Monday, September 08, 2014

The Last Sermon of Jesus Christ (John 12:44-50)

The great Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once famously said, “I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men!”[1] As a Puritan in an age where being such was subject to persecution, Baxter never knew when he might be preaching his final sermon. But of course, it is true for us all: we never really know when we might preach, or hear, our last sermon; even when we might draw our last breath. When I was a student at Fruitland, we had a great, visionary president leading the school. Randy Kilby was a young man – 42 at the time, with a wife and a seven-year old son. On February 6, 1997, he was preaching at Southeastern Seminary, and said as he began, “Pray that I will come into this pulpit as if it were my first time, pray for the me that I’ll preach as if it were my best time, and pray for me as it could be my last time.” It wasn’t his last time, but five days later, as he preached very passionately in another place, he finished his sermon, walked out of the sanctuary, and fell over dead.[2]

I will mention another incident, one that I have heard Pastor Jack speak of on numerous occasions. Dr. V. Raymond Edman, then Chancellor of Wheaton College, addressed the college chapel on September 22, 1967. It was the first time he had spoken in public in ten months, and he spoke on the subject of an invitation to visit a King. He began by speaking about his personal meeting with the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He spoke of all the formality and protocol of that encounter, before transitioning to the subject of meeting with the King of kings and Lord of lords Himself in worship. He admonished the students that as they entered the chapel, all conversation was to cease, and they were to enter in silently and be seated, in order to meet with the King. They were to wait in silence before the Lord, to prepare their hearts to hear the Lord and to meet with the King. He exhorted them to pay close attention to the message and the messenger as if they were in private audience with King Jesus. And at some point, early in the message, Dr. Edman slumped over the pulpit and died of a fatal heart attack.

I share these stories to indicate the thrust of Baxter’s words – that we must preach as dying men to dying men, never knowing when the next sermon we preach, or even hear, might be our last. In the case of Randy Kilby or Raymond Edman, I don’t think either of them knew that it would be their last sermon. But here in our text, we find the last public sermon of Jesus Christ – one that He knew would be His last. These are not his last words, for He continued on for some days teaching with His disciples in privacy, and He spoke but a few words during His trial, and He spoke seven utterances on the cross. Of course, after His resurrection, He spoke to those to whom He appeared over a period of 40 days. And then of course it is true that Jesus speaks still today, through His Word, the Bible, every time we open its precious pages. But here in our text, Jesus was delivering what He knew would be His final public message. In so doing, it was His aim to provide a concise summary of the most important strands of teaching from His entire earthly ministry.

These are the words that He desires to resonate in the ears of those who heard Him on that day. That He intended to be heard, and heard well, is obvious from the opening words of the passage: “And Jesus cried out and said.” The Greek word translated “cried out” is sometimes translated as scream or shout in other passages. This passage follows close on the heels of verse 36, which concludes with Jesus going away and hiding Himself from the public eye. It seems that as He departed from the scene, He was saying these things. So, what are the truths that Christ would impress upon the hearts of the hearers of His final sermon? They distill to three: His divine identity, the certainty of judgment, and a command to eternal life.

I. He speaks of His divine identity (vv44-46).

There’s a little joke among preachers about the bad habit that some pastors fall into of preaching always and only on their favorite topics. We call them “hobby horses.” The joke is about a Baptist preacher who was always preaching on Baptism. The preacher took for his text one Sunday Genesis 3:9, which says, “The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He announced that he had three points to consider: (1) Where Adam was; (2) How he got there; and finally (3) a few thoughts on the subject of baptism. Expository preaching through books of the Bible is effective at keeping us away from our hobby horses. In John’s Gospel, there are many texts that deal with similar subjects, so there will be a good many sermons in a thorough study of the book that deal with those few topics. One of them is the identity and nature of Jesus Christ. This is not because it is a hobby horse (although one would be hard pressed to find a better hobby horse to ride), but because it is the point of both John’s Gospel and so much of the preaching and teaching of Jesus Himself. One of the ways to know that we are staying close to the center line of John’s Gospel is to see that his overarching theme of presenting Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and the One who is able to impart eternal life to those who believe upon Him (John 20:31).

The Apostle Paul said, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). Jesus could uniquely say something almost completely opposite: “I preach myself, Christ Jesus, as Lord.” If anyone else were to stand up and promote and preach himself as the object of our attention and devotion, he would be an egomaniac. But this is not true of Jesus. He alone can preach Himself, because there is no higher Person to whom He could point than Himself. As the incarnate God, He could rightly make Himself the singular and ultimate subject and object of all of His preaching and teaching. His obvious aim in all of His preaching and teaching was to disclose unto His hearers the divine truth that He was the one and only true God, who had become a man for us for our salvation. Therefore, it is no surprise that in this, His final public sermon, He devotes much attention to this truth.

He says, “He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me.” That sounds almost nonsensical, doesn’t it? Just replace the word “Me” with the words “the Tooth Fairy,” and see how it sounds: “He who believes in the Tooth Fairy does not believe in the Tooth Fairy.” It seems self-contradictory. We need the remainder of the sentence to understand how Jesus could say this. He says, “He who believes in Me, does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me.” He is saying that belief in Jesus is really a belief in the One who sent Him, namely God the Father. This means that we are not merely to believe in Jesus in the historical sense of His existence, as if we might say we believe in George Washington or in Martin Luther King, Jr. When we truly believe in Jesus, we are believing far more than that He lived and died. We are believing in God Himself, through the person of Jesus. We believe, in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:19, “that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” By these words, Jesus was saying that He and the Father were One, and that to believe in Him was to believe in God. The converse is also true: to reject Him is to reject God. This is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so offensive in our world today. With so many claiming to believe in God, to believe in this deity or that one, the words of Jesus Christ are alarming and shocking. He is saying, “If you do not believe in Me, you do not believe in God, because I am Him, I came from Him, and I was sent by Him.”

He goes on to say, “He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me.” If you want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. At the Last Supper, Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me” (Jn 14:1). And He said, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him” (14:7). I appreciate Philip here in this passage, because He had the audacity to say what everyone else was thinking. He said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (14:8). In other words, he is saying, “OK, OK, Lord, we want to believe that You are who You say You are, but it would help us greatly if You would just give us a little glimpse of God Himself so that we can truly see Him and then believe in You.” Jesus said to Him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” (14:9-10).

Do you want to know what God is like? Then look to Jesus, for He says that when you see Him, you see God Himself. Remember in Exodus 33, how Moses cried out that he might see the glory of God face to face. God answered him and said, “‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; …’ But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live! … [Y]ou shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exo 33:18-23). The holiest man in Israel was barred from seeing God face to face because he would have been incinerated by the very sight of Him. But God, in His mercy and grace, condescended to come among us in the person of Jesus Christ. As John 1:14 says, He “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory.” It is only in Jesus that we can truly see God.

Apart from Him, we are all lost in utter darkness. But Jesus says that He “came as Light into the world so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.” As God, He alone reveals to us the truth about God. Were it not for Jesus, we would have no access to this truth. We can speculate and guess about what God is like, but would never be sure. We might like to think that God is love. People everywhere say that about God. But how do we know that God is love? We know this because in Jesus, He demonstrated His love to us. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son.” Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. So we have this divine revelation of who God is, recorded for us in His written Word, and living among us in human flesh as the incarnate Word. In all of His preaching and all of His teaching, Jesus was crying out to a world lost in darkness saying, “Here is Light! I am the Light! If you want to know God, come to Me! When you see Me, you see Him! When you believe in Me, you believe in Him!” He was speaking of His divine identity.

II. He speaks of the certainty of judgment (vv47-48).

My first encounter with Jonathan Edwards, that famous preacher of the American Great Awakening in the 18th Century, came when I was a high school student, before I was a Christian. In an American Literature class, we were required to read Edwards’ notorious sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I can still remember the way my teacher and my textbook depicted him in a very negative light. My friend Steve Nichols is an Edwards scholar. He writes,

The overwhelming judgment of contemporary readers is that Edwards was dour and calloused and that when he preached, he breathed the smoke of hellfire and brimstone harangues. … This image of Edwards could not be more wrong, and this judgment of him could not be more ironic. It is ironic because his sermons overflow with the words sweetness, pleasure, joy, love, and beauty. Edwards never pulled back from proclaiming the wrath of God on sin, but he just as forcefully and readily proclaimed the abundant mercy and grace of a good and loving God.[3]

If we want to find a preacher whose sermons could be characterized by stern warnings of a coming judgment, perhaps Edwards is not our best example. In fact, I think we could actually find no better example than Jesus Christ. A quick survey of all the Bible’s teachings on hell and judgment would readily reveal, as John MacArthur points out, that “The most prolific teacher on hell in all of Scripture was the Lord Jesus Himself. He had more to say about the subject than all the apostles, prophets, and evangelists of Scripture put together.”[4] It is no wonder that He emphasizes the certainty of judgment in His final public sermon.

Now, at first, someone might say, “No, Jesus says here that He does not judge, and did not come to judge the world.” Well, that is at best a reading of only half of the text. So let’s look at verses 47-48 and see the whole of it. Jesus says, “If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” Notice that Jesus did not say that unbelievers who reject His word will not face judgment. He says that He is not the one judges them. Notice also that He says He did not come to judge the world. That was not the intent of His coming. The intent of His coming was to save the world. Now, let me ask you, if the world was not already at risk of being judged, then what was He coming to save the world from? The fact is that Jesus did not have to come to judge the world, because, as He said in John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” You see, Jesus did not have to come to bring judgment. Judgment was already upon those who rejected God, and therefore rejected His incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus. But in His coming, Jesus was on a mission to save those who would believe upon Him from that judgment.

Now notice the next verse. He says, “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him.” So, Jesus is by no means saying that there will be no judgment for those who do not believe in Him. He is assuring His hearers of the absolute certainty of a coming judgment. He says that “one” who judges the unbeliever is “the word I spoke.” That “is what will judge him at the last day.” The same message of Jesus that has the power to save all who believe in Him is also going to condemn all those who reject Him. The world around us thinks that we Christians are very arrogant to proclaim that only those who believe on Jesus will enter heaven, while all others will go to hell. Maybe someone here today thinks the same thing, and would even question, “Who are we to say who will go to heaven and who will go to hell?” Well, my friends, as Jesus makes abundantly clear here, it is not up to us to arbitrarily decide. The matter of judgment has been settled by His Word. We Christians are not the ones who say that unbelievers will go to hell; rather, our Christ is the one who Himself has declared this with absolute certainty. His words carry ultimate authority, because as He says in verses 49-50, He does not speak on His own initiative, but He speaks what the Father has commanded Him to say, just as the Father told Him to speak. His words are not the words of a mere man. They are the very words of God Himself. Therefore we must take His words with all severity and seriousness.

Take for example that simple verse that so many of us learned as children – John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” If we believe this is true, as stated, then we must believe its necessary corollary: God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever does not believe in Him will not have eternal life, but will perish. Nowhere does Jesus make this clearer than in John 14:6, when He says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” If this is true, then there is also a true necessary corollary: Because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, anyone who comes by any other way, believing any other message to be true, and hoping for life in any other person or thing, will most certainly not come to the Father. They will perish under the just and holy judgment of God – a judgment which Jesus declared to be certain and unavoidable. When we come before the bar of God’s judgment, it will be belief in the promise of Jesus’ words that saves us. If we have rejected Him, the very words He spoke will pronounce a certain and eternal condemnation.

III. He speaks of a command to eternal life (vv49-50).

I’m thankful that I’ve never had to spend much time in courtrooms. One time, a friend was making a case in court and invited me to come to support him, where I would have the opportunity to speak if I so desired. I took him up on the invitation, but I didn’t have to. I could have said, “No thank you,” and all would have been fine. But on another occasion, I got a piece of mail saying that I had been summoned to the courthouse for jury duty. In this, I did not have an option. I had to go, otherwise I would have to face the consequences. This was more than an invitation; it was a command.

If you understand the difference between an invitation and a command, you will find an unusual statement here in the final portion of Jesus’ last public sermon. He says that He doesn’t speak on His own initiative, but that the Father has given Him a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. He can’t NOT speak these things. And then He says this: “I know that His commandment is eternal life.” God is commanding us to eternal life. We don’t normally think of it that way, do we? Normally we think of it as an invitation or an offer that one can freely accept or reject. Well, it is an offer and an invitation, and one can accept or reject it; but it is also a commandment, and as such one rejects it only to his or her own peril.

In the English Standard Version, the Holman Christian, and nearly every other English version, Acts 17:30 says that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” He is commanding us to turn from our sins and come to Him by way of faith in the Lord Jesus! Why? Because He loves us! He wants us to know Him, to be cleansed of our sins, to have eternal life with Him! If you love your children, do you give them commands? Of course you do! You give them commands for their own good and their well-being. And if they disobey those commands, you love them enough to make them face the consequences of their disobedience. Friends, if we understand this truth in human relationships, how much more is it true of God? Out of His great love for us, He has done more than invite us, as if He could not care less whether we accepted the offer or not. No, He has commanded us to repent and return to Him by faith in Christ and be saved from His judgment. As we invite others to come to Jesus, and make a fair offer of the Gospel to them, we need to be clear that the God of the universe has issued this command, which can lead them to eternal life if they will turn from sin and believe on Christ, or to eternal destruction if they turn away from him in disbelief and disobedience.

This is why the Lord Jesus speaks with such urgency, crying out – shouting or screaming, as it were – these words of His final public sermon. He wants us to know who He is – God in the flesh, who has come to reveal God’s truth that we might turn to Him and believe. He wants us to know that there is a judgment coming in which we will be either saved or condemned on the basis of our response to the words He has spoken. And because He loves us, He issues us a commandment that is eternal life to all who turn to Him by faith. And that was the end of His public ministry, the conclusion of His last sermon. All that remains is to take His words to heart, to consider the weight of them, and to respond to them, either by faith or by unbelief. It was the last time they would hear Him preach. It might have been the last time some of them would hear anyone preach. We don’t know but that this could well be the last sermon I ever preach. It might well be the last one someone here could hear. I pray not, but we do not know what a day will bring. So, it remains for us as it did for those in our text, to hear the words of Jesus, to let them bear with all due weight upon our hearts and souls, and to make a reasonable response to His words. And the only reasonable response is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Many of you have, and have received this eternal life that God commands in Christ. If you have, then you surely desire that others will as well. We can do no better than to urge them with these important truths that Christ proclaimed here. Tell them who He is; tell them of the coming judgment, and of God’s command to turn to Jesus and be saved. If you never have before, I pray you will this day, perhaps even in this moment.


[1] Richard Baxter, The Poetical Fragments of Richard Baxter (London: Pickering, 1821), 35. Online: Accessed September 4, 2014.
[2] “Fruitland President Kilby dies at 42 of heart attack.” Baptist Press, February 17, 1997. Online: Accessed September 4, 2014.
[3] Stephen J. Nichols,  Heaven On Earth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006), 30.
[4] John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (third ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 77.

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