Monday, May 25, 2015

Prone to Wander (John 16:29-32)


When Robert Robinson was just an eight-year old boy in 1743, his father died, leaving his mother unable to care for the boy. By age 14, he was sent to London to apprentice as a barber. Young, mischievous, and with no supervision over his life, Robinson turned early to alcohol and fell into the company of street gangs. At age 17, he and his companions decided to attend the evangelistic meetings of the great preacher George Whitefield. Drunk and disillusioned, their purpose in attending was to ridicule the preacher and those who had gathered to hear him. But that night, as Whitefield preached from Matthew 3:7, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come,” Robinson came under conviction of his sinful lifestyle. For the next three years, he wrestled with his sense of guilt and his need for God. At the age of 20 he finally surrendered his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As a new Christian, he began to cut his spiritual teeth under renowned preachers like John Gill and John Wesley. It was not long before he sensed that the Lord was calling him to preach, and in time he became a pastor. He was known to be a very gifted preacher and had a way with words. His most lasting legacy is in the form of a hymn that we sing often here: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

There is a familiar line in that hymn in which Robinson writes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Sadly, the words became almost prophetic for Robinson. He began to flirt with theologically dangerous ideas, and eventually fell deeply into sin. Details of the rest of his life vary from source to source, but it is widely reported that he encountered a woman on a stagecoach one day who was reading a book of hymns. She shared with Robinson that “Come Thou Fount” was one of her favorites, and asked his opinion of it. He responded something to the effect of, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”

The historians are mixed about whether or not Robinson ever returned to walk in faithfulness with the Lord. But whether he did or did not, he was not the first, and certainly was not the last, high-profile Christian to fail miserably. We see it all too often. Recently I have spent some time with friends I have had in ministry for twenty years. In every conversation, there is news to share about a fellow pastor who has abandoned the faith, who has shipwrecked his ministry with some grievous sin, or who has simply walked away from serving the Lord. Some were among our mentors, others were our friends, our classmates, our colleagues. The prominent ones make the news with their scandals. Many more do not make the news, but their failures are just as significant. You have known them too. Pastors you held in high esteem, Christian laymen and women who were influential in your spiritual formation, godly family members and friends to whom you went for guidance in your Christian walk – undoubtedly you have seen some of them drift away from faithfulness to God and His word. The examples are too numerous to choose from, and the details are too painful to recount.

Like Robinson wrote, it seems that within us, we are all “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” Now, you may want to say, “Not me! It will never happen to me!” That is exactly how Jesus’ first disciples felt when He spoke to them about their impending defection. And in our text today, He addresses this very thing with them. Here in the moment of their most confident assertion of faith in Him, Jesus grounds them in their own frailty and fickleness and warns them that within hours, every single one of them will forsake Him. It is a fitting message for believers like us, who on Sunday morning as we sit in church, feel as if we have perhaps arrived to the place above and beyond the temptation to fail or abandon the Lord. The words that Jesus speaks to His disciples provide us with two safeguards as we remember that we, like them, are prone to wander.

I. We must be humble in our orthodoxy (vv29-31)

Did you ever make a “lucky guess” about something? Sometimes we make guesses based on a hunch or on thorough, albeit flawed reasoning, and discover happily that our guess was correct. Philosophers in the field of Epistemology actually devote a lot of attention to how lucky guesses work. It’s called “the Gettier problem,” and it deals with how we can believe that something is true, and actually be correct, when we have no reason or flawed reasons for knowing it. It has been an issue of debate since the time of Plato, and even today, the issue remains largely unsettled. But we have all experienced it. Consider Groundhog Day. If the groundhog comes out and sees his shadow on February 2, then we say that we will have six more weeks of winter. Now, there is absolutely no correlation between a groundhog seeing his shadow and what the weather will be like over the next month and a half, but based on the groundhog and the shadow, we say that we believe certain things about the impending weather. And, in over a third of cases analyzed since 1887, the prediction has been correct!

There are numerous examples of how we come to the right conclusions on wrong information, and vice versa, but the point of it all is that we often do not know or understand nearly as much as we think we do. And this can be true especially when we are talking about spiritual things. When we are talking about the things of God, there is much that we can know with certainty because the Bible declares it plainly. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and believers who read it are illuminated by this same Holy Spirit so that we understand and form concrete convictions about many of the truths that are set forth therein. But there is a difference between concrete conviction and arrogant presumption. The Bible is completely true and trustworthy. Our inferences, interpretations, and applications of it are not. And this is why, even though we may be right about many things we claim to understand the Bible to teach, we must be humble in our assertions.

Notice this is the exact opposite of what we see in Jesus’ disciples here. Jesus had told them back in verse 12 that He had many more things to tell them, but they could not bear them at the present moment. In verse 25, He said that He had been speaking to them in “figurative language.” That’s not the best translation of the original wording, as it does not have to do with symbolism and imagery, but with mystery. He had been saying things to them that were beyond their intellectual and spiritual grasp. But Jesus said to them that an hour was coming in which He would speak to them in plain language. He was speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would guide them into all truth (16:13). The Spirit would not come until nearly two months later at Pentecost. But notice here that the disciples are so self-sure of their own understanding that they say, “Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech.” In other words, “We get it! Now we understand everything You are saying!” It is almost as if they are saying that they have no need for the future ministry of the Spirit to enlighten and illuminate them. They have finally got it all figured out for themselves.

They say, “Now we know that You know all things.” If they were so sharp, one has to wonder why it took them this long to figure that out. He had already proven Himself to know the unspoken thoughts of others, the places where certain things would be and take place, and the actions that others were going to take before they took them. Now, suddenly, the disciples are aware that He knows all things? That’s nothing to boast of; its almost an accidental admission of their density. And then they say that there is no longer “need for anyone to question You.” Jesus had said in verse 23 that a day was coming in which the disciples would no longer question Him about anything. He was speaking of the day when they were reunited with Him for eternity. But here it seems that they think they already possess such infinite knowledge. It as though they are saying, “Jesus you said one day we would need to ask anymore questions and that day is today! We know it all already!” I have known some Christians like this. I went to school with a lot of them, and had a number of them as students and church members over the years. I will let you in on a little secret, too – I have been one of these Christians who thinks they know it all. I tell people that I am not a know-it-all, but I used to be. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think I am right on every point of Christian doctrine. But, ironically, at the same time, I know that I am wrong on some point. I have to be! I just don’t know where I am wrong. I want to know where I am wrong so I can fix it, because I want to be right! I think I am, but I know I’m not. And that realization produces humility in orthodoxy.

Friends, there really is such a thing as orthodoxy: having correct Christian belief and doctrine. The disciples were orthodox. Nearly everything they said here in our text is true. Jesus does know all things, and He did come from God. But though their conclusions were correct, they did not necessarily arrive at them the right way. We can do the same, and we can also take right information, handle it correctly, and come up with wrong conclusions. That is why, in our orthodoxy, we must be humble and confess that there is much about God that remains a mystery. I don’t mean we can’t know anything. We can, and we can know a lot, and we can be absolutely certain about the most important things we need to know, such as who Jesus is, what He has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and how we can know Him by faith in a relationship that leads to eternal life. But, because God is infinite and we are finite, there will always be a measure of mystery, and we have to be comfortable with that. We are growing, hopefully, into better and better understanding as the Spirit shapes our minds through the Word of God, but there will always be some measure of mystery, and that means we have to be humble.

We have to be humble when we approach the Bible. I don’t care how many times you have read the Bible, there will come a day when you are reading some portion of it and come across something that takes you completely by surprise. It will throw a monkey wrench into theology somewhere. Now, if you aren’t humble, you will say, “Well, that can’t be true, because I have already got this figured out, so this can’t mean what it says and I’m not sure it’s even true.” But if you are humble you will confess, “I thought I knew all I needed to know about this, but I don’t.” And you will wrestle with that text and you will examine your preconceived notions and you won’t rest until you have it nailed down, or else you come to rest in the mystery of it. This is why the great theologians of the Reformed tradition championed the notion of “the church reformed and always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.” We always need to approach the Word of God in humility and allow it to continue to shape our understanding of what we think we know.

But we also have to be humble when we dialog with other Christians. You are going to meet a Christian who has a different view of the end times, a different view about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, a different view about the meaning and mode of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and so on. If you are arrogant, you will say, “Well, I already know all there is to know about this, and you are just wrong.” We will call them liberals and heretics because they differ with us on a point of doctrine. If you are humble, you will say, “Let me hear you out on this. I know we can’t both be right – we may both be wrong, but we can’t both be right. And for all I know you could be right. So let me hear you put forth your case.” And you listen, and you compare what they are saying with what you believe and what you understand the Bible to teach, and sometimes your views on some things may change. Sometimes their views will change because of your interaction with them. But even if neither view changes, by being humble with that other Christian, you have allowed a relationship to develop that can strengthen the body of Christ and further the Kingdom of God in the world.

Jesus’ disciples were orthodox, but they were not humble in their orthodoxy. Therefore, when they confidently assert, “Now we know!” and “By this we believe,” Jesus said to them, “Do you now believe?” You need to hear that with a heavy dose of sarcasm, as if Jesus was saying, “Oh, do you now?” Remember, by their own mouths they have affirmed that Jesus knows all things. He knows what they do and do not believe. And He knows that their faith has not yet come anywhere the level of maturity that they think it has. We may arrogantly show off our orthodoxy for others and appear before them as confident and brilliant theologians, but the Lord sees every chink in our armor. He alone knows the true condition of our hearts. And though our arrogance may impress someone, it does not impress the Lord. He says in Isaiah 66:2, “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word.” Because we are prone to wander, we must be humble in our orthodoxy, humble before the Word, humble before one another, and humble before the Lord. That humility is a safeguard against our tendency to wander.

From this, we move into the very next verse and find another safeguard for our wandering tendencies.

II. We must be aware of our frailty (v32)

I will never forget the first bicycle I ever had. It was a white AMF with a paint job that looked just like Evel Kneival’s motorcycle. Never mind that it had training wheels on it when I first got it, when I got on that star-spangled seat, I became the man, the myth, and the legend. And like Evel Kneival, the handful of times that I tried to jump the ridge that ran through the field beside of our house, I usually ended up on my rear end. Evel Kneival never saw a challenge that he didn’t think he could master. Nevertheless, many of his attempts ended badly. Over the course of his career, he broke 433 bones and nearly died numerous times. In fact, if you just do a web-search for videos of Evel Kneival, you will find more clips of his crashes than his safe landings. It seems that he became more famous for his failures than his successes. And, sadly, there have been a host of Christians throughout history about whom we could say the same thing.

The Bible warns us repeatedly of our own frailty. Most clearly we are warned in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Some of the Christians whom I have watched self-destruct were people who were most confident in their faith, most assured of their own sanctification, and ironically most judgmental of the failures of others. The fact is that none of us is above the possibility of failure. Jesus told these men who were His closest earthly companions that an hour was upon them when they would be scattered each to his own home and leave Him alone.

It had been foretold by the prophet Zechariah that the Shepherd would be struck and the sheep would be scattered. Jesus had told them just moments before as they partook of the Lord’s Supper that they would all fall away, in accordance with that prophecy (Mk 14:37). And moments from this point, it would happen. When the mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible says that “they all left Him and fled” (Mk 14:50). Every single one of them, from the always eager Peter to John, the writer of our Gospel who referred to himself as the one whom Jesus loved, and all the rest – they all forsook the Lord in this critical hour.

Now the word that is translated here as “home,” could also refer to “occupation,” and that may well be the better understanding of the sense here. After all, when we find the disciples later in John’s Gospel, they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, just as many of them had been doing before they met Jesus. It is not just that they went back home to avoid their own arrest. They also had walked away from their calling to be fishers of men and witnesses for Christ, and had returned to their former careers. For a variety of reasons, we see staggering statistics of similar realities today. Studies have shown that 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month in America; half of those starting out will be out of the ministry in five years; and only one in ten will endure to retirement. But it is not just pastors. Every day in America, 3,500 people leave the church of Jesus Christ for a variety of reasons. You have seen it happen with pastors and laypeople alike, sometimes the last people you thought it could happen to. I saw the moral self-destruction of one of my heroes in ministry a few years ago, and if you had asked me a year before that, I would have told you that I thought myself more likely to fail than this brother. It was heartbreaking and sobering, and his tarnished legacy stands as a constant reminder in my mind that every single one of us is subject, apart from the sustaining grace of God, to unthinkable failure.

Simply acknowledging that reality goes a long way in safeguarding us from spiritual shipwreck. If we know we are prone to wander, and know that we are not immune from disastrous defection, it drives us into deeper dependence on the Lord’s sustaining grace, and keeps us hungry for the Word and the transforming work of the Spirit in our lives. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the very awareness of this and the serious concern that it should raise in our hearts is a strong evidence of the assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ. If we did not truly believe in Him and long to be faithful to Him, then we would have no concern whatsoever about the possibility that we might abandon Him. The awareness of our own frailty causes us to recognize, like the hymnwriter said, that we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. But it also causes us to pray as he did: “Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.”

Now, friends, thus far as we talk about abandoning, defecting, shipwrecking and spiritual drifting, we are not entertaining any notion that a genuinely born-again follower of Jesus could ever be severed from Him by anything we could do, or anything that others can do to us. Jesus promised us that this was impossible and the Bible makes it clear throughout that those who belong to God by faith are eternally secure in their covenant relationship with Him. But this binding grace that secures us in that covenant relationship does not grant us a license to live any way we choose. There are consequences to our actions. One of the most severe consequences is that our defection from the faith may prove that we were not in fact genuinely born again. But if we are, then like these disciples, we have the assurance that the Lord Jesus will pursue us and restore us to faithfulness once again. That is what He did with these men, and that is what He will do with all who are genuinely His. But still, there will be consequences when we fail the Lord.

Our failures will affect ourselves and others in varying degrees of severity. I meet unbelievers and wayward Christians on a regular basis who hold up the sins of Christians they have known as the reason that they do not presently walk with God. That is serious. When King David committed the heinous act of adultery and murder in his sin with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan confronted him, saying, “By this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme!” (2 Sam 12:14). God forbid that anything that your or I should ever do or say would be used by someone else as an excuse from turning away from the Lord Jesus. It is a possibility, and one that we must never lose sight of.

But here is where we have to draw confidence from the sovereignty of God and the invincibility of His Kingdom. Jesus said to His disciples, “you [will] be scattered each to his own home, and … leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” You see, Jesus is saying here that His work in the world does not depend on the success or failure of any individual Christian, any specific church, or any singular group of Christians in the world. He is not alone, though these disciples all abandoned Him. He is not forsaken, though some prominent pastor is embroiled in a scandal. He is not hindered, though some congregation shuts its doors or an entire denomination defects into heresy. He says, even when all others abandon Him, He is not alone, for the Father is with Him. And God alone is a majority in all matters. He does not need us. He has chosen to use us by His grace, but it is not because His work cannot progress without us. We have to realize that because of our frailty, and because of God’s unlimited ability, none of us are indispensable to His Kingdom purposes. He will accomplish what He had come to do, with or without those eleven men who were just moments away from abandoning Him. Ultimately, it all rested upon Him alone anyway. And He was content and satisfied that, if no one else stood with Him, His Father was with Him as He completed the work for which He had come into the world – to accomplish and provide a rescue for sinners so that we might be reconciled to God. Friends, it is a terrible thing when Christians fail the Lord. It affects people deeply and it grieves the Lord. But it does not hinder His purpose. We have no leverage over Him, as if we can bribe Him by our obedience. He can advance His cause with or without us. It is by His grace and for our benefit that He invites us to be a part of it. But we are not indispensible.  

If we are all prone to wander in this way, frail creatures of dust regardless of how confident our assertions of orthodoxy may be, we may wonder then, to whom shall we look? Friends, we must learn to look to Jesus and Him alone. When temptations, sufferings, circumstances, oppression, and opposition beckon us to abandon Him, we must look to the One who endured all these things without failure in order that He may rescue us from the pride and frailty that will so easily undo us. Other Christians have failed you, undoubtedly, and they will again. You have failed others, and you will again. Like it or not, the fact is that we will all fail others at some point in our lives. But Jesus never fails us. His call was not for us to follow one another, but to follow Him. When all others abandoned Him, He remained steadfast with His Father, and as we look to Him in humility and recognition of our failures, we will do the same. And when we do not, we have the confidence that He is good and gracious and will restore us to Himself when we return to Him in repentance through the forgiveness of sin that is available to us through His shed blood.

I can’t recall where I first heard this quote, but I have found it to be true in my own life and experience. Someone said, “When I became a Christian, I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” We are often most like the disciples we see here in our text when we sing bold assertions of our steadfastness and faithfulness. Today, we will sing, “My Jesus I Love Thee.” Even as we sing those words, let us do so humbly, in full recognition of our own frailty. No matter what gusto we employ in singing these words, the reality is that we are prone to wander. But this does not hinder Him, and it does not negate the infinite love that He has for us. So, from that humble posture we can truly say, “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, tis now.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Plain Talk on Prayer (John 16:23b-28)


“Prayer is perhaps the most highly regarded but the least employed of all the spiritual disciplines.”[1] Those are the words of New Testament scholar Robert Mounce, but if we are honest with ourselves, we must confess that we identify with the truthfulness of that statement. Our hearts resonate with C. S. Lewis, who writes near the end of his book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, “by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has. … Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” But we do admit, as does Lewis, that, “If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight.”[2]

If our prayer lives would graduate from duty to delight, then we must acknowledge before Him what Paul calls “our weakness” in Romans 8:26 – namely, that “we do not know how to pray as we should.” We must come to Jesus and ask Him, as a disciple did in Luke 11, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And if we do that, we will find that Jesus has done this very thing. He has taught us in plain language what prayer is, how it is to be done, and what it accomplishes. His teaching on prayer can be found throughout the Gospels and applied throughout the New Testament letters, but here in the verses before us today, we have a concentrated dose of the remedy to our ailments in prayer.

Jesus tells His disciples in verse 25, “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language.” The expression, “figurative language,” is perhaps not the best translation of the Greek word here in the original text. The word refers to “hidden, obscure speech which stands in need of interpretation.”[3] We can certainly see that His words have been received in this way by the disciples, because of their frequent confusion and misunderstanding of what He has been telling them. In verse 12, He said that He had many more things to tell them, but they could not bear them at the present time. But Jesus says that “an hour is coming,” when He will no longer speak to them in ways that they find difficult to understand. Rather, He will speak to them “plainly.” He speaks of the difference between how His words were grasped then and there by His disciples, and how they would be better comprehended once the Holy Spirit had come. The Spirit, whom Jesus said in verse 13 would guide them into all the truth, came to indwell the followers of Jesus at Pentecost, and He gave them insight into the mysteries of all that Christ had proclaimed. The sayings which formerly they had perceived as obscure and enigmatic would become plain and clear to them as the Spirit illuminated their hearts to understand His truth. The hour that was yet to come for those disciples has come for us. The Holy Spirit indwells all who call upon the name of Jesus in faith, and we therefore can receive His teachings plainly, including this instruction on prayer.

Jesus says that He will “tell [them] plainly of the Father.” We must understand that Jesus does not teach in miscellaneous subjects. The singular subject of all His teaching is the person of God, whom He reveals to us in His life and His words. This is true even when we come to His teaching on prayer. This is ultimately “theology” in the strict sense of the word – truth about God. It is not teaching about a religious activity, but a relational reality that is ours in Christ. It is not about a thing to do, but a Person to whom we have access because of what Christ has done for us in His life, His death, and His resurrection.

So, as we draw near to God, we will be greatly helped if we give a careful ear to Jesus’ plain talk on prayer. Here we find the basis, the method, and the effectiveness of all true prayer set forth in plain and clear language for us.

I.  The basis of all true prayer is Christ’s completed work of redemption (v28).

The Bible, being the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, is completely true and trustworthy, and contains no contradictions. Now, you may have heard it said that the Bible is full of contradictions. That gets said a lot. When someone makes that claim, however, we simply should ask them for an example. Most people cannot name a single contradiction; they are merely repeating something they have heard from others. We do encounter on occasion two statements that appear to be contradictions, but this is only because we have not considered all of the relevant information. It is better to call these statements a “paradox” rather than a contradiction. A paradox is something that appears to be a contradiction, but still may have a valid explanation.

One of the most profound paradoxes in Scripture comes in Exodus 34:6-7, when God reveals a truth about His nature. He says there to Moses, that He is “the Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” The paradox is this: how can God be One who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin, and yet still not leave the guilty unpunished? The Bible teaches that we are all sinners, by nature and by choice (Rom 3:10-18, 23), and as a result of our sin, we are separated from God and He does not hear us when we pray (Isa 59:2). Yet the Bible also makes us profound promises about prayer, worship, and fellowship with God, including those we read in our text here in John 16. How can we be cut off from God’s presence, and yet still enter into His presence, as we do in prayer? This is a paradox, is it not?

Friends, the answer to this, and many of the paradoxes we encounter in the Bible is Jesus Christ. He is the key to unlocking the paradox of this sin-forgiving, sin-punishing God who does not hear our prayers because of our sins, but welcomes sinners to come and pray. In verse 28, Jesus gives a succinct summary of why this is so. He says, “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.” This encapsulates His divine origins (He came from the Father), His incarnation (He came into the world), His death and resurrection (He is leaving the world), and His ascension (He is going to the Father).

Christ speaks of the entirety of His redemptive mission with complete certainty. These are the things that He has done and that He would do. Because He has done them, a way has been made for sinners to be forgiven and reconciled to God, and to have the relationship with Him that makes access in salvation, worship, and prayer possible. In His life, He fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf demonstrating His perfect sinlessness and perfect righteousness. In His death, He took our sins upon Himself, so that in Him they could receive their just penalty as He died in our place. In His resurrection, He has defeated sin and death for all who trust in Him. In His ascension, He has been seated at the right hand of the Father, indicating that His mission is complete, and He ever lives to intercede for us and for our salvation.

So, the paradox is solved in Him. As Paul says in Romans 3:26, God has shown Himself to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He is just in that sin has been dealt with severely under the outpouring of divine wrath. He is the justifier in that Christ’s life and death make it possible for sinners to be forgiven and declared righteous in Him. And it is on this basis that all true prayer is possible. We are received in God’s presence as we pray, not on the merits of who we are and what we have done, but on the merits of who Christ is and what He has done for us. Apart from faith in Him, there is no access to God. Jesus said that “no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6), and this truth applies to salvation, to worship, and to prayer. As an illustration of this glorious reality, when Jesus died, the great veil in the Jerusalem temple that barred entrance into the holy of holies was torn in two from top to bottom. The holy of holies was understood to be the representation of God’s presence on earth, and that veil was a constant reminder that sinful people could not approach the Lord. Jesus’ death removes the barrier because He has made a way for sinners to be made righteous through faith in Him. The temple veil is torn, and access to God is granted for those who approach Him on the basis of Christ’s completed work of redemption. 

This, then, is the basis of all true prayer. If we have trusted in Him as our Lord and Savior, we need not fear that we will be unwelcomed before God. It was for this reason that He came, that He lived, that He died and rose again, and that He has ascended. He has provided you access through Himself as a result of His completed work of redemption.

From the basis of all true prayer, we move on to consider the method of all true prayer.

II. The method of all true prayer is to ask the Father in the name of Jesus.

I have often said that learning to pray is like learning to play golf, only less frustrating. What I mean is that one does not learn to play golf by reading books on golf, but by picking up the club and swinging it. And one learns to pray by praying. We can be helped by reading great books on prayer and learning from others, but the starting point is, in the immortal words of Nike commercials, to “just do it.” Now, along the way as we are growing in our prayer lives, we will come across good corrective suggestions about adding balance to our prayer lives. At first, prayer usually takes the form of just asking God for the things that are on our hearts. We need to grow in our understanding of prayer to realize that prayer encompasses more than just asking God for stuff. It encompasses praise, and confession, and thanksgiving too. It involves more than asking, but not less. There must be asking! The central thrust of all the Bible’s teachings on prayer is that we come before God asking Him to meet our needs. In Philippians 4, Paul says that prayer rightly includes rejoicing and giving thanks, but that it must also include us letting our requests be made known to God. James says we have not because we ask not (Jas 4:2).

No less than three times in these verses, Jesus essentially commands His followers to ASK! In verse 23, He says “if you ask ….” In verse 24, He says, “ask,” and in verse 26, He says, “you will ask.” We may fear that God will be offended if we come to Him asking all the time, but it seems more likely that He may take offense if we do not come asking. If we never ask God for anything, we are essentially declaring that we don’t need Him, and are able to take care of ourselves on our own. But we are not! We do need Him to provide for us and for others who are on our hearts as we pray. Many of the things that we desire and need can only be supplied from His hand, and so we must humble ourselves to the point of perpetually asking! And here in verse 24, the verb tense of the Greek word for ask is a present imperative. That means that it is a command to keep on asking. Never stop asking!

But Jesus also says that we must ask in His name. This is the great distinction between the prayer of the Christian and the prayers of all others. Up to this point, Jesus said that His disciples had “asked for nothing in [His] name” (v24). They had surely been men of prayer, but they had not ever come before God in the name of Jesus. To come in the name of Jesus is to come, as we have said previously, on the merits of who Christ is and what He has done for us in His work of redemption. It is to come as if we were Christ Himself, asking for what Christ Himself would ask. When I was a youth pastor, there was this little bracelet that the kids used to wear that said “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?). Well, when we pray in Jesus’ name, the question we need to ask ourselves is WWJP, “What would Jesus pray?” What would He ask if He were in this situation?

When we come before God, praying in the name of Jesus, we are doing what C. S. Lewis called “dressing up as Christ.”[4] In so doing, we are able to do what Jesus commands us to do here in this text. Note well that Jesus says we are to ask, ask in His name, and ask the Father. Because of the name of Jesus, His followers are able to approach the mightiest throne of all – the throne of the God of the universe – and Hebrews says that we can even come boldly before the throne of grace because of Christ. Now, in other texts, Jesus also speaks about prayers being directed to Him, so it is not inappropriate for Christians to pray to Jesus, and we may also say that it is not inappropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit. But we must not miss this point. Jesus says that we have direct access to God the Father because of Him!

Notice in verse 26, He says, “You will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request the Father on your behalf.” Jesus does not want us to see God as a reluctant deity who is disinclined to hearken unto our prayers until or unless Jesus intervenes with special pleading. As Mounce says, “The worn-out and unbiblical concept of an angry God whose continuing displeasure is only partially alleviated by a gentle Jesus has made prayer difficult and unpleasant for those who still live under the misconception.”[5] Certainly, the Bible does speak of Jesus as our advocate and intercessor (1 Jn 2:1; Heb 7:25, et al.), but this has more to do with our standing, not our hearing, before God. He alone makes it possible for us to enter in, but coming in by Him, we are at liberty to make our requests directly to the Father.

After all, Jesus says, “the Father Himself loves you.” Friends, this is a promise from the lips of the Lord Jesus! God the Father loves you! He is pleased with you because you are positioned before Him in Christ. He receives you as He receives His only begotten Son. He delights to fellowship with you in prayer. Jesus says He loves you because “you have loved Me and believed that I came forth from the Father.” Does this mean that you have somehow earned the favor of God’s love because of something you have done? No, it means that the favor of His love has been earned for you by Christ. On the basis of what He has done, you have been drawn by His grace to love Him and believe on Him, and enter into this relationship of love with the Father.

Someone will undoubtedly object and say, “But doesn’t God love all people?” Indeed He does. But His own, who have been redeemed and reconciled to Him through the blood of Christ are uniquely and especially loved in a qualitatively different way. We are probably familiar with the fact that there are multiple Greek words which are translated as “love” in the New Testament, and we have probably heard it said that the highest form of love is that which is expressed by the Greek word agape. This is the word that is used only of God’s unconditional love for all of humanity. But it is not accurate to say that this form of love is “higher” than that expressed by another word, phileo. This word means “brotherly love,” “familial love,” or “friendly love.” Sometimes, the words are used as synonyms, and sometimes there are shades of difference. But the differences are of quality, not quantity. They are different kinds of love. And here Jesus says that God has loved those who believe in Him and love Him with this “friendly, familial kind of love.” It could be said here that we can approach the Father directly in prayer because He considers us to be friends, or better yet, family. And such we are! By faith in Christ, we have been adopted as His sons and daughters! I think our confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message expresses this as well as anyone ever has: “God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.” There is a significant difference between being “fatherly” and being “Father in truth.”[6] And if you have become His child through faith in Christ, He is your Father in truth. You are loved, and welcomed to come boldly into His presence to ask Him – Jesus says, to ask Him for “anything” in verse 23 – in the name of Jesus Christ. Peter says that we can cast all of our anxiety upon the Lord, because “He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).

So the method of all true prayer is this – to ask the Father for anything in the name of Jesus. And now we move on to consider finally the effectiveness of all true prayer.

III. The effectiveness of all true prayer is that the Father answers.

A couple of decades ago, I guess, there was this song that was quite popular which said, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayer.” Friends, we need to be very clear about one thing: there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer for a Christian. If we come to the Father and ask in the name of Jesus, there will be an answer. Now, mind you, sometimes the answer is “No.” Bill Hybels, in his excellent book, Too Busy Not to Pray, shares four ways that God answers the prayers of His people. Sometimes, if the request is wrong, God says “No.” If the timing is wrong, God may say, “Slow.” If you are in the wrong, God’s answer could be, “Grow.” But if the request is right, the timing is right, and you are in the right, God says, “Go.”[7] The request is granted. But friends, if you are a child of God, and you come into His presence in the name of Jesus asking for the concerns of your heart, God the Father’s response to you will never be, “So?” He has promised to always answer.

Jesus says here in verse 23, “If you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.” Again in verse 24, “Ask, and you will receive.” Now, certainly there have been many who have misunderstood and misapplied these promises to mean what we call “name it and claim it.” This is the foundation of the so-called “prosperity gospel” which says that if you have enough faith, then God will always give you whatever you ask for.
So, what does Jesus mean, if He does not mean that I can ask God for millions of dollars, or whatever it may be, and believe that I will receive it? We simply have to keep our noses buried in the Book of God. Jesus goes on to say in verse 24, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.” God will not withhold anything from you that will ultimately serve to fulfill your joy in Him. He will gladly give you all things that further concrete Him and Him alone as the anchor of your true joy. That may entail Him not giving you some things, or taking some things away from you, so that your joy does not consist in those things.

God is always drawing our focus away from the gifts and onto the Giver, who is Himself. Because He loves us, He will freely give to us all things that are in keeping with His perfect love for us. That means that if we ask for something and do not receive it, the timing could not be right and we must persist in asking. Or it could mean that our hearts are not right, and the gift would be spiritually toxic to us. Or it could mean that we are simply asking for something that is contrary to His will. But this should not stop us from asking, for only as we persistently ask will we grow, and understand His timing and His will. Some of the most loving answers God will ever give to our prayers is His divine “No.” But what He will give us, freely and gladly, are those expressions of His perfect love which anchor our joy deeply in Himself. Why did God answer your prayer in this way or that way? It is because He loves you, and He wants to be the center of your everlasting joy. He loves you too much to allow you to draw even a moment’s satisfaction from anything or anyone other than Himself. He answers so that your joy may be made full.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Your Father in Heaven delights to give you good gifts. He gives you the things that are most in keeping with His perfect love for you, and those things which will fulfill your joy in Him. And those are the very best gifts we can receive.

Our hymn of commitment today expresses it so well: “Oh what peace we often forfeit! Oh, what needless pain we bear! All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” Jesus is here promising us that, on the basis of what He has done for us in His life, His death, His resurrection and ascension, that we can come boldly to the Father and ASK Him for anything in His name, and we have the assurance that He will answer us when we pray that way. He couldn’t make it any plainer than He did. The Holy Spirit helps us by illuminating our hearts to understand this plain talk on prayer. Now, it is to us to come, in the name of Jesus, and ASK!

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, we are so glad you are here. What we are saying here today is not yet true for you, because you have not come into the personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus that makes this kind of true prayer possible. But though it is not yet true for you, it can be in mere moments. If you will come to Christ and recognize that He has lived for you, and died for you, and rose from you, and entrust yourself to Him as your Lord and Savior, the One who grants you access to the Father, then you can be born again, and live under the Fatherhood of God and find your ultimate and everlasting joy in Him.

[1] Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 594.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1992), 113-114.
[3] Mounce, 594.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 188.
[5] Mounce, 594-595.
[6] Accessed May 14, 2015.
[7] Bill Hybels, Too Busy Not to Pray (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 88. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In a Little While (John 16:16-23a)

If you have ever traveled on a long road trip with children, you have undoubtedly heard the phrase repeated over and over again: “Are we there yet?” And if you are like me, your answer to that is probably something like, “We just have a little while longer.” In the vocabulary of road-trip dads, “a little while longer” could mean anything from ten minutes to ten hours. It’s a vague expression, for sure, but sometimes it can be an important one.

The fact that “a little while” occurs 7 times in these 8 verses indicates that there is something significant for us to understand about how Jesus uses the phrase here in this text. The phrase “a little while” here translates a single Greek word: mikron. It is used often throughout the New Testament, and not surprisingly, it just means “small amount” or “small in size,” either literally or figuratively. It is the word used for little children, a short distance, a small group, a low standing, and is even used as a nickname of one of the disciples: James the Less (referring to him as either the smaller or younger James). But here it has to do with time – a mikron of time – hence the translation, “a little while.” And like the words of a frazzled father on a long road trip, “a little while” can have a broad range of meaning. From the perspective of an eternal God who views one day as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day (2 Pet 3:8), and who views the span of a man’s life as “a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (Jas 4:14), any lapse of time on the earth could be defined as “a little while.”

Jesus said, “A little while and you will no longer see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” This statement was difficult for His disciples to understand. In verse 17, they say to one another, “What is this thing He is telling us?”, and in verse 18, “We do not know what He is talking about.” This is a demonstration of what Jesus said previously in verse 12, when He said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” But it is not as though we are so much better off than they are. A survey of the commentaries on this passage reveals that modern biblical scholarship still has a hard time understanding what He was talking about.

There are two “little whiles” in Jesus’ pronouncement. The first one seems simple enough to understand. When He says, “A little while, and you will no longer see Me,” is obviously a reference to His death, which at the time was only hours away. But, it may also encapsulate His ascension, after His resurrection, when He returned to the Father in heaven (Acts 1:9-11). The second “little while” has proven far more difficult for biblical interpreters. When Jesus says, “and again a little while, and you will see Me,” He may be referring to His resurrection, to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, or to His return at the end of all things. Of course, there are also those who believe that all of these are in view, and this is the perspective that I am most inclined to accept. The vagueness of the statement and the vagueness of the explanation in these verses leads me to believe that Jesus did not intend for us to limit our understanding of these “little whiles” to a singular, specific moment, but rather to see His death, His resurrection, His ascension, the coming of the Spirit, and His return as events that are inseparably connected, and will occur (at least from His perspective) in just “a little while.”

In speaking of these things that will occur in “a little while”, Jesus is preparing His followers for what is to come, and anchoring them in hope for the future. Like them, we too must be prepared for what life in this fallen world will entail, and we must be secured by the sure and certain hope of His promises. So, let us look at the text and consider the things that Jesus said would happen “in a little while” and how those things impact us as His followers.

I. “A little while, and you will no longer see Me.”

Sometimes, death comes upon our loved ones by surprise and without notice. Other times, it is a long, slow departure with many warning signs. If Jesus’ disciples are alarmed by the fact that He is speaking of His death being imminent, it is only because they have not been paying attention to what He has been saying all along. He had spoken of His own death numerous times, sometimes in veiled speech and sometimes quite directly. He had told them, even just a few verses earlier (v10) that He was going to the Father and that they would no longer see Him. But the disciples had not understood what He meant by these things. Now, the final hour is approaching. In a “little while” – mere hours – He would be crucified and buried. The disciples would no longer see Him.

Jesus did not view His death as a sorrowful thing, but as a return to the heavenly home and the eternal glory which had been His for eternity past, with the Father, prior to His incarnation. His followers, however, from what little they could understand about it, were understandably sorrowful. And Jesus says to them here in verse 20 that they will weep, and lament, and grieve. They are rightful emotions for humans to experience when death occurs in our circle of loved ones. These disciples have left everything behind to follow Jesus and have spent nearly every moment of the preceding three years with Him. Assuredly, their weeping, lamenting, and grief are only natural and to be expected.

As if to add insult to injury, in the face of their great sorrow, “the world will rejoice,” Jesus says, at the news of His death. This Jesus who has been a persistent threat to the powers and pleasures of those whose ambitions are entirely earthbound will have finally been silenced and eliminated, no longer to interfere with the sin and degradation of their carnal pursuits. They will be partying while the disciples are weeping. And the grief of the disciples will be exacerbated by the hatred and persecution that Jesus has promised that the world will inflict upon them. While He was with them, they did not face this. He absorbed the animosity of this world in Himself. But with His departure, that animosity is aimed at His Church. In this world that celebrates and flaunts its sinfulness, the faithful saints of the Lord Jesus will be oppressed, ostracized, maligned, and in many cases murdered. Jesus has warned them plainly of this even in the preceding passages.

In an indirect way, we can apply what Jesus is saying here to ourselves in the present day. Certainly, we do not live during the days of Jesus’ entombment. He is risen from the dead, and present in the world in the person of His Holy Spirit. There are certainly several ways that we can honestly speak of “seeing Him,” though it is a mediated vision of Him. We see Him most clearly in His Word and in His Church. But we do not see Him physically. Having conquered death by His resurrection, Jesus departed again to heaven after a period of 40 days with His disciples. And so, there is a sense – an indirect and incomplete one – in which can say that we “no longer see Him.” If we believe upon the Lord Jesus and love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength, then we must confess that we long to look upon His dear face. We long for this all the more as we endure the hardships of this world, including those which we suffer for the sake of His name. But we cannot do that here and now. We increasingly feel that this world is not our home, and we cry out with the Psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psa 37:5). The world puts its sinful passions and pleasures on parade before us, rejoicing and celebrating in what they perceive to be God’s ignorance or indifference to their sin, or else His complete absence from the world. The world threatens us if we refuse to sanction its folly, and we grieve, we mourn, and we lament.

Here we must confess our own faults. If the world believes that God is ignorant, indifferent, or absent, then it is an indictment on the Church of Jesus Christ. We are the ones whom Christ has commissioned to be the representatives of His presence in the world, and the mouthpiece through which God’s announcements concerning sin and salvation are spoken. But the church has, by and large in our own day, become complacent, comfortable, and silent! We have not been faithful to our assignment, and the world has heard an uncertain sound from the pulpits and pews of our churches which has led them to woefully mistaken conclusions. We must receive the world’s celebration of its sin as a call to repentance and revival, and a wake-up call to stand up and speak up for Christ with renewed fervor in this world, even it provokes the world’s ire against us for doing so!

Still, in the face of such things, the Christian today senses grief, mourning and lament – over the condition of the world, over the condition of the church, and over the moral decline in our culture. But this is where we must take comfort in the second promise Jesus makes here concerning what else will take place in “a little while.”

II. “Again a little while, and you will see Me.”

For those who love to travel, there is a double-joy in taking a journey. One is the joy of getting away, and the other is the joy of coming home. It is a sweet sight to see home in the rearview mirror as we drive away, and a sweet sight to see it through the front windshield as we pull back in the driveway. For Jesus, when He speaks of the things that will happen “in a little while,” He speaks with a much more profound sense of this double-joy. He looks forward to returning to His Father in heaven, and He looks forward to the joy of seeing His disciples again. For this reason, the writer of Hebrews says that it was “for the joy set before Him” that “He endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). The agony of the cross was worth enduring because of the joy of what He knew would come after the cross. And so the writer of Hebrews says that we must “fix our eyes on Jesus” as we run the race of life in this world that is set before us (Heb 12:1). He is our example in enduring the hardships of this life, and the joy of knowing that we will see Him inspires us to keep on keeping on.

When Jesus says, “again a little while, and you will see Me,” as I have already mentioned, the scholars debate whether He is referring to His resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, or His return at the end of the age. However, from the view of eternity, all of these things happen within the span of “a little while,” and it may be splitting hairs to make too much of a distinction between them here. There is a sense in which the “seeing” of Jesus after a little while encompasses all of the above and progresses from one to another.

For these disciples, “a little while” would pass until they saw Jesus again. It was a very little while in fact, just three days. On the third day after He was crucified, He rose from the dead and His disciples saw Him again. Jesus said in verse 20 that when this happened, their grief will be turned into joy.” He does not say that grief will be replaced with joy, but will be turned into joy. The same reality that provoked them to grieve will bring them joy. And of course, it is His cross that will bring them grief. Upon seeing Him again, risen victorious over sin and death, the cross will become the great object of joy for the disciples of Christ for it is the means by which Christ has reconciled humanity to God and provided eternal life for all who believe upon His name. In John 20:20, we find that it happened just as Jesus said it would (as if there was every any doubt!). “The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

Their joy in the risen Lord may have been short lived, considering that just 40 days later, Jesus would ascend and leave them again. But Jesus had already told them that another Helper was coming to them, the Holy Spirit Whom He would send to them after He ascended. And just as He promised, ten days after His ascension, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came! Again, they would see Jesus, not in bodily form, but as He inhabited His people in the Person of His Spirit. His permanent indwelling within them means that they will never experience a moment of life in this world separated from the presence of God, because they carry His presence within them.

But still, in this world, there will be griefs and sorrows – those that are common to all mankind, and those that Jesus has promised that will be faced because of faith in Him. Remember that the context of this passage deals with the world’s hatred and persecution of believers. So, there is still this longing for something else, something better, than life here and now. Jesus’ promise extends beyond even the glories of His resurrection and the indwelling of His Spirit, marvelous and glorious though those realities are. We have the promise of seeing Him face to face when He returns or calls us to our heavenly home through death.

These promises apply to us as much as they did to those disciples who were with Jesus when He spoke them. In spite of the griefs and hardships of this world, we have a joy in our hearts, a joy that Jesus said no one will be able to take away from us. We serve a risen Savior, who has defeated sin and death on our behalf through His cross and resurrection. He has come in the Person of His Spirit to indwell us so that we are ever before Him, ever in His presence as He lives in and through us. And then there will come that day when we will see the Lord Jesus face to face in glory. Our confidence in these promises inspires us to endure the grief and difficulty of life in this fallen world – even with joy!

Jesus compared it to a woman who is in labor. I have had the experience of watching my wife endure labor twice. Like many of you, I suffer from chronic pain, but I have never had any pains that I could compare with what she experienced in those long hours. When Solomon was born, she was in labor for around 14 hours, and I think Salem was a little longer than that! And she was in agony. I will never forget it. But if you ask her about it, she won’t talk about the pain of the labor. She will talk about the joy of holding that baby in her arms. That’s what Jesus said here. “Whenever a woman is in labor, she has pain because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.”

Jesus says that the time between these two “little whiles” is like that for His followers. Whether referring to the days between His death and resurrection, or the coming of the Spirit, or His return, life in this world is difficult and painful. It is difficult for everyone – Christians don’t have a monopoly on suffering. But, as followers of Christ, we are subject to the hatred and oppression that the world directs toward us on His account. Yet, Jesus says that these days are like labor pains. They will pass away and the pain of these sufferings will be transformed into the joy of beholding Him with our eyes.

Because of Jesus’ promise, we can have joy in our hearts even in this fallen world, and that joy can never be taken away from us, because we can never be severed from Him, and we will be with Him forever, face to face in His presence in the glory of heaven. As Paul said in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Again in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” That hope, secured by the risen Jesus, ensured by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and culminating in the vision of His unspeakable glory, enables us to carry on in this world as our griefs are ever transformed into irrevocable joy.

Like the disciples, we too have trouble sometimes understanding all that Jesus has said about these things. He said this would all take place in a little while. Perhaps we would say, as they did, “What is this thing He is telling us? … What is this that He says, ‘A little while’? We do not know what He is talking about.” It seems like it is taking far longer than “a little while” for us to see Him face to face. But because of His resurrection and the ministry of His Spirit within us and in the Word which He has inspired, we can see Him even now – albeit just in faint and passing glimpses it seems. But from heaven’s perspective, it is still “just a little while” until He returns. Like the child in the backseat of the car, we want to ask, “Are we there yet?” And Jesus says tenderly to us, “A little while longer and you will see Me.” How much longer? Surely every day it is one day closer, but He alone knows, and He is content to say “just a little while longer.”

We have so many questions, but Jesus says, “In that day, you will not question Me about anything.” In that day, when we see Him in glory, we will not question the timing of His return, the toils we endured, or the meanings of His teachings. We will be with Him, and the unspeakably glorious joy of that experience will satisfy our hearts and minds for all eternity.

Are we there yet? How much longer? A little while. Be patient. Endure the difficult journey, fix your eyes on Him, and know that the destination will make it all worthwhile.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Christian's Advantage (John 16:4-15)


I don’t know how you came to church today, but I bet you did not take a hovercraft or a flying car. That’s kind of disappointing, because in the movie Back to the Future II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to 2015 and that’s how people were getting around. Doc Brown had invented a device called the Flux Capacitor that made time travel possible. Of course, by now I realize that there is no such thing as a Flux Capacitor. But imagine for a moment that you could put a Flux Capacitor in your car and travel to any point in time. Where would you go? In the first Back to the Future movie, Doc Brown tells Marty that they could even go back to witness the birth of Christ! I imagine many Christians would say that they would go back to any number of points during the earthly life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Maybe we would choose to go back to see Him feed the 5,000, or heal the man born blind, or raise Lazarus from the dead. Or maybe you would go back to see Him rise from the dead! That would be awesome, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better to have lived during the days when Jesus walked the earth than these days in which we live? If you were to ask Jesus that question, He would tell you, “No.” He would tell you that it is to your advantage that you are alive now, rather than then. I know that because it is exactly what He told His disciples here in this text.

Leading up to this passage, in the verses we have been looking at over the last few weeks, you recall that Jesus has been warning His disciples about the hardships that are going to come their way. They are going to be hated and persecuted, ostracized and potentially killed for their faith in Him. We see it happening in the world around us, and increasingly so here in America. Jesus says here in the latter part of verse 4, “These things I did not say to you at the beginning, because I was with you.” The idea is that while He was in the world, the animosity of the unbelieving world would be focused on Him. “But now,” He says, He is going away and things are about to change. Hours from the moment at which He spoke these words, He will be arrested, and by mid-day on the morrow, He will be nailed to the cross. Then the world will turn its animosity on those who follow Jesus by faith.

Jesus tells the disciples, “I am going to Him who sent Me.” There is no hint of sadness in this statement. He is being reunited with His Father. He is leaving behind the unpleasant environs of this sin-stained world to return to the glory which He has known from eternity past in heaven. And yet, Jesus says, “None of you asks Me, ‘Where are you going?’” This is difficult at first glance, because just hours earlier (in 13:36), Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” But Peter meant something more like, “Why are you leaving us?” than, “Where are You going?” His interests were entirely self-centered. That is somewhat understandable. He and the others have literally left everything behind to follow Jesus, and here Jesus says to them, “I’m leaving you all now.” The shock and sorrow of this news surely affected them all deeply, and it is hard to not be consumed with concern for one’s own self in times like that. Jesus says, “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.”
He does not rebuke them for their sorrow. It is certainly to be expected. But as Jesus continues here in these verses, He seeks explains to them why they are better off if He leaves them.

In the same way, these words assure us that, even if it were possible to fire up the Flux Capacitor and go back to be physically present with Jesus, we are better off to live here and now, after His departure. He says that it is to our advantage. The reason has everything to do with the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, coequal, codivine, and coeternal with God, even as the Father and Son are. Jesus refers to Him here as “the Helper.” Some translations use the word “Comforter” here. He is the Christian’s advantage in the world. So, how is the Holy Spirit our advantage in these days? The text supplies us with three answers.

I. The Holy Spirit comes to Christ’s followers (v7).

Ask any pastor you know, and he will likely tell you that one of the biggest frustrations in ministry is the absolute impossibility of being in two places at one time. Two people may be having surgery at the same time, two meetings going on at the same time, and so on. But I can only be in one place at one time, so sometimes I have to make hard choices. God is not like that. The Bible teaches that God is omnipresent. He is not confined or contained by space, but is “present at every point of space with His whole being.”[1] But, in the days of His flesh, the Lord Jesus was confined by space. Although He never ceased to be fully God, in His incarnation He became fully human. As a man, there were certain divine attributes, including omnipresence, that He had to (at least temporarily) lay aside. He could not be in more than one place at one time. But, if He departs, He says, “it is to your advantage,” indeed the whole world’s advantage. He says, “If I do not go away, the Helper (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.”

Now, here we encounter something of a mystery. Why must Jesus go away in order for the Spirit to come to us? It is not, as Carson says, “that Jesus and the Holy Spirit cannot, for unarticulated metaphysical reasons, simultaneously minister to God’s people.”[2] The Holy Spirit and the Son of God have always been involved in the world, along with the Father, inseparably from Creation to the present day. We see it in accounts such as the baptism of Jesus. God the Son was in the water; God the Father spoke from heaven; and God the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son in the form of a dove. Additionally, even during the life and ministry of Jesus upon the earth, the Holy Spirit was actively at work in and through all that Jesus did.

So, why could Jesus not give the Spirit to all who believed in Him, and yet still remain in the world in His flesh? It is because the work of the Holy Spirit depends upon the full atonement of sin that Jesus made available to us in His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ death, He took all of our sin upon Himself, and received in Himself the full measure of its penalty beneath the outpouring of God’s righteous wrath. He became our substitute, and our sins were punished in His death, and conquered by His resurrection, so that we might be saved, redeemed and reconciled to God. Until that happened, the Spirit could not come upon us because we are born separated from God by the gulf of our sinfulness. But now that Christ has done this, and ascended back to His Father, He says, “I will send Him to you.”

The Holy Spirit is our blood-bought gift from God, the gift of God Himself, who comes to us to awaken us to our need for the redemption which Christ has provided for us. Unless the Spirit is sent, we remain dead in our trespasses and sins, unaware of the desperation of our condition and our need for the Savior. But in sending the Spirit to us, Christ is providing us with the means of being born again. The Spirit is He who gives us life in Christ. He converts us and seals us into our covenant relationship with God, making us God’s very own people. And moreover, He comes to dwell within us permanently so that we take the manifest presence of God with us wherever we go.

In the days of Jesus’ earthly life, if one were to ask, “Where is Jesus?”, the answer could be, “He is in Galilee,” or “He is in Jerusalem,” or something like that; but never more than one place at one time. But it is to our advantage that He has departed and sent His Spirit to us. Now, if one were to ask, “Where is Jesus?”, the answer is, “He is seated at the right hand of His Father in Heaven, but His Spirit, whom He has sent, is at work in the world wherever His followers are.” He is with our brothers and sisters in Nepal even now. He is with our brothers and sisters in Baltimore even now. But He has not taken leave of us to be with them. He is here with us, in us, as well. By going away and sending His Spirit, Jesus is no longer bound by space. He is everywhere His people are found, doing His work by His Spirit in us and through us.

What the disciples had to learn, and what we must as well, is that the Spirit has not come merely “to supply the absence of the Son, but to complete His presence” in the world, in the church, as His Spirit inhabits His people.[3] God is present in the world, of course everywhere at all times by virtue of His omnipresence, but in an especially manifest way, He is present wherever a believer in Christ happens to be. If you are a born-again Christian, when you go to work, God is going there with you. When you go home, He is going with you. When you go to the hospital, the funeral home, when you walk or drive down the street, when you go into the most pleasant or most dangerous place in the world, where His name is praised or where it is cursed, God Himself goes into those places with you because God the Holy Spirit indwells you. In a couple of weeks when our team assembles to engage once again in our night club ministry, they are taking God into that place with them. If we understand that, our perspective on those places and on our circumstances will be transformed. As the great J. C. Ryle put it, “The universal presence of the Holy Ghost in the Church is better than the visible bodily presence of Christ with the Church.”[4] That is also what Jesus is saying here. He said it was to our advantage that He go away, so that the Spirit would come to us.

Now secondly, we see that …

II. The Holy Spirit convicts the world (vv8-11).

I can remember when I was about 5 or 6 years old, I was at Disney World with my family, having a great time. And I would walk a while and stop and look around for a while, over and over again. There’s so many wonderful things to see and fun things to do there, a kid has to pause every now and then and take it all in, you know. My dad was wearing khaki pants that day. I remember that well. So if I stopped to look around, I’d just run and catch up with those khaki pants and reach up for his hand. But one time, I ran toward the nearest pair of khaki pants and looked up for a hand to grab, and it wasn’t my dad! I began to freak out, and before long, my parents came and found me – they were closer by than I realized. But for a moment, the sudden realization that I had been following the wrong khaki pants and reaching out for the wrong hand filled me with terror. I was lost, separated from my father and mother, and didn’t even know it. Thank God it wasn’t too late when I realized it.

Well folks, when it comes to the spiritual condition of a lot of people in the world, they are just like that. They are taking in all the great sights and sounds, the thrills and chills of the world, but they are following the wrong footsteps, that they are lost, and separated from God the Father. The thing is, they don’t even know it. They think they are doing all right. They are marching headlong for destruction and they neither know nor care. This is where the convicting work of the Holy Spirit comes in.

Jesus said in verse 8, “When He comes He will convict the world.” He will convict the world on three accounts: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In verse 9, Jesus says that the Spirit will convict the world “concerning sin.” If you are sick, and you know you are sick, you go to the doctor. Likewise, if you are a sinner, and you know you are a sinner, then you run to the Savior. But the thing is, most sinners don’t know they are sinners. They can always justify their sin. They don’t call it sin, they come up with kinder, gentler words for it. They point to others who appear to be morally worse than they are. They offer up some extenuating circumstance as an excuse for their sin. But God calls them sinners, and His perspective is the only one that matters for all eternity. They need to be awakened to the reality of their sinfulness. Yet, they can never understand this about themselves until or unless the Holy Spirit brings the truth to bear on their souls. This is what He does when He convicts the world of sin. He brings light upon the darkness of their hearts and exposes that all is not well between them and God. And the most heinous sin of all that He brings conviction upon is the sin of rejecting the Savior. Jesus said that the Spirit convicts the world concerning sin “because they do not believe in Me.”

People often ask if there is an unpardonable sin, and if so, what it is. Jesus answered that question in Matthew 12:31 when He said, “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.” To blaspheme the Spirit is to shun His convicting work and deny His testimony in the world for Christ. When the Spirit moves upon someone convicting them of their sin, and they do not turn to the Savior, they blaspheme the Spirit. Jesus says that this cannot be forgiven. The simple fact is that this sin cannot be forgiven, for unless we come to Christ, none of our sins are forgiven! This is why, repeatedly in the Scriptures, we find the warning that if, today, we hear His voice, we must not harden our hearts! He is convicting us of our sin, showing us our need for the Savior, out of His kindness which leads us to repentance and eternal life. He does continually what Jesus did in the world. He is shining the light of God’s truth upon the darkness of men’s hearts in order to convict and convert them to saving faith in Jesus. If the Spirit did not convict the world of sin, then no one could ever be saved, for no one would realize that they even need to be saved!

Then Jesus says in verse 10 that the Spirit convicts the world “concerning righteousness.” We may wonder what righteousness can be found in the world, and if there is any, why anyone would need to be convicted of it. When we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ interaction with the Jewish leaders of His day, we see that there was plenty of righteousness – but it was self-righteousness, not the righteousness which makes one right before God. It is a righteousness that is based on one’s own assumed goodness. This is the righteousness that the prophet Isaiah said was nothing more than filthy rags before God. Because of our sinful condition, our perception of righteousness is perverted before we come under the Spirit’s conviction. We think we just have to be good, or at least better than the next guy; that we merely have to be sincere, to try harder and do better. But this is not righteousness before God. It is filthy rags. Jesus constantly pointed the world to Himself as the standard for righteousness. He denounced the pseudo-righteousness of those who assumed that God was pleased with them because of their hypocritical deeds. And the Holy Spirit continues that work. Jesus said He convicts the world concerning righteousness, “because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me.” It is the Holy Spirit who brings it to bear on human hearts that Jesus is the only righteousness that pleases the Father. And we see His righteousness vindicated through His cross, His resurrection, and His ascension. The world considered themselves righteous, and crucified Jesus as a sinner. But Jesus has gone to the Father and the world no longer sees Him. But the Spirit is ever convicting that self-righteousness is denounced before God, and our only hope of being righteous before Him is to be covered in the righteousness of Christ by faith in Him.

Finally, Jesus says that the Spirit convicts the world “concerning judgment.” Like our understanding of sin and righteousness, the world’s sense of judgment is twisted by man’s sinful condition. We think we know what is right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, what is good and bad. By the world’s justice, Jesus and His followers are deranged lunatics, and His word is nothing but empty platitudes. All across the United States, our justice system hands down decisions on a consistent basis that are at odds with the revealed will of God. By this world’s notion of justice, every single one of us who dares to believe, speak, and practice the plain teachings of Scripture could be branded an outlaw within a few weeks. But not before God. As Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.” That word of woe can be pronounced over the entire world’s corrupted notion of justice. But the Spirit convicts concerning judgment, as though to proclaim to the world, “The final court has not yet convened!” Christopher Darden, the prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, wrote in his book In Contempt, “I never got a chance … to cross-examine him. … I wanted to tell him that there was another court that would hear his case one day, with a judge who would try racist cops and murderers. A court where everyone will have to account for his actions alone.”[5] Indeed, that word is true for all people.

Jesus said that the Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment because the ruler of this world has been judged. The ruler of this world, in this context, is Satan. He has been judged, Jesus said. The final strike of the gavel would come on the next day when Jesus died for our sins. Hebrews 2:14 says that Jesus’ death rendered the devil powerless. He is a defeated, judged, and condemned foe. But this is a warning to the world. If the world is playing “follow the leader” with Satan, they will end up where he is. As Carson writes, “All false judgment is related to him who was a liar from the beginning, whose children we are if we echo his values (8:42-47). If he stands condemned by the triumph of the cross, the false judgment of those who follow in his train is doubly exposed.”[6] In John 3:36, Jesus did not say that the world is awaiting condemnation, but is condemned already. The Spirit convicts the world concerning judgment because their judgment is perverted; God’s is righteous and true; and they will face it unless they turn to the Savior.

So, we see that it is to our advantage that Jesus has gone away and sent His Spirit. He comes to us. He convicts the world. You and I cannot make people see their sin, their self-righteousness, and the peril they will face before God’s judgment seat. But the Holy Spirit can, does, and will. What we can do is pray that our friends and loved ones who do not know the Lord will sense this conviction, and turn in repentance and faith to Jesus while they have opportunity in this life to do so. And we can allow the Spirit to so live through us that they see how He is able to transform our lives to reflect the righteousness of Christ. Our Spirit-empowered lives, words, and testimonies for Christ are witnesses in the Spirit’s convicting case against this world.

Now finally, we come to the third answer to how the Spirit is our advantage in this world in Christ’s physical absence.

III. The Spirit Communicates to the Church (vv12-15)

Jesus said a lot to His disciples over the course of three-plus years of ministry together. But He didn’t tell them everything they needed to know. He says here in verse 12, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” When our hearts are sorrowful, as His disciples were, it is hard to process too much information. Maybe Jesus meant something like that. Or maybe He meant that the disciples would not yet be able to understand these things at the moment. Or, He may have meant that they would be overwhelmed at the very thought of trying to carry out the remaining truths He wished to disclose to them. It is probably the case that all of these were on Jesus’ mind as He said this. “But,” He said to them, “when He, the Spirit of Truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” What Jesus could not impart to them then, the Spirit would when He came.

The focus of verses 12-15 is extremely important, but I am not going to spend a lot of time on them today. We actually covered these verses previously in a message I preached back on February 8, entitled the Spirit and the Word. In that message, I presented the case that these verses, along with those in John 14:25-26 apply in a unique way to the eleven men seated around Jesus on that night – His apostles – and their close associates. And the point I tried to make then was that these verses together describe the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiring the Scriptures that we have come to know as the New Testament. From John 14:25-26, we considered how the Spirit had inspired a trustworthy account of Jesus’ words and works in the Gospels. But then from these verses, John 16:12-15, we considered how the Spirit had inspired trustworthy guidance for Christian doctrine and practice in Acts and the Epistles, or letters, of the New Testament; as well as trustworthy information about the things to come in the prophetic portions of the New Testament, concentrated chiefly in the book of Revelation. And all of these writings that the Spirit has inspired serve ultimately to bring glory to Jesus Christ, as we see in verse 14.

I am not going to repeat all that I said on that day. I am simply going to remind you that when Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide these men into all the truth, He was referring to the New Testament writings. The Spirit guides us by these words. We do not need the Spirit to guide us into truth that is not already disclosed to us in the Bible. The Spirit has, in the words of verse 13, spoken what He has heard from the Father and the Son in order to disclose it to us. And the entirety of it all points us to Jesus Christ. If one possesses a great knowledge of the Bible, but that knowledge has not drawn him or her into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, then they have misunderstood whatever knowledge of the Bible that they have.

Just as Jesus has made the Father known to us through His incarnation as the Living Word of God, so the Spirit has made Christ known to us through the written Word of God. As we read the New Testament, we are brought immediately into an encounter with the glory of Jesus Christ. The critics of the Bible will say that the early followers of Jesus invented a story by knitting together bits of mythology and folklore and presented it in order to lead ignorant and gullible people astray. My friends, nothing could be further from the truth. When you consider that in mere moments after Jesus spoke these words, as He was being arrested and hauled off to face death, these disciples scattered like cockroaches, but then, not too long afterward, they boldly preached the good news of Jesus and stood up to their own threats of death, there is simply no other explanation than that these men had come under the powerful influence of God the Holy Spirit. And when you consider the wonderful truths that they have set forth in the writings of the New Testament – these men who were nothing more than common, ordinary folks without any proper theological training or religious pedigree – the only explanation possible is that the Holy Spirit did for them exactly what Jesus said He would do. He guided them into all the truth and disclosed to them all that He had heard from the Father and the Son.

Therefore, we have a Bible that we can believe and say with confidence that it is inspired, inerrant, and infallible, and that it has full authority over the lives of all men. It is the standard by which all human creeds and all human conduct is measured. In these writings, the Spirit of God has communicated with His church, and this Word is what the Spirit communicates to the world through His church. And this means that, not only is it true and trustworthy, it is enough. We are not awaiting new information. We do not need “lost” or “missing gospels.” We do not need more books, like the Quran or the Book of Mormon. The Spirit of God did not inspire those writings. He inspired these. We measure all other writings against this one. If they say what this book says, we don’t need them; and if they say what this book doesn’t say, we don’t want them.

It is to our advantage that Jesus has departed and returned to His Father, and sent His Spirit to us. Had it not been so, then in order to hear the words of Jesus, we would have to go to wherever He is and crowd into whatever sort of assembly we could find and maybe be close enough to make out what He is saying. But the Spirit of Truth, whom He has sent, is our advantage, for now, if we want to hear Jesus speak, then all we need to do is open this glorious book and ask Him to illuminate our hearts to understand the wondrous truths which have been inspired for us herein. Everything that God has deemed it necessary for you to know God-in-Christ, to trust Him, and to live for Him in obedience has been declared through these Spirit-inspired words that we have in our Bibles.

So, friends, it matters not that there is no such thing as a Flux Capacitor that would enable us to travel back to see and hear Jesus during His days upon the earth. It is to our advantage, in fact, for He has sent the Spirit to convict us, to convert us, to indwell and empower us, and to speak to us through the revelation of God’s Word. Christians are the most privileged people in the world, for we have this infinite and eternal divine advantage of God the Holy Spirit. Let us believe this, and live as though we do.

There aren’t a lot of great hymns about the Holy Spirit, but one that I think is among the better ones is called “The Comforter Has Come.” In the final stanza , the hymnwriter says this, and with these words I conclude: “O boundless love divine! How shall this tongue of mine to wond’ring mortals tell the matchless grace divine – That I, a child of hell, should in his image shine? The Comforter has come!” He has come to us! And He has come to convict the world and to communicate the Lord Jesus to His Church.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 173.
[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 533.
[3] Charles Gore, cited in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 696, fn. 17.
[4] Cited in Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10;Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 587.
[5] Christopher Darden, In Contempt (New York: Harper, 1997). This excerpt taken from back cover.
[6] Carson, 538.