Revelation 3:1-6 the Letter to Sardis

Chapter 3

To the Church at Sardis

Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The city was virtually impregnable by nature of its physical location. It stood some 1,500 feet above the Hermus valley as a sort of watchtower, with only one viable approach to the city from the southern side up what would have been a winding road.

The city itself was set atop a plateau, which was guarded on three sides by rocks which jetted up above the cityscape almost perpendicular to the ground. The affect was that the city was unable to be approached from any side save the southern slope, itself a difficult and steeply graded road.

The name “Sardis” is actually a plural noun, indicating not one city but two. That is because after a little while the kingdom had expanded and gotten to the point where more room was necessary. So a second city set off a bit down the southern slop from the northern old city.

The kingdom of Lydia was an ancient kingdom that embodied the great Asian (some term “oriental” – though the term is sort of funny to use today given the expansion of the Asian race into much further eastern regions) kingdoms that were continually arrayed in battle against the great western kingdoms of Greece (and perhaps Macedonia?).

Sardis was eventually embroiled in a battle with one of the greatest figures in ancient history: Cyrus the Great. “The reign of Cyrus the Great lasted between 29 and 31 years. Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire.”[i]

Though the city was virtually impregnable, Cyrus was able to conquer it. For – like the Medes/Persians would do several years later to the Babylonians (see Daniel 5) – it seems that by night they skillfully climbed the protruding rocks on each side of the city, and lowered themselves down, allowing them to take the city almost by surprise. Only in the instance of the former, history has it that Darius’ army actually went under the city by damming up a water culvert and going through the underground waterway.

About the siege of Sardis, William Ramsay says, “The armies of Lydia were being massed to crush the insolent invader, who should be ground between the perpendicular rocks of the acropolis and the gathering Lydian hosts. Such was the calculation of Croesus (the king of Sardis), when he retired one evening to rest: he was wakened to find that the enemy was master of the acropolis and that all was lost…He came up on the great city ‘like a thief in the night.’”[ii]

Indeed the city was full of prideful people, and they had been conquered and would be conquered again around 200 BC. But, as Hendriksen notes, “When the Apocalypse was written, Sardis was facing decay, a slow but sure death. In the year AD 17 the city was partly destroyed by an earthquake. Thus, again and again, the self-satisfied and boastful inhabitants of Sardis had seen destruction coming upon them ‘as a thief in the night’, most suddenly and unexpectedly.”[iii]

Excursis

It occurred to me last night as I was studying and thinking on these letters to the churches, that so many of the Bible’s great themes come to consummation in the book of Revelation, and many of them are central to the letters to the churches. Biblical Theologians have talked for years about if its possible to find the very center theme of the Bible, and if so, what is that theme? There is this underlying assumption that it is Christ Himself, but that there might be more than simply the person of Christ – in other words it might be appropriate to say that there are several big themes to Scripture. Such themes would be: Covenant, Kingdom, the Promise(s) of God, redemption/sacrifice/salvation, and so forth.

When we examine these letters we see these same themes echoed in their words:

  • Christ – the central figure who is described in various ways.
  • Covenant – the effects of the New Covenant and its underlying realities which enable Christ to fairly issue imperatives knowing His people can actually obey them.
  • Kingdom – In chapter one we learn that He has made us a “kingdom” and we are called constantly to “conquer.” In fact kingdom language pervades the book as Jesus is magnified as the great King.
  • Salvation/Redemption – The consummation of the salvation of God’s people is described in vivid detail, and in the letter to the churches specifically His people are called to endure and hold fast to their salvation until He comes again.

The point being that many of the Bible’s greatest story lines come to a confluence here in these letters and this book. This exhibits both the unity and the diversity of Scripture, and of this book specifically. It is not a book on an island alone and secluded from the rest of the Bible. In fact, as we’ll see in our study of Sardis, its unity with the rest of Scripture is plain. Yet, like the rest of Scripture, there is great diversity. There are many divers themes and elements that we must take in as readers.

End Excursis

3:1a “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

Jesus begins his letter to the church at Sardis by describing himself in two ways. First, He is the one who “has the seven spirits of God” and second, He is the one who has “the seven stars.”

Earlier we learned that the seven stars are the seven angels. And in our examination of chapter one we noted that this could mean a number of different things, we hear a lot of commentators say the stars/angels are the ministers of the church. We found that there are some difficulties with this interpretation, however, and G.K. Beale made the point that in the context of the book and the passage – especially in light of John’s use of Daniel – it might make sense that these stars/angels represented the church’s heavenly or spiritual dimension. The church’s earthy dimension was represented by the candles or torches, and the heavenly by the “stars.”

You might recall our interpretation of this was aided by an understanding that Jewish scholars who read Zechariah and Daniel seemed to understand stars and candles as representative of the people of God.

Now, as for the “seven spirits”, we read about these earlier as well. In fact this was one of the first examples we had of how John uses numbers to communicate a truth or idea. In this case, the seven spirits likely represent the fullness, or completeness, or the Holy Spirit of God. That Jesus is said here to have the seven Spirits therefore must mean that He is the bestower of the Spirit. He is the one who sends forth the Spirit. For as we read in John’s gospel, Jesus’ own words about the Spirit are thus:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Therefore, Jesus reminds the church that He is sovereign over the church – remember He holds the stars in His hand – and that He is the creator of the church – for is the Spirit of God who sovereignly brings sheep into our Lord’s fold. It is the Spirit of God who, in His perfect knowledge and according to the Father’s perfect plan, chooses whom He will soften and call to everlasting life, thus creating the church, forming her according to His own sovereign pleasure.

1:1b-2 “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. [2] Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.

The Charge

Christ’s charge here against the church at Sardis is really horrific. I say that because He is calling them out for being fraudulent followers at the very worst, and at minimum that they have been working works in the flesh. Works that make them look great in the sight of the world, but in the eyes of the one whose eyes are a “flame of fire”, they are found to be worthless.

This is why in previous passages Jesus describes his eyes as a flame of fire – because they devour all the falsehoods that we erect around our lives. They consume the dross of our works until all that is left is what has been wrought in the Spirit of God.

There is obviously a warning here for us as well. It is easy to implement programs that help the poor and the weak. Easier still is it to build large churches and draw in thousands of people with fancy music and slick teaching – and forget the gospel altogether. How quickly man is able to erect an edifice to self-help and easy believism – where lives are touched every week, and people are fired up about God’s love for every man…and no one is every saved.

This is what it means to not have your “works complete in the sight of my God.”

When something is not complete, it’s missing something. It’s lacking something – and that something here seems to be a rather big deal, wouldn’t you say?

Enough of a big deal is this missing component, that Jesus calls them out for being “dead.” You have a reputation for being alive, but guys, “you’re dead.” Like I said, at the very worst they are unsaved people preaching a false gospel, and at the very least they’re doing works in their own flesh without giving glory to God, or relying on His wisdom and His power.

Which leads to the following…

1:3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. [4] Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.

Now, I happen to think this message is really a lot more harsh than simply those walking in their own power but truly belonging to Christ. The reason is that here Jesus says that he has a remnant left in this church. “A few names” who have not “soiled their garments” and it is those people who will “walk with (Jesus) in white, for they are worthy.”

Let’s put two and two together here. If we know our NT doctrine, we know that our worthiness comes from Christ and Christ alone. Therefore those who are worthy, those who are going to walk with Jesus in white, are those who have been cleansed by the blood of the lamb – those for whom Jesus died.

John describes this group later in chapter six:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. [10] They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” [11] Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)

And then again in chapter seven:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:13-14)

In chapter 7 this is talking in the immediately context of the 144,000. And its no coincidence that the images are all the same. Because all who walk with Christ in white are His elect – those who have been born again. The 144,000 group is something we’ll study later, but I believe it speaks of the church – or more precisely, all the elect of God throughout all history. Those who have had their garments cleansed by the blood of Jesus and now walk in white.

Beale notes that putting on this white garment probably starts now, “The reward probably begins in this life, because (i) verse 4 pictures the faithful already wearing pure garments; (ii) Christ exhorts the saints in 3:18 to buy white garments; and (iii) 16:15 refers to those who keep their garments in order not to be naked.”[iv]

Putting this altogether now, Jesus is saying there is still a remnant within your church that are actually mine. There is still a small group of true believers. Your organization has been built up in the community as having this great reputation, but I know you, says Jesus, I know you’re really dead.

Then Jesus does what no one seems to want to do today – He calls on them to repent.

In the famous movie Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Faisal tells T.E. Lawrence how much he longs for Damascus and its beauty. The dialogue goes like this:

Feisal: In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village…

Lawrence: Yes, you were great.

Feisal: …nine centuries ago…

Lawrence: Time to be great again, my Lord.

Feisal: …which is why my father made this war upon the Turks. My father, Mr. Lawrence, not the English. Now my father is old. And I, I long for the vanished gardens of Cordova. However, before the gardens must come fighting.

“Before the gardens must come the fighting.” And that is what I’m getting at here. Before inheriting glory, we must repent and obey. We must meet God on His terms, not build religious edifices on our terms. We do not get to dictate how the church will look, for the church is Christ’s bride, and she will be fashioned as He wills – not how we will. For we are the clay. The clay does not successfully and independently build a church apart from the work of the Potter.

3:5-6 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. [6] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Here is perhaps the death knell to all those who say salvation can be lost. To my Nazarene friends listen to the words of Jesus: I will never blot his name out of the book of life.

But – they protest – this is done by conquering! We must conquer. And that means that if one is sinning, or falling prey to the weakness of the flesh, they are not conquering but losing their salvation. Such is the reply from my Arminian friends.

And what is the reply? The Bible gives it three-fold: 1. The Christ is actually strongest in our weakness, therefore He allows sin and trials in order that His power be magnified, 2. (which is closely related to 1) Christ gives us the Holy Spirit in order to have the ability and freedom not to sin. This is only true of believers. And 3. The Bible clearly states that those whose names were written in the book of life have been so from before time began – and it is a doctrine seen throughout the entirety of Scripture.

  1. Christ who is the one with the actual power to conquer. We are simply his instruments. In fact, it is in our greatest weakness that He is strongest, for as Paul says:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. [8] Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9] But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

In other words, the one who conquers does so while leaning on the Lord for His power and His grace.

  1. Furthermore, in an ultimate sense, conquering is also a finished work for those who are in Christ Jesus. Therefore not only has the ultimate battle been won already, the power to conquer sin in this life has been given to us because we have been freed from the chains of sin. Sin is no longer our master – we can conquer now where we didn’t even want to conquer before.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. [6] We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [7] For one who has died has been set free from sin. [8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11)

  1. Lastly, believer’s names have been written in the book of life from before the foundation of the world, and this is the testimony across scripture.

Later in Revelation we read this:

Speaking of the great evil Beast, John writes, “and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8).

And in chapter 17…

The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. (Revelation 17:8)

The foundation for these passages comes from Daniel:

“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. [10] A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9-10)

And…

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. [2] And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. [3] And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:1-3)

Therefore God has chosen whom He will save from before the foundation of the world.

Nor is this a doctrine unique to prophetic or apocalyptic literature. For those whose faith is in God will never be put to shame, they will be with Him for eternity. Consider the following passages:

Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 49:23)

And as he is describing the new covenant people who will be filled with the Spirit, Joel says this:

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. [27] You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:26-27)

Paul then takes these passages and says this:

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 10:10-13 ESV)

And all those who are saved will never be separated from the Lord:

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.” (Romans 8:35-36 ESV)

And then – get this!! – he concludes…

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 8:37-39)

Thus it has always been that those who conquer do so in the power of Jesus, because of their mystical union to Jesus, and will be preserved by Jesus to walk with Him in white forevermore.

 

FOOTNOTES

[i] From the Wikipedia Article on Cyrus the Great, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_the_Great, Accessed February 20, 2015.

[ii] Ramsay, Pg.’s 359, 361.

[iii] Hendriksen, Pg. 73. He really leans heavily on Ramsay (as do so many commentators looking at the ancient geographic and cultural landscape), but I quote him here because he does a good job of summing up the thought, whereas Ramsay devotes two lengthy chapters to each city/letter which are somewhat difficult to distill at times.

[iv] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 80.

Jesus Prays for Unity – John 17

Below are my notes on John 17:20-23, its really part 1 of a two part series on how Jesus wraps up his prayer to the Father.  I hope you enjoy!

PJW

17:20-23 “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. [22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Background on verses 20-23, and 24-26

In this section Lord turns his attention more generally to the universal church and all the elect whom He came to save. Of course many of the things He’s said up until this point could (and do in many ways) apply to believers who came after these 11 standing around Him, but now He makes this clear.

William Hendricksen puts it well:

…engraved upon the breastplate of the great Highpriest are the names not only of those chosen out of the tribes of Israel but also of those drawn from the world of heathendom.  In addition to the sheep that are led out of the fold of the Jews there are also “other sheep” (10:16). All must become one flock, with one shepherd (17:21).

Also, a note about verse 22 which states that Jesus has given the disciples “glory” – Carson rightly points out that this is likely addressed to not simply the 11, but to all the elect, the entire church, given the nature and context of where it is mentioned.  This is how Carson describes what this “glory” is, “Glory commonly refers to the manifestation of God’s character or person in a revelatory context; Jesus has mediated the glory of God, personally to his first followers and through them to those who believe on account of their message.”

A note about verse 23 which states “perfectly one” – this reminds me of the call to be holy just as Jesus is holy. He is calling us toward perfection and yet this is not something we achieve in this lifetime.  This perfection of unity with God is in one sense accomplished in fact at the cross, but the reality of this will not yet be realized fully until Jesus comes back.  In this way we ought to understand the call for holiness the same way we see Jesus petitioning the Father for perfect unity – eschatologically.  We need to see these things as a comfort that since Jesus has prayed for it, therefore it will happen. So there is still an element of “not yet” here.

The entire section is summed up well by D.A. Carson’s commentary on verse 23:

The unity of the disciples, as it approaches the perfection that is its goal, serves not only to convince many in the world that Christ is indeed the supreme locus of divine revelation as Christians claim (that you sent me), but that Christians themselves have been caught up into the love of the Father for the Son, secure and content and fulfilled because loved by the Almighty himself (cf. Eph. 3:17b-19), with the very same love he reserves for his Son. It is hard to imagine a more compelling evangelic appeal.

Two Main Themes

There are really two main themes in this section (verses 20-26), the first is unity of believers with God and with each other, and the second is the importance and prerequisite assumption that we know God.  This knowing of God is enunciated by our Lord in greater detail as He concludes the prayer in vs. 24-26; therefore let me first address this idea of unity.

Unity with God and Each Other

Jesus prays to the Father that “they also may be in us” and the goal is “that the world may believe that you sent me.”  In other words, it is unity with Christ and the outflowing of a changed heart and life (actions, words, deeds) that will testify to the world that Jesus has effectively joined us to Himself.

J.C. Ryle says, “The meaning of this sentence I take to be, ‘I pray that both these my disciples, and those who hereafter shall become my disciples, may all be of one mind, one doctrine, one opinion, one heart, and one practice, closely united and joined together , even as Thou, Father, and I are of one mind and one will, in consequence of that ineffable union whereby Thou art in Me and I in Thee.’”

What this means is that when you become a Christian you are going to change – it’s inevitable.  You will bear fruit, and you will begin to love God and others more and more until the day Christ returns, or you die and meet Him in heaven. These changes are occurring across the body of Christ, so that He is working universally to conform His bride to how she ought to be.  We who believe are all united in the fact especially that God is working within us and we are united by that Spirit who dwells within us.

And so we see that in the deepest prayer we have ever been privileged to encounter in Scripture, Jesus prays for fundamental things having to do with the Christian life: knowledge of God, and unity with God as His body/His church. The glory of this cannot be missed. How can it be that God of very God would be praying that we – human beings – be ushered into an intimate relationship with Him?   Yet that is exactly what we see here is it not?

If we look at the testimony of the rest of the NT authors it seems that they also saw the importance of unity with God and with others. Here are just a few references:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phil. 2:2)

 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

This list could go on and on.  There were so many references that I couldn’t write them all down or go through each one, suffice it to say that in the NT unity of the body of Christ is very important.  This is something Christ petitioned the Father for, and something we ought to always keep in mind.

I think its important to note that Jesus’ prayer was/has been/is being realized, and this is happening is ways, but lets examine at least two key ways…

Christ achieved this unity at the cross and sealed it at the Resurrection

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn about what Christ achieved for us in terms of us being united to Christ:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

So the reality of our unity with Christ has been realized, yet we await a day when Christ comes back and we see that reality, that unity with our eyes.  We live in what Tom Schreiner calls “the awkward era” of the already/not yet.  We are unified with Christ and have all those promises, yet we won’t realize all of them until the day He returns and consummates His kingdom.

We are unified through the Spirit

Another reason we have unity with God and with the body of the church is due to the fact that the Spirit has come and inaugurated this new age.  Have you ever thought of that?  It is the Spirit of God that birthed us into the kingdom, and brought us into the family of God.  We read about this in Romans 8:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. [15] 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 8:14-17)

John MacArthur notes that when Pentecost happened it was the beginning of Jesus’ prayer being realized.

We have to see then that unity with God is a priori and what flows from it is this like-mindedness with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We should be able to settle disputes, and live harmoniously with each other because we are united with Christ, because of His work, and because of His indwelling presence.

J.C. Ryle remarks, “The true secret of the unity of believers lies in the expression, ‘one in us.’ They can only be thoroughly ‘one’ by being joined at the same time to one Father and to one Savior. Then they will be one with on another.”

I mentioned this earlier, but there are sometimes when the already/not yet reality of this life really rises to the surface, and I believe that in the area of unity we see that clearly.  We are filled with the Spirit, yet the flesh still encroaches and keeps us from being in harmony and unity with others.  The same goes for our words and thoughts and actions – even though the Spirit of God dwells in us, yet we still behave as though we are our own gods and satisfy our own desires instead of looking to please God first.  This is the tension we live with and will continue to live with until our Lord returns.

Now, all of this unity is really important, but it cannot be understood apart from knowledge of God and His message.  D.A. Carson puts it so well that it is worth citing his words at length:

This is not simply a ‘unity of love’. It is a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation the Father mediated to the first disciples through his Son, the revelation they accepted (vs. 6, 8) and then passed on (‘those who will believe in me through their message’, vs. 20). It is analogous to the oneness Jesus enjoys with his Father, here fleshed out in the words just as you are in me and I am in you. The Father is actually in the Son, so much so that we can be told that it is the Father who is performing the Son’s works (14:10); yet the Son is in the Father, not only in dependence upon and obedience to him, but his agent in creation (1:2-3) and his wholly concurring Son in the redemption and preservation of those the Father has given him (6:37-40; 17:6, 19). The Father and the Son are distinguishable (the pre-incarnate Word is ‘with’ God, 1:1; the Son prays to his Father; the Father commissions and sends, while the Son obeys), yet they are one.

And therefore in order to be unified with Jesus and with the Father we must first “adhere” to their revelation, we must know God.  Indeed that is something we’ll discuss as we look at the next series of verses.  But first we need to examine one last glorious truth about what Jesus is saying here…

The Purpose of Unity

In verse 23 we read what Jesus has in mind for all this talk of unity – what His purpose is – and this is what He says, “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”  This is certainly the thrust of John’s gospel is it not?  He wants people to know that God sent Jesus and that Jesus is the Lord of all, He is the Messiah.

There are two things Jesus is asking for here:

  1. That the world will know that He was sent from God
  2. That the world (and we) will know that God the Father loves us just as He loves the Son

Jesus is saying firstly that when the world sees us united to the Father and the Son through the Spirit they will know that something is different.  That something is a supernatural something is it not?  Jesus expects that this unity will have such an outward manifestation as to warrant the world coming to the conclusion that He (Jesus) was sent from God.  There are obviously several steps logically that people would have to go through in order to make that connection, but the fact remains that here Jesus foresees this, He wants this, He’s praying for this, and this is consequently what our lives are all about.

Jesus is praying that all who come to believe in Him will be united with Him and the Father in such an obvious way that people will look at this, will notice this and will say “those people have a special bond with the God of the universe and His Son whom He sent.”  They will know we are Christ followers and have to conclude that Jesus must have been sent from God because only a divine being could affect such a change in John Doe here!  There’s no other way they will be able to explain what they see and hear unless somehow these Jesus lovers are really connected to a higher power.  That’s the purpose of what Jesus is saying here.

Secondly, we have to note that one of the things the world will notice and we will cherish is that disciples of the Lord Jesus are loved by the Father – the creator of the universe, mind you – as He loves His Son.

Carson rightly says that, “the thought is breathtakingly extravagant.”  It is so amazing that its worth pondering and then realizing once again that this is like Jesus’ last will and testament here.  He’s about to die, and what does He pray for?  For us to have love poured upon us to such a degree that the world will have to conclude that we’ve been taken under the wing of God Himself and because we are united to Christ we are one with Him in receiving the love that the Father has shed abroad on the Son.

It is almost as if (in my mind) a see pitcher of water (the Father) pouring into the cup of the Son and this cup is connected to a wide saucer (the church) which is the beneficiary of the overflow from the pitcher.  We receive love certainly because God has set his particular affection upon us individually, but here we see a different picture of our reception of the love of God as a direct consequence to our connection to the Son.

Can’t Hold Him Down

As I was studying another passage in Acts 2 with some guys this past Sunday, we ran headlong into Acts 2:24.  Check it out:

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:24 ESV)

Now, we didn’t spend a lot of time on it then, but this has always been one of my favorite passages when regulating/guiding my understanding of the resurrection.  And since its Easter week (“Holy Week”), I thought I’d just bring this verse to your attention for meditation in the days ahead.

I really wanted to mention two things. First, there’s something amazing here about his ontology (His essence), and second, there’s some great truths that should put our mind to ease about our own salvation.

So first, a quick note about the “ontology” or “essence” of Jesus.  He is, of course, fully man.  That’s how He was able to be killed in the first place.   But because you cannot actually kill God, He is unable to die, and therefore death simply can’t hold him. You can’t snuff out the essence of life just like darkness, as a natural principle of science, flees from the room when you turn on the light. The rules that govern reality don’t work like that.  Had Jesus stayed dead, its not like people could say “well there goes that myth” because there would be not people to say that. When you kill the single entity that is powering and upholding our understanding of life and reality as we know it (Heb. 1:1-3, and Col. 1:15-20), then you would (or “might” since its impossible) also destroy all life which is tied to that power source pretty much instantly.

Let that thought settle in your mind a bit…can you imagine having crucified this man and then see Him walk around Jerusalem for 40 days teaching people?!  ……and you wonder why this whole Christianity thing really took off?  That, by the way, is what Easter is all about.  Time to bring your mind into a proper state to once again focus on this truth and then be subsequently blown by this truth.

But secondly, I love this verse because for those who might be struggling with that thought of “well, I definitely believe in Jesus, I definitely believe I’m saved, and I have repented of my sins…but, man, I just struggle with whether or not I’ll lose my salvation.  I know my sinfulness, and I know I’m just constantly failing!” This is the passage for you.

Why?  Well think about it this way – if Jesus is said not to be able to “be held by (death)” then that means He has power over death.  And when you combine that truth with another from Romans six which states, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5 ESV)” — what you get then is the perfect combination for assurance that you’ll make it to the end without losing a thing!  

In fact, I think that’s exactly what the last part of Romans 8 is all about, and what the whole of the chapter is about, namely that since God is in charge and in control of the saving your soul from start to finish, you have to assume He knows what He’s doing AND that He can see the project through to completion.

Definitely check out Romans 8, but also check out John 6, because Jesus says some remarkable things there as well.  I’m going to leave you with a few of those verses — but first, you need to remember, and (rightly) assume that when Jesus teaches us something you can know with absolute certainty that its going to happen. Why?  Well, anyone who can control acts of nature, raise people to life, heal them of hideous diseases, multiply food without calling for takeout, and beat the grave can pretty much by guaranteed to keep your salvation safe until He comes back (note the sarcasm…).  Now here’s what Jesus says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:35-40 ESV)

 

How the Spirit Magnifies Christ and His Gospel

Today in our Sunday School class we walked through the first 15 verses in John’s 16th chapter.  Even though I was battling strep throat and an ear infection at the time (unbeknownst to me), I thoroughly enjoyed the time in God’s word.  Below are my notes from the day.  Keep on the lookout for two key things about this section of Scripture:

1. How the Spirit magnifies the Gospel in our lives (the gospel not of works of of Christ’s finished work on our behalf)

2. How the Spirit glorifies the Son (note esp. vs. 14)

You will also see that the Spirit has a work beyond just comforting the believers and enduing us with the truth from Christ, and that consists of His work in this world: convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment.

Blessings,

PJW

Chapter 16

16:1-3 “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. 3 And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.

Verse one is really a sweet verse.  Jesus is about to reiterate some things again to the disciples, and we’ll look at that in a minute.  But here He interjects that He is saying these things “to keep you from falling away.”  There is a genuine concern in the heart and mind of Christ for His disciples.  He wants them to remain steadfast, and grounded in the faith.  And as He called these disciples to remain and not fall away, so He calls us to do the same.

So we remind each other of His words, and we say to each other: remain steadfast! Remain in Me – abide in my words.  I care for you and I don’t want you to fall away.  I want you near Me – I want you to know Me!  So extensively, so deep, so wide is the love of our Savior for you and for me that He wants us to remember over and over again that we need to remain in Him – again, this is the consequence of Union with Christ, as we had seen earlier.

Furthermore, we saw near the end of chapter 15 that people act as they do toward Christians because they don’t know the Father. More specifically this could be for a number of reasons. If the Jews are in view, which I think can be presumed because of the word “synagogues” here, then we ought to take this as Jesus warning against the fact that the Jews did not connect Him with the Father.  They didn’t see Him as the Lord of all life and creation.  They did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  So what did they do?  They killed Him. Therefore it only stands to reason that those who follow the teachings of Jesus – and exalt Jesus as the Christ – will certainly receive similar treatment.

Ryle says this of Christ’s prophecy that the Jews will toss the disciples out of the synagogues, “How true the prediction has turned out! Like every other prophecy of Scripture, it has been fulfilled to the very letter. The Acts of the Apostles show us how the unbelieving Jews persecuted the early Christians.”

Therefore, these are things that Jesus has said earlier and is reiterating them, but has added on to them the prediction that not only will the follower of Christ suffer persecution (as Paul also mentions in 2 Tim. 3:12), but He gives them a specific way in which this will happen.

Now, when Jesus says things like this over and over it is for the purpose of emphasizing their importance.  In those days there was no “bolding” or “italicizing” of words.  Rather it was repetition that served as the instrument of emphasis in the ancient world.

So Jesus, knowing that very soon He will go away and that terrible things are going to happen to His followers, wants them to be completely informed of the “why” – He wants them to be able to connect the dots to reassure their hearts, which leads us to verse four…

16:4-6 But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.

Here Jesus explains why it is that He is telling them all of these things.  He’s shocking them, truth be told. He’s just told them that they are about to enter into a life of cross bearing, a life of unpopularity, a life of persecution.  He is loading their minds up with truth – truth that will help them later even if they don’t fully understand it now.

This ought to remind us of the sovereignty of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, knew all that was to happen to Him and to those elect which He had chosen before the foundation of the world.  And He is reassuring the hearts of His disciples of this fact.  The predictions are horrible, to be sure.  They must have worried the disciples.  But the fact that He knew them, that He confidently told them all of these things once again signified His deity.  And if He is divine, then He will certainly have the power to carry out His great plan.  The disciples can rightfully say to themselves that ‘All of this therefore will eventually make sense because He is who He says He is, and therefore He controls all things and knows all things that He controls’ and so on.

And so we see Romans 8:28 screaming to us from passages like this.  Jesus knows all, is in control of all, and therefore there is a reason and a purpose for our pain and our suffering.  It is working an eternal weight of glory!  It is driving us toward holiness, and it is testifying our identity as Christians, as Christ followers.

Note however, that this doesn’t stop the disciples from being sad.  Their hearts are filled with sorrow.  Jesus is so tender here.  He has compassion for them, because He understands their weaknesses.  That is the advantage – the very great advantage – of having a Lord who understands and can identify with our humanity.

16:7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

We have to ask ourselves this: how in the world is it advantageous for the Lord to go away?  If you put yourselves in the place of these 11 men, you have to wonder how this was helpful.  In fact, we have to also wonder from our own perspective how its more helpful to have the Spirit than to have Christ.

The answer has a few layers. These men had with them the pre-glorified Christ.  Jesus had not yet been glorified as He is now.  The Jesus that comes back on that final day will appear to us much more glorious than the man who walked 2000 years ago.

This idea of appearance, and glory is more than just physical though.  The reason that, during this age, it is advantageous to have the Spirit is because though they beheld Christ, they did not fully understand all that He said, nor did they truly see Him as glorious – and it is the Spirit of truth that opens the eyes of men to not simply hear the gospel but hear it as glorious; to not only behold the man Jesus in the pages of Scripture, but to behold Him as glorious.  This is what Paul was getting at in 2 Corinthians 4:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 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. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 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 4:3-6)

Therefore it is extremely advantageous that we have the Spirit, for He is the Spirit of Truth who helps us see Christ as being glorious and gives us the power to overcome the world (which we’ll soon see), not by our own work, but because the “work” has already been accomplished on the cross.  The plan has been set in motion; we are in a remarkable time in redemptive history.  Let’s us praise God for the great and glorious gift us His Spirit without which we would have an impoverished view of the magnificence of the beauty of the Son.

16:8-11 And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

The role of the Holy Spirit is here expanded to include not only His work within the church, but also His role outside the church in bringing souls to Christ, and shining the light of truth in the darkness of depraved minds under the influence of Satan (2 Cor. 4:4).

Specifically, we see three ways that the Spirit convicts the world: about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment.

Sin: John MacArthur says this, “It is the Spirit’s mission to present the truth about Jesus Christ to the world (15:26); those who reject the truth will be found guilty and judged by the Son and the Father (5:22, 27, 30)…(sin) refers not to sin in general but specifically to the ultimate sin of refusing to believe in Jesus Christ. It is that sin that finally damns people, since all others are forgiven when a person believes savingly in Him (Matt. 12:31-32).”  I think that pretty well sums up the fact that it is the role the Spirit to convict the hearts and open the blind eyes of mankind.  This is a sovereign work – no man can do it for himself, for man on his own is hostile to God, and does not seek to know the truth of God (Romans 1:18-32, 3:10-18).

Righteousness: To again quote MacArthur, “The righteousness here is that which belongs to Jesus Christ by nature as the holy Son of God…When their wickedness is compared to His sinless holiness, their sin is seen more truly for the detestable evil that it is.”  In other words, Jesus Christ is the only righteous one, and it is by His merit alone that a man can be saved. I might term this “the goodness gap” which a sinner sees when convicted by the Spirit.

I imagine that the best example of this visually is that which we read in Isaiah 6.  Isaiah, in the presence of the Lord, is convicted of his utter sinfulness.  When righteousness is manifested so clearly, it is impossible to miss the dark blot of sin that mars our ways (be that words, actions etc.).

Judgment: The Spirit’s work of conviction reveals that the ruler of this world has been judged.  That is to say that Jesus has overcome the power of the one enslaving all of mankind. Look at what is said elsewhere about this:

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

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Until the end of this age the Devil will continue to blind the eyes of men, but his fate is known and secured.  The fate of the seed of the woman and the seed of the Serpent are not the same.  For a second Adam (Rom. 5) has taken our judgment upon Himself – the judgment that we deserved (Is. 53), so that now our fate, our futures, our hopes and our souls are joined to His power and His resurrection (Rom. 6).  And just as our fates are tied to the new life we have in Christ, so also are the futures of all those who reject the Lord’s offer of salvation.  Satan’s future has been sealed and thus judgment has been set.  The final consummation of this judgment will come in the last day:

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:7-10)

We need to remember that when Jesus was anticipated by the prophets it was hard to imagine for the Israelites that their Savior would ever come, yet the word of the Lord is sure.  He will definitely bring about all that He has ordained.  The same is true of His church today.  We sometimes wonder if He will ever come back.  We long for that day, and we get discouraged to see the evil that has ensconced our world, yet we must maintain faith in the Lord that He will certainly bring to pass all that He has promised in His word (Is. 55:11).

16:12-15 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] 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.

Supernatural Strength

John MacArthur points out that the contrast between the disciple’s selfishness and Jesus’ selflessness is exhibited in verses like 6 and perhaps here in 12.  But while I agree there is definitely a contrast, I think the accent is not only on the selfishness of the disciples, but also on the weakness of their flesh. They need supernatural strength to bear the task ahead. Certainly they responsible for their actions – and for the knowledge that Christ Jesus is preparing them with in this farewell discourse – but I think that we are here seeing specifically the deficit between the ability of the flesh and that of the Spirit.

When the disciples had the opportunity to stand up for Christ they failed – why?  Because they were sinners, and because they didn’t have the indwelling presence of the Spirit to lean on.  The boldness of the disciples – especially in the example of Peter – is made manifest to us in the first few chapters of Luke’s account of the early church in Acts. In fact, many have commented that the book of Acts ought not be called ‘Acts of the Apostles’, but rather ‘Acts of the Holy Spirit’ due to the empowering work the Spirit did through God’s servants.

Supernatural Understanding and Knowledge

Up until this point Jesus has been their great prophet, declaring in their midst wisdom and future events, and the truth of God.  Now the Helper is to come and do the exact same thing. What an awesome thing to contemplate!

This is what is predicted in Jeremiah:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

I believe I’ve been guilty of harping on this in the past, but we too often do not praise God for the gift of the Spirit!  We have been given the very presence of God living within us and that Spirit who empowered the Lord Jesus Christ during his life on earth has been given to us to guide us, convict us, and bring us into all knowledge.

Look also at the preeminence of Jesus here, as well as the fact that you and I have been drawn into a relationship with all three members of the Godhead.  The Spirit indwells us, and declares to us the truth of God’s word, enlightening us to the meaning of Scripture, and all that He has given has come from Jesus at His behest – for He loves us.  Not only that, but He has given us all that the Father has given to Him.  So that all that the Father has for us is given by Christ and administered by the Holy Spirit.  All three Members of the Godhead functioning in perfect accord within the framework of their own individual role, yet all of the same mind, all executing the same plan – that plan being to enlighten us unto the truths of God.

Surely we can see here that it is God’s deepest desire for us that we know Him!

All Glory Goes to Jesus

One of the things that is uniquely characteristic about the Holy Spirit is His desire to always point glory to the Son.  He always wants to shine the focus on Jesus.  And that is why Jesus can describe Him thus in verse 14.

We mentioned before how the Father is always pointing people to the Son because He loves the Son and wants to glorify the Son and wants us to love the Son.  And the same is true with the Spirit.  These two persons of the Godhead want us to see God personified.  They want us to see the model for conformity, for righteousness and for love.  They want us to see the incarnate Christ and wed our hearts to Him forever giving Him praise for His atoning sacrifice, and imputed righteousness.  Jesus is worthy of our praise – He is worthy of our honor and all the glory we can give Him.

In our text on John 11 I mentioned that there are a few ways in which Jesus can be glorified.  There is the reflection, the revelation, and the praises of His people. The Spirit here will reveal the character of Christ to us, thus glorifying Him, He will mold us to His image in order that we might reflect His character, thus glorifying Him, and He will create in us a love for Him and a clear understanding of all He has done for us thus making in us a well spring of praise to Him which also glorifies the Son.  In these three ways the Spirit contributes to the Son’s glory.

John 15:9-11 Study Notes – Getting Joy from Obedience

Here are my study notes from yesterday morning’s lesson.  We spent some time talking about joy in life, and how big of a deal it is that in this section of Scripture Jesus reveals His desire for us to have joy.  That’s a far cry from the stoic detached God we hear about from critics of Christianity!  I hope you enjoy these short notes, and that this week you are challenged to think especially on verse 11.

Blessings,

PJW

 

15:9-10 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

The Awesomeness Meter…Broken

I think there are basically 6 points to verses 9-14 that need examined.  But first, I can’t move on to look at these general themes without noting something in particular about verse nine – as I was looking at this verse and the whole section I just couldn’t get over Jesus saying that He loves us (note the past tense there as if he’s always loved us) “as the Father has loved me.”

What this ought to tell us is something about the relationship between the Father and the Son, and also something about how much Jesus loves us.  I’m not sure how much it would help to prattle on here about this, because every explanation or description I think of to describe it seems to make it seem trite in comparison with what I know Jesus is describing.

Think of it this way: when God does something, He does it in a BIG way.  Not size-wise, but in terms of awesomeness.  Think of the awesomeness meter being broken!  Okay, now that the picture is in your head, realize that the intensity and depth of His love for the Son is going to match that depth and intensity that the Son has for us.  If that doesn’t blow your mind I might as well quit teaching now!

Its this kind of truth we need to lay as a foundation stone for our understanding of Christian doctrine.  Let me give you an example of why….if someone asks you if you can loose your salvation, or if Jesus is really with you in a trial, or if God is really in control of all the details of your life, or if Jesus really died specifically for you, and so on…you can answer in the affirmative because you have a foundational understanding of how much Jesus loves you.

  • Jesus doesn’t loose any sheep – He’s too powerful and loves you too much
  • Jesus doesn’t abandon you – He loves you too much
  • God the Son is in control of all things and that includes all the details in your life – He loves you too much not to be involved
  • Jesus really did die for you – because He loves you as much as the Father loves Him

I think you probably get the picture!  Paul got the picture also, and that’s why he could write the following:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

The Mark of a Christian

So the first part of verse 9 is foundational, and as we examine verses 9-14 I want to look at the mark of discipleship and what enables us to obey.  Christ is primarily here concerned to show what life in the vine looks like, and to exhort His disciples toward that life which will reflect their relationship with Him.  Just as it was the purpose of ancient Israel to be a light to nations and show forth the glories and joy of living in true relationship with God, so too is it our privilege to be a light to the world and show others what true communion with God looks like.

I want to explore these truths under six headings:

    • Disciples Obey
    • Disciples Obey Because Jesus Obeyed First
    • Disciples Obey and get Joy as a Result
    • Disciples Obey because they love Jesus
    • Disciples Love Jesus Because He First Loved Them
    • Disciples Are Called to Radical Obedience and Love

Notice that there is a sort of ascending or building house of truth here…

Disciples Obey

Jesus says that the result of being united with Him is that we will bear fruit. If you are in the vine then you will bear fruit – so what does that look like? It looks like obedience.

The mark of a true disciple of Christ – a born again believer – is that they will bear the fruit of obedience to the commands of Jesus.

That is why Jesus can confidently assert, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Keeping the commands results from abiding in Christ.

If you are consistently not obeying Christ’s commands, then there is good reason to wonder if you are truly saved and numbered among His sheep. It is a simple fact that those who have been converted become a new creation, and that new creation behaves in ways that are different than those who are not “in” Christ.

Of course the sanctification process is slow – painfully slow sometimes! – but we know that what God began He will be faithful to complete (Phil. 1:6).

Disciples Obey Because Jesus Obeyed First

Note now from verse 10 that Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything that He didn’t first accomplish. He is the “righteous branch” (Jer. 23:5) and is not only our example, but also paved the way for us to be capable of obedience. That’s what Jesus is saying when He says, “Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

These are the two truths we must internalize here:

  1. Jesus obeyed first and is our example of how to live in righteousness and truth
  2. Jesus’ obedience means that even when we fail we will still be righteous in the eyes of God

Jesus was just as human as we are, tempted as we are, and yet was without sin (Heb. 4:15; 2 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5), and Jesus’ obedience has been imputed to our account (Rom. 4:22-25) in order that we might become “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

The result of this obedience is not only the ability to obey through the power of the Holy Spirit, but the beautiful truth that when we fail (and we will) we can boldly come before the throne of grace and ask for forgiveness – with the confidence to know it will be forgiven (Hebrews 4).

Therefore, because Christ’s righteous life ransomed us from a life of sin and corruption, which would have resulted in eternal death, we give Him our lives as an offering. We serve, we teach, we follow Christ – we obey.

As Christians we now follow the example of Christ by the power of Christ.  Just as He obeyed through the power of the Spirit, so we too “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) and obedience to His commands.

Of Christ’s submission to the Spirit Bruce Ware comments:

Although Jesus was full God, as a man he chose to rely not on his own divine nature but on the power of the Spirit. In this way, he lived his life as an example for us (1 Peter 2:21-22), and fulfilled the perfect obedience that Adam had failed to accomplish…As a man, Jesus submitted fully to the Spirit, even though in terms of rank, within the Trinity, Jesus has authority over the Spirit.

Likewise we Christians are to submit to the power of the Spirit as we follow the example of Jesus. Romans 6:17-18 describes this beautifully:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18, ESV)

15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Disciples Obey and get Joy as a Result

Just as Christ is our example in obedience and walking in the power of the Spirit, so too is He in receiving joy as a result.  Look at what we read in Hebrews 12:

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2, ESV)

I think this joy is not only something we experience in heaven, but also here on earth.  There is a joy in obeying your Lord – in serving Him with all of your heart.  This is proven by our own experience, is it not?  We obey Christ’s word and someone benefits by our kindness, or our generosity and it thrills our soul!  In this way the kingdom of heaven’s benefits are made manifest in our hearts even before we see that kingdom consummated upon Christ’s return.

This is what is meant, then, by the psalmist’s exhortation, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8)

Obedience to God is not drudgery it is joy, and this is so because it is done in love.  That’s why Jesus said above, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  Love is the overarching descriptor that Jesus uses to explain the nature of His obedience to the Father and our obedience to Him.  Without love your obedience is a “clanging symbol” (1 Cor. 13:1) and is completely unprofitable.

As we’ve said previously, love for God and others is a mark of being a Christian. As was mentioned in chapter 13:

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

Therefore all of this joy springs forth first from a heart that is loving toward others and toward God. Without this love there will be no joy. All of your “righteous” deeds will be like annoying sounds upon the ears of those whom you purport to serve.

A Last Word About This Joy…

There will be sometimes that we obey knowing that it is the right thing to do, and are empowered by God do obey, and yet we don’t experience that joy right away.  It seems like we’re doing something difficult and not something that excites us. But I can only attribute this to our sin nature.

For example, I once told Derek (Stone) that I really didn’t enjoy doing evangelism, but I would sign up to go because I knew it was the right thing to do.  Gradually, I asked for God’s help, and He changed my desires. Am I a gifted evangelist?  No! (I laugh just asking the question!) But boy o boy do I enjoy sharing the gospel when I’m given the opportunity.  What held me back from enjoying evangelism rather than just carrying out my “duty”?  My sin nature.

It is our sin nature that prevents us from being joyful all the time. It is our sin nature that brings millions of Christians to church every Sunday as if it were some perfunctory gathering and not a joyful time of worship.  It is our sin nature that mellows our worship as something mindless and heartless.  It is our sin nature when we think that showing up to church is something special when 90% of our friends are sleeping in.  It is our sin nature that cares more about the style of worship than learning out to worship properly in the first place. It is our sin nature talking after church when we nitpick about the sermon and yet haven’t lifted a finger to serve for months and months.

Don’t be fooled.  You are a sinner, and in this world you will have trouble – and much of that trouble will not be brought on by Satan (as if you’re that important), but by your own sinful self-centeredness.

You will never experience the joy of the Lord if you continue to live in the flesh instead of walking by the Spirit.  Forget yourself and your self-centered schedule and your self-centered dreams, and start reorienting your life around the Son of God. That is my prayer for you this year.

Study Notes for 10-27-13, John 14:15-24

Below are study notes for John 14:15-24

14:15-17 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. [16] And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, [17] even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

“If” You Love Me

Here we see that the prerequisite for obedience to Christ’s commands is a love for Him.  That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?  I mean, if we are in love with the Lord Jesus, then of course we will want to obey Him!

But the next thing that should come to mind is that we can’t obey the law even if we do love Jesus.  The disciples don’t even get a chance to ask the question, which should be: How are we supposed to follow all of your commands, or even want to do that all of the time? Instead, Jesus anticipates the problem and promises the Holy Spirit to them.  Until now they have had Him as their helper – that is why Jesus says “another” helper.  The first “helper” was Jesus, and the second is the Spirit (later I will explain the term “paraklētos” which is the Greek term translated “helper” here).

If we examine the passage closely, we’ll notice that all the way from verse 15 or so through about verse 26 there is a theme that Jesus develops for the disciples, namely, that the Holy Spirit will come to represent Himself.  Jesus is going away, and He wants to comfort the disciples and prepare them for that absence by explaining not only what they will need to do, but how they are going to do it.

Now the Holy Spirit’s role is obvious from the verses we read here, and what we’ll read below. Here the Spirit is said to help us by causing us to love Christ. You might not see that immediately, but that is the clear implication.  For those who love Christ obey His commands, and because its clear that Jesus knows we need help to obey commands, we must also need help to love Him.  John would write about this in his epistles:

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. (1 John 4:11-13)
 
We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
 

And so it is that the Spirit is the one who creates in us a love for God. He softens our hearts, and speaks softly to us, explaining the great truths of God’s gospel.  Without His initiative, we would still be dead in our trespasses.

Jesus explains here also that “the world cannot receive Him”, that is to say that on our own we cannot receive the Spirit of God. It isn’t up to us who receives the gift of the Spirit. God is the one who sovereignly chooses who He will to abide with. We’ll address this in more depth in just a moment…

You know Him Already

The last thing Jesus says in these three verses is that the disciples already know the Spirit. This is a mysterious thing.  Pastor Scotty Smith writes:

As Jesus continues instructing his disciples in advance of his ascension we enter the most profound teaching about the Trinity to be found anywhere in the Bible. There is much mystery here, but let us affirm what is clearly in the text. The better we know Jesus, the more Trinitarian we will become. The gospel is the means by which we enter the fellowship, love, and joy shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit throughout eternity – a staggering thought indeed.
 

Therefore, we should look closely here at what Jesus is saying and marvel a bit…Jesus can say, “You know him” Because, “he dwells with you and will be in you.” Let’s not miss this, because I think it’s a really important statement. What Jesus is saying is that even though they don’t yet have the Spirit living inside of them, they have been with Jesus, and that is tantamount to knowing the Spirit already. For not only is Jesus filled with the Spirit, but when the Spirit comes it will be as if they have Jesus right there with them – only now instead of having Jesus walking the hills of Judea with them, they will have Him in their hearts.

Why is this important?  Because you have that same Spirit, Christian! You have the Lord Jesus’ Spirit living within you, you are the temple of the living God. His mind, His will, His love for you is embodied in the fact that He sent His Spirit to you.  What I mean by this is that He has a plan and a love for you, and He is working that out through the power and person of the Holy Spirit.

To have the Spirit is to have Jesus, and to have Jesus is to have the Father, as we shall soon see…

This is why it is vital to understand that our God is a triune God, and that He is three persons, each with different roles.

14:18-20 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. [19] Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. [20] In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

First, I want to note that at the end of verse 18 we see here that Jesus says, “I will come to you.” This just further shows what I mention above about how Jesus Himself is coming to us in the form of His Spirit.  They are not one in the same person, rather, they are so alike in their mind and purpose that we cannot tell them apart.  They are on the same mission, and they are both part of the One Godhead. Having the Spirit is tantamount to having Jesus live within us – that is what Jesus is saying here.

The entire idea is tied up together in verse 20, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” That is the whole idea!  This is DEEP water we’ve just wandered into.  But what an amazing thing.  Jesus is teaching us something about the Trinity here, and about how role in the Kingdom. He is saying that His bride, that’s us, will be “in Him” and He will be “in us” just as He is “in” the Father. Don’t miss this. Cherish this. This is such profound, such wonderful truth that you can’t forget it.

What are the consequences?  Well I can think of several, but especially one: if we are that close to Christ and that “in” the Trinity, then surely there is nothing (as Paul writes in Romans 8) that can separate us from His love!  In other words, to separate us from the love of Christ would be like separating Jesus from the Father, or the Spirit from Jesus.  It is unthinkable, in fact, it is impossible.

Adoption and Love

Now, secondly, since we have seen and laid the foundation for understanding how Jesus will be with us, and how it is that we will do those greater works (in and because of the Spirit), we see that there is a side-benefit to having Christ go away…we are adopted into His family!

I think that verses 18 and 20 are closely tied to 21 and 15.  What I mean by that is that Jesus is saying that by loving Him, it shows that you are part of His family. Love is a by-product of family membership. Love happens for two reasons: First, because the Spirit has adopted us into the family by regenerating us to everlasting life and enabled us to love as Christ loves, and secondly, because of His work we have a desire to love. So there is His initiating action here, and our obedient response.  Jerry Bridges calls this “dependent responsibility” because not only to re require Him to start us off on the path, but we rely on His help to stay on the path.

So we see here that love is a mark of family membership.  We love because we are adopted!

Lastly, and more particularly to this passage, I want to note how Jesus says, “because I live, you also will live.”  What He means here is to signify the importance of the resurrection. Because we are “in” Him, that means that when He conquered death, when He arose from the grace, when He ascended into heaven, that we, too, arose and are guaranteed heaven.  Why? Because, again, we are “in” Him.  To be “in” the Lord is to be guaranteed all of the promises that He has earned for us.

Listen to how Paul describes the Spirit’s interaction with our spirit in reminding us of this great promised adoption:

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, ESV)
 

Therefore, because He earned life, we get life. Because He was perfectly righteous, we are made perfectly righteous in the eyes of God. Because He broke the bonds of sin and death, we too have been loosed from sin, and will never taste spiritual death.

Think about the significance that the resurrection now has in your mind and your life. If Jesus never rose from the grave, then all of this is moot (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). We’d still be dead in our sins. But Jesus is here saying (ahead of all of this even occurring, mind you) that when He rises from the dead, we too will walk in “newness of life.”  This is what Paul was saying in Romans 6:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:4-11)
 

Later Paul adds:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9-11, ESV)
 

14:21-24 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” [22] Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” [23] Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. [24] Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

Here we have once again the reiteration of what Jesus said earlier.  Verse 21 and verse 15 are almost identical. If we love Him we keep His commands.  It harkens us back to the sermon on the mount where Jesus said that those who bare fruit are those who are His.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20)
 

The second thing that Jesus says here is that, “my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”  This is very much like verse 20 when He said, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  The idea here is that not only is Jesus in us, but that the Father is also in us.  This would have been enough to blow the minds of the disciples.

NOTE: this passage, along with others, has been historically used to support to filioque insertion in the Nicene Creed which states that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. It is this addition that eventually helped create a schism between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin/Catholic) church (the major historically recognized year of this is 1054, even though the problems and disagreements started well prior to this). 
 

We read earlier how Philip said ‘just show us the Father and that is enough for us Jesus!’  And I explained how the Jews thought of seeking the face of the Lord, and the face of God, and how Aaron’s benediction embodied this idea of being blessed by the revealing of God’s face to us one day. The idea derives from the time when Moses learned that no man can see God and live, but was allowed to view God’s “hindquarters” (in anthropomorphic language).  The idea being that God’s face is so glorious and so bright and resplendent that to view it would be too much for a finite creature to handle – we would die instantly.

Now here we begin to see the sweetness of the revelation we have in NT times. Not only has God sent His Son to us in the incarnation, not only did He die for our sins and impute to us His own righteousness, but He has gone a step further still.  He is going to live within us – His Spirit abiding in us! Meaning, as Jesus says here, that the Father and the Son will essentially be using us as their temple on earth.  They will be manifesting their presence on earth through us!

Have you stopped to consider the ramifications of this? We have become to used to the idea of the immanence of God, that we forget who it is we’re talking about here. We forget so easily in our day that this Being who inhabits the believer is the same one who spoke the universe into existence!

If that doesn’t lend some sobriety to your walk with Christ I don’t know what will.  Because Jesus is reminding us here that if we really love Him, you will pursue Him, you will obey Him, you will understand the reality that the God of heaven and earth has deigned to come down and live – in you!

D.A. Carson is right to mention that, in a very strong way, this passage builds on antecedent passages about the Spirit, the one that I want to mention most particularly is in 4:23-24 where Jesus (speaking to the Samaritan woman) says:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24, ESV)
 

Oh the sweetness, oh the condescension, oh the love of God in this! Can you not see how crucial this is to understand?  God has sought out those who will worship Him in “spirit and in truth” – He is doing this by putting His Spirit within us. He wants us to know Him properly, and for our minds to do this He must be the first to act.  He must take the initiative, and He must powerfully work within us. As we read earlier:

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

Jesus is urging us on here to think DEEPLY about the reality of what is going on here. You must take this seriously and understand the privileges and responsibilities associated with being a Christian. This is a call to loving, awe-filled obedience to your Lord.

Not to the World

Lastly, I didn’t want to skip over what Judas says here because he has a good question. He has heard Jesus say already, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  So if God loved the “world”, why is it that He won’t manifest Himself to the world?

The answer is that while God loves His creation, He has a special and specific plan of redemption for His chosen sheep. We start with the prerequisite understanding that the world cannot receive Him because the world does not want Him.

And contrary to the rejection of Christ, the world will not have a “choice” to accept the Spirit in the same way they saw the incarnate Christ and rejected Him. For the Spirit’s mission, though a continuation of Christ’s, has different objectives, that is to say that Christ is working to accomplish something new through the Spirit (the next phrase of His redemptive plan), namely the quickening of all those whom the Father has predestined to life and the reside within them, fashioning them after His image, and keeping them (preserving them) until the day Jesus Christ returns or we die and join Him in Heaven.

Be sure of one thing: Jesus knows who will believe and who won’t (see John 6:64), and He will not cast pearls before swine. He will not reveal His glory to all. Those who receive the Lord Jesus and the joy of eternal life are those whom He has chosen, those whom His Spirit has softened and called to Himself.  This is, of course, the work of the Spirit. He is the one doing the softening and calling and regenerating.

The world cannot receive the Spirit, not because the Spirit isn’t the one doing the work, not because the Spirit can’t soften the hearts of men. But simply because the Spirit isn’t going to soften the hearts of all men. He isn’t going to be sent to the whole “world”, but rather to those for whom Christ died.

Slavery to Sin and “Free-Will”

In today’s class I touched on the much disputed, but often incorrectly explained, notion of man’s so-called “free-will”.

What I wanted to show today, and what I will demonstrate in this post, is that “free-will” must be correctly defined and understood if we’re going to use the term in a Biblical and accurate manner. Further, the idea itself that “free-will” exists is a bit of a misnomer, and I will seek to give you some logical reasoning for that truth.  Lastly, “free-will” as it relates to our choice of Christ and salvation from bondage is a most abhorrent notion in the general way Christians today think of it. I will show you why its not only abhorrent, but also a logical absurdity.

Free-Will Popularly Defined

First we must understand what we’re talking about, and that means defining our terms.  “Free-will” is often understood to mean our mind/soul/will making choices in complete freedom and liberty, with no previous (“antecedent”) influence or outside influence or internal (spiritual) influence. For brevity sake, let it suffice to say that those who define freedom this way say that our will can be completely neutral or “indifferent” before we make our decisions. That the only thing that affects our decisions is our mind, or emotion, or understanding etc. (pre-supposing an entirely “free” act of the mind upon the will…as if one can be suspended apart from the other without any antecedent motive or influence).

I believe this is a poor definition of “free-will”, but it is what most people think of when they hear the term. They think of the power to make their own choice without reference to any outside/inside agency or coercion.

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfectly “Free” and Unbiased Will

In order for this popular definition of “free-will” to work in reality, our will must first achieve a perfect state of indifference or neutrality before making a decision – before choosing one thing or another. Without laboring the point too much, let me just say that this is a logical impossibility. It is impossible to not have any prior inclination or motive informing our mind/will either internally or externally. In other words, we do not live in a vacuum.

Jonathan Edwards explains, “to make out this scheme of liberty, the indifference must be perfect and absolute; there must be a perfect freedom from all antecedent preponderation of inclination. Because if the will be already inclined  before it exerts its own sovereign power on itself, then its inclination is not wholly owing to itself…For so long as prior inclination possesses the will, and is not removed, the former binds the latter, so that it is utterly impossible that the will should act otherwise than agreeable to it. Surely the will canot act or choose contrary to a remaining prevailing inclination of the will.

Now maybe it is obvious what I am getting at…the idea of a “free-will” (as popularly defined) is really non-existent because of the fact that we always lean on prior information and current desire to form our decision making.  We cannot properly claim for ourselves perfect indifference. In fact, because we are born into a bondage to sin all of our decision making is tainted by our sinful viewpoint and sinful desires. This is why re-birth is so crucial to true sanctification, and why “renewing our minds” has a much deeper meaning than most people perhaps realize.

Our Will is Never at Liberty Until Freed by Christ

Let us now briefly take a step back before looking at what Christ has done for us through regeneration, and remember the that prior to His work we were in a state of complete mental, emotional, and spiritual captivity. A.W. Pink helps us here:

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

We’ve also read in our study of John that mankind not only doesn’t desire the good things of God, but actually desires to stay in his sin and darkness (see John 3:19-21).

So when Jesus and Paul say that we are in bondage to sin, they’re saying that in man’s natural fallen state he will always choose sin above the things of God. Read that carefully – he will always “choose” sin above God and righteousness. It isn’t as though we didn’t have the “freedom” to choose. It is that in our “freedom” (or shall I say “bondage”) we chose sin – and we will always choose sin until the work of the Spirit because the things of God were things that we did not desire. The “antecedent” motive that Edwards speaks of, is tainted by sinful desires and information. Not until Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, changed out hearts and brought us into newness of life, did we desire to choose Christ or the things of God.

You can now perhaps begin to see how we can rightfully say that as human beings we are not puppets or robots, but that the way we popularly speak about “free-will” is off-kilter and inaccurate. Our freedom exists, but it is informed by our desires, and we choose the things we desire most. Therefore, prior to Christ, we were truly free only to sin.

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

Edwards further elaborates, “The will, therefore, so long as it is under the influence of an old preponderating inclination, is not at liberty for a new free act; or any, that shall now be an act of self-determination.”

In Conclusion – New Creations in Christ!

This has been a short post, and certainly there is more to be said on this topic, but I wanted to explain the logical absurdity of the idea that somehow, outside of the internal sovereign work of the Spirit and the reading of His Word, we freely choose/chose God and make righteous decisions. First God loved us, then we responded in love toward Him for the irresistible beauty of the offer of eternal life. The blinders were taken off, and we now freely choose what He freely offers.

In order to appreciate this great truth, we must first understand and appreciate what freedom is, what it is not, and just how much freedom we had prior to our being born again. The power of old things (antecedent inclinations and desires) has been broken. In the context of our discussion on the will, Edwards explains this reality, “Therefore, if there be the least degree of antecedent preponderation of the will, it must be perfectly abolished, before the will can be at liberty to determine itself the contrary way.” Thanks be to God that he has “abolished” our old ways (though we still battle the flesh – Rom. 7), and given us His Spirit!

Because we are now new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and as I explained this morning, we now have freedom to choose not to sin. Our choices always rest upon our strongest inclinations/desires at the moment of choice. If you are not a Christian, that inclination will never be for the things of God (see Romans 1). If you are a Christian, and walking in the Spirit, you will bear the fruit of that Spirit (Jn. 8:31-32), and make choices that reflect the One who is changing those desires within you (2 Cor. 3:18).

Study Notes 11-18-12

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

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

John 8:31-36 – Freedom from Sin

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

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

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

Abiding in the Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom from Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born Free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bondage to our Self-Centeredness

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enslaved to Merit or Enslaved to Christ?

This past Sunday, I briefly mentioned near the end of the lesson that we ought not to think about earning any merit or grace with God.  I stressed that we need to get out of this cycle of thinking that as Christians we need to strive to “be good” as a way to earn something in heaven. For all of our reward has been purchased by Christ, and given by grace. Now, I realize, and as humans we sometimes have difficulty balancing the role of grace and merit, and understanding the purpose of Christian works here on earth.

Though we are prone to either excessive legalism, or sinful liberty, what I want to stress is that the principles of living holy lives, and understanding God’s grace in our lives are not mutually exclusive.  We need to be seeking holiness while also seeking to please God and love others through our actions. In order to do this, we must understand why we are to love others, and where our “merit” in heaven ultimately comes from.  Our motivation for loving others and doing good works is gratitude and enjoyment of God.  Likewise, any merit we have before God, ultimately, has already been won by Christ.

Let me explore these two co-existing principles further with some perspective from those who are wiser than myself.

First, we are called to holiness. JC Ryle said this about seeking holiness as it relates to our relationship to reward and closeness with Chrirst:

Above all, grieve not the Spirit. Quench not the Spirit. Vex not the Spirit. . . . Little jarrings between husbands and wives make unhappy homes; and petty inconsistencies, known and allowed, will bring in strangeness between you and the Spirit. . . . The man who walks with God in Christ most closely, will generally be kept in the greatest peace. The believer who follows the Lord most fully and aims at the highest degree of holiness will ordinarily enjoy the most assured hope, and have the clearest persuasion of his own salvation

And commenting on this passage from Ryle, John Piper says:

Can you really “drive [God] to a distance, by tampering with small bad habits”? Do “petty inconsistencies bring strangeness between you and the Spirit”? Is the greatest peace really enjoyed by those who “walk with God most closely”? Is the greatest assurance known by those who “aim at the highest degree of holiness”?  Yes. This is clearly taught in Scripture. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

This means that there is a precious experience of peace and assurance and harmony and intimacy that is not unconditional. It depends on our not grieving the Spirit. It depends on our putting away bad habits. It depends on forsaking the petty inconsistencies of our Christian lives. It depends on our walking closely with God and aiming at the highest degree of holiness. If this is true, I fear that the unguarded reassurances today that God’s love is unconditional may stop people from doing the very things the Bible says they need to do in order to have the peace that they so desperately crave. In trying to give peace through “unconditionality” we may be cutting people off from the very remedy the Bible prescribes. Let us declare untiringly the good news that our justification is based on the worth of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, not ours (Romans 5:19, “as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous”).

But let us also declare the biblical truth that the enjoyment of that justification in its effect on our joy and confidence and power to grow in likeness to Jesus is conditioned on our actively forsaking sins and forsaking bad habits and mortifying lusts and pursuing intimacy with Christ, and not grieving the Spirit.

To give an even fuller perspective on the merit of Christ in all of this, Jerry Bridges labors how it is by God’s grace that we are what we are.  In his book ‘Transforming Grace’, Bridges has some great remarks on the matter.  Here are a few of them:

  • We believe God’s blessings are at least partially earned by our obedience and our spiritual disciplines. We know we are saved by grace, but we think we must live by our spiritual “sweat.”
  • If you are trusting to any degree in your own morality or religious attainments, or if you believe God will somehow recognize any of your good works as merit toward your salvation, you need to seriously consider if you are truly a Christian.
  • The generosity and the magnanimity of God are so great that he accepts nothing from us without rewarding it beyond all computation…. The vast disproportion existing between our work and God’s reward of it already displays his boundless grace, to say nothing of the gift of salvation which made before we have even begun to do any work.’
  • That is what Peter experienced. His failures and his sins abounded. There is no question about that. But however much his sin increased, God’s grace increased all the more. It superabounded. God blessed Peter, not in spite of his sins, but without regard to his sins. That’s the way His grace operates. It looks not to our sins or even to our good deeds but only to the merit of Christ.

In conclusion, let us strive toward holiness and intimacy with Christ, drawing near the throne of grace with confidence, while also realizing that we deserve not this grace, nor do our feeble works merit further blessing. The blessings we received were already purchased for us by Jesus Christ. His merit has earned our blessings, and even in our state of continual sin He is anxious to restore us, to bless us, and to conform us to His image – by His own power, not ours.  What a relief this is! How comforting! Let me close with the words of Paul in Romans 6:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! [16] Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? [17] But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, [18] and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:15-18 ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Study Notes 10-21-12

Chapter 8

CONTEXT NOTE: There is a great deal of discussion amongst scholars as to whether or not the first 11 verses of John 8 are part of the Canon of Scripture.  After consulting with our own pastor, and with commentators from every age of the church, I believe that it is part of the Canon, although it was not perhaps originally part of John’s gospel and may have been meant to go in Luke’s gospel, or may have been meant to be placed elsewhere.

Nevertheless, while men across church history seem to agree that this was not a passage in the original manuscripts, they almost all equally agree that the passage should be included in the canon.  Here are a few thoughts from wiser men than myself on the matter, and why we ought to still consider this passage as inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore worthy of our consideration and reverence:

Calvin says this, “…it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.”

Our own Pastor Gabbard said, “Even though this passage is not found in the earliest manuscripts, my recollection is that it is in enough later manuscripts to still give it some credibility. I have always taken the position that since God in his sovereignty allowed this passage to be in our Bibles for hundreds of years and it is a beautiful story which is consistent with the character and ministry of Christ, I teach it as the word of God.”

D.A. Carson says, “On the other hand, there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books.  Similar stories are found in other sources. One of the best known, reported by Papias (and recorded by the historian Eusebius) is the account of a woman, accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins (unlike the woman here who is accused of but one). There narrative before us also has a number of parallels with stories in the Synoptic Gospels.  The reason for its insertion here may have been to illustrate 7:24 and 8:15 or, conceivably, the Jews’ sinfulness over against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46).”

MacArthur, speaking to the external evidence says, “The external evidence also casts doubt on the authenticity of these verses. The earliest and most reliable manuscripts, from a variety of textual traditions, omit it.”  But then goes on to say, “It contains no teaching that contradicts the rest of Scripture. The picture it paints of the wise, loving, forgiving Savior is consistent with the Bible’s portrait of Jesus Christ. Nor is it the kind of story the early church would have made up about Him.”  Finally he comments, “The story was most likely history, a piece of oral tradition that circulated in parts of the Western church. (Most of the limited early support for its authenticity comes from Western manuscripts and versions, and from Western church fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine.)”

Leon Morris has this to say, “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel (of John)…In addition to the textual difficulty many find stylistic criteria against the story. While the spirit of the narrative is in accordance with that of this Gospel the language is not Johannine.”  Morris continues, however, by stating, “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic. It rings true. It speaks to our condition. And it can scarcely have been composed in the early church with its sternness about sexual sin. It is thus worth our while to study it tough not as an authentic part of Jon’s writing.”

James Montgomery Boice says this, “The difficulty, simply put, is that the majority of the earliest manuscripts of John do not contain these verses and, moreover, that some of the best manuscripts are of this number…Interestingly enough, very few scholars (even man of the liberal ones) seem willing to do this (omit the passage), and the fact that a good case can be made out for the other side, should make one cautious in how he deals with it. I am willing to deal with the story as genuine – though perhaps not a part of the original Gospel as John wrote it (then he lists several reasons which I will not take time to list here).”

Finally, R.C. Sproul says this, “The overwhelming consensus of textual critics is that it was not part of the original Gospel of John, at least not this portion of John. At the same time, the overwhelming consensus is that this account is authentic, it’s apostolic, and it should be contained in any edition of the New Testament…I believe it is nothing less than the very word of God, so I will treat it as such in this chapter.”

I know that John Piper, John Calvin, Ambrose, and many other great pastors and theologians also lay out good and convincing cases for including this passage in Scripture.  And so the task before us is no longer to question the veracity and authenticity of this text as apostolic, but to agree that it is the “very Word of God” as Sproul says, and submit ourselves to its teaching and authority.

The Text

7:53-8:1 They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

The first thing we note here is that Jesus went up on the Mount of Olives after everyone else went home.  This is significant for a few reasons.

First, this is the only reference to the Mount of Olives in John – perhaps a reason to doubt the manuscript here should be included in John and not in Luke or one of the other synoptics.

Second, it reminds us that Jesus was homeless.  In Matthew 8:20 we hear Christ say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” MacArthur notes that we cannot note for certain that He slept out under the stars or whether He went a short distance on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives at the home of Lazurus, Martha and Mary, however, I think it’s a good reminder of the humiliation of the incarnation.  MacArthur also agrees and cites the famous passage from Phil. 2:7-8.

Third, Boice points out that what Jesus normally did on the Mount of Olives was commune with His Father in prayer.  This is something to keep in mind as we head into the text ahead of us.  While Jesus was communing in prayer with His Father, the Pharisees and Scribes were laying a sinful plot to trap Him. Boice says that from a practical standpoint, if we are to imitate Christ in His handling of the situation before us in all the difficulties we face in our own lives, we must also imitate Him in His devotion to prayer.  “Where does this compassionate attitude toward other persons come from in practical experience? It comes only from communing with our heavenly Father. We are personal with others only when we know ourselves to be persons (as opposed to “things”).  We know ourselves to be persons only when we see ourselves as persons before God.”

8:2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

In classic Rabbinic style, Jesus sits down to teach.  Note also that all the people were coming to Him on their own.  Truth draws people in who have a desire to learn about God – something many modern day pastors would do well to remember as they lay out their church “marketing campaigns.”

8:3-4 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst [4] they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.

Several scholars take time to note how the author puts together “the scribes and the Pharisees” here.  This isn’t a very Johannine phrase – but is one used a lot in the synoptic gospels.

Scribes were also called lawyers and they were experts at reading and writing opinions about the law of Moses.  We ought not to be confused here into thinking that the scribes and Pharisees were one in the same, for they were not.  Scribes were simply lawyers – that was their training and trade.  It is how they made their living.  Pharisees were a political type of party (at least that’s the best way I can describe it).  Not all Pharisees were scribes, and conversely, not all scribes were Pharisees.  In fact, my scribes had strong alliances with the ruling class of the Sadducees.

Now, we note here that this group of people says that this woman has been “caught” in the act of adultery.  What they are inferring is that she has been caught in the very act – not in simply a compromising situation.  Jewish scholars (note Morris, Boice, and Sproul) are clear that in order to be seized on this matter, it would require at least 2-3 witnesses, and all the details of the witnesses had to match exactly.  Thus it was very hard to get into this situation.  For one had to be caught in the very act, and there had to be several witnesses, and their testimony had to agree in every part down to each detail.

8:5-6 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” [6] This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.

The Evil Trap for a Young Woman

The text that these guys are referring to is found in a few places.  First, the most notable text for this would have been in Deuteronomy 22:22, which says:

“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

The first thing we note here is that someone is missing from the scene.  Who?  Why the man who committed the act along with the woman!  Perhaps the man got away, though this is unlikely if he was caught in the very act (a requirement of the law as mentioned above) of adultery.  It is also possible that the man was an important person – perhaps on the Sanhedrin council – and the Pharisees didn’t want to arrest him.  There is also the very dark and nefarious possibility that James Boice is right on this and that the man (whoever he was) was involved in the plot to setup this young woman by the Pharisees, and therefore have something with which to trap Jesus.

I can’t think of a more dark and sinister thing than this.  But as we read on here, it becomes apparent, at least to me, that this is probably what these evil men had done.

Now, looking at the language that the Pharisees’ use here, we note that they have a specific intent in mind, a specific form of execution that they believe that Moses commands them to follow – namely stoning.   If we read further on in Deuteronomy 22 we read this:

“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, [24] then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

So we see that this method of execution was reserved only for those who were betrothed and fell into immorality – most of whom were young women and men, probably 13-15 years old.  Therefore, it’s very likely that this young woman was not a prostitute, but a teenage girl that was lured into a terrible trap by these evil men.  They were using her for their own evil purposes.

The Legal Trap for Jesus

Now that we see what this group of evil men had been working on with regard to this poor young woman, we turn our attention to the legal trap that they had concocted for Jesus.

R.C. Sproul explains, “The Romans permitted significant self-rule in the nations they conquered, but they did not allow vassal nations to exercise the death penalty in capital cases…If Jesus were to say, ‘Stone the woman,’ they would run to the Roman headquarters and say, ‘This teacher is advocating that we exercise capital punishment without going through the Roman system.’ That way they would get Jesus in trouble with the Romans. But if He were to say, ‘Don’t stone her,’ they would run back to the Sanhedrin and say, ‘This Jesus is a heretic because He denies the law of Moses.’ No matter how Jesus answered the question, He would be in serious trouble.”

In addition to the issue with Him getting into trouble with the Romans if He were to pronounce the guilty verdict, some Scholars (MacArthur, Boice, Morris among others) think that Jesus would also undermine His ministry which was marked by compassion – and would perhaps even contradict what He said in John 3:17, “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.”

Though this might be the case, I don’t think it is necessarily what the scribes and Pharisees had in their minds.  I don’t think their mission at this stage was to simply undermine His ministry, but to find a reason to put Him to death.

Jesus Write in the Sand

The reaction of Jesus to their question is odd – very odd indeed!  There are so many theories on what it is that Jesus wrote that I can’t even begin to list them all here.  Most scholars that I respect say that we simply cannot know what He wrote, and that, as Sproul says, “We have to be careful about speculation. As John Calvin said in his commentary on Romans, when God closes His holy mouth, we should desist from inquiry.”

So I will not spend time on what He might or might not have said.  Needless to say, it further provoked His enemies, who continued to pester Him for an answer.

8:7-8 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [8] And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

Jesus’ words are masterful.  He doesn’t vacillate between Moses and Roman law (as Sproul notes), but sides with Moses, and upholds the law of the Old Testament without directly engaging in the judgment Himself, and therefore not incurring any legal issues with Rome.

But His words are masterful in other ways as well.  He is actually shedding light on a problem – namely that we are all guilty of sin, we have all fallen short of God’s glory and high standard (Rom. 3:23), and that there is only one righteous judge of the universe who is fit to issue the verdict.  But at the same time, if we are all guilty, and we all deserve to die, how can the law of Moses be upheld while still believing in a God that is good and merciful?

This is the problem that Paul addressed in Romans 3:26 – As Boice points out, “Ho can God be both just and the justifier of the ungodly? From a human point of view the problem is unsolvable.”

But because with God “all things are possible” there is a solution.  Namely that Jesus bore our punishment in His body on the cross.  So that God would be just and not wink at sin (as Sproul is commonly saying) and still punish sin and therefore remain just, while providing mercy for those whom He has predestined to salvation (the elect).  Our punishment has not been excused and forgotten.  That sentence has been carried out – Jesus bore our sentence for us on the cross.

8:9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

These men thought they had trapped Jesus, but now they were so utterly undone by the overpowering nature and truth of His words (and perhaps even His presence) that their hearts melted within them.  One minute they had stones in their hands ready to physically kill someone, the next they were so struck in mind and heart that they had to flee the scene.

James Boice comments “Think of the efforts they had gone through! Think of the plotting! Yet there were destroyed in a moment when they were confronted by the God who masters circumstances.”

8:10-11 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” [11] She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

How can we explain the reaction of Jesus here?  Boice says that His response was characterized by understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and a challenge.  I think he is right on the money with this breakdown (MacArthur offers a similar, though less compelling outline as well).  I will use his outline here but add my own thoughts under each section:

He is Understanding: Jesus knows all circumstances, all hearts, all minds.  There is nothing about this situation that Jesus doesn’t fully comprehend or understand.  He sees the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees, and He sees the heart of the young woman here.

He is Compassionate and Loving: The best way to think about the love and compassion Jesus had for this young lady is to think about how you love your own children.  It’s an unconditional kind of love.  You don’t love them because they are good, or because they are yours (they could have been adopted), or because they are talented or handsome or pretty.  There is an almost divine and unexplainable love you have for them.  Your heart is knitted to theirs in an almost supernatural way.  That is the way Christ sees people.  That’s how He saw this young lady, and that’s how He sees you and me.

Furthermore, that’s how we are called to see others.  We aren’t to use people like these Pharisees did.  What they did was so evil and so dark that we think we never act this way.  But as Boice points out, we are all guilty of using people from time to time.  We treat others as less than human, and we forget how God loves them, and how He loves us despite our deep sinfulness.

Boice says this, “Love is unexplainable. The best you can say is that love is divine and that you love him (others/your children) because God himself has loved us.”

Christ is Forgiving:

I think it may well be said here that Jesus forgave this young lady – for he says that He does not condemn her.  However, we aren’t told specifically if she sought repentance.  I do think, though, that He would not have issued these words if He had not already looked into her heart and seen her repentance.  I don’t want to get too far down the road of speculation here though, for no one can know what is in a man’s (or woman’s) heart.

The most important principle here is that of Christ’s forgiveness not merely for the specific sin in view, but for sin of any kind.

Now matter how disgusting, evil, or hateful, our sin can still be forgiven by the Lord of lords.  Interestingly enough none of the commentators talk about Christ’s view of the Pharisees and scribes at this juncture. Surely if there was ever a group that could have been called Christ’s “enemy” it was this group of men.  But what does Christ tell us about our enemies?  He tells us to love them (Matt. 5:44).  And so none of His enemies receives a stinging rebuke by Jesus in this instance – though they deserved it. Rather He goes right to the heart of the matter, piercing their souls and pricking their consciences with truth that could not be warded off even by the stony defenses of a hardened heart.  What is amazing to me is the thought that not only did Christ love this woman, but He probably had a love for those who were accusing Him (Luke 23:34) – perhaps even some in that group would later repent of their sins and follow Him (Acts 6:7).

Christ Issues a Challenge:

He says, “go, and from now on sin no more.”  Forgiveness is followed by a challenge, and we receive the same admonition as well from Paul who says:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? [2] By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? [3] Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [4] We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

[5] For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. [6] We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [7] For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have had our sins atoned for and we are no longer slaves to sin. This is an important final point. In the garden Adam could choose to sin, or choose not to sin.  We know which way he went.  But he was not a slave to sin as most of the human race is today. When Adam fell into sin, all men born afterwards were born into slavery.  We couldn’t not choose to sin.  We were sinners by our very nature. Such was our state prior to Christ!  Now we, like Adam originally, can choose either to sin or not to sin.  Often we follow the flesh, but as we become more and more conformed into the image of Christ, we choose to sin less and less.

The challenge we face is to crucify our desires of the flesh, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14). This challenge is one we can meet with gusto because we have motivation that most people don’t have – we have hope for a wonderful eternity in heaven, and we have the enjoyment and communion with God right now.  In short, we are motivated by the gospel and by His love for us.