What was lost is now found

Last night I taught on Luke 15, three parables that teach us about the lengths God has gone to save us, and the only proper response to His pursuit: joy and repentance.  Below are my notes, I hope you profit from them!

Luke Chapter 15

Introduction to the Chapter

Chapter fifteen features three parables which showcase many aspects of the character of Jesus, but only one essential truth: God has gone to great lengths to save those who were lost and not thought worthy of the kingdom of God, and finds great joy in doing so! If there’s a second point, it is that the lowly, the meek, the humble who seek repentance are those who populate the kingdom of God.

You’ve heard of “seeker-sensitive” churches, but in this chapter we learn that it is God who is the seeker, and we see his character and his chase highlighted herein. We also see the kind of person he is chasing (sinners) and what the proper reply is to his calling (repentance).

In each parable something that was lost been restored. In the first parable we see the lengths to which a good shepherd will go in order to find a lost sheep. In the second parable, the woman who has lost a valuable coin searches everywhere in order to find that which was so valuable. Finally, in the parable of the prodigal son, we see the longsuffering father, effusive with joy and love upon the return and restoration of his long lost son.

Through each parable we see the heart of Christ for the lost, the sinful, the wayward – He sees them as valuable beyond measure. God doesn’t do anything that is a “waste of his time” so to speak. Everything he does is supremely worthy of his effort. He always ordains and acts according to what will bring him the most glory – this is the wisdom of God.

Those whom Christ has chosen to set His love upon from eternity past as HIS. They are a love gift from the Father, and despite their wanderings, He will surely go to the ends of the earth to chase them down with His love.

Once again, Luke 19:10 serves as a wonderful guide to understanding this chapter, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

15:1-2 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. [2] And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

These sinners were the social outcasts. Tax collectors were traitors to their own people, collecting money from fellow Israelites on behalf of the Romans. They functioned as mercenaries who cared more about riches than holiness. Ryken says, The word ‘sinners’ was the catch all for people who had a notorious reputation for bad behavior – thieves, drunkards, prostitutes, and anyone else who refused to conform to the holy habits of the religious community.”[1]

In this culture hospitality was a very important part of the social order, and who you ate with was just as important. – so much so that when these Pharisees saw Jesus eating with sinners it was enough to throw them into convulsions.

Ryken says that this word “receives” (prosdechomai) was “to welcome them into fellowship, to accept them and associate with them. In that culture, one of the most tangible ways to establish this kind of friendship was to share a meal.”[2]

You have to ask yourself this: Are you so outwardly religious that no sinner would want to get near you?[3] Or are you compassionate, and full of wisdom? Do you welcome and surround yourself with sinners who need saving? It is easy to fall into a legalistic mindset, so much so that you are unwilling to have a beer with a colleague after work. And on the flip side, perhaps you are willing to eat with them, and you’re very approachable, but you don’t ever lead them to the reason for the hope within you. Jesus calls upon us to be both approachable and loving and also transparently truthful. His mission was to seek and save the lost – and that ought to be ours as well.[4]

15:3-7 So he told them this parable: [4] “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? [5] And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. [6] And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ [7] Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

There are three things we need to notice about this parable.

  1. Jesus is the shepherd in this parable, and he is seeking a specific sheep. He knows the name of that sheep. The shepherd of Israel was always seen as the Lord.

This is a truth rooted in the psalms:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. [2] He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. [3] He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. [2] Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might and come to save us! (Psalm 80:1-2)

This is a truth rooted in the prophets – He had a specific group of people upon whom He had set his affections:

“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. [12] As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. [13] And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. [14] I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. [15] I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. [16] I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

This is a truth which finds is greatest expression in the person of Jesus:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. [12] He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. [13] He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. [14] I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15)

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. [10] All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. (John 17:9-10)

  1. Notice there is no guessing in what state this sheep was found – he was lost. He was a sinner. He needed repentance. This is what is sometimes chiefly missing from our study of these parables. The one thread that runs through them all in the case of the objects of God’s love is the central need of repentance.

What is it that fuels the joy of heaven? Repentance! This is a great insight for us because it shows us firstly that the priorities of heaven are not the priorities of earth. Those not valued here on earth are greatly valued in heaven. Secondly, it shows the importance of spiritual warfare and of sharing the gospel. If heaven is rejoicing at these things, ought we not to give them our attention as well?

J.C. Ryle gets at an important point that I hadn’t thought of right away, namely that the world “mocks” at repentance.[5] It isn’t a popular thing to “repent” of our behavior. If someone doesn’t like the way we behave, we say “tough, that’s what makes me unique!” We celebrate our sins and call them “diversity”, and we go endless days without doing business with God because we don’t take God as seriously as we ought.

  1. The shepherd goes to great lengths to rescue the lost sheep. As Geldenhuys says, “the shepherd considers no trouble, sacrifice and suffering too great to find the lost sheep and bring it back.”

This is the real central point of all of these parables, namely the great lengths to which Jesus has gone to rescue us from ourselves.

15:8-10 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? [9] And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ [10] Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

This next parable was one that women of Jesus’ day could relate to – which actually cuts to the point that Jesus cared more about relating timeless truths to the lower classes of men and women than to the rich and powerful. He had a word for everyone because He was rescuing men and women from every tribe, tongue and nation.

Ryken comments, “Can you see what Jesus was doing? In contrast to the other preachers of his day, he wanted to teach women as much as men. To do that effectively, he made a point of using examples that related to their life experience.”[6]

In this case, the woman who lost her coin represents God. And the coin that is lost – well you guessed it, that’s the lost sinner God is searching after.[7]

One of these silver coins, called “drachamas”, was worth an entire days labor in the time of Jesus.

Imagine working all day long, getting dinner made, getting the laundry going, the kids finally in bed, the house somewhat clean (if you’re lucky), and you sit down to get the money ready for grocery day tomorrow. A sinking feeling takes hold when you realize that you’re missing an entire day’s worth of money in your bank account – what in the world happened? Where did it go? That’s when you start looking through your bank statements, scrolling furiously through the online line items. The horrid realization is setting in that everything you did today doesn’t even matter. It might as well never have happened – its gone. You immediately start combing your purse, your wallet, your statements, you stop and think – you must be missing something somewhere. That’s when you realize – you had gotten an extra $300 out of the ATM and put it in an envelope for tomorrow – that’s why it wasn’t showing up in the online statement!

We’ve all been there – in fact, more likely than some cash in an envelope is the case that the bank charged you 5 times for overdraft fees even though you have plenty of money sitting in another account. They just didn’t bother to ask if you wanted to transfer any of the over!

But the point is this: That silver coin was worth a lot to this lady. She needed that money to run her household. Losing the coin wasn’t just a write off, or bad business, it could be fatal.

Tony Romano talks about how this stops everything, it interrupts everything – life stops cold in its tracks in order to find this coin. All else, all other priorities fade for the moment, and the search consumes everything.[8]

Such is the value God places on the lost sinners of this world. And when He tracks one down, all of heaven erupts in jubilant celebration.

15:11-13 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. [12] And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. [13] Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

Notice two things. First, the father didn’t deny his son what he asked for. Sometimes God gives us the desires of our heart in order to show us that they are foolishness. He basically says, “Fine, you want these things? Take them and see that they are worthless and temporary compared to what I have to offer you!”

But it is devastating to realize that this son wants to waste everything his father has worked so hard to save.[9]

Secondly, the living of this son is the life promoted by the world. It is the “good life” – it prioritizes the self ahead of others, and the temporal before the eternal.

15:14-15 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. [15] So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.

The privileges of this son in his own land were lost. What took years to save is spent in no time at all. And, ironically, the well-healed young man has now become the hired servant. His bondage is self inflicted – in more ways than one.

The son is now at the nadir of his life. Jews listening to Jesus’ parable would have been completely repulsed by the idea of feeding and eating with pigs – an unclean animal.

15:16-19 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. [17] “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! [18] I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. [19] I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

This is the moment – at his lowest – when he comes to himself. That is a very important statement. He is finally in his right mind – he sees reality for what it is. He isn’t trying to just get himself out of a spot with the intention of going right back to the life he led before. No, he is finally desperate enough to realize how much he needs saved.

Furthermore, he knows that what he has done has been an offense first and foremost against heaven.

What this says, and what all of these parables intimate, is that our sin is of cosmic importance. Angels celebrate when we repent and are saved. Our sins are recognized as that which is an offence first and foremost against God.

This is something that David realized as well:

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:4)

15:20-24 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. [21] And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ [22] But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. [23] And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. [24] For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

We must notice three things about the Father:

  1. Even when the son was far off he felt compassion and “ran” to him. Pride, anger, resentment had no place in this man’s heart.
  2. He lavished upon the son great gifts and love. Such is the love the father had for his son.
  3. He recognized the state of his son as “dead” and now “alive” – so are all men who were previously outside of the family of God.

And once again, a celebration ensues!

15:25 “Now his older son[10] was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. [26] And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. [27] And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ [28] But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, [29] but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. [30] But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ [31] And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. [32] It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

What strikes me about this is the excitement, the party atmosphere, the joy, the dancing, the music – loud music! This is a real party going on here! The God of the Bible is not a stoic. He is a God who has created all of these lost men and women – fashioned them with His own hands. He cares deeply for them. And he has set his affection on a chosen number to save from eternal punishment. This special affection is seen in the profuse love of this father for his wayward son.

Also, God works from a different plane of reality here.[11] He says it was “fitting” that they celebrate. It’s a given, its natural. This is what we do, he says. That is not human logic; this is a statement motivated by someone with perspective on a higher plane of reality. Because we have the mind of Christ, we must also elevate our thoughts to His, to celebrate the significance of a lost sinner coming to salvation.

Now let’s examine once again some of the bigger picture here…

The Bigger Picture

We would do well at this point to pull back and remember the bigger picture of Jesus’ ministry, and how it fits into the larger scope of redemptive history. The history of Israel was one of disobedience, exile, and salvation.

To get a better picture of the cycle, remember that just as Joseph went ahead of the Israelites into the land of Egypt, so also Daniel went first into Babylon – into exile – before the rest of his countrymen joined him. Both men were elevated to the highest positions in the land due to their faith. And just as Moses came later to rescue the people from Egypt, so too Daniel predicted that even after the exodus from Babylon there would be a new exodus led by the One he referred to as the “Son of Man.”

Moses the great Midianite shepherd, rescued his sheep from the serpents of Egypt. Jesus, the son of Man, and greater son of David, has taken up staff and rescued the sheep of His Father’s flock, delivering them from exile to a new exodus – a spiritual exodus – an exodus from sin and death.

That is what is going on here – Jesus has come to usher in the exodus – and as He does this, He establishes His kingdom. It is a kingdom built upon a rock. It is a kingdom which will never be shaken. It is a kingdom which will cover all the lands as the water covers the sea. And as we see in chapter 15, it is a kingdom populated by sinners.

Which leads to the last points…

The Character of God

Underlying all of this the manifold character of God is seen. His sovereignty is manifested in ordaining, and indeed bringing about, the salvation of those who seemed (by all worldly standards) to have wandered beyond the reach of salvation. His justice is seen in His passing over those self-righteous “older brothers” who refuse to come in and eat with the prodigals. His mercy is showcased in the way in which He loves the unlovable – whom He amazingly sees as valuable enough to search the earth over for – and saves them out of a wretched situation.

Such is the mercy that He has showered upon each one of us, even if we don’t think very frankly about our state prior to His saving work. Listen to the reflections of C.H. Spurgeon:

“I must confess,” he says, “that I never would have been saved if I could have helped it. As long as ever I could, I rebelled, and revolted, and struggled against God. When He would have me pray, I would not pray, and when He would have me listen to the sound of the ministry, I would not. And when I heard, and the tear rolled down my cheek, I wiped it away and defied Him to melt my soul. But long before I began with Christ, He began with me.”[12]

We all must stand in debt and awe that the Hound of Heaven has chased us down, has set His great and mighty love upon us, and though we deserved it not, has rescued us from certain death. God be praised for His mercy.

Footnotes

[1] Ryken, Commentary on Luke, Volume II, Pg. 103.

[2] Ryken, Commentary on Luke, Volume II, Pg. 113.

[3] I appreciate the teaching of Tony Romano who brought this question to my attention two years ago during a campout when he spoke on this passage. My personal notes reflect several pages of introspection from those teaching sessions in August of 2013.

[4] Tony Romano, August 23, 2013 notes on Luke 15 teaching. He said, “The church is on mission because God is on mission.”

[5] Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke, Volume Two, Baker Books, Pg. 177.

[6] Ryken, Volume II, Pg. 117.

[7] Ryken points out that the H.S. is possibly represented by the woman in the second parable – Pg. 118.

[8] Romano, August 23, 2013, notes on Luke 15 talk.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ryken wisely points out that there is a progression in the three parables. The sheep was 1 of 100, the coin was 1 of 10, but the prodigal was 1 of 2. Although it is evident here that both sons were really lost, and many believe that the Pharisees are represented in the older son in this final parable.

[11] Romano, August 24, 2013, men’s campout, personal notes on his lesson.

[12] http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/bio2.htm

Introduction to Revelation: Part 4

The Kingdom of God & the Already Not Yet

Often it is very easy to get caught up in viewpoints about the millennium, and I do not want to detract from the importance of the millennium. For even though the millennium – the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in the first few verses of chapter 20 – takes up a very short space in terms of the book itself, its importance is seen in how we interpret what its saying.

But before we discuss these things specifically, I believe we need to begin our study of this book by briefly examining the nature of the kingdom of God. For when we speak of the “millennium” we’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and specifically the reign of His Christ.

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6), although the nature of this reign is intensely debated, and scholars differ on whether it refers to the reign of saints in the heaven during the time between the resurrection and the return of Christ or to a reign of the saints on earth before the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth.”[ix]

We can see the importance of this idea of the reign of Christ in how it manages to seep into how pastors and theologians comprehend the overarching theme(s) of this book. For instance, Warren Wiersebe, a Premillennialist, says, “The overriding theme of the book of Revelation is the return of Jesus Christ to defeat all evil and to establish His reign.”   Note how he uses the word “establish” in lieu of the word “consummate” which is the term an amillennialist would use because of the emphasis on Christ’s current reign.

The amillennialist would remind us of verses like we find at the end of Mark’s gospel, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19 – also see Ephesians 1:20-23)[i]

Now, most theologians believe that Christ is reigning now, but what is the nature of that reign? I think the difference lies in whether or not one believes that His current reign is somewhat lesser or mostly spiritual (i.e. in the hearts of his people).

Dispensationalist John MacArthur puts it this way:

So God rules spiritually now over the hearts of those who know Him by faith. And that’s been the case since His saving work began. There is a spiritual element of the Kingdom that has existed since God started redeeming men. But this is not that spiritual Kingdom of which we read here, but rather that earthly literal Kingdom which comes at the culmination of human history.[ii]

However, I think that this emphasis on the future nature of Christ’s kingdom does injustice to His victory at Calvary, and does not fully comprehend the fullness of Christ’s current reign.

You can now see the rub, can you not? How we think about the kingdom of God shapes how we view the book of Revelation, and perhaps the millennium question in particular.

The Already/Not Yet

I believe the critical hermeneutical principle which will help us most is called the “already/not yet” principle. In order to understand most of the NT – especially the words of Jesus and the book of Revelation – we need to understand this important principle.

For our purposes, I believe that we need to get our heads around two truths about the nature of God’s kingdom. The first is that it has been inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and will be consummated upon his return. The second is that God is working dynamically in history to bring about the expansion of His kingdom and its final consummation.

Regarding the first truth, it is worth quoting R.C. Sproul at this point at length:

Many professing evangelicals today believe the kingdom of God is strictly in the future, although there is no biblical foundation for that. This view robs the church of important teachings concerning the kingdom that are clearly set forth in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament opens with John the Baptist’s announcement of the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Another time the Pharisees asked Him when the kingdom of God would come, and Jesus replied, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom was in their midst became (sic – because) the King was there. In another occasion, He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

So John came first with his warning of the radical nearness of the kingdom. Then Jesus came announcing the presence of the kingdom. This was followed by the acme of His redemptive work in the ascension, when He left earth to go to His coronation, where God declared Him King. As Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, read to depart, His disciples asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They had been waiting for Jesus to make His move, to drive out the Romans and establish the kingdom, but Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

In answer to their question about the kingdom, Jesus gave the fundamental mission of the church. Men would be blind to His kingship, so His disciples were given the task of making it visible. The fundamental task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. Our King reigns now, so for us to put the kingdom of God entirely in the future is to miss one of the most significant points of the New Testament. Our King has come and has inaugurated the kingdom of God. The future aspect of the kingdom is its final consummation.[iii]

When Jesus returns it will not be to establish a kingdom, but rather to consummate a kingdom which has been established from before the foundation of the world, and which He reigns over at this very moment.

Indeed the book of Revelation, as we mentioned earlier, was written to assure Christians that He is in control over all things – He is the Lord of history.

Interestingly, Beale thinks that John wrote Revelation with the book of Daniel in mind – especially important in Daniel is the already/not yet function of his literature. Some things were occurring right away for Daniel during his time, while others he saw as distant and far away. Those things which Daniel saw as far away, John saw as fulfilled at least partially in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the inauguration of his kingdom.

Beale puts it this way:

John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of the end times predicted by Daniel, which will now continue throughout the church age.

Side note: for those more advanced in prophetic study or curious about these things, one of the things Beale and other see in Revelation is that at the beginning of some of the major sections/division there is a reference or allusion to something from Daniel chapter two (1:1, 4:1, and 22:6) Beale says that a pattern definitely emerges, “John is employing the same allusion as a literary device to give structure to his whole book.”

This also has ramifications for how we understand the millennium.

Douglass Kelly says, “The exercise of this heavenly authority over all lesser powers is the main thing that is happening in this age between the two comings of the Lord; which, as we shall seek to demonstrate, is the prime meaning of the millennium. The millennium is not a literal period of only one thousand years that will occur much later; rather it is that period of victorious outreach of the Gospel to the nations: a time that last from Jesus’ first coming to his last.”[iv]

All of this can be comprehended by identifying how the Bible speaks about the kingdom of God and the reign of His Christ in other places, and how we are to understand this in light of what we read in chapter 20. Is Jesus’ reign something future, or is it now and to be seen with our eyes in the future? How should we think of, and describe his reign?

This is what R.C. Sproul was speaking of earlier when he said that Christ’s kingdom was “inaugurated” but not yet “consummated.” There are some promises, and some realities that are presently being realized in the church age, yet will not come to their full glory until Christ returns. Our very salvation is like this, for we are saved NOW, yet we have not yet fully realized that salvation. We have the down payment of this reality in the giving of the Spirit, yet not the consummation of this reality in the presence of our Lord and Savior.

The second principle is tied to the first, and it is this: The kingdom of God is “dynamic.” That is to say it is more than just this idea of God separately reigning in heaven, He is working out His will in and amongst us in time and space. He is ruling here – He is involved in our lives – His rule is not detached.

John Frame quotes Geerhardus Vos for us on this matter:

To him (Jesus) the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.

Then Frame says, “On this definition, the kingdom is dynamic, indeed dramatic. It is a world-historical movement, following the fall of Adam, in which God works to defeat Satan and bring human beings to acknowledge Christ as Lord. It is, preeminently, the history of salvation.”[v]

Anthony Hoekema puts it this way:

The kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It means the great drama of the history of salvation has been inaugurated, and that the new age has been ushered in. The kingdom must not be understood as merely the salvation of certain individuals or even as the reign of God in the hearts of his people; it means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe. “The kingdom of God means that God is King and acts in history to bring history to a divinely directed goal. (quoting Ladd)”[vi]

He goes on to say, “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”[vii]

Now given what we know of these two principles, we know that God is both reigning supreme over all, but also dynamically working in and through His creation to bring about His purposes. This points to the linear nature of history – God is working toward something.[viii] What He is doing now in and through us by His Spirit and His Lordship over all history and creation is a shadow of what will be upon the consummation of His purposes.

Christ inaugurated a kingdom (the already) and with that inauguration has brought forth fruit first by His cross work, and now by His Spirit’s powerful work here on earth through the spread of the gospel. One day He will return to consummate His kingdom (the not yet) and upon that return will usher in the visible reality of his reign (the already).

While futurists await a future “literal earthly” kingdom (which we all look for), the way in which we speak about and think about God’s exercise of power and authority over the world, and the souls of lost people is important. I believe its crucial that we understand God as working even now dynamically, personally, powerfully in history and in the lives of men all across the globe to expand his kingdom – a real kingdom of real people.

So you can see how these perspectives function to shape our viewpoint of the book itself and the millennium. But they also shape how we live our lives as Christians – especially what kind of mindset we take toward events here on earth and circumstances in our personal lives.

NOTE: Some of the dispensationalists might argue that God rules “spiritually in the hearts” of men, but not physically here on earth, and does not rule them in any way other than in their hearts. To me this is a false dilemma. The postmillennialist has it right in the respect that when God saves a man, there is fruit and evidence of change not only in that man’s heart, but in his life and in the society in which he lives. To argue a distant futurist reign of Christ is to argue the opposite of how the Bible describes the efficacy of Christ’s work on the cross. He truly is Lord of all and he exercises that Lordship full now, though it is unseen (as Sproul mentions above). I’m not saying that the Postmillennial view is perfect, but their mindset on the nature of the kingdom certainly seems to make more sense and align more Biblically to me.

The Millennium

With this cursory understanding of the kingdom of God under our belts, let us examine the four major views on the reign of Christ in the millennium.

Amillennialism

The Amillennial view (Amil) is probably the simplest of the four major viewpoints on the millennial question.

Wayne Grudem says, “Those who are said to be reigning with Christ for the thousand years are Christians who have died and are already reigning with Christ in heaven…This view is called ‘Amillennialism’ because it maintains that there is no future millennium yet to come.”[x]

John Frame describes it:

The Amil believe that the millennium is now, the whole period from Jesus’ ascension to his return. He emphasizes that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus ushered in a new era of world history. Jesus has now achieved a great victory over Satan, sin, and death…The Amil says that Satan no longer deceives the nations (20:3) as he did before the coming of Christ. Before Jesus came, believers in the truth God existed mainly in Israel. The other nations were deceived by Satan into worship idols. But after the resurrection, the Christian church received power to reach people of all nations with the message of the gospel. And God will continue to empower this mission until the last day, until there are believers from every kingdom, tongue, tribe and nation.[xi]

R.C. Sproul adds…

The Amillennial position, which holds some points in common with both of the premillennial positions, believes that the church age is the kingdom age prophesied in the Old Testament. The New Testament church has become the Israel of God. Amillennialists believe that the binding of Satan took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry; Satan was restrained while the gospel was preached to the world, and this restraint continues today.[xii]

The verses that come to my mind as typically cited in terms of the defeat of Satan are as follows:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Frame describes how the Amil views the future…

Amils affirm that toward the end of this era Satan will be released briefly, as Revelation 20:3 indicates (also verses 7-8). He will then deceive the nations again, presumably achieving some measure of his old power. But he will be frustrated and defeated by the return of Christ and the judgment that will result in his final destruction.[xiii]

Amils believe that the first resurrection is simply that spiritual resurrection that has taken place and realized during the intermediate state. The second resurrection is the physical resurrection of the body preceding the judgment when Christ returns. Frame says, “Similarly, the first death is the physical death of human being; the second death is the condemnation of the wicked, a death that believers do not experience.”[xiv]

Postmillennialism 

Most folks who are of the post-mil persuasion also believe that the millennium period of 1,000 years is NOW just like the Amils believe. John Frame notes that some older literature reveals that there are a few Post-mills who have said that is a part of this time now, but more will reside in the future. Post-mills also agree with Amils on the binding of Satan during Christ’s ministry and his release for a short time before Jesus’ return.

John Frame describes the difference between Amils and Post-mills:

Well, although the postmil agrees with the amil that our age is a time of persecution for the church, he also thinks that during this time Christians will come to have more and more influence in general culture. Believers will indeed gain wealth, influence, and even dominance.[xv]

Sproul describes this unique part of Post-millennialism:

What distinguishes postmillennialists from amillennialists and premillennialists is the belief that Scripture teaches the success of the Great Commission in the age of the church.[xvi]

Grudem says, “ The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world.”

I must admit that when I study the history of the world since the spread of the gospel, I do not see a uniform trajectory upward toward a world of people who are united in morals and standards. Certainly I believe that since Christ the world has been changed in huge part by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that the world was in darkness before He came – so much so that every other nation worshiped idols except Israel. Can you imagine if we looked around the world today and every other nation except one the size of Rhode Island worshiped wooden blocks and golden statues? So certainly the gospel has transformed our world.

However, the post-millennial viewpoint was really made popular and caught on prior to the 20th century. It was perhaps at its height at the end of the 19th century when medical cures were being found, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and great revivals had swept across the world many times over the course of the past several hundred years. Then came World War I. The gruesome bloodshed and seemingly worthless outcome was more than conservative theologians could swallow in their assessments of world events and the human situation on earth.

However, not all theologians and pastors had to wait until the bloody events of the 20th century to object to Postmillennialism’s optimistic theology. J.C. Ryle, the great 19th century contemporary of Spurgeon, wrote hinting about this way of thinking:

Let us dismiss from our minds the vain idea that nations will ever give up wars entirely, before Jesus Christ comes again. So long as the devil is the prince of this world, and the hearts of the many are unconverted, so long there must be strife and fighting. There will be no universal peace before the second advent of the Prince of peace. Then, and then only, men shall “learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Let us cease to expect that missionaries and ministers will ever convert the world, and teach all mankind to love one another. They will do nothing of the kind. They were never intended to do it. They will call out a witnessing people who shall serve Christ in every land, but they will do no more. The bulk of mankind will always refuse to obey the Gospel. The nations will always go on quarreling, wrangling, and fighting. The last days of the earth shall be its worst days. The last war shall be the most fearful and terrible war that ever desolated the earth.[xvii]

The theology fell out of style, yet there are some very smart theologians whom I respect who still hold this theology today. John Frame[xviii] and Keith Mathison both consider themselves Post-Millennial.

I say all that because, while I do not consider myself Postmillennial, I really respect those who take that view, and their arguments are generally very scriptural. They point to many times, both in Scripture and in the time since Christ, when Christian influence has changed the world for the good. They remind us that when Jesus changes someone’s head and heart, those changes lead to changes in our actions which affect the society in which we live.

NEXT TIME…..Premillenialism…..

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ligonier has a devotional published about the kingdom of God which cites these verses in Ephesians: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/seated-at-gods-right-hand/

[ii] John MacArthur sermon on Revelation 20 (Part 1): http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/66-73

[iii] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 307.

[iv] Kelly, Pg. 11

[v] John M. Frame, ‘Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief’, Pg. 87

[vi] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Pg. 45

[vii] Anthony Hoekema, ‘The Bible and the Future’, Pg. 51

[viii] For more on the linear nature of history, see Anthony Hoekema’s ‘Created in God’s Image’

[ix] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 846-847.

[x] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1110.

[xi] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1087-1088

[xii] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 313.

[xiii] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xiv] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xv] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088.

[xvi] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[xvii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 21:10-19. Here Ryle is discussing the Olivet Discourse and particularly, “Christ’s predictions concerning the nations and the world.” That this important, and sound, theologian and pastor would raise such a warning flag against the post-mil mindset while its popularity was at its zenith is (to me) a very important note.

[xviii] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1094

The Restoration of Peter

Here are my notes for John 21:8-17. This account includes the restoration of the Apostle Peter.  After denying the Lord three times, the Lord Jesus has restored his friend to ministry in a public and profound way.

The Miracle

21:8-14 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. [9] When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. [10] Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” [11] So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. [12] Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. [13] Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. [14] This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

One can really sense the authority and majesty of Jesus in the fact that no one “dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’”

What’s in a Number?

It is always interesting when Scripture uses such a specific number to describe something. In this case, the disciples caught 153 fish. Why would John remark on that specifically? Well, I think that we can easily say that it was worth noting how many fish simply because it’s a lot of fish! Not that the number itself is significant, but rather that the exact number tells us something of how impressive the catch actually was.

Now, there are other (MANY other) interpretations that range from the bizarre to the more plausible. Hendriksen notes about 7 of them just as a sampling, but even a cursory search of the internet seems to reveal a plethora of others.

Some of the ideas are (quoting Hendriksen):

  1. The fish were not counted until the shore had been reached, in order to teach us that the exact number of the elect remains unknown until they have reached the shore of heaven.
  2. The ancients counted one hundred fifty-three varieties of fish!
  3. There is here a veiled reference to Matt. 13:47, 48, and an indication that all kinds of people are going to be saved.
  4. The number one hundred fifty-three represents 100 for the Gentiles, 50 for the Jews, and 3 for the Trinity.

My friend Uri, an expert in Israeli history and culture, told me that he likes the idea that the number represents the different varieties of fish because it points to the universality of the gospel and the diversity of the church. He says, “In Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis he lists all the known fish species at the time. Behold 153. The significance is the universality of the church. 153 fish, all the species/nations of the world can fit into the net and the net is not broken.”

The Abundance of the Miracle

In every miracle that our Lord has performed there is one consistent theme – what He does He does in abundance!

He made more wine at Cana than was necessary, He made more fish in Luke 5 than the disciples could take in, He made more bread and fish for the 5000 than the crowd needed, and He healed hundreds – if not thousands of men and women. Note also that when He healed people, he didn’t just give them an aspirin. They would have been happy for their suffering to be relieved I’d wager. But He completely healed them. What God does He does in such a way as to indicated that He is God, AND that He is good!

The Lord who remarked that a good father gives his children a fish and not a snake, gives fish in abundance. In everyway and on every level that you have provided for your children, the Father and His Son have far outstripped you. They have lavished grace and peace and in the life to come riches beyond measure.

And just as Jesus bid the disciples to come and eat breakfast with him, so he calls to us, his children, to dine with him. His call to believers is this:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. [21] The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:20-21)

Seeing A Larger Picture with Ryle

J.C. Ryle has examined this passage and, surveying all the commentators up till his time, has provided some thoughts on the possible broader allegorical meaning of the matter. He is quick to say, however, that we must have caution in adding more to the thing than that which is already there. But still, there are some observations that may hearten us and enrich the passage as a whole. Here is what he says:

Other expositors, of a more figurative and imaginative turn of mind, go into heights and depths where I cannot pretend to follow them. I shall content myself with pointing out the more obvious spiritual lessons which I think the passage was probably meant to convey.

(a) I think that Christ’s remarkable appearance to the disciples, when they were in the act of fishing, was meant to remind them and the whole Church of the primary duty of ministers. They were doing work which was strikingly emblematic of their calling. They were to be “fishers of men.”

(b) I think the lack of success in catching fish, which the disciples had until the Lord appeared, was meant to teach that without Christ’s presence and blessing ministers can do nothing.

(c) I think the marvelous success that attended the cast of the net, when Christ gave the command, was meant to teach that when Christ is pleased to give success to ministers, nothing can prevent souls being brought into the Gospel net, converted and saved.

(d) I think the drawing of the net to shore at last was meant to remind the disciples and all ministers of what will happen when the Lord comes again. The work of the Church will be completed, and the reckoning of results will take place.

(e) I think the dinner prepared and provided for the disciples, when the net was drawn to the shore, was meant to remind ministers that there will be the great “marriage supper of the Lamb” at last, when Christ Himself shall welcome His faithful servants and ministers, and “come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).

(f) I think, besides this, that the respective positions of the disciples and Christ, when they first saw Him, may possibly be intended to represent the respective positions of Christ and His people during this dispensation. They were on the water of the sea. He was looking at them from the land. Just so Christ is in heaven looking at us, and we are voyaging over the troublous waters of this world.

(g) Finally, I think that our Lord’s sudden appearing on shore, when the morning broke, may possibly represent our Lord’s second advent. “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” When the morning dawns, Christ will appear.

With these conjectures I leave the passage. They may not commend themselves to some readers. I only say that they appear to me to deserve consideration and reflection.

Certainly they do deserve consideration! I think that perhaps letter (f) is a little far fetched, and letters (d) and (e) are very similar. But he is correct that from what I have read at least, letters (a), (b) and (c) are universal in their appearance in the minds of many commentators, and definitely appeared in my mind as I studied the passage.

These are great ideas to reflect upon in the coming days, and a marvelous reminder of the richness of Scripture. It is passages like this which kept Spurgeon busy for hours at a time! Certainly they should also keep us busy in our meditation.

21:15-17 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” [16] He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” [17] He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

The Restoration of Peter

Setting the Scene

I have been to this very spot where Jesus is said to have called these men to shore for breakfast. I have sung ‘How Great Thou Art’ at full tilt with other men and women in the small chapel that sits firmly ensconced upon that shore. This is a beautiful place!

What makes it beautiful is multi-dimensional. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, and ears with the flowering trees and waves breaking upon the shore, but it is a spiritual feast – even an emotional and mental feast for anyone who has ever been restored by the Lord Jesus. And that group includes me.

In this segment of verses we read how Peter and the Lord, while sitting amongst the other disciples, had what must have been their first bit of extended conversation since the night of Jesus’ death. Jesus had appeared to them prior, but apparently had not spent a lot of time in one-on-one discussion, or extended teaching of them yet (as in Acts 1:3).

Therefore the last time that Peter and conversed with the Lord in any substantive manner was during the Farewell Discourses when, as we recall, Peter had proudly declared that he’d follow Jesus even unto death. Jesus’ reply to Peter’s declaration was to prophecy that in just a few short hours Peter was deny Him not once, but three times.

Peter learned that fateful evening that though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak. Peter not only denied Jesus, he did so in public. Therefore, as D.A. Carson summarizes, “Whatever potential for future service he (Peter) had therefore depended not only on forgiveness from Jesus, but also on reinstatement amongst the disciples.”

I Agape your Phileo and Raise you an Agape

Now Jesus, the great Shepherd of His flock, begins his interactions with Peter by asking him if he “loves” him “more than these.” In this context Jesus likely means “these” as the disciples. He is daring Peter to once again assert his supremacy. And in doing so, His words cut to Peter’s heart and remind him that though he claims to be the most loyal and dutiful disciples, he has a recent failure of such magnitude that with each passing word from the lips of Jesus, Peter must have been smarting all the more.

Peter responds in the affirmative, and with each affirmative reply, Jesus charges Peter to “Feed the lambs”, “tend my sheep”, and feed my sheep.”

Much has, perhaps rightly, been made of how when Jesus asked Peter whether he “loved” him, he was using the word “agape” whereas Peter was responding with “phileo” for his description of love.

There are four expressions of love in the Greek language, as the wonderful web resource Gotquestions.org has stated:

The Bible speaks of two types of love: phileo and agape. Both are Greek terms and appear at different points throughout Scripture. The Greek language also had terms for two other types of love, eros and storge, which do not expressly appear in the Bible.
http://www.gotquestions.org/phileo-love.html#ixzz3FWIhOYPt

Many scholars have argued about the differences between phileo and agape. The usual summary is that Agape is more a love of choice – a sacrificial love. It is a matter of the will. Whereas Phileo is a love of affection and is based somewhat on emotion.

GotQuestions.org sums up this popular teaching in this way:

Since phileo love involves feelings of warmth and affection toward another person, we do not have phileo love toward our enemies. However, God commands us to have agape love toward everyone. This includes those whose personalities clash with ours, those who hurt us and treat us badly, and even those who are hostile toward our faith (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44). In time, as we follow God’s example of agape love for our enemies, we may even begin to experience phileo love for some of them as we start to see them through God’s eyes.

But I don’t know that it’s correct to say that Peter didn’t truly love Christ, but rather Christ was setting the kind of example Peter must follow. He may have been proclaiming to Peter the kind of love – sacrificial love, love of difficult choices, noble love – that He had for His sheep. Now Peter needed to have that same love for the sheep.

That being said, D.A. Carson and F.F. Bruce both lay a very good case out for why its very hard to draw any particular conclusion simply from the use of different nouns – especially in this Gospel when John has been using agape and phileo interchangeably up until now.

I find this extremely important when figuring out questions of interpretation. We need to look at the context of the book and how the author has used words in the past. And while we need to take a sample of the common vernacular as well, I would think that the authorial usage takes slight precedent over cultural commonality if there are multiple examples to draw from, and indeed there are in this book.

Additionally, there is some evidence that agape was also coming into more common use at the time to mean simply “to love” (per Carson).

This is another example of how sometimes popular tradition gets it wrong – or at least assumes perhaps a little more than we ought to assume. Once our inquiries and speculation have been done, if we don’t have a preponderance of evidence before us that leaves us certain of our views, we must humbly step away from proclaiming our views to be “doctrine.”

Soon I will be studying through Revelation with our Sunday School class, and I find a similar example of illogical hermeneutics applied to the millennium in that book. So much is made of whether the millennium is a literal 1,000 years when up until that 20th chapter in Revelation no other number (save perhaps the 7 churches?) was used in a literal fashion. But it is popular tradition now to assume this be the case. Ought we not to ask how John has written of such things in other parts of his book?

I raise this only as a caution that we approach Scripture with humility – especially those with learning and education. For those without education are less apt to project their assumptions onto Scripture and are often open to correction. However it is the learned man or woman who confidently asserts opinion where angels dare not tread. Let us with humility interpret the Word of God.

The Friendship of Jesus

One of the most difficult things to do is confront a brother who has sinned and is in need to rebuke and restoration. We are commanded by Paul to “speak the truth in love.”

What touches my heart so much about this passage in John is the tenderness of Jesus. His tripartite restoration of this impetuous man mirrored the three-fold denial which Peter had so shamefully displayed just days before.

The realization that here in one man is Peter’s God and friend, his Savior, and His Lord, this must have been overwhelming. It is overwhelming to me. It is why one of my favorite verses in Scripture is Exodus 33:11. The passage goes like this:

When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. (Exodus 33:9-11)

If you have found yourself covered in shame, if you have wronged your Lord, take comfort – we all have wronged our Lord. We have all sinned against God. But the blessing of this passage is the reminder that even the greatest leaders can fall, and even the greatest falls can be restored. We have a Savior, aye, this is true – but more than that, we have a friend.

Joseph Scriven’s great hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

 

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

 

Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.
 

The Mission Given to Peter

I’ve briefly touched on this earlier, but we must examine briefly again the mission that is given to the Apostle Peter. Jesus has specifically given him a mission. That mission is to feed the sheep, to tend the flock and so forth. He must watch over the new church of Christ, and must also feed them.

Carson quotes Barrett and quips, “The ministry ‘is described in verbs, not nouns: Tend, feed, not Be a pastor, hold the office of pastor. And the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. Not, Tend your flock, but Tend my sheep.’

What does it mean to feed the flock? Well, if the “flock” is the church then we must necessarily believe the “feeding” and “tending” are also metaphorical devices. The church feeds off of the Word of God.

This is made plain even as far back as Moses’ interactions with the Israelites when he told them:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus himself quoted this verse to rebuke Satan during His temptation in the wilderness before the beginning of His ministry.

In fact, He later called Himself the bread from heaven, which is simply another way of saying that He is the Word of God incarnate. The bread and the word are one in the same, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And indeed Peter understood this. For later he would go on to say:

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3)

Peter understood that He was being tasked with the spiritual nutrition of the church. Ironically, and scornfully, those who claim direct papal descent from this man are the ones starving the church of its food. The Catholic church (so-called) does not encourage the reading of Scripture, in fact it is the greatest rationer of spiritual nutrition in all the world. Which is why it is with great irony that they are the ones who claim this passage (along with Matthew 16:13-20) as one which sets down the primacy of Peter because not only does it do nothing of the sort, but even if it did, they do not follow the instructions to him who was supposedly made primal.

Carson rightly says, “Thus there is nothing intrinsic to the language of John 21:15-17 that suggests a distinctive authority for Peter. All Christian leadership entails a certain tension between authority and meek, exemplary service, patterned finally on Jesus himself. In the context of the Fourth Gospel, these verses deal with Peter’s reinstatement to service, not his elevation to primacy.”

Yes while most everyone else in the world is either trying purposefully to spread the word of God, or trying hard to stop the spread of this word, the Catholic hierarchy is content to slow drip the Word to a body that is thirsty and dying of starvation.

Conclusion

Now our response must be carefully assessed. For we cannot read this and judge ourselves content to move on before we settle some things in our mind. Let us settle at least these few things:

  1. The Word of God is that which feeds the church and it must be spread throughout the whole world.
  2. The Word is what changes lives, and therefore must not be adulterated or watered down by our own ideas.
  3. We must give great time and energy to studying and spending time in the Word of God.
  4. We must teach others the Word of God – this is the feeding of the lambs.
  5. Jesus told Peter to tend the lambs, which is to say that our leaders must be watchful for the safety of the church, keeping an eye out for wolves and for sheep who have gone astray.

It is a great and precious thing to be both restored and given a task. That is what Peter experienced, and that is what Paul says we each experience – we are not only saved, but we are saved for a purpose:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Let us take this restoration as a reminder of the open arms of Christ, and the charge he gives us upon restoration. He has saved us – and not to mope about in introspection for our entire lives, but to love others in service to our Lord. In this we look to Him the author and finisher of our faith, and our true Friend and Brother.

John 20:1-18 The Resurrection of Jesus

John Chapter 20 – The Resurrection

20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

We can’t go very far without noting a few things in this new chapter. The first is that John lets us know this is “the first day of the week.” This is Sunday. This is the day Jesus rose from the dead and that’s why even to this day, 2,000 years later, we call it “The Lord’s Day” and worship Him together on this day.

The second thing that struck me like a lightening bolt was John notation of what time it was. He doesn’t give a specific time, but he says, “while it was still dark.” For me, who is not a “morning person”, this astounds me. It takes a lot to get up that early in the morning.

I don’t know whether Mary was a “morning person” or a “night owl”, but I do know that she was drawn to this place with a intensity that wakes you up at 4am and says “get your shoes on, you’re going to the tomb.” That’s drive. That’s love. Mary loved Jesus.

The inevitable question surfaces (in my mind at least): do I love my Lord enough to serve Him if it means waking my exhausted body up at “o-dark-thirty” to serve him? I’d like to say “yes”, but it’s worth thinking on…

What She Saw

The third observation is what she saw, or rather what she didn’t see. She gets to the tomb and the stone which covered the tomb’s entrance has been rolled away.

Now, this would have been pretty shocking to her. It would have taken an amazing effort to have accomplished this – this was a coordinated effort. That’s probably why she tells Peter in the plural that, “they have taken the Lord.”

This shock is followed by another, the Lord’s body is gone. This must have added anger to sorrow. “Could they really have been this cruel? Can’t they just let this go? Can’t they just let us mourn Him? These people must have been sick, twisted freaks.”

I think that seeing this would have been enough to jolt me from despair into rage. It’s hard to say what Mary was feeling at the time, but its safe to say she was alarmed.

20:2-4 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” [3] So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. [4] Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

The first thing Mary does is run to Peter who happens to be hanging out with John, the “other disciple” (John always avoids naming himself). Her breathless voice bursts out the news and immediately Peter and John take off for the tomb.

Both men are running, but John notes that he beat Peter to the tomb. I think it’s rather amusing that John had to mention this – almost to get a little dig in on Peter (“I always knew I was faster!”).

20:5-7 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. [6] Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, [7] and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

So John gets to the tomb but there’s no Jesus, and he doesn’t enter into the gravesite but observes the scene from outside the door. Peter has no inhibitions about going in – if something has happened to his friend he’s going to know about it and see the whole matter for himself.

John notes with interest how the cloth which had been on the Lord’s head wasn’t with the other linen but was by itself – and folded neatly by itself. This is a very curious scene to say the least!

If grave robbers stole the body of Jesus why in the world would they A) take the linen cloths off of His body and B) set the facial shroud neatly folded in a separate pile. The whole thing was just “off”…

As MacArthur states, “…grave robbers would hardly have taken time to roll up the facecloth, and in their haste they would have scattered the grave clothes all over the tomb. More likely still, they would not have removed them at all, since it would have been easier to transport the body it if were still wrapped. Nor would thieves likely have left the wrappings, containing expensive spices, behind. The presence of the grave clothes also shows that the story the Jewish leaders concocted, that the disciples stole Christ’s body (Matt. 28:11-15), is false. If they had stolen the body, why would the disciples dishonor it by tearing off the grave clothes and spices that covered it?”

And commenting on the angels Mary sees in the tomb, Carson observes that, “John’s point is that this empty tomb cannot be explained by appealing to grave robbers; this is nothing other than the invasion of God’s power.”

20:8-9 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; [9] for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

The Fulfillment of Scripture

When John saw all these things his mind must have been quickly sifting through all the potential scenarios: grave robbers, Jewish leadership, Romans, revolutionaries…or He rose up from death. But none of it made sense to them yet.

Yet soon they would realize the truth that the “Scripture” was fulfilled that “he must rise from the dead.”

This Scripture John is referring to comes from the lips of David:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. [10] For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:9-10)

Later Peter would understand the meaning of these words, and in his sermon on Pentecost explains them to thousands of Jews:

…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. [24] God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. [25] For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; [26] therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. [27] For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. [28] You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ [29] “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. [30] Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, [31] he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. [32] This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. [33] Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. [34] For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, [35] until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ [36] Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:23-36)

John sees clear fulfillment of OT scripture – and it’s just as clear that the apostle Peter did as well. David was not speaking about himself, but rather prophesied about one to come – a “holy one” whose body would not “see corruption” or be “abandoned to Hades.” This “holy one” is the Lord Jesus who defeated death.

Note especially the quotation from Psalm 110. This was the same Psalm that Jesus used to shut up the Pharisees who had tried to trap Him in His teaching:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, [42] saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” [43] He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, [44] “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? [45] If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” [46] And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)

They had no idea how David could have called his descendent his “Lord.” They had not understood to this point the heavenly nature of the coming messiah.

Jesus, in effect, was showing them that they didn’t understand Him because they didn’t understand the nature of the person of the messiah and his mission.

The Sign of Jonah

One might wonder why it was that the disciples weren’t putting two and two together here. Why didn’t they understand what was going on with the Lord? Was it because they had never heard of the resurrection? Had the Lord’s plans been concealed up until this point in time?

I think the answer is emphatically “no.” For our Lord had many times predicted not only His own death, but also His resurrection.

Matthew Henry is wise to point our attention to the Lord’s own words about His coming resurrection and how “this generation” would ask for a sign of His messianic qualifications and would receive no other sign but that of the “Sign of Jonah.”

Here are the words of our Lord on the matter:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” [39] But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. [40] For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. [41] The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. [42] The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:38-42)

As if this wasn’t clear enough, Jesus also stated:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (Mark 8:31-32)

And admonishing two of His disciples after the fact, Jesus even said:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)

So the resurrection should not have been a surprise, but I believe that in the moment it was a shock, and the disciples were stunned by the sequence of unfolding events. We have the benefit of looking back 2,000 years later and closely and slowly examining the sequence of events and the words of the Lord and the OT prophets. The disciples had no such privilege at that moment. They were so close to the event itself, that what they were witnessing seemed confusing amidst their fears and sorrow. We would have reacted the same way.

20:10-11 Then the disciples went back to their homes. [11] But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb.

Now from what John says, its apparent that the disciples didn’t fully grasp yet the significance of what they were seeing. They were completely bewildered. In fact, they just left and went back to their homes – leaving Mary at the tomb with her sorrow. They had a lot to sort out…and after all, what could they do? Their Lord was dead, and now even His body was gone.

For the first time, it seems, Mary peaks into the tomb to take a little closer look. What caused Peter and John to leave like this? What had they seen? So she takes in the view and see the linen strips and the shroud folded. Then she sees something that Peter and John didn’t…

20:12-13 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. [13] They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It is at this moment that the story begins to turn from confusion and bewilderment to joy and restoration.

Mary beholds two angels sitting inside the tomb where Christ’s body had been laid.

Note what they say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It isn’t as though they don’t know the reason she’s weeping. No, no, no. It is simply this: their reality, their perspective was heavenly. They’d just come from a party in heaven and here on earth the reality of what had been accomplished had not yet been discovered.

As Carson notes, their question “is not designed to elicit information. IT is a gentle reproof: by this time Mary should not have been crying. Her response shows she has still not transcended the explanation to which she had earlier gravitated (vs.2).”

One of the things that fascinates me about the Biblical accounts of angels is their perspective.

We meet another similar such example when Gabriel visits Zachariah in the temple and tells him about how his wife Elizabeth is going to bear a child he is aghast at Zachariah’s reaction – unbelief. Here’s how he responds:

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.” (Luke 1:19-20)

Gabriel is saying, “I was JUST in heaven before God’s throne. He gives me this message and you don’t believe me??? I mean, I was JUST there – in heaven – in the throne room!”

Christians ought to behave different because they have a different perspective. Perspective governs our attitudes and rules our lives. These angels had a perspective that was grounded in reality – that’s why they can rightfully and astoundedly ask, “Why are you weeping???”

20:14-16 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. [15] Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” [16] Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Geerhardus Vos captures the moment well:

He (Christ) had witnessed her coming once and again, her weeping, her bending over the womb, her answer to the angels, and had witnessed not only these outward acts, but also the inward conflict by which her soul was torn. And He appears precisely at the point where his presence is required, because all other voices for conveying to her the gladsome tidings have failed…The first person to whom He showed Himself alive after the resurrection was a weeping woman, who had no greater claim upon Him than any simple penitent sinner has. No eye except that of the angels had as yet rested upon His form. The time was as solemn and majestic as that of the first creation when light burst out of chaos and darkness. Heaven and earth were concerned in this event; it was the turning point of the ages.

Certainly Vos is certainly correct: This is a moment upon which earth’s history hinged, and it is a vital moment for those of faith as well. Our Lord has risen – He has defeated death!

The Necessity of the Resurrection

The consequence of the resurrection is not small. If there was no resurrection then we have no reason to believe anything Jesus said. The veracity of His teaching is at stake, but of course much more than that, His saving grace is non-existent if He didn’t accomplish a victory over death.

Paul understands that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the lynchpin of our faith:

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. [15] We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. [16] For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. [17] And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. [18] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. [19] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)

But indeed He was raised – as Paul remarks:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [21] For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. [22] For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [23] But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. [24] Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. [25] For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [26] The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

And…

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:17-18)

Therefore what is at stake here is not only the veracity of His teaching and the very truth of our salvation, but also the preeminence of Jesus Himself. If He wasn’t raised from the dead, then HE isn’t truly God’s Son, and isn’t preeminent over all things, and can’t help us in our time of need, and doesn’t hear our prayers, and isn’t powerful enough to save us from death if He Himself was defeated by death.

Thank God that He did rise, and that we too will one day rise with Him.

The Gardener

Now as soon as Mary turns around she runs smack into Jesus who then asks the same question that the angels asked her. I don’t know why she “turned around.” Perhaps she was frightened by the angels and turned to go, or perhaps she sensed someone behind her and quickly wanted to see who was approaching.

Mary asks this man, the only question on her mind: where is Jesus?

She didn’t realize she was talking to Jesus! She supposed Him to be the gardener.

C.H. Spurgeon sees great, if perhaps accidental, wisdom in Mary’s mistaking Jesus for the gardener:

She was mistaken when she fell into “supposing him to be the gardener”; but if we are under his Spirit’s teaching we shall not make a mistake if now we indulge ourselves in a quiet meditation upon our ever-blessed Lord, “supposing him to be the gardener.”

It is not an unnatural supposition, surely; for if we may truly sing

“We are a garden walled around,
Chosen and made peculiar ground,”

That enclosure needs a gardener. Are we not all the plants of his right hand planting? Do we not all need watering and tending by his constant and gracious care?

The image, I say, is so far from being unnatural that it is most pregnant with suggestions and full of useful teaching. We are not going against the harmonies of nature when we are “supposing him to be the gardener.”

If we would be supported by a type, our Lord takes the name of “the Second Adam,” and the first Adam was a gardener. Moses tells us that the Lord God placed the man in the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. Man in his best estate was not to live in this world in a paradise of indolent luxury, but in a garden of recompensed toil. Behold, the church is Christ’s Eden, watered by the river of life, and so fertilized that all manner of fruits are brought forth unto God; and he, our second Adam, walks in this spiritual Eden to dress it and to keep it; and so by a type we see that we are right in “supposing him to be the gardener.”

Spurgeon sees a rich typology in this passage. Jesus is indeed our great Gardener!

I love the thought that Jesus, the Supreme Gardener, appears at this time to what might be regarded as the weakest and feeblest of the plants in His garden. This ought to give us great hope and joy. For He delights in taking weak dying sinners and bathing them in the nutrition imparting light of His gospel.

There is great hope and comfort in this passage my friends – and it ought to spur us on to great effect. Listen to Spurgeon and let your hearts agree with his:

One more duty I would mention, though others suggest themselves. “Supposing him to be the gardener,” then let us bring forth fruit to him. I do not address a people this morning who feel no care as to whether they serve God or not. I believe that most of you do desire to glorify God; for being saved by grace, you feel a holy ambition to show forth his praises who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. You wish to bring others to Christ, because you yourselves have been brought to life and liberty in him. Now, let this be a stimulus to your fruitbearing, that Jesus is the gardener. Where you have brought forth a single cluster, bring, forth a hundred! “supposing him to be the gardener.” If he is to have the honor of it, then labor to do that which will give him great renown. If our spiritual state were to be attributed to ourselves, or to our minister, or to some of our fellow Christians, we might not feel that we were tinder a great necessity to be fruitful; but if Jesus be the gardener, and is to bear the blame or the honor of what we produce, then let us use up every drop of sap and strain every fibre, that, to the utmost of which our manhood is capable, we may produce a fair reward for our Lord’s travail.

Finally, we must understand the significance of His resurrection in light of being a plant in His garden, and Spurgeon articulates this important truth well:

One other thought. “Supposing him to be the gardener,” and God to come and walk among the trees of the garden, then I expect he will remove the whole of the garden upward with himself to fairer skies; for he rose, and his people must rise with him. I expect a blessed transplantation of all these flowers below to a clearer atmosphere above, away from all this smoke and fog and damp, up where the sun is never clouded, where flowers never wither, where fruits never decay. Oh, the glory we shall then enjoy up yonder, on the hills of spices in the garden of God. “Supposing him to be the gardener” what a garden will he form above, and how shall you and I grow therein, developing beyond imagination. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Since he is the author and finisher or our faith, to what perfection will he conduct us, and to what glory will he bring us! Oh, to be found in him! God grant we may be! To be plants in his garden, “Supposing him to be the gardener,” is all the heaven we can desire.

Amen!

20:17-18 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” [18] Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

This saying of Jesus to Mary not to “cling to me” is one of the most difficult verses in Scripture to understand, according to D.A. Carson. Scholars are at odds as to why Jesus would tell Mary not to touch Him, only to subsequently instruct Thomas to do so.

Carson weighs four major opinions on the matter and comes to the conclusion that the best way to understand this is through the prism of what is going on in each situation with each individual. Here’s what he says:

I am ascending is part of the message Mary is to convey, not part of the reason Mary should not cling to Jesus.

The thought, then, might be paraphrased this way: “Stop touching me (or, Stop holding on to me), for (gar) I have not yet ascended to my Father – i.e. I am not yet in the ascended state, so you do not have to hand on to me as if I were about to disappear permanently. This is a time for joy and sharing the good news, not for clutching me as if I were some jealously guarded private dream-come-true. Stop clinging to me, but go and tell my disciples that I am in the process of ascending to my Father and your Father.”*

*I have omitted parts of the linguistic explanations from Carson for smoothness of reading.

Mary then obeys Jesus and runs to tell the other disciples that He has appeared to her. There’s not record of their reaction to her message, but it doesn’t seem likely that they were any more disposed to believing her than they were earlier, and so they wait and think and do nothing.

My Father and Your Father

Just a final note before moving on to the next section…it seems appropriate to simply mention that Jesus says that He is ascending to His Father and “your Father.” This is extremely significant. In light of the resurrection, Jesus’ crosswork and victory over death has secured for believers union with Himself, and all the privileges appertaining unto that reality.

If we are brothers, then we are sons, and heirs also. Paul explains:

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” [16] The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, [17] and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)

The author of Hebrews reaffirms:

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, (Hebrews 2:11)

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7-11)

It is therefore comforting and of no small importance that upon His victory the Lord refers to His disciples as those who will participate in the rewards of His triumph. He has won them an everlasting inheritance, and is going to the Father, as will all who believe upon His name for everlasting life.

Pressing on To Maturity

For the last two weeks I’ve been preaching a message from Hebrews 5 and 6 to several different churches.  Below are my notes on this passage and I hope you enjoy them!  I would just add a disclaimer that they are my raw preaching notes.  So not every thought is written long-form, there are several footnotes with other thoughts at the bottom, and everything is in bullet form.  It this doesn’t turn you off, then I hope you are able to enjoy the study!

PJW

Press On Toward Maturity

Hebrews 5:8-6:3

Personal Note and Background

This series of verses has had an outsized impact on my own life and walk with the Lord. It was these verses that God used to spur me on to learn more, to read more, to draw closer to the Lord and to teach what I learn to others.  When I read this passage several years ago I thought  (rightly) that “I can’t teach anyone now”, but realized that my inability wasn’t God telling me not to teach, but rather it was Him calling me to learn and grow closer to Him in obedience in order to teach when the time presented itself.

The hallmark of this text is a warning to believers not to live their lives as introverted and covetous people.  We are to be people marked by inward heart transformation and a mind renewed in the knowledge of God, which we can readily share with others.

As Moses says, this Word of God is our “very life” – surely it is worthy of our attention today.

The Text: Hebrews 5:8-6:3

 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. [9] And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, [10] being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. 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.

I want us to focus on 3 Key Points we must take away from this passage, which we will see rise up again and again in our reading today:

  1. God’s desire and purpose for His image bearers is that we know Him. This call is especially so for believers who have been united to Christ
  2. Our growth in maturity is blocked not merely by intellectual issues, but by sin and love of the world, indicating a serious heart issue
  3. God calls us to press on toward maturity in the strength He has given: in prayerful reading and studying of His Word, asking for and depending on God’s help for our increased spiritual growth

The Biblical Theology

What the author of Hebrews says here, is not an isolated teaching, but reflects what we see throughout the Scriptures from the immutable plans of God for his image bearers, namely that God desires for us to know Him more intimately and to repent of the sin that hinders us from doing so:

And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, [46] 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. [47] 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 ESV)[i]

One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
(Psalm 145:4-6 ESV)
 

“For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, [19] and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. (Isaiah 66:18-19)

***Isaiah clearly has an eschatological purpose here, and I will talk later about how Paul sees God’s glory as currently mediated through the Bible (2 Cor. 3:18)

It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— (John 6:44-45)

***Jesus connects knowing God soteriologically and says it’s the results of His Spirit’s work within us

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [14] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [15] All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

***The work of learning from God the Spirit ultimately brings Him glory, and is His plan for us

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, [10] so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, [11] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)

From the law, wisdom literature, the prophets, our Lord Himself, as well as the Apostle Paul, there has been a call to deepen our knowledge of the Almighty, His ways and His Son, and to lean on His Spirit’s power in order to shine that light[ii] of knowledge to all nations[iii] as well as with our own families and friends.

The Situation/Context – 5:8-10

Now as we look again to the context of today’s passage, let’s once again examine verses 8-10.  The Author is expounding on some deep Christological truths – mostly pertaining to the Priesthood of Jesus – that required a foundational understanding already in place.  We just need to glean a few things to understand the context…

    1. That Jesus, though divine, was fully man and “learned” obedience – vs. 8
    2. That Jesus was perfectly righteous and that righteousness enabled him to be our source for righteousness and salvation – the very fountainhead from which we would derive our right standing before a holy God – vs. 9
    3. That these things contributed to the fact that Jesus is a priest, not an ordinary priest, but one “after the order of Melchizedek” which is an order both eternal and personal in type. There are many OT types but Melchizedek was the only type who represented not simply the offices of Christ (Messiah, King, Shepherd etc.), but also his person (eternal, and without father or mother).

–       Needless to say these great truths – these are deep truths – and they aren’t going to make a whole lot of sense to someone still stuck on the basics.  One cannot understand or appreciate the need for Christ’s imputed righteousness, the importance of His being fully man, the significance of Christ’s non-Levitical (and eternal) priesthood, or the typological significance of this enigmatic character Melchizedek if one is still learning the basic truths upon which these are built.[iv]

And so he stops and levels this charge against them (read verses 11-12) 

CHARGE #1 – Dull of Hearing – 5:11-12

–       As we read in verses 11 and 12 its almost as if the author stops mid course as he extolls the virtues of these great truths pertaining to Christ, and has to stop and say, ‘you know, I’d go on here, but its obvious that you aren’t ready for it – even though I have “much to say” still!’   He’s stymied by the stagnation of these church members.

–       They ought to be teachers but instead they need someone to still teach them the basics. They come to church every week and never apply their minds past the elementary truths.  They have regressed.[v] They have become “dull of hearing.” (nōthros – “no-thross” – slow, sluggish[vi], indolent, dull, languid)

–       This is not saying they ought all to be teachers in the sense we have today as one called to preach, but rather they must be able to convey their beliefs to others – this is at the heart of “making disciples” (Matt. 28).

–       John Owen rightly explains that this charge against them isn’t aimed at their being slow mentally, or having a learning disability.  His charge is a moral charge “you treasure not them up in your hearts, consciences, and memories, but let them slip out, and forget them” says Owen.  He continues “The natural dullness of our minds in receiving spiritual things, is, it may be, included; but it is our depraved affections, casting us on a neglect of our duty, that is condemned.”

–       Therefore the principle problem here is not primarily an intellectual one, nor is it a communication problem on the part of the Apostle, rather it is primarily a problem within the hearts of these Hebrews, and within our own hearts as well.

–       “By nature the hearts of all people are dull and insensitive to the things of God, nor are people genuinely interesting in hearing and seeing what God has to say to them (Matt. 13:15). Mark emphasizes that the same malady afflicts the disciples.  They suffered from hard hearts that resisted the revelation of God in Jesus (Mark 6:52; 8:17, 21). They failed to grasp the significance of Jesus’ teaching, and their failure cannot be attributed merely to intellectual incapacity.” – Thomas Schreiner[vii]

–       In short, the sins of pride, covetousness and possibly laziness are to blame.  We love the world more than we love God.  We love Monday night football more than we love reading the Scripture. We love our hobbies more than our conversations with the Lord.  And where we spend our time and money is an accurate reflection of where our affections truly lie.

–       Matthew Henry says, “It is a sin and shame for persons that are men for their age and standing in the church to be children and babes in understanding”

–       This is why James rightly says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:21 ESV)

–       We must also not misunderstand and think that the “elementary truths” are not precious, that is not what the author is stating.[viii]

–       The basics of the gospel are the foundation for understanding greater mysteries appertaining to the gospel, and to what the author is getting at here, namely the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in this context, His priesthood.

–       Thus to be “DULL OF HEARING” is to have hearts loaded down with other matters – worldly matters, and minds that are clouded with other priorities. These are sins that block the blood flow and clot the arteries of our faith, causing our thirst for the knowledge of God to dry up.

–       We need hearts whose desires are to follow hard after Christ, not spend endless years on spiritual life support!

And why is this?  Because you are “unskilled in the word of righteousness”

CHARGE #2 – Unskilled in the Word of Righteousness – 5:13-14a

–       Philip Hughes writes, “The author is now seeking, as it were, to wean them from the debility of the milk-stage, into which they have sunk back, and bring them on to the solid diet of the doctrine of the high priesthood of Christ, who, as their Melchizedeck, is the King of Righteousness (7:1).”

–       When the author describes the “mature” the Greek word is teleios (tel-ay-oss), which has the idea of something brought to its end, completeness, it is perfect, it is fully grown, it is consummated.

–       The immature are “unskilled” in the word of righteousness.  They don’t know how to handle their Bible, and consequently they are not living a life in accordance with God’s will – they aren’t pressing on toward “completeness” (Phil. 3:12)[ix]

–       This admonition comes in the context of learning, therefore the call is for God’s children to have discernment about sound teaching and a developed taste for the sweetness of God’s Word.

o   Children have a taste for simple foods, simple drinks, and simple deserts.  Adults, however, desire couscous, cappuccino, and Crème Brulee – not peanut butter, apple juice, and popsicles.

–       NOW there are consequences to being “unskilled” in the Word of God. When you are lazy in your learning, you hurt the body of Christ and cause other people (and yourself) pain in at least two ways:

1. You use the Sword of the Word in an unwieldy way and lead others astray, therefore causing great pain and spreading sour milk (to use the author’s dairy term) around the church.

2. You are completely impotent as a comforter to those who are hurting, in need of wisdom, or exhortation.  This means you cannot effectively correct and guide your children, encourage your wife, lead others in a Bible study, or share with those in pain. You’ve essentially benched yourself

–       The “mature” have a right knowledge of God resulting in the ability to discern between good and evil in all things. This “discerning” is shorthand for living in such a way that reflects God’s work within you – it means loving others and God, and is the result of a renewed mind and transformed heart.

–       Being able to discern between good and evil, then, is the fruit of a life transformed by God.  It is the evidence of faith, and the outward reality of a changed heart within us.[x]   And it is God’s prerogative to use the instrument of His Word and Spirit to do this.

But how is that achieved? How is it said that we obtain this discernment?

The Remedy: Discernment Attained by “Constant Practice” – 5:14b

–       Here we learn how this discernment is achieved: by constant practice.  This means, no doubt, that we must be continually abiding in the Word of God if we’re to grow closer to God, and live out lives transformed by God’s Spirit.

–       We would do well to examine what Paul says about the nature of “renewing our minds” and the close connection between being “renewed” and the ability to “discern the will of God.”

o   “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

–       Therefore, the discerning Christian/growing Christian is marked by time in Scripture and prayer. We must immerse ourselves in Scripture Reading, Scripture Memorization, Scripture meditation, and prayer.[xi]  We must inculcate His truths into our minds and lives.

–       This means a real application of our time, energy, and even finances to learning the deep things of God. [xii]

–       Let me suggest then that you do a few practical things:

o   Read the Word Daily: spend time taking in several chapters of the word each day.  This is more than simply one or two verses.

o   Memorize Scripture:[xiii] Chuck Swindoll says, “I know of no other single practice in the Christian life more rewarding, practically speaking, than memorizing Scripture. . . . No other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends! Your prayer life will be strengthened. Your witnessing will be sharper and much more effective. Your attitudes and outlook will begin to change. Your mind will become alert and observant. Your confidence and assurance will be enhanced. Your faith will be solidified”

o   Extended Times of Prayer: Praying for 30-60 min. greatly increases our love of time with the Lord and grows us in unexpected ways.

o   Read Good Christian Authors: Many of us spend our time reading all fiction, or all one field or another.  We need to be diverse in our reading, but first and foremost we need to read good Christian authors (I’m not talking TD Jakes or Joel Olsteen), slowly working our way up to deeper more mature reading.  Start with the modern day Christian classics: Packer’s ‘Knowing God’, Sproul’s ‘Holiness of God’, Piper’s ‘Desiring God’, Lewis’ ‘Mere Christianity’, and Schaeffer’s ‘True Spirituality’.

–       Furthermore, it is the universal witness of Scripture that calls attention to ITSELF as the instrument by which God changes us and blesses us with a closer knowledge of Him: Consider just a few examples…

o   David begins the Psalms with this important exhortation, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; [2] but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. [3] He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.” (Psalm 1:1-3)

o   And Paul writes in 2 Corinthians the following, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

–       We behold that “glory” today by reading the Word of God.  The glory of God is mediated through the written Word of God and effectively applied to our hearts by the Spirit of God. This is what transforms us by “constant practice.”

–       Matthew Henry rightly states, “The word of God is food and nourishment to the life of grace: As new born babes desire the sincere milk of the word that you may grow thereby.

–       And yet again, we must read as much with our hearts as with our minds, applying both to the task.  As C.H. Spurgeon says:

o   “If you had a New Testament in Greek it would be very Greek to some of you, but it would do you as much good to look at that as it does to look at the English New Testament unless you read with understanding heart.”[xiv]

And so now you see the thrust of what we’re getting at here.  We have a heart problem when it comes to learning about God and it is only through the implanted Word and by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are changed and transformed. And that leads the Apostle to his final exhortation…

The Exhortation – 6:1-2

–       “Leave” here does not mean “forsake”, for the author clarifies by stating “not laying again a foundation”, in other words you need to start building on the foundation.

–       Imagine a home where the builders laid the foundation, got the plumbing and electrical set in, built the cement blocks structure and decided to take a break…for a few years!  The structure is exposed to the elements until the rest of the house can be built upon it. Rain hits it. Snow sits upon it in winter…and the heat of the sun bakes it in the summer.  Left as it is, water creeps into crevices and freezes, thereby expanding and cracking the cement blocks. The process repeats itself over and over, until finally decay starts to take place.  So the construction crew has to come and rebuild the foundation again.  What the author of Hebrews is saying is that these men and women in the church had let that foundation rot and deteriorate over and over and over.  They just kept on rebuilding!  The outline was already in place; they’d done it before.  No problem, just replace those blocks!  We need to build upon the foundation, not become so complacent in our learning that that we’re stuck in a perpetual process of groundbreaking!!!

–       This is not to say that we don’t cherish the foundation, of course. For we continually point people to the foundation points of the gospel – and we too need to be continually reminded about them and revel in their glories![xv]  However, we build upon this foundation in order to plumb the deeper mysteries and glories of Christ.[xvi] 

–       At the heart of the Spirit’s work within us is His desire for us to know Christ more. Not to move on from the Gospel, but to better understand and appreciate the profundity of it glory.

–       We are called to “go on toward maturity”, to bring to fullness that which God has started within us.  We do not do this in our flesh, but in cooperation with His Holy Spirit who applies the Word we read to our hearts (which I will mention more in just a minute)

–       Therefore we must be continually putting ourselves in a position to learn more, to hear the Word more, to pray more.  These are the meat and potatoes of the Christian life!  It is in these things that “solid food” is apprehended and consumed.

Finally, the Apostle does not stop with this exhortation, but goes on to deliver a comforting reminder (read verse 3)

 

The Reminder: God is Sovereign – 6:3

–       Along with the exhortation, the author delivers an indicative statement about the character of God.  You see, God never gives commands (imperatives) without first laying the foundation for the ability to obey those commands.  This ability, this foundation, is always grounded in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the power of God the Spirit working within us.

–       Verse 3 reminds us that all we do, all we strive for, is done by both the permission and the power of God.  He is the one who is cleansing our hearts and renewing our minds and He will give us the faith to press on, and the discernment to do His will. For as Paul says:

o   “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. [2] For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. [3] For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3a)

–       Furthermore, we can rest in the fact that it is God – the all powerful – who is working within us.  Yet we are exhorted to obey, and held responsible as new creations to work toward holiness.  For as Paul says elsewhere:

 o   Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  (Philippians 2:12-13)

–       Therefore we note once again that God desires for us to know Him.  And it is His working in and through us that will help us do so.  Yet we as Christians are responsible to seek His face, to confess our sins, to pray and ask the Lord to change the desires of our hearts and conform our will to His in order that we might be able to discern what is right and that from a changed heart and a renewed mind, we will please and honor Him.

 

Conclusion

And so in all of this we again see the three things I mentioned above:

  1. God’s desire and purpose for His image bearers is that we know Him. This call is especially so for believers who have been united to Christ
  2. Our growth in maturity is blocked not merely by intellectual issues, but by sin and love of the world, indicating a serious heart issue
  3. God calls us to press on toward maturity in the strength He has given: in prayerful reading and studying of His Word, asking for and depending on God’s help for our increased spiritual growth

My message today has been mostly aimed at those who profess the lordship of Jesus Christ and are followers and believers in His name.  However, if you have been listening to this message and feel a stirring in your heart to know God, then I would implore you to seek Him while He may be found.  Act on that conviction and surrender your heart to His call.  We are all sinners, we have all acted against the law of God which has been emblazoned on our consciences.  We know right from wrong, yet we have spurned the Lord and Creator of all that is right.  All men will one day give account for their behavior during this life.  Only in repentance and faith in Jesus are you able to be saved from the consequences of your sin.  Jesus not only promises (and delivers) forgiveness, He promises and gives a healed heart and transformed life to those who call on Him and believe in His name.  You must trust yourself, your heart and your soul and your entire life to His command.  If you have come to a point where you realize the condemning nature of your sin, and the need for salvation, then I urge you to surrender and be forgiven and receive eternal life in the name of Jesus.

For those of you who have heard this message and are followers of Christ, I urge you to take this calling seriously and work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Realize that God is calling you not to a life of intellectual boredom, but to a renewed mind and transformed heart — a mind which sees terrors as joys and trials as blessings.  A mind and heart that look through the gray havens of today to the eternal riches of His presence in heaven.

We can do this, as Christians, by prayerful meditation on the Word of God.  By asking God to change our hearts’ desires to match that of His Son’s.  By continual “hearing of the Word” and submitting your lives joyfully to its teaching.  This will bring you both peace and joy and give you great strength when all else seems to fail.

None of this can be done alone, can it?  That is why we have the fellowship of the church.  And so I admonish you to stir up one another toward good works, toward meditation on the word, toward times of prayer together, and apart.  That you will together as a congregation seek the face of the Lord with all diligence.

We will do this with His great help, and with David we say:

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! [9] Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! [10] Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice! [11] Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually! [12] Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered, [13] O offspring of Israel his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones! (1 Chronicles 16:8-13) 

 

[i] This is also seen in Exodus 33:11, 17 and 18.  Moses is talking to God and God says, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (vs. 17). This follows close on the heels of verse 11 which stated, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend…” So what we see is that God has initiated a personal relationship with Moses (keep in mind this is in the Old Testament, for those of you who think God has somehow changed and is more loving and personal now because of Jesus).  Moses’ reaction is what our reaction ought to be when God changed our heart, “Please show me your glory” (vs. 18b).  Moses’ reaction is “I want to know you more!”  That is the proper reaction toward a God who has entered into a personal relationship with us!

[ii] (Is. 49:6, 60:3)

[iii] Matthew 5:16; Acts 13:47

[iv] Owen is right to cite 1 Corinthians 2 which says, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—[46] not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.” (John 6:45-46).  Paul then goes on to say, “ [10] these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10)

[v] Hughes makes a wonderful point that the fact that they have “become” dull of hearing means that at one point they were not dull, they have regressed.  Therefore it is not a mental, or intellectual issue he’s dealing with, nor is it a communication problem with what the author is saying to them, rather it is a problem of the heart.

[vi] In the Reformation Study Bible R.C. Sproul says, “The Greek word translated “dull” reappears in 6:12 (translated as “sluggish”), suggesting that the danger of spiritual laziness is in view throughout this section.

[vii] This quote from Schreiner is from his New Testament Biblical Theology, Page 512.

[viii] These are foundational truths, as John MacArthur says, “the phrase is equivalent to the gospel of salvation by faith rather than works.

[ix] Again we see the call to Spiritual maturity, which is more than simply “intellectual sophistication” (Sproul). And while none of us will reach our “completeness” in this life, yet we agree with Paul who says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12)

[x] As Paul says, “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Cor. 2:15-16a)

[xi] I like what Tony Reinke says on reading through the Bible in a year, “Reading the Bible from cover to cover in 2013 is a noble goal. And it’s a goal that positions us well to commune with God. Keep communion as your aim, and remember the words of Scripture are there for us to know God’s heart, to commune with the Living Christ, and to respond appropriately to his beauty and to his voice.”  The thing this passage really stresses as a result of diving deep in the word of God is the ability to have discernment between what is good and what is bad (vs. 14).  But there are obviously many other benefits to spending time in God’s word, which flow from a renewed mind, and a transformed heart.  Here’s the link: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/why-we-read-the-bible

[xii] I don’t know where to put this, or if it really even fits in, but there is such a stark contrast between our own affections and those of the angels in Zechariah 3.  Here we see that they are completely obsessed with adorning Joshua (the High Priest at the time) with the best robe etc. in order that God will be pleased.  Their minds are continually thinking “how can I please God in my actions?”  They are obsessed with that!  So also was the Apostle Paul.  When you take the entire corpus of his work, his writing, you’ll see a man so transfixed on Jesus that in order to summarize his entire mission to the Corinthians he says that he resolved to know nothing else but Christ and Him crucified.  Christ permeates Paul’s writing to such an extent that it would be impossible to read around it.  Paul’s entire lens of thinking was seen through the Lordship prism of Jesus.  Jesus was all to him.  So should it be with us – but this means we must have hearts that are desirous of this and not simply our own obsessions and hobbies.  Everything must play the servant to Christ. All desires and all hobbies, all people and all family must be His second fiddle.

[xiii] Dallas Willard, professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, wrote, “Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization” (“Spiritual Formation in Christ for the Whole Life and Whole Person” in Vocatio, Vol. 12, no. 2, Spring, 2001, p. 7). http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-memorize-scripture

[xiv] He says a ton of great things here.  Just a few sentences later Spurgeon goes on to say, “It is the spirit, the real inner meaning, that is sucked into the soul, by which we are blessed and sanctified. We become saturated with the Word of God, like Gideon’s fleece, which was wet with the dew of heaven; and this can only come to pass by our receiving it into our minds and hearts, accepting it as God’s truth, and so far understanding it as to delight in it. We must understand it, then, or else we have not read it aright.”   http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1503.htm

[xv] Peter O’Brien says it well, “the author is not suggesting that they should leave behind the gospel for some form of deeper or fuller instructions for initiates. There is no proposal here that the listeners should abandon these basic truths. Indeed, the author reminds them of some of the essential elements of the foundation by immediately listing them. His point is that they are not to lay again the basis of elementary teaching, but to make progress by building on it. The solid food they need is a development of the themes of repentance and faith, resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment’, in the light of the author’s exposition of the high priesthood of Christ.”

[xvi] In the context of Hebrews 5 the call is to understand better the mystery of the priesthood of Christ.

Relying on the Supernatural Power of Christ for Life and Strength

Below is a sermon I preached this past week on John 18:1-27.  It is the story of Peter’s three denials, and the power of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The weakness of man contrasted so clearly against the backdrop of Christ’s majestic power is hard to miss.  I hope you find the notes enjoyable!

Impotency and Sufficiency: Relying on the Supernatural Power of Christ for Life and Strength

Chapter 18:1-27

Introduction/Overview

The more I read this section of Scripture, and the more I prayed about this message, the heavier the burden became to examine with you a few very simple, yet profound truths this morning.

First, the hopeless, helpless condition of Peter and all humanity who might try and save themselves – and indeed there is a need of saving.

Second, the majestic power of Jesus displayed in the saving power of His gospel. His very name brings men to their knees, and His triumph is through tragedy – and so also can yours be if you trust in His power and not your own.

Background

Now in the lead up to the events we’ve just read about that transpired the morning that Jesus Christ was captured and taken prisoner have been enumerated in chapters 13-17.  It has been a few months since you studied these passages, so let me just remind you that Jesus had come into Jerusalem riding on a colt – people triumphantly praising His arrival, which John details in chapter 12.

Then, John records an extraordinary series of teachings from Jesus to His disciples in the final hours of His life before the early morning events we read about in chapter 18.  These final chapters (13-17) are called his “farewell discourses”, though chapter 17 is really just a prayer between Him and the Father. This prayer is typically called ‘The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus.’

And having spent time on this already, I will not review all that was said, except to remind you that in that prayer Jesus explicitly prayed for His disciples, and not for the “world.”  He makes special mention of those who He came to save, and makes intercession on their behalf.  You really get the feeling from chapter 17 that there is a plan that is unfolding hour by hour here, that the Father and the Son who is filled with the Spirit are working in complete coordination on the unfolding of their glory in a way that will seem terrible and confusing to any bystander unacquainted with Jesus’ teaching.

The main thing to realize coming into this chapter is that Jesus is in complete control over that plan, and over every hour and indeed every moment of His life. As Jesus has already told us in chapter 10:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. [18] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18 ESV)

Now, let’s get into the text before us…

18:1-5 When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. [2] Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. [3] So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. [4] Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” [5] They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.

The Context

The brook “Kidron” is the Hebrew name for “Cedron” and means “dark waters”, and as A.W. Pink says is “emblematic of that black stream through which He was about to pass.”  The brook was on the east side of the city and eventually flows into the Dead Sea.  It runs between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives some 200 feet below the base of the outer court of the Temple – it was on the west side of the city that Jesus was crucified (Pink/Josephus/Carson).

Pink notes the fulfillment of a few OT types:

…in crossing the brook Cedron, accompanied by His disciples, another Old Testament type was most strikingly fulfilled. In 2 Samuel 15 (note particularly verses 23, 3-, 31) we read of David, at the time of his shameful betrayal by his familiar friend Ahithophel, crossing the same brook; crossing it in tears, accompanied by his faithful followers. So David’s Son and Lord, crossed the Cedron while Judas was betraying Him to His foes.

So Jesus, having retired to a garden for prayer, to commune with the Father, is approached by a band of men led by Judas the betrayer. John doesn’t give all the details that the other gospel writers do here, and I think James Boice is right that he doesn’t do this because his goal is not to focus (as with Luke) on the humanity of Christ (sweating blood for instance), but rather on the power of the Son of God.

The number of men here is likely to be around 200 or so.  From the Greek text the word “cohort” usually is meant 1,000 men including cavalry, but the noun used here is speira which “can refer to a ‘maniple’ of only 200 men, and it is not necessary to assume that an entire maniple was present” (Carson/MacArthur).  The size of the group is an indication of the caution the Romans had during feast days when they would consolidate their troops in Jerusalem and garrison them at Antonia (Carson) in order to control any uprisings among the Jews.

In any case, the way that John has laid out the text here is to show that Jesus is in control of all of these events. Note that He picks the place where He will be found.  He doesn’t try to run to a new secret location knowing that Judas is on the loose etc.  No.  He goes to a familiar place, and knows full well that Judas will certainly find Him and fulfill a plan laid long before the foundation of the world.

Notice also that Jesus is the one who begins the confrontation with the soldiers. He initiates the conversation.  Though the scene must have been frightening, a mob of men with torches and weapons in the middle of the night, Jesus isn’t caught off guard or surprised by the arrival of this band of men.

John’s point about the knowledge and planning of the Son couldn’t be made more clear, “knowing all that would happen to Him,” John tells us that Jesus was in the drivers seat.

As John MacArthur says, “The apostle skillfully demonstrates that the shameful, debasing things done to Christ failed to detract from His person, but rather offered decisive proof of His glory.”

Some Practical Takeaways on Suffering

As we see Christ face the cross with utter certainty that the Father is with Him (John 17), we can take with us the promise that He is always with us no matter where we go, or what we go through (Matt. 28). Come what may, be it the loss of a loved one, or of a job, or whatever, He is with us, guiding our life with meticulous sovereignty (Ware).  Do you think God is taken by surprise by any of this?

He knows the details of your life because He ordained the details of your life. Even the sickness and the death. Even the loss and the letdown. God planned it all from before the world began.  And if you are not a Christian then you have no lens to properly view these events. They are foggy, and disheartening, and potentially even devastating. Without the eyes of Christ you are driving 80 mph through dense fog all the while hoping for the best and yet still surprised when you hit a pole.

Death and sickness and tragedy will come – we are promised they will come. But we who have Christ must view these events in their proper perspective – not simply as allowed by God but ordained by Him for our good and His glory. That is another sermon altogether! But needless to say that the God whose hand was in the suffering and death of His Son is also in your life – not just to make you appreciate the good times, but to fashion you after His Son in order that you might have true joy both now and forever in heaven.

18:6-11 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. [7] So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” [8] Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” [9] This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” [10] Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) [11] So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

PART 1: The Power of the Son of God

Now we come to passage that is so majestic and so profound in its display of Christ’s power that I can hardly find the right words to describe what we read here.

The mob is looking for the man Jesus. They obviously don’t know which one He is.  But Jesus readily identifies Himself as who they are looking for.  And He does this by stating “I am he.” This phrase is ego eimiand it is undoubtedly the open declaration of Jesus as Jehovah.

Throughout Scripture, the revelation of the name of God and the glory of God has had a similar affect on men. It is the beautiful glory of His holiness which confounds men.

In Isaiah 6 the response of Isaiah to the holiness of God is similar:

[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. [5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  (Isaiah 6:4-5 ESV)

Isaiah cowered in fear. When Isaiah behold the glory of God he was exposed and saw, perhaps for the first time, not just who God is, but who he was (Sproul).

The revelation of the name of Christ is the revelation of who He is. He isn’t just saying, “I’m the dude you’re looking for”, He’s saying, “I AM who I AM”, He is disclosing to them the personal name of YHWY.

What happened here is hard to explain, but I believe it’s a preview of what Paul says will happen when Jesus returns:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 ESV)

In that day men will either voluntarily bow in humble joy, or they will hit the dirt simply out of necessity.  This is what happens here.  The overpowering presence and revelation of the Son of God brings them to their knees. There are no choices here. All those who boldly proclaimed headship over their lives will suddenly realize the oxygen they suck has been a precious gift from the one who upholds all the planets by the power of His word (Heb. 1:1-3).

Such is the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what we need to take away from this passage.  He is supreme. His power is so exacting, so overwhelming that at the mere mention of His name soldiers, criminals, and traitors eat the dirt their bones were fashioned from.

When they enter his airspace (so to speak) in that garden, they are on holy ground. They have dared to come before the burning bush without taking off the sandals, and in their ignorance and impudence they’ve come to apprehend the One who fashioned the cells of their existence. So we see here that the character and majestic holiness of Jesus is bound up in the name, and the revelation of this is too much for the finite soul to really process. It’s like a lightening storm that overwhelms your home’s circuits. The power is invisible to you but for a flash of light and then the power surges through all your electronic gear until your stuff is completely fried by the magnitude of that power.

Jesus, who has dwelt with the Father in unapproachable light from eternity past has cracked open a smidgen of His glory and it’s enough to level a mob.

Simply incredible.

Remember this in the coming weeks because when you think of the power of Jesus leveling a mob simply by the revelation of His name, you will begin to realize the obvious: He could easily have skipped the whole dying on the cross thing if He so desired.  And that’s the key word, is it not?  DESIRE.  Oh how different His are from ours!  Oh the infinite power, infinite knowledge bound up in the person of Jesus. Yet He allowed Himself to be taken as a lamb to the slaughter …for us! That’s His mission. He wields His power and knowledge with wisdom and His plans are never foiled.

Therefore, it was the purpose of Christ to surrender in order that He might conquer for our sakes.  Which leads me to my next point…

The Purpose of His Command

In the midst of this whole confusing scene, Jesus is obviously still in complete control, to the point where He issues and a command that the mob let His disciples go.  And, they do! Of course they do – for it is obvious who is controlling this situation…the man without a club, sword or staff.

But why?  In order to find the answer we need to flip back to chapter 17 where Jesus says this:

[12] While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12 ESV)

Here He is speaking of the disciples. But He goes on:

[20] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21 ESV)

That’s us!  That’s you, that’s me!

The purpose is so that his prayer and plan might come to pass for us. Even in the midst of all this seeming chaos, Jesus is getting everything He wants. There’s no coloring outside the lines here.  The picture is coming together just as He has foreordained, and that includes the gracious provision to allow His disciples to make it to safety, and bring us safely home to heaven.

This might be something that you recall from the final discourses as well, but in the hours leading up to Jesus’ arrest and betrayal, He is not focused whatsoever on His own impending pain, but on taking care that He imparts all the knowledge necessary to His disciples. He cares more about comforting them and keeping them from harm than saving His own skin. John perhaps encapsulates this best early in chapter 13 when he states:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

The Powerlessness and Futility of Our Efforts…

As we continue on, remember the power He displayed here, and marvel at His obedience. All of this when compared to Peter’s feeble efforts at saving his master surely puts our own human strength into focus does it not?  Peter’s rush to “do something” in the moment turns out to be the wrong thing. It is not that Peter is not valiant, or courageous, for perhaps he is…though I suspect he acted out of fear.

But what John is highlighting here by leaving this part in about Peter is to say that humanly speaking we try so very hard to be in control.  We lash out against the breakers as they come crashing down on our beachhead, as if we can stop them by our own power.  The futility of man and the power of God stand in contrast to each other, as we’ll see further in this next section, but the antithetical parallels with man in our fallen state are striking.

A.W. Pink notes some of the differences between Adam in the Garden of Eden, and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane…

    • In Eden, Adam and Eve parleyed with Satan; in Gethsemane, the last Adam sought the face of His Father.
    • In Eden, Adam fell; in Gethsemane, the Redeemer conquered.
    • In the one Adam fell before Satan; in the other, the soldiers fell before Christ.
    • In Eden, Adam took the fruit from Eve’s hand; in Gethsemane, Christ received the cup from His Father’s hand.
    • In Eden, Adam hid himself; in Gethsemane Christ boldly showed Himself.
    • In Eden, God sought Adam; in Gethsemane, the last Adam sought God!

18:12-27 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. [13] First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. [14] It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.

[15] Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, [16] but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. [17] The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” [18] Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.

[19] The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. [20] Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. [21] Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” [22] When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” [23] Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” [24] Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

[25] Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” [26] One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” [27] Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.

A Mockery of Justice

Jesus has been taken away and in this passage of Scripture is brought before Annas and then before his son in law Caiaphas. Annas is not currently the high priest, but has been in the past, and is so powerful that he is actively involved in the affairs of temple and his son in law’s administration of things.

In his commentary on the book of Acts, Martyn Llyod-Jones gives some great background on these men:

Caiaphas, the high priest, was just a Sadducee write large.  It was his job to preside over the Sanhedrin. Annas, the father in law of Caiaphas, had been high priest but had been deposed by the Romans. The Jews, however, still regarded him as high priest. Both Annas and Caiaphas were well in with one another. Also present were john and Alexander, but we know nothing about them.

There were two trials – one from the Jews, and one from the Romans. John’s narrative isn’t as concerned with the trials as it is with Christ – who is He, and what is His mission.

There were two trials, one Jewish and one Roman. The former began with informal examination by Annas (18:12-14, 19-23), possibly while members of the Sanhedrin were being hurriedly summoned. A session of the Sanhedrin (Mt. 26:57-68; Mk. 14:53-65) with frank consensus was followed by a formal decision at dawn and dispatch to Pilate (Mt. 27:1-2; Luke 22:66-71). The Roman trial began with a first examination before Pilate (Mt. 27:11-14; Jn. 18:28-38a), which was followed by Herod’s interrogation (Lk. 23:6-12) and Jesus’ final appearance before Pilate (Mt. 27:15-31; Jn. 18:38b – 19:16). (Carson)

It has been said by many who are experts in the Jewish law that these trials of Jesus were a sham.  They were actually illegal trials meant to ram through a decision based upon fear and hatred of Jesus.  The man Jesus was a threat to the socio-political stability of the Jewish state, and he needed to be dealt with.  That was the reality, and in the minds of these worldly priests, the ends justified the means.

PART II: The Weakness of Peter and Mankind

The way that John tells the story is really interesting. He weaves the denials of Peter in with the first part of the Jewish trial of Jesus.  So that the reader sees the paths of each man side by side, as it were. And Peter’s denial is set off against the meekness of the Lamb, sent to the slaughter.

While Peter is sinning, Jesus is obeying. While Peter is denying, Jesus is embracing who He is and why He came.

What should we take away from this?

Primarily this, that the good intentions of men are not enough when everything is on the line.

Remember who Peter is now…this is the man who became the boldest proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the early church. Look at what we read in Acts 4:

[12] And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

[13] Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:12-13 ESV)

The power of God was with Peter, look at what Luke tells us in the next chapter (Acts 5):

[12] Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. [13] None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. [14] And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, [15] so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. (Acts 5:12-15 ESV)

Yet…in his flesh Peter cannot own Jesus. When push comes to shove, he cannot and will not embrace or associate himself with Jesus at this point.  WHY? Well, we know enough about Peter to know that it isn’t simply because of a weak disposition within Peter.

Peter cannot and will not embrace Christ when the rubber meets the road because he is a fallen man and does not have the restorative power of the Holy Spirit working actively in his life.

Remember what side of the cross Peter is on. The difference between Peter after Pentecost and before is manifested in a big way here in John 18.  Peter is given the chance to identify with Christ, with His Lord, and instead of doing so He cowers.

C.H. Spurgeon explains the phenomenon:

Why is it that Christ Jesus is so little beloved? Why are even his professed followers so cold in their affections to him? Whence arise these things? Assuredly, dear brethren, we can trace them to no other source than this, the corruption and vitiation of the affections. We love that which we ought to hate, and we hate that which we ought to love. It is but human nature, fallen human nature, that man should love this present life better than the life to come. It is but the effect of the fall, that man should love sin better than righteousness, and the ways of this world better than the ways of God. And again, we repeat it, until these affections be renewed, and turned into a fresh channel by the gracious drawings of the Father, it is not possible for any man to love the Lord Jesus Christ. (‘Human Inability’, 1858)

This is where we find Peter, and this is where we find ourselves apart from the grace of Christ.

We are fallen men and women.  Sin is not simply what we do, it’s who we are – we are sinners. And to be a sinner, part of Adam’s fallen race, is to be without hope apart from the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Paul tells us of these truths in Romans 5:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin and so death spread to all men because all sinned – for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. (Romans 5:12-15)

But the power of Christ, endued to rebels, aliens, and blasphemers transforms by the Spirit of God, and conforms (us) from a product of the first Adam into the image of the Second. As Paul says:

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. [17] Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:16-18 ESV)

Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

…it is the discovery of this divine excellency of Christ that makes them constant to Him: for it makes so deep an impression upon their minds that they cannot forget Him; they will follow Him whithersoever He goes, and it is in vain for any endeavor to draw them away from Him.

What Would You Have Done?

So because of the fall our natural state is one of deadness spiritually, and we naturally hate the light of the Gospel (John 3:19-21). Yet, there are many people who read of the fall in Genesis, and they think, “If I were there I would have done better!”  But that’s just the thing – you wouldn’t have done better.  Likewise you might think that if you were in the courtyard that night you wouldn’t have betrayed Jesus.

Well let me tell you, without the Spirit of God strengthening you, you would certainly have failed, just like Peter did.

Adam represented the very height of creation in the garden, yet he still sinned.  Peter was the most courageous man in the band of 12 – heck, he just cut off the ear of a guard! But his false courage was exposed when the rubber met the road, and yours would have as well.

Apart from Christ we are all lost.  We are blind men boldly marching in midnight toward a fiery grave. Ignorant of our fate we relish and proclaim a fool’s independence.  We affectionately treasure our world while spitting on the One who created it for us. This is our condition apart from Christ (Romans 5:10).  What a horrific state of affairs!

These realities are expressed in Peter and in the lives of millions of lost people around the world.  They’re in our neighborhoods, they’re in the grocery stores, they’re not just in India they’re in your Bible study!

***Chapter 18 ought to remind us how much Christ prized us and how little we prized Him. If Adam represented us in the garden, Peter represented us in the courtyard: Liars.  Frauds. Cowards.  Apart from Christ in the dark night of his soul, he flees into the darkness of night leaving the Prince of Light to single-handedly parry with the heaviest concentration of evil ever seen on this earth. And parry He does…much more than this He overcomes! …but that’s for future Sunday mornings!

Our Need and His Love

Our need is now obvious. If you were in the garden, in the courtyard, at the temple, you would also have betrayed Christ.  So our need for salvation cannot be met by our own efforts to cling to Christ. We don’t have the strength – when it comes down to it, we don’t even have the desire!

In these parallel accounts we see first the power of Christ, and also the weakness and failure of Peter.  But we know how the story ends, do we not? Jesus restores Peter, forgives Peter. And that same arm of restoration has been extended to us, as Paul says in Romans 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

Theologian R.C. Sproul says “The passage also teaches us, especially in light of Peter’s later restoration, what kind of people Jesus died to save. He had no need to die for people who are sinless, for there are no such people. Have gave Himself for people who have it in them to betray Him, people like you and me. However, He will never betray those on whom He sets His love, but will love them faithfully for all time.”

Surely if this passage shows us anything it is the contrast between our Lord’s power and our power, our Lord’s disposition and our natural disposition, our natural desires and His heavenly desires.  Surely His love looks greater and greater the more we look at Peter and our own souls.

This is where He finds us.  Praise God He has not passed us over, but has shed His grace and mercy upon us, the underserving, the helpless, the hopeless in order that we may be given a hope that will never fail.

What is Our Response to These Things? 

Therefore, how do we rightly respond to these truths?

If you have not come to know Christ personally as your savior, if you have not been made alive from the spiritual death to which you were born into this world, then today is the day of salvation. Now is the time to bow to the ground and kiss the Son, submit to His Lordship.

Jesus’ gospel is simple and life changing. In verse 11 we read that He was going to drink of the “cup” that the Father had for Him.  That cup was filled with the wrath that rests on your soul right now if you aren’t a Christian.  John says earlier in chapter 3:

[36] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36 ESV)

There is everlasting life and peace with Jesus. There is joy and eternal bliss that has been reserved for those who trust in Him now.  Jesus doesn’t promise an easy road, but He promises life instead of death. You aren’t guaranteed another day or another hour of life. I pray that you will submit to His love and His lordship today.

For those of us who are children of God, saved from the wrath of the Father because of the work of Christ on the cross, we must not miss the importance of this text.

Today let us remember the beautiful thing about the gospel – Jesus does all the work. The same power that leveled an angry mob upholds us through the darkness and pain of life, and vanquishes our enemies. You no doubt have difficulties you’re battling today.  Are you leaning on your own strength?  Or are you resting in the name of the Son of God.

Peter thought he had it together, he thought he had the stuff to succeed.  But he learned the hard way that leaning on Christ is the only way to make it through this life.

For those of you who are believers, we must cling to the promises of God, and abide in His truth, knowing that He is faithful. In order to do that, we must be knowledge about what He says in His Word. Therefore, let me give you four things to take away from this passage:

  1. We must trust in His promises as Jesus trusted in the Father until the final breath of His life. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says it best:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

  1. We must fill our minds with His word. Speak it when you lie down, and when you are out running errands. And as you meditate on and memorize the word of God, pray to the Lord and ask for His help to understand it and deeply engrain it in your mind so that when you face a “Peter Moment” you will have the sword ready to go.  As Paul says:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. [14] Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, [15] and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. [16] In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; [17] and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, [18] praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, (Ephesians 6:13-18 ESV)

  1. Put your mind and efforts into serving Him and others in obedience and with love through thick and thin. Those who are selflessly serving others bear those “Peter moments” better because they are grounded in the reality that others are more important, and that their citizenship is in heaven. Peter was so wrapped up in his own welfare that when it came to dying for Christ he was far from ready. Remember the words of Paul in Philippians:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, (Philippians 2:4-5 ESV)

  1. Lastly, when the crisis comes, do not lean on your own understanding as Peter did here (Prov. 3:5), but trust in the Lord even when you can’t see for the night that is closing in around you.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. [6] In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV)

Samuel Rutherford said, “My shallow and ebb thoughts are not the compass Christ saileth by. I leave his ways to himself, for they are far, far above me…There are windings and to’s and fro’s in his ways, which blind bodies like us cannot see.”

We must therefore look to the power of the Man in the garden, and realize that we can trust that He is who He says He is. Make yourself weak in your own eyes, and trust in His strength – the strength of the great I AM who sustains you and the whole world. Lean on His promises and trust that He is who He says He is.

Let’s close by examining the great words of Paul in Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? [32] He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? [33] Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. [34] Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. [35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [36] As it is written,

            “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

            we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

[37] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [38] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)

 

Jesus Beats Death

I year or so ago I had the opportunity to teach through John 11 in my sunday school, and recently – this past Monday – I was able to revisit this chapter and spend two hours going through each verse with a lady’s Bible study group at my parent’s home church.  What resulted from this was a rather lengthy exposition of the chapter, but some refreshed notes which I’ve posted below.  My hope is that these notes will be edifying to those who are interested in seeing how this man Jesus had an amazing power during His earthly life.  He was able to do things no man has ever done.  Consequently, many believed in Him.  Still, even His great acts were not enough for some to trust that He was who He claimed to be.

In John 11 this is what happens.  Jesus performs an amazing miracle, and the reaction is quite mixed.  The man who benefits from the miracle has been dead for fully 4 days. The stench of death was likely setting in, and no one ever though of the man coming back to life. Certainly there was a hope for the future – in what Martha terms “the resurrection on the last day”…but what happened next never occurred to anyone present….

John Chapter 11

An Exposition

Introduction

The main thrust of John 11 seems to be two-fold: to show forth the glory and honor of Jesus Christ as the true Son of God, and to show how Lazarus was a type of Christ – remembering that Jesus would soon triumph over the grave to the glory of God in Christ.

Section 1: vs. 1-16 – The Plans of God for the Glory of Christ

Section 2: vs. 17-27 – Abramatic Faith & ‘Ego Eimi’

Section 3: vs. 28-44 – The Sovereign Power of the Son of God

Section 4: vs. 45-57 – Heart of Darkness: The Power of Unbelief

 

Section 1 – The Plans of God for the Glory of Christ

11:1-2 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

The Bethany mentioned here is not the one across the Jordan. D.A. Carson gives us the background:

This Bethany, lying on the east side of the Mount of Olives less than two miles from Jerusalem along the road to Jericho, has not been mentioned in the Fourth Gospel before, and must be distinguished from the Bethany of 1:28 and that alluded to in 10:40-42. That is why John characterizes it as the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

John’s editorial note in verse two that “it was Mary who anointed the Lord” helps us understand that John is assuming his readers would have heard of this story from the synoptic gospels. It could also be a literary/stylistic devise he is employing to prime the reader for more to come (namely in chapter 12:3).

11:3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Boice makes a good point that the sisters don’t directly make an appeal to the Lord here for help, though that is almost certainly what their goal was…

I do not think that it is fair to say on this basis that no request was implied. Clearly there was the implication that they would like Jesus to come to their aid, and there was certainly the suggestion that he might help them by healing Lazarus. If this is not implied, there was no point even in sending Christ the message. But at the same time, we cannot miss feeling that when they phrased the report as the did – “Lord, the one you love is sick” – they indicated by the form of it that they were seeking his will rather than theirs in the matter.

I suppose it is also necessary to address the fact that some say that by the way Mary and Martha address Lazarus as the one “loved” by Christ, that Lazarus is perhaps the author of this gospel and not John – there are other times, of course, when the author refers to himself as the “beloved” of the Lord.  But this argument unravels in several ways, not the least of which is that the word “love” here is phileo whereas the word the gospel writer uses to describe the Lord’s affection for him is agape.

Lastly, I think what is instructive about this verse is that the Lord spent His days on earth loving others. This was so apparent that it practically dominates the opening sections of this chapter.  Christ called us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), and to love our neighbor/others (Mark 12:31). He was not a hypocrite in His teaching, He lived out this love – it was this love that motivated His every action and controlled His every move. It was out of love that He was sent to earth in the first place (Eph. 1:5 indicates His will for our adoption as sons).

11:4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

The Meaning of “Glorified”

What does it mean that God would be “glorified” through it?  We see that Jesus is saying that the reason why Lazarus has been sick  (at this point he has not died) is so that “the Son of God may be glorified.”

In Scripture there are at least three different ways/modes God can be glorified (generally speaking). First is in the revealing of His character, second is in the reflection of His character (among His people), and third is in the praises/worship/acknowledgement/agreement of His people (which is essentially His people agreeing with Him that He is praiseworthy, that He is great etc.).

It seems that, usually, we think of giving God glory by praising Him. But in this account I believe that Jesus is almost certainly referring to the revealing of His person/deity and not specifically seeking praise. To put it another way, He is not going to do the miracle so that He can receive praises from men, but rather to show men that He is praiseworthy. It is to provide further revelation of His character and being as the true Son of God.

D.A. Carson comments:

…the raising of Lazarus provides an opportunity for God, in revealing his glory, to glorify his Son, for it is the Father’s express purpose that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father…The Father and the Son are mutually committed to the other’s glory.

Is that not fantastic?! MacArthur also finds this to be the central theme of the text in front of us:

The most important theme in the universe is the glory of God. It is the underlying reason for all God’s works, from the creation of the world, to the redemption of fallen sinners, to the judgment of unbelievers, to the manifestation of His greatness for all eternity in heaven…Everything God created gives Him glory – except fallen angels and fallen men. And even they, in a negative sense, bring Him glory, since He displays His holiness by judging them.

It is this revealing of God’s character through created things, through His plan, and through His Son that we are to focus on here. Specifically, of course, on the revealing of the glory of the Son, which MacArthur says, “blazes in this passage against a dark backdrop of rejection and hatred on the part of the Jewish leaders.”

The great signs (of which this is the 7th and final in John’s gospel) of this book point to the character of Jesus Christ and His true identity as the Son of God. They also provide us with a solid reason for faith in His word and in our future with Him. Likewise, the miracle that we’re about to read of bolstered the faith of the disciples and those who were near Christ. The primary reason for the miracle (to bring glory to God and Christ Jesus) leads to the secondary reason, the bolstering of our faith.

How Lazarus Points Forward to the Pleasure of God in Christ

Certainly one of the most difficult things for us humans to deal with is the truth that God, in His eternal purposes, has allowed, yea even willed, for terrible calamity to befall those whom He loves.  Spurgeon once preached a message on this passage in John and said this:

The love of Jesus does not separate us from the common necessities and infirmities of human life. Men of God are still men. The covenant of grace is not a charter of exemption from consumption, or rheumatism, or asthma.

We see here that God’s purpose was to use the suffering and death of Lazarus to reveal the glory of His Son. And likewise He can use sickness and death in our lives to both refine us (Ps. 119:71), and glorify Himself. His character is certainly made known in many ways through suffering – just think of all the times that men and women who have endured sickness have testified to the great and glorious character of Jesus Christ.

Certainly the most glaring example of suffering and death being used for God’s pleasure is the example of Jesus Christ’s own passion and death.  The story of Lazarus was not included for no reason at all in this gospel. Rather it is put here to point us to Christ, and how Christ ultimately triumphed over the grave.  We’ll talk more about that parallel in the coming texts, but for now I want to see how God was going to be glorified in the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and how He was glorified and even “took pleasure” in the death of His Son (Is. 53:10).  In that Isaiah passage we read:

But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

It is so difficult to understand how God can possibly have taken pleasure in the “crush(ing)” of His one and only Son. We can see how possibly the Father could be glorified at the end game, but to actually be “pleased” to crush Him…that takes on a whole new difficulty for us.  It’s applicable to what we’re looking at here, because I believe it will show us something of the character of God, and if we can catch a glimpse of that, perhaps we can more rightly appropriate what He is working in our lives through suffering and storms.

John Piper explains this passage in the following ways:

One part of the answer is stressed at the end of verse 10, namely, that God’s pleasure is what the Son accomplished in dying…God’s pleasure is not so much in the suffering of the Son, considered in and of itself, but in the great success of what the Son would accomplish in his suffering.

Piper continues…

The depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory. It was the Father’s righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for the sin necessary. So when the Son willingly took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: the glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value!

…the Father knew that the measure of his Son’s suffering was the depth of his Son’s love for the Father’s glory. And in that love the Father took deepest pleasure.

Scripture supports what Dr. Piper is saying.  Earlier in John’s Gospel we read the following:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17)

Piper closes his thoughts on the matter this way:

When Jesus died, he glorified the Father’s name and saved his Father’s people. And since the Father has overflowing pleasure in the honor of his name, and since he delights with unbounded joy in the election of a sinful people for himself, how then shall he not delight in the bruising of his Son by which these two magnificent divine joys are reconciled and made one!

I bring this up is because it shows the deeper purposes of God in Christ for you. We see the same thing here with Lazarus, and we see it in our own lives. Just as He took pleasure in bruising His Son, and takes pleasure in allowing you to face difficult trials for both His glory and for your refinement and sanctifications sake.  He does not glory in your pain, but sees past that and rejoices in the glory to be revealed to you – His glory.

11:5-7 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

The reason this verse (verse 5) is here is because John wanted to ensure that we understood that Christ’s reasoning in verse four in no way interfered with how we understand verse six.  In other words, it was the love of Christ that compelled him to stay away for another two days, and it was the love of Christ for His Father that motivated His obedience to wait another two days.

Also, it was the love of the Father for us that He allowed Lazarus to get sick because through this He would reveal more of His Son’s glory to His creatures. God reveals Himself to us out of love for us and a desire for us to be ushered into a love relationship with the Trinity as adopted sons and daughters of God.

Specifically, we see in the word “so” at the beginning of verse six, that Christ’s motivation for staying is born out of verse five’s “love” for the Bethany family. This is a bit mind bending, but I think it correlates well with the idea we find in other parts of Scripture that God’s ways are not our ways, and that He does many things that at the time we may not understand.  This could even be discipline or difficulties.

As I was thinking on this passage this week, one of the great passages about love reminded me of Christ’s character here. Take note of 1 Cor. 13:3-7:

Love is patient and kind;

Note the patience of Christ.  He does not rush off to see the family of Lazarus, does not run to comfort them, does not run to perform the miracle. He waits patiently for God’s plan. In His speech to the disciples He is patient and kind.  He abides their foolishness and lack of understanding. He deals with their lack of faith and misunderstanding and selfishness.

love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant [5] or rude.

Perhaps this is obvious, but Christ never boasted in Himself but allowed His truthful teaching, His actions and the testimony of others to glorify Him. Instead of being rude, He is sometimes short and to the point.  But this is not rude.  He is never seen interrupting others, but rather He is always putting others first.

It does not insist on its own way;

We might say that Christ was the one person who deserved to insist on His own way, and yet He submitted Himself to the will of the Father.

it is not irritable or resentful;

Christ was omniscient, and yet the human side of Him never was bitter for what He knew in explicit detail would one day be His demise.  He looked around Himself and was constantly surrounded by incompetence, sin, rejections, and idiotic behavior.  He could have said to Himself ‘I am really dying for this?’ but He did not. Such was the nature of His patience and longsuffering.

[6] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

Christ was never happy when something horrible happened, but often used difficulties to share the good news of the Kingdom (Luke 13:1-5).

[7] Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

Not only did Christ trust in the will of His Father and in the plan they had formulated from before the creation of the world, but He also looked forward in hope (Heb. 12) so that He was able to endure the torment of the cross.

In these ways and many more, Christ is the suffering servant; He is the very heart of love. That is why John can say that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8), because He saw it embodied first hand.

Jesus obeyed the sovereign timing of the Father rather than His emotions.  We know that He was fully human and we know He was emotional (had emotional ties to Martha and Marry and Lazarus) about this situation. But He never allowed His humanity to prevent Him from making absolutely perfect and righteous decisions.  We know His motivation, as discussed earlier, for this was love. He knew the Father’s will; He sought the Father’s mind on all things through prayer.

In our own lives this means that we need to emulate Christ.  We need to ask for His help to change our desires to match His (1 Cor. 2:16).

How many times have you been prevented from getting something, doing something, going somewhere because of situations or circumstances beyond your control?  I’m sure you can look back at times in your life when you wanted so badly to fly here or go there or do this or that but you couldn’t and perhaps as you look back on it now, it was for the better.  Presently, Kate and I would really like to sell our house.  We’d love to move closer to church and to my work. But there are many reasons beyond our understanding that prevent that right now. I do not think that anything is a coincidence or that anything is out of the control and plan of God Almighty.  Therefore I must patiently wait for His plan to unfold even amidst trial. He waited to come to them out of love, remember.

Lastly, and I touched on this a moment ago, in revealing the nature and character of the Son in this moment we also see His sovereignty. The Father has a sovereign plan, and the Son knows that all things are in the hand of the Father – this is illustrated all the more in verse 9.

11:8-10 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

We should recall that the tension between the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem and Christ was at a boiling point at this time. The Jews were so angry and threatened by Christ’s ministry that they were seeking to kill Him.

So when Christ says, “let us go to Judea again” we can perhaps understand the nature of the disciples concern…they knew full well the danger of what Jesus was suggesting.

Carson comments on the disciples’ response “they are frankly aghast.” But Christ’s response is to remind them that as long as the Father still have work for Him to do, as long as there is life in Him, He will continue to boldly (and obediently) carry out His mission here on earth.  The specific meaning, therefore, of, “are there not twelve hours in the day” is to remind them that the fullness of the days work (His ministry) had not yet faded.  “These verses metaphorically insist that Jesus is safe as long as he performs his Father’s will. The daylight period of his ministry may be far advanced, but it is wrong to quit before the twelve hours have been filled up” Carson comments.

This certainly reminds of 9:4 where Christ says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  And 9:5 actually ties nicely in with verse 10 here, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Christ once again uses the situation to remind them of a spiritual truth that He is the light of the world. All goodness, all illumination as far as truth is concerned comes from Him. He is the source of truth and understanding of that truth is also a supernatural gift from God.

Lastly, I am personally reminded of the nature of light and how it sort of symbolizes purity and cleanliness – a sort of antitheses to darkness and sickness. When finally go to be with Christ after this world has been remade and renewed, there will be no sickness and no darkness. In fact, there will be no sun because Jesus will be our only necessary light. Apart from the Son there will be only darkness. These comments foreshadow a truth that is so brilliant and so wonderful that we could linger all day upon their glories.

11:11-15 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

It wasn’t a terribly common thing in second temple culture to use the euphemism “fall asleep” for death, but if we scan the entirety of Scripture we see it is actually a very common phrase/word overall – especially in the books of Kings and Chronicles (examples: 1 Kings 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24, 10:35)

The Patience of the Son

Interesting how Christ had to explain to the disciples, at this sensitive moment, what He meant by His words. I can just see Him now patiently repeating Himself so as to make them understand His meaning, and I wonder how many other times He had to do this same thing. These are the kinds of things that make lesser men frustrated to the point of boiling over with anger. Not Jesus. He is as patient and longsuffering as ever.  What an amazing display of forbearance.

This really puts me to shame. I like to think of myself as a patient man – except, of course, when the kids or the co-workers, or someone (anyone) else has really pressed my nerves or my buttons repeatedly. Only then do I feel like I have an “excuse” to lose my temper.  This, to my own shame, was not the example of Christ.

So that You May Believe

The main thing we should take note of in these verses is that what Christ was doing was for the purposes of bringing glory to God (as mentioned earlier), and the phrase above “so that you may believe” does not modify that purpose or even add to it, but rather it explains more specifically how He will be glorified. These are not two separate items. Believing in the Son glorifies God because it gives proper due to who the Son is, and it magnifies Him.

John wrote this entire book for this purpose (John 20:30-31), and Christ’s entire mission was centered on this fundamental goal.  I hope that anyone reading this now understands that Christianity is all about Christ. He is the center of the Bible and indeed of all human history. Life (of the abundant kind) is about believing in Him, in placing full confidence in His words and surrendering to His leadership and direction.

Christ knew that He was going away soon. He knew that soon His great passion would be upon Him. Before He endured the cross, He wanted to shore up the faith of those disciples who had for so long been following His words and His teaching. He knows that they might not fully understand His words, but He knows that His words will never pass away (Matt. 24:35).  He knew that millions and millions of Christians would read these words and meditate on His character, and bring Him glory.  Remember, He is not speaking to those who do not believe, but rather to those who love Him. But He wants them to have utmost confidence that He is who He says He is, and so that for years to come they would look back on this moment and fall on their faces with thanksgiving in their hearts.

11:16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Duty vs. Joy

Thomas is called “Didymus” in the Greek, which means “twin” – Thomas is Hebrew for “twin” as well…though no one really knows who his twin was.

I think that so often we underestimate Thomas.  This is the same man who we call “Doubting Thomas”, but we see here that there is more to this man than simply cynicism (though that certainly seems to be a dominant characteristic of his nature).  He has a strong courageous streak about him, and the fact that he was willing to die for/with Christ says a lot (even though we see later that, like the other disciples, he deserts Jesus).

Mostly, though Thomas might be brave – and we can admire that in him – he is also following as a rule. It is his duty, one might say. Ridderbos says, “He is certain the to go to Judea means death for them all. Not following Jesus obviously did not occur to him as an option. But his willingness to join Jesus was a matter of accepting the inevitable, clearly without understanding anything of the joy of which Jesus had spoken, to say nothing of being able to share in it.”

Jesus went to the cross because He knew the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:1-3), but Thomas went (in his mind) to his death because it seemed like the only dutiful thing to do. While I greatly admire Thomas’ bravery and loyalty, I also want us to see that we follow Christ not out of a motivation toward blind duty, but a “duty” that is motivated by the love He has shed abroad in our hearts (a key concept in ch.15), and for the joy that lies before us in eternity.

The Precipice

This also sets in sharp relief once again just how dangerous it would have been for Jesus to go back to the Jerusalem area.  This is the moment in which life and death decisions are being made.  Christ could either stay beyond the Jordan and enjoy a vibrant ministry (10:40-42), or He could fulfill the will of the Father and accomplish His ultimate destiny and mission here on Earth.  He could save His own life, or the lives of countless millions.  Had He been but man, a mere mortal born as all other men, there’s no way we’d be even discussing this right now. The choice would be obvious. No man would put themselves in harms way like this (almost certain death) for the lives of people who weren’t his family. Ironically, Christ did this very thing in order make those who weren’t His family part of His family by sovereign adoption.   

 

Section 2 – Abramatic Faith & ‘Ego Eimi’

11:17-20 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.

It was about a one-day journey from where Jesus was ministering across the Jordan River to Bethany near Jerusalem. If Jesus had heard the news, then waited two days, then taken a day to travel to Bethany, that means that by the time the messenger arrived at Jesus Lazarus would have already been dead. This is important to note simply because we see by this timeline that Christ, knowing all that was going on here, did not kill Lazarus by not coming right away.  It isn’t as though His staying away had any affect on the situation materially. I think that is significant because if nothing else, it shows us once again how Christ in His sovereignty and His obedience to the Father’s plan stayed and waited for a specific reason (which we discussed above) and not to put Lazarus through some struggle unnecessarily or sadistically.

The second thing I want to note here is that Martha is the one who comes running to Jesus when word reaches their home that the Lord is on His way, and is nearing the village.

The reason I think this is significant has to do with what we know from other scriptures about Martha.  Martha was the one who was “busy with much serving”, so busy that she didn’t have time to sit and learn at the feet of Christ.  I don’t want to read more into this than is there, but Martha strikes me as a woman of action.  She is always on the move always doing something, she’s a “type A” personality.  So perhaps its only natural for her to sprint out to see the Lord.

But I think we might safely infer from this passage that Martha’s priorities have shifted from ones that are “busy” and self-centered, to ones that are Christ-centered. The old Martha might have said “I need to stay here and be with my sister.” This Martha realizes the centrality of Christ.  This truth is revealed further in the next few verses…

11:21-22 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

As we look at Martha’s response to the presence of our Lord it seems at first blush that she is placing a tremendous amount of faith in Him, and indeed her faith here is a beautiful thing.  She unashamedly states that, in her opinion, if Christ had been with Lazarus, he never would have died.  “Jesus” she reasons “would never have allowed my brother to die.”

She is not scolding Christ for not being there, but neither is she showing the kind of depth of faith that I first confess I saw. I thought I saw an Abrahamic type of faith – a gigantic faith.  But that is not the case as we’ll see later on, for when Christ approaches the tomb and asks that the great stone blocking its entrance be removed, Martha protests that there would be a stench!

Why is this?  Well I think its because it probably never occurred to her that Christ could or would  raise someone from the dead…perhaps her mind never got that far.  It wasn’t that she was full of despair, as we see in verse 22, for she knew that one day her brother would rise in Christ.  But she didn’t yet comprehend the power of the man she knew as Jesus.  She didn’t yet understand that this man Jesus was not just the Messiah sent from God, He was the Author of life.  The Man standing before her was the one who’s words sent cosmos flying into existence.

Abraham’s faith was of another variety altogether.  Look at how the author of Hebrews describes the faith of Abraham:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, [18] of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [19] He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

You see Abraham understood the nature of God and His will and His power. He was able to grasp the fact that since God controlled both life and death, that God could just as easily raise his son from the dead as he could bring him to life in the womb of a 100-year-old woman.

This is a more informed faith.  It isn’t that Martha’s faith is wrong, it is simply not matured, it simply hasn’t grown into a full-orbed understanding of the character and nature and power of who God in Christ is, and what He is capable of doing.

This, consequently, is why we study theology.  This is why we study the character of God. Because when we face the most extreme circumstances that this life can throw at us, we can do so with a full understanding that the one who walked on the earth and felt our pain and our suffering and our daily irritations is the same One who calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, is the same one who rose from the grave, and is the same one who will one day defeat ALL death and sickness and famine to His own praise and glory.

11:23-24 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Is it not significant that Martha had a better understanding of the resurrection than the Sadducees?  Now it may seem odd to us, who do not have the full picture of the Jewish culture, that Martha would even know such a thing.  But it isn’t a strictly New Testament teaching.  In fact it was common knowledge that there would be a resurrection of the dead on the day of the Lord.  However, as I just mentioned and have mentioned before, the Sadducees were the most secular (if that’s an appropriate word for it) leaders the Jews ever had.  They didn’t believe in the afterlife or in the spiritual realm.

I like how MacArthur points out that Martha seems to have faith that Christ can and will raise her brother on the final day, but doesn’t seem to connect the possibility of Him having the power to raise her brother now. I think there’s something to this.  So often we mentally ascent to God’s power to do this or that, because we’ve read it in the Bible, but we don’t ever think to apply it appropriately to our lives, as if He is somehow neutered of His power 2000 years later.

But this is not the case. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. His power is immutable, as are all His other qualities.

11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Here is another one of the great I AM saying of Christ (the 5th one, if you’re keeping track).  This time He says that He is the “resurrection and the life” – this means that Christ raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life!  What a fantastic claim!

This is really a continuation of the New Birth discussion He had before with Nicodemus in chapter 3.  When Christ says that He is the resurrection and the life, He isn’t saying anything new, He is reiterating that life, true life, comes from Him and Him alone.  He has been given all power by the Father to execute His life-saving mission here on earth (see chapter 5).

In this phrase Christ is claiming that, not only does He have the power to raise lost souls from the dead, but He has a plan for them after that – we were saved from something, but also for something.  Consider Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We were saved “for good works” – not simply from death, but for good works.

Truths We Must First Ascent To…

Is there a phrase that more encapsulates the mission of Christ than this? He is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe that will “never die.”  Could He have been any more blunt than this? YOU WILL NEVER DIE.  Let that reality sink in!

There is such power in this phrase and in this truth. But we need to acknowledge a few things first before this truth can be true there are other truths that we have to ascent to:

  1. That we are all dead spiritually
  2. That we cannot, on our own, raise ourselves from this death
  3. That we need and depend on the life-saving life-giving power of Christ to raise us from the dead and that He does this of His own initiative
  4. That Jesus Christ is the sole source of this power – He is claiming exclusivity here. He doesn’t say, “I am a resurrection” He says He is “the” resurrection!

What Everyone Must Wrestle With…

Lastly, look at what Christ says at the end of His great claim – He asks the question: Do you believe this?  This is the one question that every human being will eventually have to wrestle with. There is no one here that has not had to face up to this question.  We need to all ask ourselves at some critical point, “Do I believe this?”  If the answer is “yes” then you know that Christ is your resurrection and your life. What a wonderful feeling and a wonderful knowledge that is.

11:27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

This so much reminds me of Peter’s great confession when Christ put a similar question to Peter that He just asked Martha.  Here’s how the exchange went:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [14] And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [15] He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” [16] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

We are told that this is what saving faith looks like.  Paul says this in Romans 10:

…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. [10] For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. [11] For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [12] For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. [13] For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

What is it that Martha is acknowledging here?  A few things…

  1. The Lordship of Jesus Christ – not only over the world and all created things, but over her life
  2. His deity – “you are the Son of God”
  3. That He is the one who can take away sins – He’s the savior of the world (“Christ”)
  4. That He is working out His sovereign plan in the world and in her life and she is surrendered to that plan – “who is coming into the world”

These are the words and component parts of a person whose heart has been miraculously changed by the Holy Sprit.

 

Section 3 – The Sovereign Power of the Son of God

11:28-29 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” [29] And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.

It is significant to me that her first reaction is to run and find her sister. It reminds me of when the early disciples of Christ ran to find other followers in John 1 (35-51). When someone’s heart is touched by the words of Christ they want to immediately go and tell others of the experience and bring them near to Christ.

The second thing I think is notably here is the reaction of Mary – she “quickly” rose up and went to find Christ. This reminds me of Philip and how he quickly and immediately obeyed the Spirit in Acts 8.  This is a trait of a true follower of Christ.  When we are called to His side, when we are asked to do something, do we obey?  Or do we hesitate?  Do we run to our master, the healer, the Lord?  Or…do we stay in our homes sobbing over a loss or a heartache. Mary, as stunned and hurt as she was by the loss of her brother ran quickly to find Jesus.  May we do the same.

11:30-32 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. [31] When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. [32] Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary’s faith responded in an identical way to Martha’s from the earlier verse. She was so confident in the power and Lordship of Jesus Christ that she announced confidently that if He had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  “Jesus you are so powerful, so profoundly majestic, so good, so gracious and so loving, that if you had but been here in our presence You could have stopped this tragedy from occurring.”

They were not appealing to some false idea that Christ would have singled out their brother, or that He played favorites. Rather they knew the character of this man Jesus. Jesus practically overflowed with love. He healed so many people that John couldn’t even imagine writing down all the incidents (John 21:25). He was giving, giving, giving His entire life!  All He did was serve – He came to serve Mark 10:45)!

It’s a major clue into how Jesus behaved around others. These women knew the heart of Christ so well, that for them there was no doubt that had He been there, His love would surely have spilled out over their brother. “That’s just who He is”, they probably thought. Their hearts loved His heart.

This explains how we ought to behave – exuding the love of Christ – and how we will be distinguished from the world:

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

11:33-37 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. [34] And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” [35] Jesus wept. [36] So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” [37] But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

The response of Jesus comes to us packaged in the shortest sentence in Scripture. John simply says, “Jesus wept.”  But we also read that when Jesus hears what Mary has to say, his spirit is “greatly troubled.”  His “troubled” soul is noted at two different points in this passage.

What does this response mean? There are two primary ways to view this:

  1. He has compassion for his sheep, for His children.
  2. He is sorrowful over the unbelief of the people – as in Luke 19:41-44.

I believe that both views are correct.  Let’s take one at a time…

Compassion for His Sheep

If these verses don’t show you something of the humanity of Christ, then you are not reading the same text I am reading.

Mary is in tears – not simply a small stream of tears, she is weeping. She is weeping for her brother, but also because she has been stirred again emotionally by the presence of Christ. It’s now been several days since her brother died, and Jesus’ appearance has opened the wells of her sorrow, and she bursts forth in tears. The love she has for Jesus, and the painful reality of her loss are intersecting in a mass of emotion that simply cannot be held back.

I believe John recorded this incident for a reason. He knew the impact of these verses. John is concerned to show that Christ Jesus understands our pains, He understands our sorrows. But more than that.  He doesn’t simply understand it – for we could well believe that He understands it being, as He is, a all-wise all-knowing God – but He also empathizes with us.  He enters into our sorrows with us.

We are well familiar with the precious words of Hebrews 4:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. [16] Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Personally, when I look at how the Lord identifies with us, I marvel to myself that we have such a loving God.  A God who could have sat back and ruled the world from on high, but instead who chose to come down to us.  He came down here, and He entered into our toil, our frustrations, and our tears.  He knew what it was to walk on this earth. He knew what it was to lose a loved one.

I love the fact that He has identified with us in our suffering. I love the fact that angels and all God’s elect children can look at the cross and say, “see how He loved them!

More “Trouble” than Meets the Eye…

MacArthur makes a good point about the Greek word used here that is often translated “troubled” is actually more accurately understood as “sternly warned” or “scolding” in terms of the feeling it conveys.  The word is actually embrimaomai, which literally means, “snort like a horse!”  The idea here, as MacArthur says, “includes a connotation of anger, outrage, or indignation.

The Lord was upset on several levels.  The scene is a complex one.  He is not simply in tears for His dear friend and the family of Lazarus, but also for a world whose response to death is not fully defined by the realities of God. Jesus came to usher in a kingdom whose power would forever be emblazoned on the lives of His followers to the point which death would be no match.

And, as we see in verse 37, the reaction of these people to Jesus’ weeping is one of unbelief – not trust and faith. That verse helps us understand why Jesus was so indignant.

The Impending Victory

You see, death here seemed to have the last say, and the attitude of defeat among the mourners smacked of Satan. It showed off his blinding power that these people would have no hope in the reality of glorious nature of the world to come. Christ came to change all of that. And when He saw the people mourning with no hope for tomorrow, He was indignant. This is why His raising Lazarus from the tomb was a major sign (A major wake up call to Satan also) of the ushering in of His kingdom – this was the warning shot across the bow of Satan. He’d be put on notice that His defeat was imminent. Satan’s days are numbered, for the Prince of Life is here, and He will allow no more deception about the truth of God’s plan for eternity.

Consequently, that’s why He was so poignant in His remarks about eternity earlier. An important part of the gospel is the hope for eternity with God. (We saw the contrast for example between the hope of Christ in the joy to come, and Thomas’ duty-bound devotion in verse 16). There is the hope of forgiveness now on earth, of course, and of forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness imputed to us – which we will hear from God’s mouth on that Day of Judgment. But more than that, there is this beautiful hope of eternity with the Lover of our soul. And that’s what this is about. This is about Christ setting the record straight. It’s about Him giving us a preview of the rest of our lives.

Perhaps that’s what is so beautiful about this chapter.  Jesus gives us a preview of what the consummation of His mission will look like when He comes back. The sadness we endure now is like that of Mary and Martha. We weep because we are dying and we live in a dying world. We have loved ones with cancer. We have children who are sick. We have pains and ills and death all around us. So did Christ. So that will make the victory all that much more sweeter when we enter into His presence and He banishes death and sickness once and for all!  That is why we say: “Come Lord Jesus! Come!”

11:38-40 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. [39] Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” [40] Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

Here we see that once again Christ is “moved” again, and it’s no wonder given the nature of the response from those in the mourning party (he is filled with a righteous indignation as the Greek clearly implies…again, the English translations are all incorrect).

Martha’s response to Christ’s instruction is one of unbelief – this is what tempers us from having been led to believe she had the kind of faith that Abraham had (see above).

SIDE NOTE: D.A. Carson talks about how some of the Jews thought (superstitiously) that the soul of a body hovers above the body for three days prior to finally departing. So waiting four days to raise Lazarus from the dead would have crushed their superstitions. I love how Christ’s perfect timing crushes our doubt and shows us that He alone holds the keys to truth and life.

The Revelation of His Glory and how it Transforms Us

We see in Christ’s response to Martha that He isn’t concerned about the odor of Lazarus, He’s more concerned with the revelation of His glory.

This revelation of His glory is the key – and as I mentioned before, Martha is not going to see the glory of Christ in the way that the disciples did on the Mount of Transfiguration, but rather she will see His revealed character, power, and person pouring out through His majestic work of resurrection.

I want to add some thoughts about the practical purposes of understanding this concept of Christ’s glory and what it has to do with us.

In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 we read the following:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

We see here that there is a transformational effect from simply “beholding the glory of the Lord.”  John explains in his epistles that:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

So there is this connection again between us being transformed, and us beholding Him in His glory.

For the longest time I didn’t understand exactly how this worked. What is the connection here between us becoming like Him and us beholding Him?  It’s hard to read 1 John and really put your finger on how that will happen – but we can look to how it happens in inches during our lifetimes here on earth – and that’s exactly the purpose of what Paul was writing in 2 Corinthians, and why Christ came to raise Lazarus from the grave in John 11.

How is it that we behold His glory here?  We behold His glory because we see His revealed character in His actions and words, and the Holy Spirit uses this Scripture to touch and transform our hearts.  This is a supernatural thing. This is why we can’t “earn” our way to heaven because we can’t make ourselves righteous!  Our doing is our beholding.  And we behold by reading, by praying, and by asking for Him to change us into the image of Christ, which He is gradually doing.

This is the nitty-gritty of sanctification, and its also why reading the Bible and meditating on Christ’s actions here and every word that proceeds from His mouth, is so important.  That’s consequently why I teach expositionally!  I want you to be changed into the likeness and image of Christ. He’s using this Word to do that.  He’s using John 11 to do that, so I want you to take in as much of it as possible, knowing not only that He is using it to gradually melt away the dross of this life, but that one day (as we wait in faithful hope – see Rom. 8) He will radically finish the job simply by the great revelation of His character and person

11:41-42 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. [42] I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Carson points out that this was not a public prayer meant to “play to the gallery” but rather He sought to “draw His hearers into the intimacy of Jesus’ own relationship with the Father” and “demonstrates the truth that Jesus does nothing by Himself, but is totally dependent on and obedient to His Father’s will.”

There are a few parallels between this prayer and the High Priestly prayer in chapter 17, but the one that stood out to me the most was how the Father and Son had already been (obviously) in previous communion.  It seems that they had already agreed upon raising Lazarus, and that now Christ is thanking God the Father for “hearing” Him and for granting this miracle so that He may be glorified that people might believe.

Every time we hear Christ pray, or instruct us in prayer, we ought to pay close attention.  For this is His insight and instruction as to how to communicate with God, of whom He is One with the other two persons of the Godhead.  Surely He knows more than anyone how to speak with His Father.

11:43-44 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” [44] The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are several key points that we see here.

First, the “divine imperative”, as Augustine termed the creation of the world, is seen here in Christ’s powerful control over the life and death of His creatures.  We see that not only is this man the Messiah whose long awaited and desired coming had finally arrived, but he is the very Son of God who called creation into existence millennia prior to this moment.

Second, Lazarus’ rising from the dead was a sign of greater resurrection to come, especially that of Christ’s resurrection which was now only a short time away, and of course of our own resurrections once Christ comes again.  And it was also a sign that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Earlier in chapter five, Christ said this:

But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36)

Third, the power of Christ is on full display in this amazing moment. D.A. Carson notes how some theologians remark that this power seemed to be so awful (awe-inspiring) that had He not specified the name of “Lazarus” that all dead people everywhere would have had to obey His fiat. This is a clear example of Christ calling us from the dead, and the irresistible nature of that call. His grace is so powerful and so effective, that when He calls you, He will not fail in His mission to bring you all the way from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Lastly, as Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, it was a clear indication that the kingdom of God was upon them. Christ was ushering in His spiritual kingdom in a way that no man could deny. George Ladd once said that, “…the Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men, and that this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from it’s power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”

 

Section 4 – Heart of Darkness: The Power of Unbelief

11:45-48 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, [46] but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. [47] So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. [48] If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

The Power of Unbelief

The reaction to the miracles of Christ is always of interest to me. It amazes me that some who were eyewitnesses of people being healed, and others, like Lazarus, being raised from the dead can cause such different reactions.

Morris comments, “The result of the miracle, as always, is division. Because Jesus is who and he is he inevitably divides people.”

Specifically, it is interesting that some people ran to the Pharisees…Carson says, “One might charitably hope that the motive of at least some of them was to win the Pharisees to the truth, but the contrast set up between those who believe and those who go to the Pharisees suggest that their intent was more malicious.”

Ryle says that these people who ran to the Pharisees had been hardened in heart, “Instead of being softened and convinced, they were hardened and enraged. They were vexed to see even more unanswerable proofs that Jesus was the Christ, and irritated to feel that their own unbelief was more than ever inexcusable.”

This only serves to reiterate the tension Christ was causing within the Jewish establishment, and show forth that miracles alone are not able to soften a man’s heart, “the plain truth is, that man’s unbelief is a far more deeply seated disease than it is generally reckoned” says Ryle.

Only the sovereign grace of God will melt these hearts of stone.

It’s emblematic of the kind of thinking we find in the Jewish leadership of the day that fear governed their thoughts.  And when fear governs your thinking, it’s very difficult to make wise discerning decisions (spiritual or otherwise).

For instance, here they make the false assumption that if Jesus would have continued His ministry that “everyone (would) believe in him.”  This is simply not the case – for even those who saw and witnessed His miracles, including this one, first hand did not believe Jesus was the Messiah.

In fact, if the council knew the miracles were authentic (which it seems that they did) they ought to have followed Jesus.  It wasn’t enough to say “these are the miracles of Pharaoh’s magicians”, but the very reason that the men in vs. 46 came to the Council in the first place was due to the overwhelming evidence before them.  I cannot believe that at this point, for these men, there was much doubt as to the veracity of the miracle(s); the issue was what to do about it. Their murderous response reveals the wickedness of the hearts of these men, and confirms that they were of their Father the Devil (see chapter 8, and Gen. 3:15).

The truth is that unless God does a supernatural work in your heart you will always be dead in your sin and will always rebel against God.  Earlier in John we read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Another example of this is found in Acts 8 where we read the case of Simon Magus who was amazed by the miracles being wrought by the disciples of Jesus – so he “believed” in Jesus. But seeing and intellectually assenting to the reality of God’s power doesn’t make you a child of God. What is missing?  The heart change that only comes by new birth.  Only the Holy Spirit can effect that change in a man’s heart.

Ryle says, “The amazing wickedness of human nature is strikingly illustrated in this verse. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that seeing miracles will necessarily convert souls. Here is a plan proof that it does not.”

Political Problems

Once the Jews learn of this latest miracle, their main concern seems to be a political one.  They said, “The Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  They were concerned that the Roman leadership would be disturbed by the commotion of the Jewish citizenry and the potential consolidation of power behind a rebel leader (namely Jesus).  If the Romans, they calculated, thought that there was an uprising among the people, they would move to squash it immediately – perhaps even scatter the Jews and drive them from the land in order to save them the headache of dealing with them as a nation.

What is amazing here, and Sinclair Ferguson talks about this a little, is that we see the Pharisees and Sadducees saying what are “we” going to do about this.  This indicates to us the outlook of the Council’s situation, that even these two groups that hated each other felt the need to work together on this. “They felt like they had to crucify Jesus in order to keep their place in society” Ferguson pointedly states.

11:49-53 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. [50] Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” [51] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, [52] and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. [53] So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

The opening blast from Caiaphas is (according to Carson) the ancient equivalent of saying “You don’t know what you are talking about!”  Both Carson and MacArthur note how rude this is and Carson is funny here:

“Even so, it is certainly not a reflection of the Dale Carnegie school of diplomacy, and it nicely confirms the judgment of Josephus that the Sadducees were barbarous and wild even toward those of their own party…”

But as Caiaphas gets their attention, he continues on with an idea that is devious and characteristic of his political acumen (he lasted 18 years as high priest which was quite a feet during that time – was deposed at the same time as Pontius Pilate in AD 36).  But what Caiaphas meant to say, and what God used Caiaphas to say here were obviously two different things, and perhaps a little more than irony.

Caiaphas was more astute politically than those around him, and what he was trying to explain here was that if they (the Jewish leadership) played their cards right, they could sacrifice Jesus on the alter of politics and have for themselves a scapegoat to be able to show to the Romans – as if to say to them “hey this man is the one responsible for all the hubbub around Jerusalem, if you get rid of him we’ll all be a lot better off and you won’t have to worry about anyone causing disruptions.” In this way Caiaphas figured he could satiate the Roman authorities growing unrest with the disruptions among the Jewish people.

As Sproul points out though, Caiaphas must have forgotten Proverbs 17:15, which says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”

Caiaphas’ cold political reasoning seemed shrewd – the ends justified the means. But what Caiaphas didn’t realize (in his “unconscious prophecy” as Morris aptly puts it) is that it was indeed expedient for one man to die for the nation – a scapegoat covered not with the political excuses of sinful men, but with the weight of their sins upon Him.  For as Paul tells us:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—[13] for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. [14] Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. [15] But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [16] And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. [17] For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. [18] Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. [19] For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. [20] Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, [21] so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21 ESV)

It is amazing how God uses the mouths of even the ungodly, or those whom ought to seemingly be uninvolved in the fate of God’s people, to proclaim the great plan He has for His people. His sovereignty led even a pagan king to bring the Jewish people out of exile several hundred years earlier.  Listen to what God put in the mouth of Cyrus:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: [23] “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.’” (2 Chronicles 36:22-23 ESV)

Furthermore, God’s plans were bigger than just the Jewish nation, for John tells us, “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”  That is to say that it was God’s plan that through the death of Jesus the promise of Abraham might be fulfilled:

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. [5] No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. [6] I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. [7] And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. [8] And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:4-8 ESV)

 And…

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven [16] and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, [18] and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”(Genesis 22:15-18)

Therefore God used His Son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of His people – His chosen people, a holy nation, a people called after His own name. And in so doing He was not simply dying for a Jewish people, but for a people He had chosen from the foundation of the world.  He was going to use His disciples to proclaim this gospel of peace to all the nations in order that He might “gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”

This process of spreading the gospel and blessing the nations through the spread of the gospel is the same as gathering into one the children of God, because when a person believes in Christ they are united with Christ and are adopted into His family. Sproul says, “It was a blessing that Jesus died, because His death was necessary for the salvation, not only of Jews, but of the elect of the whole world.”

Resorting to Death

It is emblematic of the hand of Satan on these men that their best plan is to find a way to put Jesus to death. For that is the way of Satan.  When all else fails, kill the person who stands in his way.

Make no mistake, Satan desire nothing more than to kill you (Gen. 3:15 speaks of enmity between us and Satan), though his spiritual power is significantly limited now that the gospel has been unleashed upon the nations, he still rules this world.  John tells us of this later:

…and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. (Revelation 20:3 ESV)

Therefore, because he no longer has the power of the last word spiritually, he will do everything he can to make your life miserable and ultimately rejoices in your death – for that is all he has left.  It is a testament to the grace and power of God that we are protected from the wiles of the Devil and that is why your prayers of intercession for each other are so crucial, for God works through your prayers to thwart the enemy.

11:54-57 Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples. [55] Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. [56] They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” [57] Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

John MacArthur tells us that Ephraim “was located about four miles northeast of Bethel on the edge of the wilderness, and about a dozen miles from Jerusalem.”

The people prepared for the Passover, and many wondered if there’d be anymore drama – they were looking for the fireworks, they didn’t truly care about Jesus for just a short time later they would shout for His crucifixion.

So Jesus withdrew for a time in order to prepare for the final chapter in His ministry, where He would once again enter Jerusalem, this time for the last time before His grand passion that would serve as the atoning sacrifice for millions and millions of His followers for generations to come, effectively changing the world forever.

Conclusion

This 11th chapter of John’s gospel reveals to us the power and glory of Jesus Christ.  It shows us His deity, His majesty, His obedience to the Father and His love for us.  It also shows that Jesus has power over the grave – and the same Christ who raised Lazarus from the snares of death has also raised us to walk in newness of life, has given us His Spirit as a powerful guarantee of His love, and will one day consummate His union with us by raising our bodies to be glorified in everlasting service to their great Bridegroom.

John 3:16 in its Context

Last night I preached a message from verses John 3:16-21 in our evening service and I’ve posted both the notes and the audio below.  The notes seem extensive, but that’s only because I’ve included footnotes here for your edification.

My goal was to show that salvation is from first to last from God and by God, and that He alone deserves glory for salvation.

Introduction to the Passage

God is the One responsible for our salvation from first to last.  He saves us for Himself, by Himself, from Himself.  In contrast to our love for sin, His love is seen as extravagant. His salvation is provided at great cost, and in a way of His own choosing – there are no other paths up the mountain of God.

3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [i]

Context and Background

John 3:16 may perhaps be the most famous Bible verse in the world.  It has been quoted more times than any other verse, and it is well known to both pagan and Christian alike.

Yet this verse is also one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted verses in Scripture.  It is used to justify all manner of incoherent and incorrect doctrine, especially Universalism and Pelagianism. But as we’ll soon see, this verse must be read in its context if we’re to truly appreciate and understand our Lord’s message.

Prior to this verse, the Lord Jesus has been the one speaking, but many scholars believe that John 3:16 is actually John now commenting, and given the flow and narrative of the passage, I believe that this is correct.

Verse 16 comes on the heels of an Old Testament account of salvation being reapplied by Jesus as he turned the timetables forward to show how the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness foreshadowed His being lifted up on the cross.  Prior to that, dialoguing with a Jewish elder, Nicodemus, Jesus explains that all salvation is predicated upon the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit – you must become a new creation (born again) in order to be saved.

There are three things that this verse teaches us.

  1. That the world lies under condemnation from its own sin
  2. That God’s love and plan for salvation extends far wider than simply to the people of Israel
  3. That Jesus is the chosen instrument through which mankind will be saved from eternal damnation

1. Bound for Destruction

The first thing this verse assumes is that people in the world have the wrath of God abiding on them – otherwise there would be no need for a Savior.

The words, “whoever believes in him should not perish” assume that there will be some who do perish, and that had Christ not come into the world all would, indeed, perish.

Later in the chapter John explicitly spells this out:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)

So the assumption is that the entire world is doomed for hell unless God does something.  If God doesn’t break through, then we won’t be saved.  We’re all perishing physically, and the larger context of the chapter addresses the nature of the soul and our need for eternal salvation.[ii]

2. What in the World?

The second point is mind blowing – and its also where people get tripped up in Universalism.

John here says that, “God so loved the world.”  In the gospel of John, the apostle uses the word “world” in at least 10 different ways:

The word world (Greek: Kosmos) appears 185 times in the New Testament: 78 times in John, 8 in Matthew, 3 in Mark, and 3 also in Luke. The vast majority of its occurrences are therefore in John’s writings, as it is also found 24 times in John’s three epistles, and just three times in Peter.

John uses the word world in ten different ways in his Gospel.

1. The Entire Universe – John 1:10; 1:3; 17:5
2. The Physical Earth – John 13:1; 16:33; 21:25
3. The World System – John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11 (see also similar usage in Gal 1:4 Paul)
4. All humanity minus believers – John 7:7; 15:18
5. A Big Group but less than all people everywhere – John 12:19
6. The Elect Only – John 3:17
7. The Non-Elect Only – John 17:9
8. The Realm of Mankind – John 1:10; (this is very probably the best understanding of the word “world” in John 3:16 also)
9. Jews and Gentiles (not just Israel but many Gentiles too) – John 4:42
10. The General Public (as distinguished from a private group) not those in small private groups – John 7:4[iii]
 

It’s sometimes difficult to know what meaning of “world” the apostle is going for, but the context always provides the answer, and simple logical deduction helps us stay away from incorrectly applying the wrong meaning.

Our task isn’t made any easier when we realize that throughout the rest of his gospel John sets the “world” over against the things of the Spirit.  That is to say that we are “called out” of the world, we are to not to our minds on the things of the world, and even that the world will “hate us.”

Knowing all of that, I think that the best way to understand the word “World” here is that is refers to all mankind – Jews and Gentiles.  The apostle knows that the Jews are familiar with the love God had for them as His special people, and Jesus’ relating to them the story of Moses and the bronze serpent would have certainly reminded them of God’s loyal love for them (hesed), all of this is contrasted with John now saying that “God so loved the world” – this would have set alarm bells ringing for his audience.  And it should do the same for us.

What he is saying is that God’s plan of salvation is wider than simply the Jews. In fact that is what Jesus meant when He said He would “draw all men to Himself.”  The cross is for Jew and Gentile alike.

All nations will call Him blessed.  Indeed it is a sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom that God’s love is mentioned so broadly.[iv]

Sadly, there are many people who incorrectly associate Christ’s saving work with the entire world, as if all the world will be saved simply because this verse says that God loved the world.  This is a grievous error. I’ll say more about that in a moment…

3. Jesus is the Way

Thirdly this verse tells us that Jesus is the intended way of salvation for all those who believe upon His name.  John later would say this in his epistles:

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

Believing on the name of Jesus is believing in what that name represents – salvation.  It is believing that Jesus is who He says He is, and has done what He says He has done.  It is treating His message with seriousness, and laying hold of His promise of eternal life by faith.

The verse says that we get eternal life by “believing”, not by doing, not by working.  Similarly, God doesn’t love the “world” because the world is inherently good.  Indeed we’re told the opposite.  God loves the world despite the fact that the world is evil.  Before you are saved you are not good at all – you are a child of the Devil (John 8) and you are an enemy of God (as Paul argues in Romans).

Therefore your are called to believe – and that faith, that belief, is the instrument by which you obtain your salvation.  Listen to what Jesus says later to the masses in John 6:

Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29, ESV)

There is no “work” to be done – that’s already been done by Jesus.  You simply need to trust that it has, and repent of your sins.

What this Verse Does NOT Say

Because it is such a popular verse, people often use this verse as a proof text for universalism – this is probably mainly because A. Jesus doesn’t claim in this verse exclusivity and B. Because the “world” is mentioned earlier in the verse it must therefore mean that Jesus has in view that everyone in the world will be saved by His death. ,

Well first, although John isn’t saying in THIS verse explicitly that Jesus is the “only” way to salvation, I believe that it is implied simply by the context.  Furthermore, John and Jesus say time and time again that Jesus IS the only way to salvation. For example:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)

Secondly, if one examines the verse closely, it is plain that John isn’t saying that God loves the entire world unto salvation. Quite the opposite.  John clearly infers that Jesus came to save those people who would believe upon His name.  The implication is that some will not believe up on His name.

The verse simply says that God loves the world, and that Jesus came to die for those who would believe in Him.  It doesn’t say God sent Jesus to die for the entire world. It doesn’t say the entire world would be saved. It does not describe the intricacies of the new birth.

Conclusion

What Jon 3:16 does say is that God loved the world, He has extended His saving love to more than simply the Jews – to men from all tribes, tongues and nations.  And He has provided us a way of salvation – through His Son Jesus Christ.  For the world sits under the judgment of God for the wickedness and sin debt that we owe Him can never be paid back on our own.  Therefore, in His great love, He has sent a way of salvation –the only way of salvation, and that comes in the person and work of Jesus Christ and belief upon His name.

3:17-18 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [18] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

I think there are two tricky things here. First, the idea that the “world” will be saved through Him, despite the fact that we just heard John use the word “world” to refer to a wide group of people, all humanity in fact, we now hear him use the word “world” in a more selective way – those who will be saved.  So the word “world” is here used to refer to those achieving salvation – the elect.

The second tricky topic here is the idea of judgment and condemnation and how it seems that verses 17 and 18 might not square with each other.

As far as condemnation goes, John says that Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world – yet in verse 18 we read that those who don’t believe are condemned!  Is John contradicting himself?  May it never be! It’s more straightforward than we think.

John is simply saying that Jesus’ first advent was not the time of judgment, but rather of salvation – a time to usher in the kingdom of God.

Later, in John 5, Jesus says this:

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:22-24)

1 Peter 4:5 says, “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”  The “living” are those who have been born again to new life, and the “dead” are those who are spiritually dead.  Make no mistake, every man, whether spiritually alive or spiritually dead, will face the judgment of Christ when He comes back in glory.

So…what does it mean when John says they are “condemned already?”

It means that there are some who will never believe. Those who do not place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ are “condemned already.”  As John MacArthur notes, “while the final sentencing of those who reject Christ is still future, their judgment will merely consummate what has already begun.”

I will offer a paraphrase here based on what I understand John to be saying: “every human being is born already condemned by their own sinfulness and if you don’t believe in Jesus then you will remain condemned.”

Therefore, “Condemned already” is another way of saying, “the wrath of God abides on him.”

This takes discernment, but it will be illuminated (no pun intended) as we read verses 19-21 because while Jesus had not come to “judge” the world, the very effect of His coming exposed the darkness of this world – a world filled with people already under condemnation and headed for damnation. And those who do not believe in the name of the Son of God will not be saved from that condemnation.

3:19-21 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. [20] For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. [21] But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Problem 1: We Love Our Sin

The question we raised a moment ago about “condemnation” is now answered by the apostle, and what he has to say is frightening to say the least.

Why do we sit under condemnation?  Because “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.”

Judgment in this case is the obvious result of exposure.  It is not a courtroom, or a white throne in revelation; it is the exposure of Christ’s ministry of truth upon the wicked hearts of mankind.  That exposure testifies to one thing, according to John: man loves the darkness.  They love their own sin.[v]

Apart from Christ, before you are saved, you love sin – in fact you cannot NOT love your sin.

This isn’t the only place we read this in the Bible. Listen to what God says to Isaiah about the hearts of men:

These have chosen their own ways,
and their soul delights in their abominations;
I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and bring their fears upon them,
because when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did what was evil in my eyes
and chose that in which I did not delight.” (Isaiah 66:3-4, ESV)
 

Our deeds are evil, and we love our sinful ways. Our natural tendency is not to love the light but to run from it, to hide from it and hate it.

Problem 2: Our Works Are Evil

Shocking claim number two comes in verse 20. The apostle says we don’t want to come into the light because we don’t want our deeds exposed.  When you pull back and remember that we’re talking about the light of the Gospel of Jesus here – remember John 3:16 anyone? – you add two and two together and see that we have a serious issue here.  Like cockroaches, we are described as running from the light, not running to the light!

Those who have not been born again by the Spirit of God run as fast as they can from the gospel.  They don’t want to hear that they are sinners and that their sin is wrong.  They don’t want to hear that their lives are headed for eternal hell.  They don’t want to follow Christ.  Not only that, but they don’t want to leave their old way of life!  They like their sin.  They like who they are (or so they say).

Most people we talk to on a day-to-day basis would probably tell us (if they are non-believers) that they are basically “good people.” I bet you hear that all the time, don’t you.  But Jesus doesn’t accept this, does He? What we read here is that we naturally RUN from the light.  He is saying that there are no “good people.” We have all gone astray (Is. 53:6), no one does anything that is truly “good” in the eyes of the Holy God we serve (Roman 3:12).

We read in Romans 3:11 that “…no one understands; no one seeks for God.” And in Ephesians 2:2 we read that as unbelievers we “…followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”  In John 8:44a Jesus says of those who are unbelievers, “you are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

Theologian R.C. Sproul says, “Man’s natural tendency is to flee from the presence of God and to have no affection for the biblical Christ. Therefore, if you have in your heart today any affection for Christ at all, it is because God the Holy Spirit in His sweetness, in His power, in His mercy, and in His grace has been to the cemetery of your soul and has raised you from the dead. So you are now alive to the things of Christ and you rejoice in the kingdom into which He has brought you.”

Pastor Warren Wiersbe puts it this way, “It is not ‘intellectual problems’ that keep people from trusting Christ; it is the moral and spiritual blindness that keeps them loving the darkness and hating the light.”

C.H. Spurgeon adds, “there is no man so ignorant that he can claim a lack of intellect as an excuse for rejecting the gospel…it is not any lack or deficiency there (in the mind)…through the fall, and through our own sin, the nature of man has become so debased, and depraved, and corrupt, that it has become impossible for him to Christ without the assistance of God the Holy Sprit.”[vi]

The Dilemma

So we are faced with a dilemma, aren’t we…we read the glorious offer of salvation (“For God so love the world”), and all we need to do is believe in Him and we’ll be saved. Yet at the same time John describes our character as fallen, in love with the darkness, naturally enemies of God (Romans 5:10).

The issue here is that we see the offer of salvation, but in our natural state we don’t see it as glorious.  Plenty of people understand the ABC’s of what Jesus did.  Plenty of people have heard the gospel, but not everyone sees it as glorious.  And this is what Paul sums up in 2 Corinthians 4:4:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4, ESV)

The Solution

What can be done?  How can anyone be saved?

The answer is that this: we need a supernatural change of heart. For no man will ever call upon the name of the Lord without the gracious help of God who opens our eyes and shows us the glory of the light of Jesus for what it truly is.[vii]

Later in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul describes it in this way:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6, ESV)

In order for anyone to believe upon Jesus, God must sovereignly intervene.  He initiates a love for us that softens our hearts, and draws us to Himself.

First, Jesus initiates a love for us – and then expects us to follow His example:

We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19, ESV)

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:16-17, ESV)

His love is poured out upon us through His Holy Spirit. He brings us out of darkness into His marvelous light by His sovereign initiating love.

In so doing, He softens our hearts with this love. Remember, He is the Lord of all the earth, He is God and He sees and controls the hearts of all men (Prov. 21:1, Ps. 33:13-15, Phil. 2:13).

Perhaps the most famous example of this is found in Exodus when God is said repeatedly to have “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 4:21, 7:3, 10:20, 27, 11:10 and so on).  Paul reminds us that:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:17-18, ESV)

Note: When Scripture talks of God’s “hardening our hearts” it cannot mean God is creating evil that isn’t already there. In fact, if we think carefully about what John has been saying in verses 19-21 we will see that our natural disposition is to love the darkness. It is only by God’s grace that we aren’t completely turned over[viii] to these desires in the first place.[ix]

Nevertheless, the Bible makes clear that we are still held responsible for our actions and our choices. Just the fact that there is a hell and a heaven and a final judgment showcase this obvious truth. And while we may not fully understand why God chooses to work this way, I praise God that He is who He is, and that He has intervened in my life.  I praise God that though I am a sinner, Christ died for me.  Though I loved the darkness more than the light, He has turned my heart toward Him. He opened my eyes to see the gloriousness of the gospel.

Those Who Do What is Right

In the final verse we find that those who do “right” are okay coming into the light.  In fact, they love the light!  These are people whose lives have been changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  These are people who used to hate the light, and run from it.

What is remarkable about these people is that they have been turned from sinners who love their sin, to those who love to give glory to God for anything good they do.  This is what is meant by, “so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Christians who carry out the fruit of their salvation in love toward others give glory to God.  For they know in their hearts that any good they do is completely and totally owed to the sovereign work of God.

In Conclusion

What we learn from this passage of Scripture is that salvation is from first to last of God, by God, from God, for God – it is all of God.  He deserves all the credit.

I cannot get Paul’s words out of my mind, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”…for me.  For you.  You were lost.  You were dead.  You were faithless, hopeless, and on a grim march toward eternal death when He snatched you off that path and plucked you like a “brand from the burning” (Zech. 3)!  Praise God for his love and grace and the gospel which reminds us everyday that He has saved us for Himself, by Himself, and from Himself.

How Do We Respond?

How do we respond to what John has written here?  I hope you respond by recognizing the depth of your depravity and your sin and that apart from Christ you were a wretch without merit enough to last one hour before the Holy One.  I hope you see the glorious grace of Jesus Christ and the magnificence of His offer to you this evening.

If you are a Christian and you have become puffed up in your walk. Then I plead with you – repent of that sin.  You have no merit on your own.  Furthermore, you weren’t the one who ordained salvation, and neither will you have to maintain it.  You have been swept up in unspeakable grace, a never-ending grace, a love so powerful that it will never let you go.

If you came here a skeptic and have felt your heart strangely warmed but our Lord’s offer of eternal life, then I encourage you now to repent of your sins.  Cast away your pride and your old life and trust in the salvation that comes from believing in the name of Jesus Christ.  He is faithful, He will lift you out of the mire you find yourself in and set your life upon solid footing for eternity.


[i] Old verse 16 notes that I didn’t get to include: What has become, however, a sad commentary in our current day is that many have distorted this verse and taken it out of context.  Jesus tells us explicitly that in order to be born again, one must be born of “Water and the Spirit” – not of any human work (“lest any man should boast”).   And yet here it seems as though Jesus is saying that He has died for the entire world, and that all we need to do is believe.  Some have taken this verse (incorrectly) to mean that on our own we can make a decision on whether or not we want to believe in Jesus.  Well, we certainly make that decision, but not until we are born again – otherwise we would never desire to choose to believe.  For it is God alone working in the hearts of men, who melts those hearts, who changes those spots, who does a supernatural, miraculous work in our lives in order for us to see the majesty and great value of Christ.

In his book ‘Chosen by God’ RC Sproul says this about John 3:16 and the distortions mentioned above, “What does this famous verse teach about fallen man’s ability to choose Christ? The answer, simply, is nothing. The argument used by non-Reformed people is that the text teaches that everybody in the world has it in their power to accept or reject Christ.  A careful look at the text reveals, however, that it teaches nothing of the kind.  What the text teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved.”

What this verse does teach us is that God has prepared a way of salvation (eternal salvation) for the whole world – people from every tribe and tongue and nation will have a way to be saved.  God doesn’t not discriminate based on sex, age, race, and ethnicity.  And that is the great love of our undiscriminating God.  God has showed both common grace to all of mankind in that He’s allowed a way of salvation at all, and a more specific and particular saving grace to those whom He chose to save before He made the world.

Lastly this verse teaches us how people are saved: by believing in the Son of God. A very straightforward proposition, however, just like not everyone would have been saved by the copper snake, not everyone is saved by Christ’s sacrifice.  The copper snake had the power (efficaciousness) to save all/anyone who looked at it, as does Christ.  But not everyone would look at the copper snake, and not everyone will look to Christ.  Christ has been lifted up for all the world to see, His salvation has been made manifest and millions upon millions of men have known of what He did, yet millions continue to scoff at the olive branch of reconciliation that God handed down from on high.

[ii] Article 4 of the First Head of Doctrine from the Synod of Dort says it best, “The wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them.”

[iii] This list was taken from reformationtheology.com.  The specific link can be found here: http://www.reformationtheology.com/2009/04/world_johns_ten_uses_of_the_wo.php

[iv] In fact, we as gentiles ought to praise the God for including us into his promises.  Listen to what Paul says in Romans 15:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
 
10 And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
 
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”
 
12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:8-13, ESV)

[v] In ‘God’s Greater Glory’ Bruce Ware explains: “Both Jacob Arminius and John Wesley agreed with John Calvin, who in turn agreed with Augustine, on this point (although many in the Arminian tradition have departed from the view of the founders of Wesleyan Arminianism). These men all agreed that sin has resulted in human nature being unable, on its own, to do what pleases God or to obey (from the heart) the commands of God.”  Ware actually cites Paul in Romans 8:7-8 where the apostle says that the desires of the flesh are set against God, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

[vi] This is taken from a sermon called ‘Human Inability’ from three different paragraphs. The full text is found here: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0182.htm

[vii] Bruce Ware talks about how people see Christ intellectually, but they don’t see him as glorious.  It’s a different way of saying what Spurgeon says about the corruption of the intellect. He calls this critical realism, and it’s a via media between rationalism and fideism.  The text that harmonizes this for him is 2 Corinthians 4:4 – a text I use above.

[viii] In fact, when God does “turn us over” to our own desires, they aren’t good, and the outcome is horrific!  Paul tells us as much in Romans chapter one:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24-25, ESV)

Paul says God “gave them up” or “turned them over” to their own desire multiple times in this passage.  The truth that this conveys is that when human beings are allowed to have everything they naturally want, those natural desires are evil and rebellious – not loving and seeking after the will of God.

[ix] R.C. Sproul has a marvelous explanation of this, especially as it pertains to Pharoah in his book ‘Chosen by God’.  Also, in his book ‘God’s Greater Glory’ Bruce Ware tackles this same text in Exodus with great wisdom and care.

Why am I Still Here?

It is no secret that my life, especially as of late, has been the subject of many an attack of the Devil and his lackeys. I have felt the sting of public reproach, the rejection of so-called friends, and the despair that can set in when one’s life is taken stock of and the future may seem bleak. But I have also been blessed by the tribulations of this world; they are the fashioning hand of my gracious Lord who works out all things for good. Not simply good for everyone, but for those who A) love Him and B) are called according to His purpose. God be praised He has seen fit to pick me up and place me into both categories by His power.

I have also been the target of evil men. Men who feign love for truth but are, in fact, miniature anti-Christs, pawns of their father the Devil who is using them until such a time when this course of action has run it’s course, and he moves on and leaves them to die still enslaved to him. I do not hate my enemy, because I can see his miserable situation. But when I look at my family and home and those I love and realize he is working to destroy those things and those people, only by God’s power can I love this enemy of mine. It is a supernatural strength which loves when hate is the natural (and perhaps deserved) response of our hearts.

It is also at these moments I wonder why I’m still here. Wouldn’t it be just as easy for Christ to take me home? What am I doing here that He couldn’t do in the blink of an eye? C.H. Spurgeon was a man well acquainted with sorrow and pain and he penned the following graphs based around his understanding of Romans 14:8, which says, “We live unto the Lord.”

May his words bring you the comfort they brought me:

If God had willed it, each of us might have entered heaven at the moment of conversion. It was not absolutely necessary for our preparation for immortality that we should tarry here. It is possible for a man to be taken to heaven, and to be found meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light, though he has but just believed in Jesus. It is true that our sanctification is a long and continued process, and we shall not be perfected till we lay aside our bodies and enter within the veil; but nevertheless, had the Lord so willed it, he might have changed us from imperfection to perfection, and have taken us to heaven at once. Why then are we here? Would God keep his children out of paradise a single moment longer than was necessary? Why is the army of the living God still on the battle-field when one charge might give them the victory? Why are his children still wandering hither and thither through a maze, when a solitary word from his lips would bring them into the centre of their hopes in heaven?

The answer is-they are here that they may “live unto the Lord,” and may bring others to know his love. We remain on earth as sowers to scatter good seed; as ploughmen to break up the fallow ground; as heralds publishing salvation. We are here as the “salt of the earth,” to be a blessing to the world. We are here to glorify Christ in our daily life. We are here as workers for him, and as “workers together with him. ” Let us see that our life answereth its end. Let us live earnest, useful, holy lives, to “the praise of the glory of his grace. ” Meanwhile we long to be with him, and daily sing-

“My heart is with him on his throne,
And ill can brook delay;
Each moment listening for the voice,
‘Rise up, and come away.'”