Bible so clearly warns us on more than one occasion, “If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psa 95:7; Heb 3:7; 3:15; 4:7).  You never know when you will do it for the last time, and God will render it certain and final, and you will be rendered incapable of belief.

But I have said that this is not just a divine act of judgment, it is also a merciful judgment. How can we say that it is merciful for God to harden someone’s heart and render them blind to His truth? It is a truth of Scripture that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus made this clearer than anyone. And the basis of these varying degrees of punishment seems to be the response of the people based on the amount of revelation they received. Notice, for example, in Matthew 11, when Jesus denounces the cities wherein He had done many miracles. He says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless, I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Mt 11:20-24). Notice that hell will be a far worse experience for the unbelievers of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum than for those in the ancient cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, because they actually saw the Lord Jesus face-to-face and heard Him teaching the truth of God, and saw Him performing many miracles and signs. So, when God hardens a heart and blinds eyes, it is a merciful act of judgment, because in so doing, He is actually sparing those whom He hardens and blinds from a far worse condemnation than they would experience if they could actually perceive the revelation clearly. Hell will still be an eternally miserable experience for them, but it will be more tolerable for them than it would have been if they had been able to perceive the truth clearly, and then still reject it. There is a strange work of divine mercy at work here in this hardening and blinding judgment.

Have you known someone who was just very hard-hearted about spiritual truths, and seemingly blinded to the evidence that should otherwise persuade them to believe? It could be a condition of their own doing. They may be hardening themselves and shutting their own eyes to these truths. In that case, there may still be hope, but it is a matter of great urgency that they cease their rejection of God’s revelation and humble themselves to submit to Jesus in repentance and faith as their Savior and Lord. But in some cases, God in His mercy, knowing that they will never believe, no matter what evidence is put before them, may have rendered them incapable of perceiving the truth and believing in order the spare them a more severe judgment. How do we know which is the case? We do not know! And that is why it is imperative for all who are in Christ to make it the mission and purpose of their lives to proclaim a fair offer of the Gospel to all men, for it is only through the hearing of the Gospel, and believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ that any may be saved! You say, “I’ve been doing that, and no one believes!” It is very discouraging, isn’t it? But know that your experience is not unique. Isaiah saw the same results, as did Jeremiah and the rest of the Prophets, the Lord Jesus Himself, and all of His apostles. But you can be encouraged. Though you do not know, God knows who that remnant is who will believe. And we can continue on in the faithful proclamation of the good news, confident that God will not fail in the accomplishment of His purposes and promises. Tell the story of Jesus often enough, and you will find someone who has been waiting their entire lives to hear it, so that they might be able to turn from their sin and place their faith in Him and be saved. But as you do, you will also find many who are unwilling to believe because they willfully reject the divine revelation of God’s Word and God’s works. And you will undoubtedly even encounter some who are incapable of believing because they have been mercifully hardened and blinded to God’s truth in an act of divine judgment against their persistent unbelief. We must pray for the lost to be saved! And we must be a witness to them! And we must believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, even though it may only be a tenth portion! And we must understand unbelief as a willful rejection of divine truth, which if not remedied, may result in a permanent condition of terminal unbelief. If you have been hardening your heart against God’s truth, I urgently plead with you to reconsider what God has done and what God has said, and turn to Him believing upon the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might be saved, before the opportunity passes you by forever.

[i] As an important technical detail which is beside the main point of this passage (and therefore the main point of this message), I want to point out something about the references to “Isaiah the prophet” in verse 38 and 39. Because of the number of specific prophecies in Isaiah which are fulfilled either within or shortly after the prophet’s lifetime, those who reject supernatural phenomena such as miracles or predictive prophecy believe that it is impossible for someone like Isaiah to speak with such vivid accuracy about coming events. One example that is often cited concerns the naming of Cyrus in Isaiah 44:24-28. Far more than a general prediction of deliverance for God’s people, Isaiah actually provides the name of the foreign king who allows Israel to return to their homeland. Critics of the Bible’s supernatural origins claim that the reference to Cyrus and several other specific prophetic details must have been written back into the prophecy of Isaiah long after the eighth century B. C. prophet had died. Thus, it is common to find reference in modern critical works to two or three “Isaiahs.” On their theory, there is an Isaiah, and then there was a “deutero-Isaiah” (and in some works even a “trito-Isaiah”) who redacted the original message of Isaiah with additional details to give the appearance of a more detailed prophecy than the original Isaiah really wrote. The theory suggests that the final product we possess in our Bibles was composed in successive stages by different authors. One strong argument (among many that could be given) to support the fact that the entire work which we call “Isaiah” was written by a single author comes from the New Testament references to the book and the prophet himself. This selection in John 12 is one example of that. Notice how John makes reference to the latter portion of Isaiah (chapter 53) and makes reference to “Isaiah the prophet” as the author of those words in John 12:38. Then notice how John makes reference to the earlier portion of Isaiah (chapter 6) and says, “Isaiah said again,” implying that these words are from the same human author as the words in Isaiah 53. This phenomenon actually occurs repeatedly in the Gospels, and is a strong piece of evidence in the case for the single-authorship of Isaiah. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Ministry of Faithful Deacons (Acts 6:1-7)

Last Monday evening, I had the joy of having dinner with one of my old professors. After we we were shown to our table, the server came up and said, “Hi. My name is Karen, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” Dr. Kaiser, who can be very funny, just looked up from his menu and said, “Well, that’s very appropriate you know. Your name is Karen, and you’re going to be carin’ for us.” And as our meal went on, every time she came back to the table, Dr. Kaiser would say, “There you go Karen, carin’ for us again.” And she was a really great server. In fact, later that night I got to thinking about Dr. Kaiser’s pun on her name. She was Karen, and she was very carin’. She seemed to really take seriously, and actually enjoy carin’ for us. And that can really make the difference in your enjoyment of the meal.

As I thought about that, I thought about the ministry of deacons. You might say, “Gee your mind is strange,” but we already knew that. Actually, it is not so strange at all. You see the deacon ministry was born in the context of serving food. In Acts 6, we read about the origin of this ministry that is so essential to every Christian church.

Let’s get acquainted with the scene here. It’s not long after Jesus has ascended into heaven. The apostles are giving pastoral leadership to the church in Jerusalem. And the church is growing. In fact, it is growing rapidly and exponentially. And whenever that happens, there are going to be “growing pains.” Anywhere you gather people together, you are going to have problems because, well, people got problems. I remember telling my pastor one time, soon after I started serving my first church, “I’ve got a hundred members and a hundred problems.” He said, “I’ve got 6,000 members. Want to trade?” I didn’t even pray about it. The church in Jerusalem grew by 3,000 members in one day. I bet they had trouble finding people to work in the nursery, don’t you? They’d already started carpooling so they’d have plenty of parking places. Remember the Bible says that they were all in one Accord in one place (Acts 2:1, KJV). If only the problems were that simple.

So, what was the problem here in First Baptist Church of Jerusalem? (What, you don’t believe it was a Baptist church?) Well, they had a “meals on wheels” program that delivered food to the widows of the church. And they had a lot of widows. And there arose a complaint (see, that’s not new) on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. OK, so what’s this all about? Who are these groups of people? The Hellenistic Jews are those who had adopted the Greek culture and innovations and Greek language. The native Hebrews were those who still spoke Hebrew (or Aramaic, perhaps) and held fast to the ancient Hebrew traditions and cultural practices. Let me see if I can illustrate that without offending anyone – I doubt it, but I’m going to try. Let’s say that there’s a group of Christians who come from a part of the world where people take their shoes off when they walk into a building. And then there’s a group of Christians who come from a place where they do not do that. These two groups of Christians have just joined the same church. So, you’ve got one group that probably thinks the others are not very spiritual because they come in and walk on the carpet with muddy shoes, and you’ve got another group who would like to enjoy the worship service without the additional aromas of their barefooted brethren. That’s a little bit of a silly example, but I hope you get the idea.

These two groups, the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebraic Jews, are part of one church, and they have some very serious cultural differences between them. Now, some of the women may have been sitting around talking one day, and one of the native Hebrew women says, “Oh boy, that fried chicken and green bean casserole that the church sent over yesterday sure was good” (see, I told you it was a Baptist church). And one of the Hellenistic women hears this and says, “Well, I didn’t get any food at all yesterday.” She turns to her friend and says, “Did you?” And her friend says, “Yeah, but all I got was a can of SPAM.” And before you know it, we’ve got a full blown controversy on our hands. Now, aren’t you glad this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore? I mean around here. It still happens out west. So, what did the apostles do about it? They invented a new ministry. They aren’t called deacons here in this passage, but we know that this was the beginning of the ministry that eventually came to be known as deacons. The word deacon means “one who serves.” They are called that because in Acts 6:2, their ministry is described as “serving tables.” And the word for “serve” there comes from the same Greek root as the word translated “deacon” elsewhere in the New Testament.

So, most basically then, we need to understand that deacons are servants. Now, maybe you grew up in a church tradition in which deacons were viewed not as servants but as masters. They held all authority and made all the decisions in the church. But, no, in the Bible, a deacon is a servant. In our day and time, someone might take offense to us saying, “I’d like to have you as my servant.” But we must remember that the Lord Jesus Christ was not ashamed to be called a servant. In Luke 22:27, He said, “I am among you as one who serves.” And guess what that Greek word is for “serve” there? “Deacon.” He illustrated His servanthood when He humbled Himself in the upper room to take up the basin and towel to wash the feet of His disciples. But the ultimate demonstration of His servanthood came in the humble condescension of the Lord of Glory who became a man to meet our greatest need – that of salvation from sin by living for us and dying for us. He said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant (deacon); and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (deacon), and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:43-45). We are never more like Jesus than we are selflessly and sacrificially serving others in His name.

So, with all that said, let’s take a look here for a few moments at the marks of a faithful deacon ministry. We want to look first at the qualities of a faithful deacon, and then that the effects of a faithful deacon ministry.

I. The qualities of a faithful deacon

After determining that there was a crisis within the church, the apostles developed the plan for this new ministry of serving. They knew that the need was far greater than they could meet. After all, they had the responsibility as the spiritual shepherds of the church to feed the people on the Word of God and to lead the church from their knees in prayer. I can’t tell you how difficult it is as a pastor, with so many competing responsibilities, to simply find time to spend to be in undistracted study of the Bible and uninterrupted prayer. I think that busy-ness is one of the devil’s primary strategies to cripple the church. It is not that pastors should be inaccessible, cordoned off in some ivory tower to never be disturbed by others. But if the pastor does not discipline himself to the priorities of prayer and the ministry of the Word of God, he will not have a ministry or a church. So, these apostles made a decision to institute a new ministry to focus on care-giving, and asked the congregation to make a selection from among themselves of seven individuals to whom they could entrust this ministry.

Notice the three criteria that are specified in verse 3. They must be of good reputation, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom. Now, the first one of these requires very little explanation. We know what it means for someone to have a good reputation. If the brethren, the members of the church, are to select others to carry out this ministry, they must be well known among the members and they must have a good reputation. And essentially, their reputation must be known as being Spirit-filled, wise Christians.

What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Christians have differed with each other over the answer to this question for a long time. In fact, there are entire denominations that exist solely because they answer this very question differently. There is confusion about the term because of the similarity of a couple of English words that we use to discuss the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the fully divine third Person of the Triune Godhead. The Bible teaches that when a person is born-again, that is when they are genuinely saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and made spiritually alive in Him, the Holy Spirit comes immediately, simultaneously, and permanently, to take up residence within them. We refer to this as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Every genuine, born-again follower of Jesus has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Consider the following passages:
  • Romans 8:9 – “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”
  • Galatians 4:6 – “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’”
  • Ephesians 1:13-14 – “In Him [Jesus], you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”

So, when we speak of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and say that He lives in you, it would be easy to assume that this is the same thing as being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. But it isn’t. How do we know that? We know it because believers in the Bible are never commanded to be indwelled by the Spirit, but they are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. You don’t have to command someone to be something that they already are. Believers are already indwelt by the Spirit, but not all believers are always filled with the Spirit. In fact, I would argue that few, if any, Christians are always filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus, we have a command in Ephesians 5:18 to be filled with the Spirit, and the verb tense indicates something like, “be continually being filled with the Spirit.” The word “fill” can be used different ways in English. You can fill a glass with water. If being filled with the Holy Spirit means something like this, that kind of seems like we are talking about indwelling, doesn’t it? But we can also talk about filling as in, “the wind filled the sail.” The sail did not suddenly contain wind, but it was driven by that wind, controlled by it to go wherever the wind directs. And THAT is what we mean when we talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is to be under His control, moved along by His unction according to His purpose for us. It would be wonderful if this did not have to be commanded, but it does. So often we are driven by other things: our natural desires, our personal tendencies and inclinations, our selfish agendas, and the like. The Bible calls that being “in the flesh.” It is the opposite of being Spirit-filled. So, the command is to stop being driven by these things, and be controlled instead by the Holy Spirit who is already present within you, indwelling you.

The context of Ephesians 5:18 makes this clear. Paul says there, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation (or wastefulness), but be filled with the Spirit.” Now, we all know what it means to be drunk with wine. I mean, not from experience of course, but we’ve watched television, right? We know people, we’ve heard stories, right? Let’s just stick to that story, OK? When a person is intoxicated, they are no longer in rational control of their faculties. They have given away control of their thoughts and actions to another agent – the chemical that they have put into their body. Well, Paul says, “Don’t do that! That’s a waste! But, instead, give away control of your thoughts and words and deeds to the Spirit of God who is in you.” You’ve probably known someone who gets drunk and says or does something stupid and says, “That wasn’t me, that was the booze.” Blame the booze, not me! So, Paul is saying, “Be filled with the Spirit, and controlled by Him.” Then, when you do what He wants you to do, you can say in all humility, “That wasn’t me, that was the Holy Spirit within me.” Praise Him, not me!

So how do you know when a person is living under the control of the Holy Spirit? Well, we actually have a list to go by. Do you ever do those word-search puzzles that have the list of words off to the side, and then you go try to find those words in the jumble of letters in the box? So, we have one of those word lists in the Bible, and when we look at a person, we are looking for these things. The list is in Galatians 5, and is known as the fruit of the Spirit. These qualities are what the Holy Spirit produces in a person that is under His control: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are the qualities we are looking for as we look for Spirit-filled deacons to serve the church.

Now, Paul also gives us, in the same passage, the indicators that the Spirit is not in control. If the Spirit is not in control, then the flesh, the natural man, is. And that is not a pretty picture. When the Spirit is not in control, Paul says that the deeds of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (the Greek word is porneia, from which we get pornography), impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery (the Greek word is pharmakeia, from which we get pharmaceutical, and it probably has something to do with people becoming entranced by some chemical, or what we could compare to substance abuse), enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Now, any one of us could display those nasty things at any time in our lives, and those are indicators to us that we are not living under the control of the Holy Spirit. So, when we notice these things going on in our hearts and lives, we need to repent and return to the Lord and submit ourselves to the filling of the Spirit so that we can bear that beautiful fruit of the Spirit. But when we see those deeds of the flesh on regular and consistent display in someone else’s life, we know that we do not want that kind of person serving as a deacon. They don’t have a reputation of being filled with the Holy Spirit. And that’s a fundamental criteria.

But they also must be filled with wisdom. There are a lot of people who are wise in the eyes of the world, but they aren’t Spirit-filled. And there are Spirit-filled people who lack wisdom. The two have to go together: Spirit-filled AND wisdom-filled. This is a spiritual wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10), and is built by understanding and applying the Word of God. A spiritually wise person is not the one who knows a lot of Bible trivia. Bible trivia is fun, but it won’t get you through a tough day. The issue is do you know the Word, and know how to apply the word to real issues – to see the issue through the lens of Scripture and know the spiritual roots and the spiritual remedy of the situation. That’s what deacons have to do as they serve the church. Remember that the soil into which deacon ministry was planted was that of church conflict and disunity. If a person lacks wisdom, they will just look for a quick fix, or they will make a decision based on some factor other than truth and righteousness. If we don’t have wise deacons, we’ll all be tripping over stuff that’s been swept under the rug of the church instead of dealt with in a biblical way.

You want a wise doctor, don’t you? If you go to the doctor and you say, “I have this terrible pain in my side,” you don’t want him to say, “Well, here’s a bottle of pills, and if you take 2 of them every six hours you won’t feel that pain.” No, you want a doctor who says, “Let’s get a CT scan and see what’s going on there and what we can do about it.” It might be that your appendix has ruptured and a fatal infection is spreading through your body. You might need surgery. Surgery is painful and recovery is slow and agonizing, but if you are going to be healthy, you might need it. You want a wise doctor who knows the difference between making your symptoms go away temporarily and permanently fixing your problem. So you need deacons who know how to assess a situation through the lens of Scripture and how to apply the remedy of Scripture to the issue.

Now, by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy, the office of deacon had become more well-defined, and he lists several specific criteria there in 1 Timothy 3. But, if you notice, really what he is doing is unpacking what it means to have a good reputation for being Spirit-filled and wise. He lists these criteria: dignity, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not fond of sordid gain, holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, dignified, not malicious gossips, temperate and faithful people, who have unquestionable integrity in their marriage (if they are married), who manage their children (if they have them) and their households well. But, all of this can be summarized in what Acts 6 says: having a good reputation for being filled with the Spirit and with wisdom. Those are the qualities we are looking for as we seek out faithful deacons.

II. The effects of a faithful deacon ministry

I enjoy a good meal. You probably guessed that about me, right? And there are two things that define a good meal for me. I need to leave the place having been well fed and well served. I imagine you might judge a restaurant the same way. Have you ever thought about your church that way? Maybe you should. This passage is telling us that we need to think about what we are doing here, and make sure that every member of this church is being well served and well fed. Those seem to be the effects of a faithful deacon ministry.

Notice here how the members were well fed. Now, I bet you think I’m talking about the fried chicken and the green bean casserole again. By this time of the service, that’s usually where some of our minds are going. Well, certainly, the deacons helped to meet the need of the widows who were being overlooked. They served tables, and the need for food was met. But, there was another, even more important kind of feeding that was able to take place because of the faithful deacon ministry. We see it in verse 2. The apostles said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables.” There’s a lot of work to be done in ministry. We are overwhelmed by needs and we need to prioritize so that the most important tasks get the necessary attention. Well, there were hungry people in that church. That was important enough to create an entirely new ministry. But it wasn’t important enough to take attention away from the ministry of the Word of God. Some of you might be thinking, “Are you saying that the Word of God is more important than the food we eat.” No, those words are not mine. In fact, they are the words of Jesus. He said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:4). The intake of the Word of God feeds your soul in far more important way than the intake of food feeds your body. Now, they didn’t let anyone starve to death, but they made it very clear that the priority in the church is the ministry of the Word of God. And this will be one of the effects of a faithful ministry. A church that has faithful deacons will be a church that is well fed on the Word of God, because the pastors and teachers of that church will have the freedom to prioritize the prayerful study, the preparation, and the proclamation of the Bible. “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” If you want a well fed church, you need deacons who understand the priority of prayer and the Word and who serve the church in such a way that those ministries can be maximized.

The church is not just well fed but well served when a faithful deacon ministry is going on. First of all, and most obvious, needs are met. I mean, this is a pretty serious need. Widows, the most vulnerable members of the society of that day, were going without food! That’s a serious need. But by God’s grace, it was met as the deacons did their job. Our need may not be delivering food to widows – it may be; we aren’t ruling that out – but whatever the personal needs of the members of the church are, they need to know that in addition to the pastor, they have wise and Spirit-filled deacons that can help meet that need. That’s why every church member here is assigned to the care of a deacon. I’m not saying “Leave me alone and call your deacon.” I’m saying I can’t be in two places at one time, so you might need to be served from time to time by your deacon. And you need to know that they will do it.

There’s another way that the church is served here as well. It is unified by the deacon ministry. Remember that the problem wasn’t just that some people got food and some didn’t. That was part of it, but the other part was that it was about to split the church! A divided church is a major problem. Why? Because a divided church is a slap in the face of Jesus! Why would I make such a bold statement? Because I know what Jesus prays for. In the longest recorded prayer of Jesus in the Bible, in John 17, three times Jesus prayed for His followers to be ONE, unified in a reflection of the unity of the Triune Godhead. In John 17:11, He prayed “that they may be one, even as We are.” In John 17:21, He prayed, “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us.” In John 17:22, He prayed “that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity.” And He even said why this is such a big deal: the prayer is that His followers may be one in unity, “so that the world may believe the You sent Me,” and “so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You loved Me,” Jesus said. When the church is united, we show the world the power of the Gospel to unify diverse people under the cross of Jesus Christ. When the church is divided, the message that the world hears is that the Gospel is meaningless. So, deacons understand that a divided church sends a false message into the world, and they serve to unify the church under the banner of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I used to be a member of a church called United Baptist Church. We took a lot of kidding about that. People used to say it sounded like a contradiction in terms. That’s sad for churches to have that kind of reputation. It must break the heart of the Lord Jesus. But because there are so many gospel implications in church unity, Satan seeks to divide churches to strike at the Lord’s heart. Issues will arise that threaten to divide us. That’s a promise you can count on. But a church that is well served will have wise, Spirit-filled servants who labor to protect and preserve the unity of the body and prevent it from being divided.

Finally, there is one further effect of a faithful deacon ministry. Because the church is well fed on the Word of God and well-served in meeting needs and preserving unity, notice verse 7 that “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” When this ministry was put into place and faithfully exercised, those Christians who were well-fed on the Word of God became proclaimers of that Word, and it spread far and wide. People were impacted by the Gospel. Multitudes were saved. In fact, even the leaders of another belief system were being converted. I said this in the newsletter this month. Wouldn’t it be great to see the headlines in the News and Record tomorrow? “Word of God Spreading; Disciples Increasing.” Here in the article, there’s an interview with a former Jewish rabbi, a former Muslim imam, and a former Hindu guru who were saved by Jesus Christ! It sounds like a joke doesn’t it? A rabbi, and imam and a guru walk into a Baptist Church. … And then they got saved! Amen! But that is what happens when a unified church is well fed and well served.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Light, While You Have It (John 12:35-36)

During a 4-hour drive last Monday, I was reminiscing with Matt and Heather about our last trip to Nepal, and we recounted a painful incident that occurred. I was leaving Matt and Heather’s apartment, carrying two big suitcases down a flight of marble stairs. When I started down the stairs, the lights were on, and I was watching every step carefully. By the time I reached the fourth or fifth step, the power had gone out and it was pitch dark. I missed the next step and, let’s just say I took the express route to the bottom. As I was lying at the bottom of the steps, I just knew that I probably had a concussion and a broken leg. Thankfully, within a few minutes, I was able to stand and put weight on my leg, but I walked with a limp for several weeks after that. Those sudden power outages are quite common in many parts of the world, and in Kathmandu, the power goes out without warning for 18 to 20 hours every day. I learned a very painful lesson in Kathmandu to never take for granted that light will always be available, and it is dangerous to walk in darkness.

That is the lesson that Jesus sought to instill in those who heard Him speak here in this text, and to all who read these words. The world is in a state of darkness, and Jesus has come to be the Light. So, we must make sure that we take the opportunity we have to respond appropriately to the light while we have it. As bad as a tumble down a marble staircase was, it does not compare to the destruction of being overtaken by perpetual darkness. So, as we look at these verses, let’s consider the dark state of the world, the availability of the light, and the appropriate response to the light.

I. The world is in a state of darkness.

Among the many trinkets and gadgets that I now possess from my late grandfather’s estate, my favorite is his Geochron. A Geochron is a world map that shows what time it is in every time zone of the world, and it is illuminated in areas where it is daytime, and it is dark in the areas where it is night-time. Now, if we had a spiritual Geochron that would show us the spiritual condition of planet earth, it would be all dark, with a few pinpoints of fiber-optic light breaking through here and there in some places, and large areas of unpenetrated darkness in many places. The testimony of Scripture is consistent on this matter: we live in a dark world.

Now, what kind of darkness are we talking about? I suppose if we were to ask some people, they might say that the world’s darkness is brought about by ignorance, and education could be the remedy. Others would say that poverty or disease darkens the world, and economic development or medical advancement would fix it. Some might say that oppression and injustice are the reason that the world is dark, and democracy would fix it. But, when we look it from God’s perspective, we see that none of these are the cause of the world’s darkness. In fact, these and many other conditions are symptoms, or effects, of the world’s darkness, but the root cause is human sinfulness. God’s assessment of the human condition can be found in Genesis 6, just before the flood, where the Bible says, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).

In Romans 3, Paul strings together a long list of Old Testament quotations to provide this indictment on the entire human race: "There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).

Now, there are many who would scoff at that analysis of humanity. In fact, we find that there are essentially two views of humanity that are widespread in the world. One is the view that says that human beings are essentially good, and only become bad as they are corrupted by outside influences. Maybe someone here today holds that view. If you do, then you need to know that your view of humanity is at odds with the Lord’s own assessment. The biblical perspective is that human beings are born in a state of sinfulness, and it is the outworking of our sinfulness that brings corruption on the whole world. If you don’t take the Bible’s testimony as truth, all you have to do is try to raise children. We do not have to teach them how to sin, how to lie, how to disobey, or how to be self-centered. They come into the world knowing how to do those things. It is through parental discipline that they learn that they should not do those things, and ultimately it is only as the Holy Spirit works in their hearts and lives that they find the supernatural empowerment to overcome those tendencies over the course of their entire lives.

Because this is the natural-born condition of the entire human race, the world is consumed in spiritual darkness. And this is a dangerous thing. When I was a teenager, we used to go out in the woods of our neighborhood and play war games at night. We all dressed in black and covered our faces with black war-paint, and we would virtually disappear into the darkness of the forest. And Jesus says that this is what happens to us as we live out the darkness of our sinful lives in a sin-darkened world. He says that the darkness can overtake you. The word could be translated overpower, or master. Because the sinful desires of our heart are drawn to the spiritual darkness of the world around us, we can find ourselves consumed by the darkness, spiraling as it were into deeper and deeper levels of depravity.

If this condition is not remedied, then destruction awaits. Jesus says that “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” He or she is just going along, following their carnal desires, marching to the beat of the drum pounded out by Satan himself and echoed through the offerings of this world. That is how Paul describes the lives of those without Christ in Ephesians 2. He says that they walk “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience,” and they live “in the lusts of [the] flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph 2:2-3). The darkness has overtaken them and they are walking blindly toward destruction.

Of course, no one walks that path intentionally (or at least very few would). They “do not know where they are going,” as Jesus said. Of course, “where they are going,” is ultimately hell! Surely, if anyone knew or believed that the horrors of hell described in Scripture were real, they would not choose to go there. If only people would know where it is that they are going as they are swallowed up in the darkness of sin, they would be eager to find a way of escape! That is why we who have trusted in Christ must go out into all the world and “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We have to tell the world that there is an alternative to the darkness in the hearts of men, the darkness in the world around us, and the eternal darkness of hell. Thankfully, Jesus tells us what that alternative is, and it is found in Him.

II. Jesus has come as the true light from God into the world.

I know a lot of you suffer, as I do, from conditions that produce chronic pain. When you suffer from chronic pain, bedtime is something that can be quite dreadful. You are exhausted, but you know that the chances of a good night’s sleep are slim. You toss and turn and wake up over and over again all night long. If you are like me, sometimes when you see that first glimmer of daylight creeping in through the blinds, you kind of whisper a prayer, “Oh thank God! It is finally morning and I can just get out of this bed.” Well, in a similar way, we should behold the coming of Christ into the world as the dawn of a new day of grace and the end of the long night of spiritual restlessness.

You’ve heard people say, “Rise and shine!” That comes from the Bible. The prophet Isaiah foretold the day of Christ’s coming, saying in Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!” Again, in Isaiah 9:2, we read, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.” When was this to happen? Just a few verses later, the prophet said, “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.” These very verses were referenced by the godly old man Simeon when he saw the infant Jesus being brought in for His dedication. They were cited in Matthew 4:16 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He had come as the Light into the sin-darkened world.

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, it is written of Jesus, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Some scholars have insisted that the phrase should be translated, “the darkness did not overpower it.” No matter how dark the world was, it could not extinguish the light that had come in the person of Jesus Christ. He was “the true Light, which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:4-5, 9). Jesus spoke of Himself in these terms. He said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (8:12). And so He says similarly here, “For a little while longer the Light is among you” (12:35). This simple statement tells us two things that are extremely important to understand.

First, we must consider the unfathomable grace of God: “The Light is among you.” You realize that it did not have to be this way. God would have been perfectly just to allow every single human being to have his own way and perish in the eternal darkness of hell. But, because of His infinite love for His creation, and in particular for His image-bearers, He penetrated the darkness with the Light of Jesus Christ. He has intervened in our helpless state to bring Light into the sin-darkened world. It is a remarkable truth that deserves repeating, not just at Christmastime, that in the amazing love and grace of God, He has become a man in the person of Jesus Christ and made His dwelling among us (Jn 1:1, 14). You do not have to remain in darkness. There is a Light available to you. He can illuminate the darkness of our sinful hearts and transform us.

It is amazing how Jesus describes hell as a place of outer darkness (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), and yet of heaven it is said, “There will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them” (Rev 22:5). But the light is available to us here and now. In 2 Corinthians 4:6, we read, “God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Why would you grope around in the darkness? Light is available to you.
But there is also a warning here. The Light is among you, but notice it is just “for a little while longer.” Obviously, He is speaking of His crucifixion, which was just a few days away for Him at that point. The Light that has come into the world is about to be taken out of the world. It will not be any easier for them to respond to and receive the Light that is available to them once it has been taken away. The opportunity is an urgent one. They must turn from the darkness of sin and embrace the Light of Christ while He is present among them! But there is another sense in which this is true for us all, even today. Every time the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, the Light is shining in the darkness, and someone has the glorious opportunity to be rescued and saved. But, it is a mistake to assume that the opportunity will be present forever. There is a window of grace that could close at any moment.

A few years ago, I was down at Ardmore Park talking to a group of kids and I asked one of them if he knew Jesus. He said to me, “No, but one day I’ll get saved. First I want to have some fun, you know, party, live it up. Then maybe when I’m old, like 20 or 25, I’ll get saved then.” I said to him, “Do you know that Jesus would call you a fool if He were standing here?” He looked shocked. Then I quoted this to him, the words of Jesus in Luke 12:20: “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you.” He just turned and walked away. That is heartbreaking! I pray for that kid, and for so many others like him! They think they will always have another chance. There is no guarantee of that. Listen to the urgent pleas of Scripture:

2 Corinthians 6:2 – God says, “At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, NOW is the acceptable time, behold NOW is the day of salvation!”

Hebrews 4:7 – The Lord “fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying … ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.’”

The opportunity is present even now for someone who is lost in the darkness of sin to turn to Jesus and be saved! There were probably plenty of people in that crowd thinking, “Well, maybe some other time.” Just a few days later, Jesus was taken from them. And even before then, notice the tragic words at the end of verse 36, “These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them.” That was the end of His public ministry. There were no more public teachings or sermons, no more miracles, no more interaction with the multitudes. What a terrible thing it would be for you to turn away from Jesus thinking that you could return to Him at a later time, only to find that He has gone away and hidden Himself from you -- or worse, to find that there is no later time, and your soul is required of you before you ever turned to Him.

Jesus is the Light of the World, and the Light is among you. That is amazing grace! But know this, the opportunity may be present for you only “for a little while longer.”

Now finally, considering the state of the world in the darkness of sin, and the availability of the Light of Christ …

III. We must make an appropriate response to the Light.

If you recall the previous passage, you will remember that the crowd had asked him, “Who is this Son of Man?” In other words, “The Scriptures teach us that the Son of Man will remain forever, and You keep talking about dying, so what kind of Son of Man are you?” We explored that question and its implications a few weeks ago. But notice here that Jesus did not answer their question directly. He had no intention of entering into a theological debate. Rather, He forced the issue upon them of what they would do with the Light of God while it was available to them. As long as they want to stand around and debate about it, they are procrastinating the major issue. Many want to do this today. They want to debate minor points of doctrine, philosophical theories, and existential issues. They’ll discuss anything to keep from dealing with the primary issue. The primary issue is always about what we will do with Jesus. So, as He speaks to them of the destructive dangers of darkness and the availability of the Light of God-in-Christ, He issues a series of imperatives challenging them to make the appropriate response to Him. And the same challenges are relevant to us as well.

He says, “Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you” (v35). Then He says, “While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light” (v36). So there are three inseparable truths here about our response to the Light. There’s the response itself, the relationship that ensues, and the result.

First, the response: we must believe in the Light; that is, we must make a personal faith commitment to Jesus Christ. To believe in Him does not mean to believe in the intellectual or historical sense. It is not the same as saying that you believe that there is such a creature as a duckbilled platypus exists or that you believe that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. It would be the rare individual indeed who did not believe that a person called Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. When we speak of believing in Christ, we are talking about a matter of personal trust. Because we are all born into the darkness of sin, we have to deal with this matter of how we can stand before a holy God who will call us into account for all of the words, deeds, and thoughts of our lives. Man-made religions all have one thing in common: they all insist that there is some thing, a ritual, a deed, a performance of some task, that can be done to placate the deity and earn favor with him. But Christianity is uniquely different from all other belief systems and worldviews in that it proclaims that there is no deed that we ourselves can do to remedy our sinful condition. Instead, we proclaim that God has acted, by His grace and love, toward us to do all that is necessary on our behalf to save us from sin. He became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, and satisfied the righteous law of God on our behalf by living a completely sinless and perfectly righteous life. And yet, He died in our place, taking upon Himself both our sins and the penalty of our sins, and conquering both sin and its penalty through His resurrection, so that we could be forgiven, clothed in His righteousness, and receive eternal life. This free gift of salvation is available to all who trust in Jesus Christ to save them. Will you stand before God bearing your own sins, or will you trust in Christ to be your sin-bearer that you might be saved on the basis of what He has done?

It is one thing to look at a picture of a 747 and say, “I believe that it could carry me across the ocean. After all, it has carried others, and seems to be a reliable and sturdy vehicle.” It is quite something different to step aboard the plane, take a seat, and buckle in for the journey. At that point, one has completely committed himself or herself to the safety and trustworthiness of that aircraft. So it is with Jesus. It is not sufficient for us to study Him as the subject of academic philosophy or theology, or to perceive Him in terms of historical trivia and curiosity. There must be a personal commitment of faith and trust that says, “I will be saved from sin and its penalty, not on the basis of what I have done, but on the basis of what Christ has done for me in His life, death, and resurrection.” We must not believe that He is one of many lights which we may choose to escape the darkness, but that He is the only true Light available to us, and our hope is in Him alone, or else we are hopeless. So, have you made that response of personal faith commitment? If so, then a relationship has begun.

That is the second truth. We have not merely become adherents to a system of dogma or an impersonal creed, but we have come into a personal relationship with God-in-Christ. Jesus said, “believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.” The Bible describes human beings apart from Christ as being children of Satan (John 8:44) and children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Regardless of one’s biological family tree, or how loving a home one was born into, spiritually speaking, it is as though we were all born into the custody of a deadbeat, abusive father whose aim was our destruction by keeping us captive in the darkness of sin. But Jesus has come to rescue us from this miserable estate by brokering an adoption into the family of the most loving and nurturing Father imaginable, God Himself. He made this possible through the payment of the ransom price of His own blood in dying for us, and as we entrust ourselves to Him by faith, He ushers us into the family of God the Father. As is promised in John 1:12, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” We have been born again into a new family, and have received the spirit of adoption, by which we can call out to God as our “Abba Father” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). As John will say in his first epistle, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1).

We have become sons of Light. The family traits are beginning to develop within as God transforms us by His Spirit into the likeness of His Son. In the ancient Semitic idiom, to be a “son of” something is to be characterized by the quality of that thing. A son of Light is one who actually bears the quality of the Light and begins to reflect that Light so that others can see it. Jesus said that He is the Light of the world (Jn 8:12), but He also said that we, His followers, are the light of the world (Mt 5:14). He is like the sun, the true source of genuine light. We are like the moon, which reflects the light of the sun into the darkness. So Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). That brings us to the third truth here.

Our response is a faith commitment in Jesus Christ, which issues in a personal relationship with God-in-Christ as His adopted children, and then which results in practical action. Our light shines before men as we live out the good works for which Christ has saved us. Our good works are powerless to save us, but once we are saved by faith in Him, He begins to produce in and through us the good works that shine forth His marvelous Light into the darkness that surrounds us. So Jesus says here, “Walk while you have the Light.” In Ephesians 5:8, Paul says, “you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.” In the first epistle, John will say, “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). The Greek verb tense here in our text is a present imperative, indicating a command to continual action. The true child of God is identified in that he or she is continually walking in the Light of the Lord. Where there are the secretive and manipulative ploys of self-seeking, personal agenda-driven, deeds of darkness, we have good cause to question one’s spiritual birthright. Walking in the Light is, simply put, the open and public lifestyle of honoring the Lord through one’s ongoing conduct in the world.

Unfortunately, as evangelicals have placed the necessary emphasis on the importance of a personal decision to trust in Christ, we have unintentionally minimized the biblical emphasis on the evidence of genuine faith that is found in the ongoing perseverance in holy living. So, we have fallen prey in our day to a mistaken notion of “decision-ism.” People are falsely assured that they have peace with God because they prayed a prayer in Vacation Bible School as a child, when as yet they have not taken the first step of personal obedience to Christ with their lives. We seek to excuse and justify ourselves and others on the basis of a walk down the aisle, the praying of a prayer, or the rituals of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or regular church involvement. It is not that any of these things are wrong – in fact, they may all have been done in genuine faith – but rather, the question is, what is the testimony of one’s life since that time? We are indeed saved by grace alone, through faith alone, and not by works, as Scripture promises in Ephesians 2:8-9, but the evidence of the genuineness of one’s faith is found in the following verse, Ephesians 2:10, which says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Friends, can we take an honest spiritual inventory of ourselves and ask, “Am I walking in the Light?” That is the true result of the response of faith and the relationship of adoption into the family of God.

We are born in the darkness of sin, into a world that has been darkened by sin and its effects. But thanks be to God, Light has come in the person of the Lord Jesus. That Light is available to you, at least for this moment in time. Before this moment passes, ask yourself, “Have I responded to the Light by believing upon Jesus Christ to save me?” If you have, then you have been adopted into the family of God as a son or daughter, and you have been called and empowered to live as sons of Light by walking in the Light of the Lord. As you live for Him and speak for Him, Light is breaking forth in the darkness around you, giving others the opportunity to respond as well. Arise and shine, that others would see the Light of the Lord in and through you and be drawn out of the darkness of their sins. If you never have before, my prayer is that you would this day. For if you remain in darkness, then the darkness will overtake you, and you do not know the destruction into which are going. While you have the Light, believe upon Him and be saved. Become a son of Light, and walk in the Light.

You have a strong arm; Your hand is mighty, Your right hand is exalted.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Lovingkindness and truth go before You.
How blessed are the people who know the joyful sound!
O Lord, they walk in the light of Your countenance. {Psalms 89:13-15}