Anticipating the Lord of History

It’s been several years since I posted anything in this space, and even longer since a regular posting has been in the offing. But today I was encouraged by the thought that, after receiving some feedback in the past few weeks, that these posts are occasionally helpful to folks interested in studying the scriptures and even other matters of a political or theological nature. So in light of that, I’m going to post below a sermon I preached this morning on Luke chapter 1. I hope its enjoyable and enlightening for anyone stumbling across it online.

PJ Wenzel

Welcome to the advent season!  Advent season – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus.

During this advent season, we’re going to be looking at several key figures in the birth narrative of our Lord, with the purpose of walking in their sandals a bit. To see that they were not only narrative furniture in the story of Jesus, but men and women whose lives furnish us with examples of how Jesus’ advent changed them, and how the Gospel transformed their lives and hearts.

Zechariah was one such man.  We’re going to walk through the first part of Luke 1 together, I’m going to read some of the story with you, and because it’s a longer passage, I’m going to make some contextual comments along the way, and then we’ll examine the story from a few different angles. 

So…Luke 1 beginning in verse 5, please follow along with me…

[5] In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6] And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. [7] But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses, and in the Bible it is through Aaron’s line that the priesthood would be maintained. But not only is Zechariah from this tribe, so is his wife, Elizabeth. It was said in those days that a woman of excellent character was “fit to marry a priest.” But here we learn she is not only righteous in character but is also of the lineage of Aaron, and this would have been thought a double blessing for Zechariah.

Note also that these are older folks. Just like Abraham and Sarah, they are old and unable to have children. From Sarah to Hannah to Elizabeth, again and again in Scripture there is a theme that the Lord delights to show his power and grace in the barren womb. God being glorified in the midst of suffering is also a major Biblical theme, and in the stories of women like Elizabeth, the two themes are beautifully and powerfully woven together. Now, verse 8…

[8] Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, [9] according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

By this time there were so many priests that the line of Aaron was divided up into 24 different divisions, and even those divisions were so populated that if you were chosen for the honor of offering prayers in the temple like this, it’s the only time you’d be able to do it in your lifetime. One and done. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah – so he is thinking that this is the apex of his ministry on earth.

[10] And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. [11] And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. [12] And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. [13] But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. [14] And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, [15] for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. [16] And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

[18] And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” [19] And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

[21] And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. [22] And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. [23] And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

Now it was expected that when Zachariah came out of the Temple, he was to stand in front of the people on the steps of the temple and offer to them a blessing. He was to bless them verbally before the Lord. So when he came out and couldn’t speak, he also couldn’t perform this blessing.  Finally we read…

[24] After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, [25] “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

This is the word of the lord. You may be seated. 

There are three different angles to this story we’ll examine:

  1. The first is the art of waiting on God’s timing
  2. The second is ultimate reality belongs to God
  3. The third is restoration for the glory of God

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

I’ve read in so many devotions and so many greeting cards now that the theme of “anticipation” has become a permanent part of my Christmas vocabulary. Growing up we even celebrated Christmas by doing an advent devotional as a family and putting ornaments on a “waiting tree.” 

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t really care for all the waiting and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas. As a kid it wasn’t the decorating and the devotional evenings that I anticipated, it was Christmas morning! Just in case my parents weren’t sure of my feelings, I’m sure I conveyed my righteous anticipation by asking a million questions about presents and refusing to sit still for any length of time.

Despite my mom’s noble efforts, it wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the themes of “anticipation” and “waiting” and how they reflect the longing of Israel for their Messiah.

Here at the beginning of our advent season together is the perfect time to reflect on those themes, especially as we look at the lives of Zechariah and of Elizabeth. Focusing in a bit more on Zechariah this morning.  

Luke tells us a few important things about this couple: They were righteous, they were old, they were barren, and they were serving the Lord.

When you are young, there are certain dreams you have, which, being young, you assume will just fall into place as life goes on. There is a certain naiveté, ignorance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance about how we start out our lives as adults. But as time wears on, we begin to see that what we assumed about life, what we took for granted would just happen, doesn’t always fall into place the way we thought it might. Am I right?

Francis Schaeffer once said in the context of an essay on art, that for the Christian, our entire life is our greatest work of art, more than anything we ever do with our hands or produce with our minds.  I’m certain that many of you would agree with Samuel Rutherford that we owe a great deal to the file and the hammer of our Lord, but that process of refinement is painful. And perhaps no struggle is more personal and more painful for a married couple than the struggle of infertility.

Now it is not my purpose or intent to open fresh wounds this morning. But here at Veritas while we’ve praised God on many occasions for the great blessing of children in the church, we’ve also wanted to acknowledge and love on those in our church family here who haven’t yet been blessed with a child, or have walked a long and faith-testing road to parenthood. I can attest, with many others I’m certain, how encouraged and built up in the faith I have been by the godly example of the men and women of Veritas who have walked through the difficult seasons – not only of infertility, but of the loss of children. I praise God for your tenderhearted and steadfast example which brings glory to God.

So church we know a little about what these two people have gone through. But when we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth here they are older, and seemingly they have reached a point where giving birth to a child was a distant dream, one that has long since disappeared like a mirage in the desert of Judea.

Now Luke, our author, is a physician by trade, and a very meticulous author. And when he conveys a thing under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, I believe we should take careful note.  He says that this couple was righteous. That they were following all the laws of the Lord.

As they waited. As they anticipated. As they dreamed, as they lived day in and day out – what did they do?  They obeyed.

Friends, this is the first thing our souls need to take away from this account: waiting on the Lord is active. It is not stultifying, it is not siloed, it is not paralyzed.

The Bible is replete with story after story of Godly men and women who waited for the Lord. David practically made it the theme of his life. As in Psalm 27:

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

Waiting is abiding. Abiding is obeying. Obeying is glorifying the Lord in our lives through word, heart, and deed.

If we want to know what it means to wait I can think of no better passage than John 15 where our Lord told us… “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

Notice that there is a “doing” here. Waiting on the Lord requires us to abide in His power while doing His work until He brings about His will for our lives in His own timing, by His own power for His own glory.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were thousands of people waiting for a savior. Para-military uprisings among the Jews were becoming more and more frequent, and the people longed for freedom as a nation once more.

This was a national anxiety felt in the hearts and realized in the daily lives of every Israelite.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were serving the Lord as they waited on Him, and as they prayed for a son and for freedom from Roman oppression.

Now…one of the tremendous marks of a life that waits upon the Lord is that of prayer. A life of waiting on Jesus is a life marked by prayer for the Father’s will to be done.

And in our passage today, we read that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah in the temple. Gabriel shows up at other points in redemptive history. In Daniel chapter 9 we read of how Daniel was praying to God on behalf of his people.  He was confessing the sins of Israel and appealing to God to rescue them from hands of their enemies and to restore them back to the land – because they were in exile in Babylon at this time. He ends his prayer like this:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. [18] O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. [19] O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” Daniel 9:7–19

And after this Gabriel comes to him with a remarkable message. He says this:

“O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [23] At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” Daniel 9:22b–23

I love this passage! As Daniel waits in exile he is praying, he is obeying the Lord, and the Lord wants him to know that he is “greatly loved.”  As you wait upon the Lord, as you pray to heaven for help in your distress, in your anxiety, in your pain, you, too, are greatly loved.

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

One of the most significant things about our passage today is that it exemplifies how God’s timing often brings us blessings that we could never have imagined. We pray for something over and over for years, but only later realize that in God’s mercy and timing, he withheld that gift in order for something more amazing.

While we may not understand – even in this lifetime – the full extent of what his timing means, we can realize that this is how he works in our waiting.  

Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel and asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.  Gabriel gave Daniel the vision of 70 weeks – a vision even more amazing and of a higher magnitude than his mind could have asked for. A vision which anticipates not only the restoration of God’s people to their homeland, but how events would culminate in the arrival of a Prince. A prince who would be “cut off” in a sacrificial death for the sins of his people.

God delayed the birth of a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth because he had something special planned.

Daniel asked for a lot but got much more than he bargained for, and timing that he probably wasn’t expecting. So it was with Zechariah. And that is what we’ll see next…

The next thing we’ll consider is the nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality belongs to God.

As the priest on duty that day, Zechariah was to be offering prayers on behalf of the nation. So he is in the temple, in the outer area of the holy of holies – only the high priest went in the holy of holies and he did that only once a year – so he’s in this outer area praying. 

Gabriel arrives and tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. 

What prayers?

Our minds immediately go to the prayers he and Elizabeth must have prayed a thousand times over the years: prayers for a child.

But his prayers in the temple were more likely prayers for the salvation and redemption of Israel. As I mentioned before this is likely the most important day of Zechariah’s life until now, and he has been training for this, and would want to fulfill his priestly responsibility to the letter, and that meant offering prayers on behalf of the nation.

But the beautiful thing about the answer from the Lord is that it fulfills both the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a son, and the prayers of the nation for deliverance. In sending this couple a baby, God is sending the forerunner of the great Savior of Israel, and of the world!

John is to be the herald of heaven’s great King who would visit this world on a mission of salvation.

Only God can weave such amazing answers together. We read this and marvel at all God is doing in this story.  But was that the reaction of Zechariah?  No…

How does he react?

In verse 18 he questions Gabriel saying “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

From his words alone you cannot detect all of what is in this man’s heart. But apparently Gabriel knew enough to know that Zechariah had an unbelieving heart because he says “because you did not believe my words” (vs 20).

What seems strange about this reaction is that here is a man who had been praying for years and years for a son. Here is a man whose wife had longed for a child. How many conversations, how many knowing glances shared over the breakfast table? How many shared moments of pain and frustration?  And here – here is the answer to all his prayers. Decades worth of desires!  And he doesn’t believe. He sees the glory and power of the angel – there can be no doubt about the authenticity of this messenger’s identity. We read earlier, in fact, that Zechariah practically wet himself when the angel appeared! He knows this is a messenger from God!

It can’t be a proximity problem. He is not isolated from the faith community or the outward reminders of his heritage. In fact, he is surrounded by the trappings of his faith. He has the priestly garments on. He’s inside the temple. He’s only steps away from the holy of holies! 

Why the unbelief?  How is it possible that he can doubt!?

(PAUSE)

Let me tell you what I think is going on here. 

Zechariah’s “worlds are colliding”, to quote George Costanza.

His perception of reality, his construction of what is possible, is bound up in the plans, desires, and perspectives of his heart.

What a message for us today. Awash in post-modernism, we hear and read again and again that truth is what you make it. Reality is defined by your own perspective.  So important is this worldview that technologists are in a rush to give us power to create our own AI worlds accessible by simply strapping on a headset.

But ultimate reality belongs to God. You cannot make your own truth. You cannot create your own reality.

Live in your fairy land all you want, eventually that bubble will burst on the rocks of God’s sovereign truth, either in this life or the next.

Zechariah wasn’t a post-modernist by any stretch of the imagination. Yet his reality, his expectations, and the norms which he has set as the lens through which he saw how life works, how God works, were being brought into contact with the plans of the Lord of life and history.

I’ve found that the nature of my own perspective, when not governed by faith based in the Word of God, reveals itself as extraordinarily brittle in times of testing. This is what Zechariah was learning. He had set limits on what God could do; laws by which he expected God to act. And the weight of God’s plans were snapping the feeble bridge of his expectations.

Look at Gabriel’s reaction, he says “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  He proclaims this gospel, this good news, and hears the words from Zechariah and he’s like “Wait. Wait…what!?” 

Gabriel is trying to reconcile what he lives day in and day out with this man’s reaction, and it just…doesn’t compute.  “Do you know who I am – I see your knees knocking, so you must have an idea.  I mean…I just came from the heavenly throne room…”

There is some discontinuity between what Gabriel knows as true and what Zechariah is willing to believe is true.

Of course, to us, in hindsight, Zechariah’s unbelief looks nonsensical against the backdrop of God’s revealed plans. But…

…we have to ask ourselves…What happens when our prayers aren’t answered in a way we expected? What happens when (in his mercy) God withholds the answer for years? How do we react when circumstances in our lives unfold in unexpected ways?

Do we look for the hand of Providence in the details of life?  Or do we recoil in bitterness and unbelief? 

We may be surrounded by the trappings of faith, and in this season that’s even more the case, and yet have such a contracted and minimized view of the power of God that we look at our lives and say “no…its hopeless. I’m a mess and there’s nothing that can fix this.”  Are we allowing our own narrow view of life’s road to hem in our perspective on God’s capabilities?

Friends, God does not simply stitch together the mess of our lives in order to salvage some kind of decent ending to the narrative.  He is busy in the details.  He is superintending all of reality. Upholding the world by the word of his power, he supervises and intercedes for those who he “greatly loves.”

It’s a wonderful blessing – a good thing – to be surrounded by the people of God and to regularly find ourselves here in this building. But let’s not let our surroundings, our culture, and our doubts construct an artificial view of God. A small view of God. A proud view of God that’s based on our own plans and objectives, rather than faith in his providence, timing, and power.

God’s word calls us to deeper waters: trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:5)

Now let’s look past the reaction and to the heart of the message from Gabriel, and how it is “good news” – not only Zechariah, but the whole world.

Restoration for the glory of God

Remember how I said that after the priest would finish their prayers in the temple it was their job to go out and bless the people? Well, the Lord’s messenger puts the kibosh on that. It is as if God is saying “I will not have an unbelieving man speak to my people this day. Not today. Today is the beginning of a special new work.”

For years the people of Israel had been led by shepherds who Jesus would later describe as serpents and sons of Satan. But light is breaking through the darkness, and in a sign of things to come, every tongue will be stopped, and every eye will behold the majesty of Jesus.

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

But this wasn’t to be the end for Zechariah. 

The message that Gabriel brought was “good news” – good news that went beyond the hopes and dreams of this righteous couple. Their son was born for a very specific mission.  Listen to the hints dropped by Gabriel.  Look again at verse 16…

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared

That last line may be the most important. It echoes the words of the prophet Malachi, and indicates that their son John will prepare the people of Israel for someone – and that someone is their Messiah! 

Now as the story continues. Turn with me to verse 57 and we’ll read this together…

Luke 1:57–80

[57] Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, [60] but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” [61] And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” [62] And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. [63] And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. [64] And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. [65] And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [66] and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

The long months which held him in mute frustration had also humbled him, and increased his faith, so that when the time came to declare before his friends and nearest relations what the will of the Lord would be for his son, his lips found themselves equal to the restored tenderness of his heart.

And in such a small village, this would have been a major event – especially given the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. Before the New Covenant, before Pentecost, God’s people did not have the gift of the Spirit permanently indwelling them. But this child had been filled by the Holy Spirit from before birth! He even leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

Gabriel had said that all of this would happen according to God’s timing.

And I wonder how many moments in the intervening months Zechariah had pondered the timing of God in the events of his life and the life of his people.

His life has been blessed with a baby boy – one who Jesus would later call the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7). Now able to speak, we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, the first thing that Zechariah did was sing out with the following words:

Look at verse 68…

[67] And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

            [68] “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

                        for he has visited and redeemed his people

            [69] and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

                        in the house of his servant David,

            [70] as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

            [71] that we should be saved from our enemies

                        and from the hand of all who hate us;

            [72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                        and to remember his holy covenant,

            [73] the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

            [74]     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

            might serve him without fear,

            [75]     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

            [76] And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

            [77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        in the forgiveness of their sins,

            [78] because of the tender mercy of our God,

                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

            [79] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke adds his own narrative note, so that we are prepared for what will come in the next part of this amazing story…

            [80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Now, throughout church history we’ve called Zechariah’s song of praise and prophesy the Benedictus, which is simply the Latin translation for the first word he speaks: “blessed.”

Zechariah has been restored and his faith strengthened and he wants to give God glory. But more than that, God has filled him to deliver a message.  The good news that Gabriel announced 9 months prior was not simply that he and Elizabeth would have a son, but that God was sending his own Son, and that John’s role is to proclaim the coming of Israel’s Messiah! 

The day is almost at hand.  The wait is almost over. The promises made to David, Abraham, and the prophets of old would be kept.

Zechariah declares that God will be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. Nations will be blessed. The seed of Abraham will continue in the adoption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. And God will begin his work of re-creation and renewal by making men and women – his image bearers – into new creations in the model of his son Jesus Christ.

9 months prior in the temple Zechariah would have prayed for the salvation of Israel.

Here, inspired by the Spirit, he declares a salvation not linked to earthly political redemption or military conquest, but of spiritual redemption from sin. Verse 77 is key “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah says that without the light of life we are walking in the darkness and on the precipice of death’s door. He links light and life and peace directly with the forgiveness of sins and relational restoration with God.

For the people of Israel, certainly for Zechariah, the promises of God were coming into tighter focus, even as their own perspectives on God’s plans were widening.  

You might say that while the occupation of Rome was uppermost on the minds of Jews in his day, what Zechariah’s people really needed was a political solution of another magnitude. They had bigger problems. Diplomatic relations between themselves and the King of kings needed restoration. Zechariah says here that the solution was going to be provided in a “knowledge of salvation” by a “horn of salvation” – more specifically, in the strength of the unbreakable life of the embodied Word of knowledge: God’s own Son. (Acts 2:24 and John 1)

For those of us who have been in a season of waiting, a season where it seemed like our lives are in limbo, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth offers not only comfort, but also a reorientation of our expectations, a reminder of who holds history in His hands, and an opportunity to repent.   

Zechariah was told that everything he had desired for both himself and his people was about to be fulfilled, and though he was found in unbelief, though his entire world was turned upside-down, God in His mercy restored Zechariah for His own glory.

Praise God that His plans for our lives do not stop at the door of our heart’s natural capacity to believe. Praise God that His mercy and providence does not wax and wane on the ebb tide of our emotions, and the short-sidedness of even our best-intentioned plans.

The beautiful thing that we see in the life of Zechariah is that he didn’t get everything he wanted the way he wanted in the time he wanted it. Praise God for that! Praise God for his withholding of the blessings we think we want now – even good things which we know are good things, God sometimes withholds in order to bring us into an even greater plan for our good and his Glory.

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

If you are finding yourself without hope in a season which is supposed to be all about hope, you’re in the right place. This is a message for you.

Anticipation is a theme running throughout the Christmas season, and this seasonal slogan finds its origin in Zechariah’s day (and before) when the people of Israel were anticipating a Messiah, a leader, a savior.

But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us did not rescue us from political oppression or social unrest. He rescued us from ourselves. He rescued us from His wrath. He rescued us from our sins so that we may be brought into his kingdom, into his family.  He did this in his own time. And it looked nothing like what was expected.

Friends we no longer have to wait for salvation. The wait is over.  The great message of Christmas is that salvation has arrived! The Sunrise from on high came to live amongst us. He made himself the lowest of low in order to raise up those who were sitting in darkness. As Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Is. 9:2).

That light, that sunrise from on high, is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to rescue a fallen race – you and I no longer wait for salvation – we can receive that now.

I love the gospel of John. He begins his gospel by declaring that the Word of God, the light of the world has come to save men. This is what he says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:9–13

Christmas is the celebration that our waiting is over, we can have full forgiveness of sins, by believing that Jesus is who he says he is. That celebration, which begins with our reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus, will be consummated when the great King returns in his time with glory and splendor.

It’s my prayer that you are encouraged by the story of Zechariah, and how God overcame his unbelief, to use him as an instrument of praise and glory. He desires to do the same thing in your life and mine.

These Words are Your Life

I have observed as a general rule that mankind tends to put off big decisions, big tasks and deep thinking about the big issues in life until such a time as they cannot be avoided any longer.

The thinking may sound like this, “Sure I know I need to think about religion eventually, but that’s a long ways off…lot’s of life to live before I need to deal with that sort of thing.”

This same attitude has always been prevalent among men.  Perhaps that’s why Moses had these words to say to the Israelites after giving them commands from the Lord:

And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:45-47)

You would think that it would be enough for the people of Israel to simply hear a word from God.  After all, they had seen great and awesome works – miracles that no one had ever seen before.  But Moses wouldn’t have had to say, “it is no empty word for you, but your very life” if there wasn’t a natural tendency to disregard and not take seriously God’s words and God’s commands.

In the New Testament, we see the same thing with Felix and several of the other rulers that Paul testified before during his trial.  He confronted them with such stark and powerful truth that they were forced to put him off.  They didn’t want to deal with life and death decisions – they simply wanted more wine and cheese!

We find the same thing today, and that’s why (I believe) we read Jesus saying things like “I am the way the truth and the life” – He wants us to understand in no uncertain terms that His words are not “empty” or simply prophetic, or merely good for instruction.  To follow the teaching of Jesus is to make life and death decisions.

The Apostle John later affirmed this in his first epistle:

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12)

Perhaps you would agree with me that these are “big” topics.  You ought not to open the Bible simply to read bedtime stories.  And what is more, most homes in America own a Bible of some kind, yet it sits there neglected.  The words of life, ignored. Night after night we watch our favorite television show, and delay the bigger things in life.  We know the truth is out there…but that can wait until tomorrow…can’t it?

To ask the question is to answer it.

Furthermore, if you are a Christian and you are not regularly reading the word of God you are depriving yourself.  You are cutting off the oxygen of the Christian life, and you are doomed to go through life with little wisdom and no joy.  I want to encourage you to pick up the Word – be intentional and have a plan.  Get some accountability and read the Word with someone.  Do not neglect the excellent in place of the average.  Do not neglect life in place of death.

I’ll leave you with the words of Jesus:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:4-7)

Study Notes 11-18-12

We continue our study of John’s Gospel and will be looking at some of our Lord’s greatest words (if one can possibly peal off greatness from greatness) as it pertains to freedom, and our natural state of slavery to sin and darkness.

The Lord has freed us from the galleys of slavery and to sin and self-centeredness and brought us into the glorious light of the knowledge of His gospel.  God be praised!  Let’s start into the lesson…

John 8:31-36 – Freedom from Sin

8:31-32 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, [32] and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

First I want to go back and examine how verse 30 and verse 31 interact with each other, because many good commentators have pointed out that both verses in many of our English versions use the word “believe” to describe the people’s reaction here.

Some say there is some difference between the meanings used, Boice, for instance says that the first is meant to be saving faith and the latter to mean intellectual ascent.  But they both utilize the same Greek word “pisteuō”, so I’m not entirely convinced of that.  What I am convinced of is that those who were listening to Jesus may have believed what He was saying mentally, but obviously they didn’t stand the discipleship test, which we’ll see later on.

Abiding in the Word

The second thing we note here is the nature of a true Christian.  The true Christian “abides” in the word of Christ.

In our study of John 6:55-56 we talked about the nature of abiding.  Those verses say, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Here is what I noted about what it meant to “abide”:

The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  I like what the ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

What Christ is saying, in affect, is that a true Christian will have the desire to spend time listening, reading, and meditating on His word.  A true Christian will be obeying His word as well.  These are fruits of a true Christ-follower.  Truly it is a privilege to know something of the eternal God, and that we should know this truth in even a small way is in itself part of our reward as well as our fruit of the relationship we gain by acquaintance with Jesus.  Calvin enumerates upon this privilege as only Calvin can:

Wherefore, whatever progress any of us have made in the Gospel, let him know that he needs new additions. This is the reward which Christ bestows on their perseverance, that he admits them to greater familiarity with him; though in this way he does nothing more than add another gift to the former, so that no man ought to think that he is entitled to any reward. For it is he who impresses his word on our hearts by his Spirit, and it is he who daily chases away from our minds the clouds of ignorance which obscure the brightness of the Gospel. In order that the truth may be fully revealed to us, we ought sincerely and earnestly to endeavor to attain it. It is the same unvarying truth which Christ teaches his followers from the beginning to the end, but on those who were at first enlightened by him, as it were with small sparks, he at length pours a full light. Thus believers, until they have been fully confirmed, are in some measure ignorant of what they know; and yet it is not so small or obscure a knowledge of faith as not to be efficacious for salvation.

Freedom from Sin

The third thing we take from the passage is the result of abiding is learning the truth, and by learning that truth we will experience a great reality: freedom.  What kind of freedom could He mean?  I believe that Christ is talking about freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, freedom from the slavery to the prince of this world – what Calvin calls “an invaluable blessing.”  It is these points Jesus goes on to labor in his debate with the Pharisees.

What does true freedom looks like? Freedom looks like someone who has the fruit of the Spirit.  And, not coincidently, those who have the fruit of the Spirit are also abiding in the Word of God – written by that same Spirit.

Perhaps there is no better expositing of this truth than Paul’s writing in Romans 6.  The entire chapter is about being free from sin, and being a slave to righteousness.  The dichotomy between the two is labored by Paul because so many people think that they are basically good people who happen to sin a little here and there.

Amazing to think that what was so important for Paul to intensively labor in Romans 6, is actually more pertinent today than ever before.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of Romans 6 as it applies to this particular verse, is the section between verses 6 and 11:

[6] We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [7] For one who has died has been set free from sin. [8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The main thrust of this part of the passage is that we were formally slaves to sin, but because of Christ’s work we have been set free from sin.  It is the gospel that has delivered us from our sin. That is the freedom Christ is talking about here in verse 32.  He’s saying that because He was going to conquer death, death would no longer have dominion over us. Sin’s end is death, and so sin and its result (death) would no longer have power over anyone who believes upon Christ. Calvin agrees, saying that the kind of liberty that’s being described here is “that which sets us free from the tyranny of Satan, sin, and death.”

Barnes says, “The service of God is freedom from degrading vices and carnal propensities; from the slavery of passion and inordinate desires. It is a cheerful and delightful surrender of ourselves to Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.”

When we think about the practical way this has revolutionized our lives, its unthinkable to go back to living any other way. Calvin says, “All men feel and acknowledge that slavery is a very wretched state; and since the gospel delivers us from it, it follows that we derive from the gospel the treasure of a blessed life.”  To this comment I can only add “amen!”

Born Free?

I’m always amazed at how many Christians insist on stating that they “freely” chose Christ because they were born with “free will.”  But as R.C. Sproul reminds us, we need to be cautious when we talk about free will so that we know exactly what it is we’re saying.

Certainly God gives us the freedom of choice to make decisions.  We aren’t robots, and we aren’t puppets.  But there are some things that even in our natural freedom we are not free to do.  One of those things is not sinning.  When we are born into this world, we are not free not to sin.  In other words, we are going to sin because it is who we are, and we are enslaved to it.  We will continue in this sin until Christ sets us free from it.

Calvin comments, “It is astonishing that men are not convinced by their own experience, so that, laying aside their pride, they may learn to be humble. And it is a very frequent occurrence in the present day, that, the greater the load of vices by which a man is weighed down, the more fiercely does he utter unmeaning words in extolling free-will.”

This is what irked the Pharisees.  They were saying, “Hey Jesus, we’re not slaves to anyone!  We make our own decisions.  We live our own lives.  No one rules over us, or our families!” But they were wrong in saying this, and people today are wrong in thinking that mankind is free to do whatever they’d like – we aren’t free to be holy and perfect because we’re incapable of it in our natural state.

When you think about how this plays out, it’s really worth contemplating and meditating on deeply because it shows the state of our old self and where we were headed apart from Christ.  For when we were slaves to sin, not only were we tethered to that form of life that is most odious to Christ, but we are tethered to the result of that life, namely death. When Christ unchains us from our slavery to sin, He also unchains us from the pangs of death – death could not rule over him (Acts 2), and we also have victory over death due to His death and resurrection (Rom. 6).

A.W. Pink laments at how fallen we are in our natural state, and yet how unwilling we are to realize this fact:

The condition of the natural man is far, far worse than he imagines, and far worse than the average preacher and Sunday school teacher supposes. Man is a fallen creature, totally depraved, with no soundness in him from the sole of his foot even unto the head (Isa. 1:6). He is completely under the dominion of sin (John 8:34), a bond-slave to divers lusts (Titus 3:3), so that he “cannot cease from sin” (2 Pet. 2:14). Moreover, the natural man is thoroughly under the dominion of it. He is taken captive by the Devil at his will (2 Tim. 2:26). He walks according to the Prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). He fulfills the lusts of his father, the Devil (John 8:44). He is completely dominated by Satan’s power (Col. 1:13). And from this thraldom nothing but the truth of God can deliver.

When I first read Pink’s comments it struck me to the bone. His first sentence was aimed at me – the teacher. Am I really honest with how ugly I was before Christ? That is a question that not many men or women truly meditate on for much more than a passing thought – perhaps before taking the Lord’s Super. But what Pink is calling us to realize is our state of depravity and darkness without Jesus.

Calvin says this, “For so long as we are governed by our sense and by our natural disposition, we are in bondage to sin; but when the Lord regenerates us by his Spirit, he likewise makes us free, so that, loosed from the snares of Satan, we willingly obey righteousness. But regeneration proceeds from faith, and hence it is evident that freedom proceeds from the gospel.”

Barnes adds, “There is need of the gospel. That only can make men free, calm, collected, meek, and lovers of truth; and as every man is by nature the servant of sin, he should without delay seek an interest in that gospel which can alone make him free.”

In the midst of our celebration of this freedom, we pause and wonder, “now wait a minute, how is it that I still continue to sin?”  Well, as Paul works this matter of slavery out in Romans 6, we are glad he continued to write because when we get to Romans 7 we learn that he faced that same dilemma – namely that he still continued to battle sin.  Despite the freedom not to sin that Christ has given us, Paul says that we still sin due to the nature of the flesh. But I don’t want to get too deep into that here.  The main point we need to see is the dichotomy between one who is a slave to sin, and one who is not, and that we have been made free men and women by the power and work of Christ.

8:33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Ironically, the very shackles that bound these Pharisees in their sin were the same chains causing them to claim they weren’t enslaved to anyone.  In their blindness they claimed they weren’t blind.  In their darkness they claimed to be enlightened.  These were truly men who were missing the point.

Oddly enough (and Calvin picks up on this point as well) it isn’t as though these people have never been enslaved physically to anyway…in point of fact, they were currently under a type of mild slavery/tyranny by the Romans at this very time in history – something I will address shortly. Warren Wiersbe collects these thoughts together succinctly:

Their claim that Abraham’s descendants had never been in bondage was certainly a false one that was refuted by the very record in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Jews had been enslaved by seven mighty nations, as recorded in the book of Judges. The ten northern tribes had been carried away captive by Assyria, and the two southern tribes had gone into seventy years of captivity in Babylon. And at that very hour, the Jews were under the iron heel of Rome! How difficult it is for proud religious people to admit their failings and their needs!

Pink cites all of the above that Wiersbe mentions, and then says, “It was therefore the height of absurdity and a manifest departure from the truth for them to affirm that the seed of Abraham had never been in bondage. Yet no more untenable and erroneous was this than the assertions of present-day errorists who prate so loudly of the freedom of the natural man, and who so hotly deny that his will is enslaved by sin.”

8:34-36 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. [35] The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. [36] So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Jesus uses the emphatic phrase “truly, truly” to get our attention.  He is saying to us “pay attention to this.”

Bondage to our Self-Centeredness

D.A. Carson explores the intent of what Christ is saying, “For Jesus, then, the ultimate bondage is not enslavement to a political or economic system, but vicious slavery to moral failure, to rebellion against the God who had made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centeredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the Creator.”

In other words, we are so self-centered and self-serving that our own sin and moral failures are the chief problems that need to be dealt with in life.

I think this is so important because the context in which Jesus is saying this is under the oppression of the Roman regime. The Jewish people had found their freedoms limited, and their liberties cut off. We also are going through a time in America where our own liberties are in question. We see the despotic nature of our government, which is becoming ever more tyrannical and hostile to Christian beliefs and values, and we wonder (rightly) if our freedoms will all be gone within a generation.

The generation of men and women Christ was addressing were far worse off than we are today, yet, like them, we often find ourselves distracted from solving life’s most important challenges, and that is what Christ came to solve.  The real problem is with ourselves, not our government. There’s only so much you can do about government – believe me, I’ve been fighting that battle for a while now.  Jesus isn’t saying that freedom from political tyranny isn’t important, what He is saying is that there’s something even more important.  When the Son of God came to the earth, He came to address life’s biggest problems, life’s biggest challenges. He came to free us from our bondage to sin.

That’s why we gather on Sunday mornings, that’s why we “abide” in the word of God, that’s why we pray and devote ourselves to growth in Christ. Because what we are doing today and on these other days, is addressing the real problems in life – life’s most consequential and difficult challenges.

The Power of the Son

The second thing that Jesus says in this passage is that as the Son of God He has unique privileges and power. He has the ability to set them free, because He has full reign over the house of God.  Calvin comments, “By these words he means that the right of freedom belongs to himself alone, and that all others, being born slaves, cannot be delivered by his grace.  For what he possesses as his own by nature he imparts to us by adoption, when we are engrafted by faith into his body, and become his members.”

“…the Gospel is the instrument by which we obtain our freedom” – Calvin

One of the main reasons I like to bring up the issue of the way we view “free will” is because in our “freedom” we come to rely too heavily on our flesh for the support of our souls. Here is what I mean by that: when we are going through the turmoil that this life brings us, it is natural (because of the flesh) to wonder at the purpose of life, and even whether our souls are truly saved. We wonder at God and ask Him in our difficulties whether He’s really there or not.  We wonder at Him and ask if we are truly saved or not.

Well one of the great things we hear Jesus saying in this passage is that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In other words, He is the one with the power over sin and death, and not your “free will” or your “fleshly power.”  To steal a recent campaign theme, “you didn’t build this” – no indeed: Christ built this!

Carson says this, “Jesus not only enjoys inalienable rights as the unique Son of God, but exercises full authority, vested in him by the Father (3:35), to liberate slaves. Those who Jesus liberates from the tyranny of sin are really (ontos) free.”

Those who build their house upon this Rock will be able to stand firm in the storm because they know they weren’t the craftsmen, they weren’t the guarantee of the foundation’s sturdiness.  Christ Himself is the cornerstone and the Master Builder, and when life’s trials come, you can say with confidence “I will survive this, and either by life or death I will be with Christ, for He is my firm foundation, and in His work I can trust.”

Carson makes the great point that once free, we have been set free for a purpose:

True freedom is not the liberty to do anything we please, but the liberty to do what we ought; and it is genuine liberty because doing what we ought now pleases us.

What an amazing truth he’s hit on here. Christ knows that those who are set free are going to want to please Christ – before we simply wanted to please ourselves, now we have a desire and are at liberty to please the Lover of our Souls.

Dear friends: step away from the reliance on your own work, and rest upon the great and mighty work of Jesus Christ – the Son who has set you free!

 

Study Notes 8-26-12: John 6:55-66

Here are the study notes for John 6:55-66

6:55-56 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. [56] Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  I like what the ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

I think that in relation to verse 55 (and all the other surrounding verses), verse 56 is saying that abiding in Christ is continually eating of the “true” food and drink that He has to offer.  This means that He wants us to not simply seek His face on Sunday mornings, but rather reflects His desire to have our hearts continually seeking after Him as we would for food.  We look for food at least three times a day (plus tea time if you’re English!) because we’re driven to it by hunger.  The same ought to be true in our spiritual lives. “Don’t starve yourself!” Jesus is saying.

This notion of “abiding” is familiar to those of us who have closely studied the Bible for a number of years now and have heard Jesus say in John 15 that He is the vine and we are the branches.  In that passage – the last of His “I Am” sayings – He says that it is our abiding in Him that gives us life as well.  Here’s what John 15:1-11 says:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [3] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. [5] I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. [7] If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. [8] By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. [9] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. [10] If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. [11] These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

I think it’s worth noting that there are 120 different times that this word is used throughout scripture.  It’s an important concept, one that we will keep coming back to.  There are two sort of nuances to abiding, I think.

The first is that abiding is a synergistic work.  That is to say, it is something we work with God in accomplishing.  Abiding requires us reading the Word of God, and daily submitting our lives to His authority.  It requires us being in prayer, and asking for God to work through our lives, and work on us.  It’s a constant seeking of God’s face (1 Chron. 16:11).  This idea is articulated in the latin phrase “Coram Deo” which means to live in the face of God – to live with the mindset that we are continually dwelling in His presence.   Which leads to the second part of this…

The second part of abiding, is the part that is monergistic, that is to say that it is God’s work and not ours.  This kind of abiding is the kind that the Holy Spirit does in our lives once we are born again.  Our abiding is done out of a motivation and love for Christ’s abiding in us and saving us.  His abiding in us causes us to want to abide in Him – to spend time in His word, to spend time in prayer.  So in a sense we are always abiding in Him because He is in us.  But in another sort of lower sense, there is a call here for us to “abide” in Christ – and that means to seeking Him and resting in Him.

This is what we call a “paradox” because we are both seeking and resting at the same time.  These things seem to be naturally opposed to each other on the surface, but only through a closer look do we find that they are not opposed to each other, but are simply different ways of expressing our relationship with Christ, and His work of sanctification within us.  We rest in Him because we are secure in the promises He offers and we are secure in our salvation, but we seek Him and seek to abide in Him because we love Him and want to know Him more.

6:57-59 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. [58] This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” [59] Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

I agree with Sproul who says that this is a lot like His saying to the Samaritan Woman at the well that He is the “living water” and that all who thirst should come to Him and receive water so that they may never thirst again.

The thing I think we need to particularly note is the life-giving power of Jesus.  It is almost too easy to simply call it “life giving power” because there is a whole other sort of power there.  And what I mean by that is that it is one thing to bring people to life who have died, and to breathe life into them, and to heal them as Christ had done – these are amazing, breathtaking things to be sure – but it is a whole separate thing to say that Christ has the power of life within Him.

So what I am getting at here, perhaps clumsily, is that Christ also has the power to bring life out of nothing.  Where there was nothing before, He speaks and BOOM there’s life.  He thinks and it is so.  He has the power of being in Himself.  In order to understand this we almost need to reach a whole other level of thinking on the person of Christ.  He’s so powerful, so glorious and has such authority that His words command the planets and their orbits.  The sea bows to His wishes, science works at His pleasure, and microbiology orders itself according to His good pleasure!

So again, He chooses these statements of power to punctuate His teaching on the nature of salvation.  The person who holds worlds in His hands and knows the every need of BILLIONS of people, is also the God who is sovereign over salvation.

He has now claimed to have come down from heaven, to be the I AM – the very Deity Himself – and He has offered up eternal life to whomever will come to Him.  In all of this He has preached His sovereignty (vs. 37 and 44 in particular), and His compassion.

Now, it is time for the disciples to digest the food Christ has given them, and at first they find it hard food to swallow…

6:60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

Now there are two (and perhaps three) kinds of hard sayings, as R.C. Sproul likes to remind us.  The first is the kind of hard saying that is difficult to understand.  It is hard because it is truly a complex matter, which is prone to giving us a 3 aspirin headache!  The second kind of “hard saying” is the kind that we hear and don’t like to accept.  It is hard because we don’t care for it and would rather not believe in its truthfulness.

Steve Lawson says that this series of sayings are “not hard to understand, but hard to swallow.”

But I think that these sayings are a combination of both types of “hard” sayings.  It is both unacceptable to these men because of their pride, and it is difficult to understand for even the apostles because, though they perhaps want to understand it and believe it, they cannot without the aid of Christ (or the Holy Spirit).

We have to take note of the same thing and not to approach the Bible with arrogance or presuppositions.  The Bible is definitely definitive; it’s definitely clear; it’s definitely perspicuitous. But at the same time we have to be conscious not to jump to conclusions that aren’t there.  We shouldn’t read something into the text that isn’t there – or try to avoid the text simply because its saying something we find offensive.

In one way this text is very comforting because we see that the disciples of Jesus early on had difficulty with some of the things he was saying. On the other hand it’s challenging to us because we know that having the Holy Spirit we ought to be able to understand these texts – at least that’s what we tell ourselves. But this is why the Bible is an inexhaustible resource that we will never fully penetrate no matter how many years we live and how long we spend in its’ pages.

Just yesterday I was talking with a pastor who said he’s been reading the Bible every day for over 40 years and was still finding things in it that he had never seen before.  He told me that he says to himself “was that there the whole time?!”

But I do want to use this as an opportunity to talk about the perspicuity of scripture, and the private interpretation of scripture.  Perspicuity, in a nutshell, means that something is clear and able to be understood by someone who doesn’t have a doctorate degree in theology.  It means that you and me can read Scripture and understand clearly what it says without someone (i.e. a priest) from the church explaining the plain meaning of the text.  This isn’t saying that we don’t all benefit from the wisdom of the church and her teachers, but is simply to say that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the sentences, paragraphs, and general meaning of words in this book.

Private interpretation is similar to perspicuity and basically means that an individual can read the Bible and understand it clearly enough (because it is perspicuitous) to be responsible for that understanding before God.

This is extremely important because with the proliferation of Bibles there is also the proliferation of wrong opinions about what those Bibles say.  This was the very thing that Martin Luther and the church was concerned about before his translation project began.  If the Bible were to get into the hands of the masses, how would they be able to understand it, and then have a great enough grasp of it to correctly conform their lives to its instructions?  Well Luther knew the danger in this, but said that it was worth the danger because of the number of souls that would be won with the opening up of Scripture.  The church as guardian of Scripture had failed miserably.  The situation really couldn’t get any worse!  But Luther also knew and understood that this scripture was perspicuitous and therefore, with the help of the Spirit and of wise church leaders, believers could read scripture and understand correctly what it said – even if there were mysteries within its pages that they found “hard”, as these disciples found in the verse we’ve just examined.

6:61-62 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? [62] Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

Of course the disciples wouldn’t have taken offense to Him ascending into heaven – they would have rejoiced at that.  So Christ is offering them a comparison to give them perspective.  He’s saying that “both A and B doctrines are true, and everything I say is true, therefore why are you offended at one versus the other?”

We need to realize that all of scripture is God’s truth.  It is all relevant, it is all true.  Just because one thing appears more difficult of offensive than another doesn’t mean its any less God’s word.

I can’t think of a better verse (except maybe 1 Tim. 3:16) to show us that all doctrine in scripture is God’s doctrine.  All truth is God’s truth!

Christ wants to elevate our perspective.  When He speaks, the matter is done.  There is no appealing for an easier doctrine or an easier truth.  We can’t go to God and say “please give me something easier to understand or believe in, because this really isn’t very comfortable.”  We need to see Jesus’ words through the lens of His authority, and bow before them in unquestioned allegiance to His truth.

So while we talk about perspicuity, we also need to understand that just because scripture is clear and readable doesn’t mean its not mysterious/difficult.  And that is what Christ addresses next…

6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

The “flesh” He’s referring to here is not His flesh that has been the topic of the last several verses, but rather the flesh of humanity.  As Sproul points out, this is a theme that runs through most of Scripture, and one that Paul especially expounds upon (Romans 7 comes to mind).  The Bible sees our “flesh” as our mind, will and emotions prior to the Holy Spirit’s breathing new life into us, which Jesus calls being “born again.”

What He is essentially saying here is that in the flesh they will not be able to understand what He is saying because He is saying something spiritually related.  Paul explains:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:12-14)

6:64-65 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) [65] And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

As Sproul says, “there’s that doctrine of predestination again.”  I laughed when I read that because it is this doctrine that offends so many immature Christians, and yet I was once one of them.  Scripture exhorts us to strive toward greater understanding of even the most difficult doctrines.  In Hebrews we read:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. [12] For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, [13] for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. [14] But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. [6:1] Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, [2] and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [3] And this we will do if God permits. (Hebrews 5:11-6:3)

There’s also a direct tie-in between verses 63-65 – they build on each other.  Jesus is saying that you can’t come to me (65) because you do not believe (64) and in order to believe you need the help of the Spirit (63), because in your own flesh you can’t understand these mysteries – this bread of life isn’t palatable to you (66).

This is why we say that regeneration precedes faith.  Before we can see the kingdom of God we must be born again (chapter 3).  Before we can believe on Christ (faith – 64), we must first be born again, otherwise we’ll simply walk away from Him and find something else that is more palatable to our sin natures (66).

The Case for ‘Limited Atonement’

It wasn’t until some time after I had first taught through this passage that I realized the significance of John’s editorial comment in verse 64. John says, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe.” It stands to reason that if Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe, then He certainly knew from the beginning who would believe.

We have already seen that, as Morris says, “The truths of which Jesus has been speaking are accessible only to faith…only for those in whom God works come to Christ.” But interestingly enough John says that Jesus knew from the beginning about who would come to him and who would not. Carson points out that this could be either from the beginning of His ministry, or from the beginning of all time (i.e. John 1:1). Regardless, the fact remains that John’s assertion has natural consequences, namely that Jesus knew for whom He was dying, and those who would not come to Him. He could know this because He was divine, and therefore omniscient. It is a mysterious thing that He would not know certain things (like the time of his return), and yet appear to know something eternally set in stone (Eph. 1:4-5) – like who would come to faith in Him and who would not.

Nevertheless, it is not for us to pry into the reasons as to why Christ knew some things and not others, but one thing He certainly did seem to know is exactly who would not believe in Him, and therefore who would come to believe in Him. This reality is usually known as the doctrine of Limited Atonement, or ‘Definite Atonement’.  It has long been a stumbling block to those of a more Arminian persuasion, and even some in my own Baptist tradition have called themselves “4-point Calvinists” on the basis of eschewing this doctrine.

Yet here is the truth of God’s Word before us, in the context of highly predestinarian language, which has been set in the midst of a discussion on the sovereignty of God and His Christ in the Salvation of mankind. I don’t, therefore, think it’s a stretch to see this verse as affirming the doctrine that Christ came into the world with specific people in mind – His elect.

6:66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

What was the result of Christ’s preaching the doctrine of the atonement, and salvation, and predestination?  The result was that people couldn’t take it anymore.  They didn’t like what this Jesus was saying, and they didn’t want to submit their lives to someone who wouldn’t simply focus on their physical needs.  These people were sinners who sought after their own desire and needs, and didn’t realize their greatest need wasn’t physical but spiritual.

The same thing will happen to us when we teach and preach hard truths.  It’s easy to be turned off by someone who teaches the doctrine of predestination, isn’t it?  We have to confront ourselves with the question: Am I following Christ for all the physical blessings He brings me in this life, or am I following Him because I love Him for what He’s done for me here and for eternity to come?  Am I following a Jesus that doesn’t exist?  Am I following someone who says, “come to me all who are weary”, but never says, “you can’t come to me unless you are drawn”? OR, am I following a Jesus who is so radical, so offensive, and so odious to my sinful self that if I had been there I would likely have “turned back” as well?

I think that this verse tells us a great deal about the nature of the entire discourse.  We may be troubled when we read verse 44 or 37 telling us that no one can come to the Father unless He draws them.  We may not fully understand what Christ means by eating of His flesh.  We might not exactly know what He means by calling Himself the “bread of life” and so on.  But we must not be like these men who gave up and walked away.  If we are true Disciples of Christ we will stand by Him and work to learn more from Him.  We must sit at His knees and be taught of God.

Let us humbly commit to following Christ no matter how difficult these saying may be, and no matter how our minds and hearts may not want to accept them.  Let us wrestle with God as Jacob did, and let us claim the promise of God that He will help us if we would only ask.  James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”