Anticipating the Lord of History

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

PJ Wenzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What prayers?

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

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

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

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

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

How does he react?

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

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

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

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

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

(PAUSE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoration for the glory of God

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

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

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 1:57–80

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

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

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

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

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

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

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

Look at verse 68…

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

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

                        for he has visited and redeemed his people

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

                        in the house of his servant David,

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

            [71] that we should be saved from our enemies

                        and from the hand of all who hate us;

            [72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                        and to remember his holy covenant,

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

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

            might serve him without fear,

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

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

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

            [77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        in the forgiveness of their sins,

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

                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

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

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Church in Philadelphia

From yesterday morning’s Sunday School lesson…

To the Church in Philadelphia

The church at Philadelphia was a church beset by weakness, but one who had stayed true to the only True Lord.

Philadelphia earned its moniker from a king of Pergamum named Attalus II (Philadelphus). Attalus was both true and loyal to his brother Eumenes, and that reputation had far outlasted his life. He reigned along with his brother, who was ill, and when his brother died he took his widow as his own wife.

Attalus was a very culturally refined man, and emphasized the arts – even inventing a new king embroidery!

The city itself was founded as a sort of missionary city for the spread of Hellenism throughout the Pergamenian Empire. Ramsey says, “The intention of its founder was to make it a centre (sic) of the Greco-Asiatic civilisation (sic) and a means of spreading the Greek language and manners in the eastern parts of Lydia and Phrygia.”[i]

So here is where Eastern and Western cultures meet and meld together. A very interesting experiment which actually went pretty well. Well before the time of this letter the whole region spoke Greek instead of Lydian. Hellenization had taken hold.

3:7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

Our text begins with a quote from Isaiah 22:22, which states:

And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isaiah 22:22)

The context of the verse from Isaiah is in reference to Eliakim, who God promotes to take the office of another man who has been found wanting/lacking in God’s eyes. Eliakim is pictured in the text as God’s chosen instrument for the task at hand, namely (I believe) the priestly duties in Jerusalem.

Beale comments, “The point of the quotation is that Jesus holds the power over salvation and judgment. In 1:18 the stress is on his sovereignty over death and judgment, while 3:7 the emphasis is on his authority over those entering the kingdom. John compares the historical situation of Eliakim in relation to Israel with that of Christ in relation to the church in order to help the readers better understand the position that Christ now holds as head of the true Israel and how this affects them.”[ii]

The idea here is that the local unbelieving Jews are as worthless and contrary to the Lord’s true heart as the former priest Shebna (from Isaiah’s day), and Eliakim is a type of Christ who will righteously lead the church/Israel.

There is some Messianic fulfillment of the typology here, according to Beale (who gives 5 reasons why this is so). One of the red flags to this that “whenever David is mentioned in connection with Christ in the NT there are usually discernable prophetic, messianic overtones.”

There is also a striking resemblance to Isaiah 22:22 and Isaiah 9:6-7 which is the passage we commonly have come to know as referring to Christ:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. [7] Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

So we see clear similarities between the Messiah in Is. 9 and Eliakim typologically in Isaiah 22.

What does this all mean though? Beale says, “Ethnic Israel, which was claiming to be the divine agent wielding the power of salvation and judgment, no longer held this position. Christ’s followers could be assured that the doors to the true synagogue were open to them, whereas the doors remained closed to those who rejected Christ.”

Therefore these keys symbolize the fact that Jesus is in control of who is let in heaven – contra popular jokes, it isn’t Saint Peter at the pearly gates determining whose coming and going! It is Jesus. He is the one who determines who is allowed into the blessed realm.

3:8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Surely we think of the fact here that Jesus himself is the door to salvation. This is what He says in John 10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:7-9)

Matthew Henry says, “He opens. He opens a door of opportunity to his churches; he opens a door of utterance to his ministers; he opens a door of entrance, opens the heart; he opens a door of admission into the visible church, laying down the terms of communion; and he opens the door of admission into the church triumphant, according to the terms of salvation fixed by him. [2.] He shuts the door. When he pleases, he shuts the door of opportunity and the door of utterance, and leaves obstinate sinners shut up in the hardness of their hearts; he shuts the door of church-fellowship against unbelievers and profane persons; and he shuts the door of heaven against the foolish virgins who have slept away their day of grace, and against the workers of iniquity, how vain and confident soever they may be.”

3:9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.

Different churches have different struggles. For the church at Philadelphia, the issue pertains mostly to local Jews are causing them issues. Jesus is brutal in his framing of the issue. I couldn’t help but think back to times in the Bible when God re-named someone, like Abram who became “Abraham.” Later Jesus would “name” the Pharisees “brood of vipers” and so forth. The point is that when God “names” something He cuts right to the heart of the matter, and sometimes His assessment is very very frank. Every time I feel a tad bit sheepish for my own frankness in a loving rebuke, I read passages like this and remember again that God is brutally honest in His naming, and in the case of those who cause his children to stumble, he minces no words. In this case, he’s affiliating the local Jews with the “synagogue of Satan”!

It is a reminder to all who read this that there is nothing hidden from the eyes of the all-knowing, all-seeing God.

Historically speaking, even the Talmud speaks of the money loving, morally compromised Jews in this region when it states, “the wines and the baths of Phrygia have separated the ten tribes from Israel.” Beale says that the Jews of this area had compromised their religion and mixed it with Roman customs and religion.[iii]

Interestingly, Beale makes the point that there is some ironic fulfillment here in Jesus’ statement “I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” For there are many passages in Isaiah and the Psalms that speak of the gentiles being made to bow down before Israel. The point here is that the these Jews have compromised their true religion, have rejected their Jewish Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are Jesus now states they will bow down before the true Israel of God, His elect children in Philadelphia.

Therefore the fulfillment comes but not in the way expected on the surface. And Beale argues that it will be the realization of this irony that will make them jealous and save many of them (which is exactly what Paul argues in Romans 11):

The understanding of Rev. 3:9 as an ironic reversal of the Isaiah prophecies sees it as parallel to Romans 11:11-31, where Gentile salvation is a missionary tactic on Paul’s part of bring about Jewish salvation. Paul quotes Isaianic prophecies in Romans 11:26-27 and views them as fulfilled in apparent reverse manner, since the pattern of Isaiah 59-60 places Israel’s salvation first, which then sparks the homage of the Gentiles (thus Paul uses “mystery” in 11:25 to introduce the quotes from Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9 in Romans 11:26-27).

This is a complex thing to think about when you read so many passages and start digging deeper. But the simple way to think of it at the 5,000 foot level is that the Jews had hard hearts and refused their Messiah when He finally came. Despite this, many will be saved through jealousy of the gentiles, who are receiving the blessing of prophecies fulfilled in a way that would not have been before easily understood, hence the term “mystery” in Paul’s writing.

When we step back from this and think about all God is doing here and His grand plan, we simply have to join with Paul, who, after considering what we just mentioned, ends the 11th chapter of Romans in doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! [34] “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” [35] “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” [36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

3:10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.

This is speaking not of tribulations, or the final tribulation, but of the final judgment of the world. Those who keep the word of God are those who are his children and who will escape the final judgment.

3:11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.

This is the exhortation that the church was called to, and to what we are called to. We are called to “hold fast”! And it is the Spirit of the Lord who will give us the endurance and power to hold onto what we have. For it is he who truly holds our souls in his hands.

And it is very much like Jesus to warn His followers to be on their guard, to be ready and to “be alert” (Eph. 6) for the time of his coming. We are to live in a state of alertness.

3:12-13 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. [13] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Here believers are referred to as “pillars” in the temple of God – they are part of the Temple” and therefore part of the New Jerusalem which comes down from God out of heaven. This is an allusion to what John will write later:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

Now we are getting into more of the symbolic nature of the book of Revelation. Many go straight to chapter 21 and say “look there’s going to a new Jerusalem and this city is going to be where Jesus reigns from, and its going to be a literal city with literal dimensions and He is going to reign over a literal 144,000 and a literal “Israel” – and by “literal” they mean the wooden definition of the word.

However, it is clear from chapter three here that there is symbolism used throughout this book, not to confuse us, but to help us get a better grasp of what Jesus is telling us. It enriches our understanding of what he’s conveying once we have a clear understanding of the context.

In this case, the wooden literal interpretation of this saying would not work. After all, you don’t believe that Jesus is going to turn you into a stone pillar do you!?? Is that your great destiny, to stand as a composite of limestone for eternity? Of course not, that’s silly. We must be consistent as possible in our application of how these word pictures are used in the book. So that when we read of John saying these things in the context of this book, we cannot then say, “well you are going to be spiritual pillars, but the city of Jerusalem is going to be physical.” Let us not make distinctions that John or Jesus himself does not make.

But what is the point of the imagery? The point is to say that He is gathering all his elect together to himself, and that he is building a kingdom, a family. We will all be part of that family – a big part, pillars, in fact. Pillars are important parts of the building of Gods. This is just to say that redeemed mankind, his image bearers, will makeup an important part of His eternal kingdom.

James Hamilton says that our main takeaway is that, “If we are to stand as oaks of righteousness, we must keep the word of Jesus.”

When I was reading this passage I was reminded of an important passage in Isaiah which speaks of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. It says that the Messiah will, “…grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3).[iv]

Samuel Rutherford once said, “The Great Master Gardener, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in a wonderful providence, with his own hand, planted me here, where by his grace, in this part of his vineyard, I grow; and here I will abide till the great Master of the vineyard think fit to transplant me.”[v]

The images are slightly different, but the point is the same: God has planted us here in this world of affliction to grow strong amidst the trials of this age. But when our Lord returns, his mighty oaks, his “pillars” will show forth his goodness. We are all pillars to our God, “living stones” being built up into a great and glorious city, the New Jerusalem.

The Close

He closes this letter like he does the others, with an exhortation to “hear” what the Spirit is saying. And as a reminder, this is a similar truth to what Jesus was say during his earthly ministry. He was always calling on people who “had ears to hear” to obey his word. Having ears to hear is having the Spirit’s supernatural work within us to help us “hear” and understand what it is He is saying to us. Paul explains as follows:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:12-16 ESV)

Conclusion

The call here by Jesus is to hold fast to the Lord Jesus, to that original confession that we made as Christians. It is a call to even those who are weak, like those at Philadelphia. In our weakness he is much stronger (2 Cor. 12) and we must call upon him in all our trouble and despair. Even in persecution and distress. Even in financial instability, sickness, and death. We must not look at our own weakness, but to His great and mighty strength.

We must look to Him, knowing that we are branded with His name – we are his own. His ownership is all over us. He has not only made us as creations for himself, but has sovereignly called us to himself according to his great purpose and mercy. So we have reason to hope – and to look 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).

 

 

 

[i] Ramsay, Pg. 391.

[ii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 284.

[iii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 287.

[iv] Incidentally, when the word “oaks” here is not necessarily referring to a particular type of oak tree, but to a large tree (see Alec Moyter’s commentary on Isaiah).

[v] Samuel Rutherford, the Loveliness of Christ, Pg. 1.

Notes on John 18:33-40 – God on Trial Part 2

God on Trial Part 2

18:33-36 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” [34] Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” [35] Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” [36] Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The Setting

Hendricksen is right that the Evangelist assumes that the reader has had some account already of the goings on here in more detail and is just getting to the point he wants to make – John has an agenda.

In fact, each gospel writer has an agenda. Each one wants to show the reader something about Jesus. Matthew, for instance, wanted to show that Jesus was the Messiah – the one who the Jews had long awaited, the son of David. Luke, writing to gentiles, wanted to show that this Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of the World. And John’s goal is spelled out in his thesis statement just a few chapters from now:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 ESV)

Later in his first Epistle John would write:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

These are good things to keep in mind as we’re reading this account. John’s goal is to show us the character of this man, Jesus, and what He came to do.

The Question

Pilate is skeptical of the Jews’ accusations against Jesus. So in order ascertain for himself what the situation is surrounding this man, he takes Jesus into Roman custody and begins to question Him.

The first question that John records for us pertains to His kingship. Hendricksen rightly (I think) notes that the emphasis must be placed on the pronoun “you”, if we’re to understand the thinking of Pilate. To put it into the negative, he’s saying, “You aren’t the king of the Jews are you?”

Surely this meek Jewish teacher isn’t their king! In Pilate’s mind this is a joke.

Jesus begins to answer the question with one of His own – because it’s not as if He can answer this with a simple “yes” or “no.” If He answered “yes” then Pilate would suppose Jesus to mean a political type of king – for that’s what he had in mind when he asked the question. But if Jesus answered “no”, then He would be overstating the case. Answering “no” would almost be to say “in no way shape or form am I king – they have it all wrong.”

So in order to answer the question correctly, He must first qualify the question. That qualification earns a scoff in return.

Pilate’s reply confirms our interpretation of the snarkiness we detect in the first question. He says, “am I a Jew?” In other words, “Do I have anything to do with any of this nonsense? I don’t think like a Jew, I don’t look like a Jew, and my king is much more majestic than what the rabble brought before me today!”

Now there are some really interesting ironies here in these contrasts, and Carson exposes one of them having to do with Pilate’s question “Am I a Jew?”

It is just possible that under Pilate’s question ‘Am I a Jew?’ the Evangelist finds lurking deeper ironies. Pilate despises and distrusts the Jews, yet in the course of the narrative he is eventually forced to adopt their position. Insofar as the Jews here represent the ‘world’, Pilate joins them. And in any case, the reader knows that in a profound sense Pilate’s question really means (though certainly not intended this way by Pilate), ‘Are you my king?’ (Carson, pg. 593, cites Duke).

Pilate then demands of Jesus “what have you done?” In other words, “what is it that you’ve done to rile these detestable Jews to this point? How have you annoyed them so as to have them demanding your execution???”

The Reply

Now we are at verse 36, and the reply of Jesus to the questions Pilate has been asking. He’s had Pilate clarify the question, and Pilate is clearly annoyed, and has replied with derision at the Jews and their idea of kingship. Surely it can’t be this man!

There are so many passages in Scripture where we can look to for evidence of the kingship of Jesus. We look at passages that show His authority, or descriptions of His sovereignty and control over lives and nature and so forth. But perhaps this is one of the passages we overlook.

**I think that in Jesus’ reply there are two things we learn: 1. The nature of the kingdom of Jesus and 2. The purpose for His coming to Earth.

First, the Kingship of Jesus is described here in terms of a “kingdom” – and not just a normal kingdom, but an other-worldly kingdom. His kingdom is not like the kingdoms we’re used to seeing or reading about in books. There are no knights in shining armor. There are no castle walls or protective moats. Missing are the court jesters, friars, monks, dukes, and large gathering of couriers (you can tell I think of “kingdom” in terms of the middle ages!).

Furthermore, the kingdom of Jesus is not situated geographically in a static physical location. And although all the world and its heavens are the footstool of God, for He owns all things and made all things, yet His kingdom is more than simply the physical created order that is visible to us today, rather it includes ALL of the created order including the spiritual realm.

The nature of the kingdom of God has been a topic much debated among theologians, but I would like to read a few comments by pastors and theologians to help us have a better understanding of how the church has understood Jesus’ words here throughout the last 2000 years

Perhaps George Ladd had the best definition. He described God’s kingdom in this way:

The Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among human beings, and…this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver people from its power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign.

Commenting on Ladd’s definition, Tom Schreiner says, “We can say, then, that the kingdom was inaugurated in the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus, but the kingdom will not be consummated until he returns.”

J.C. Ryle’s explanation on the nature of the kingdom Jesus is describing is great. He says, “It is a kingdom which is neither begun, nor propagated, nor defended by the power of this world, by the world’s arms or the world’s money. It is a kingdom which took its origin from heaven, and not from earth, – a spiritual kingdom, – a kingdom over hearts and wills and consciences, – a kingdom which needs no armies or revenues, – a kingdom which in no way interferes with the kingdoms of this world.”

I love how Ryle remarks that the kingdom of Jesus is timeless. It didn’t have a beginning and it won’t have an end. His kingdom is forever.

Martin Luther expressed this idea well in the final verse of his famous hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’:

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Of course what Luther caught a hold of in this hymn is that the consequence of being united to Christ is that no matter what happens to this body, our place is in heaven with Jesus whose “kingdom is forever.”

This reality is what governs Jesus’ responses. He abides in the truth – the reality that in this moment is hidden from Pilate and the bloodthirsty Jewish leaders.

And though His kingdom is timeless, as Ryle points out, we find in Jesus’ words a hint of the already-not yet character of the kingdom. He was already a king. He had reigned forever with the Father and the Spirit over all that they created. By definition God is king over all because He created all things and therefore has authority over all things.

Yet, the Son, having set aside the privileges and rights ascribed to Him ontologically as God temporarily, still did not deny here before Pilate that He indeed was and is a king – THE King. And His kingdom will one day be consummated in a great and glorious triumph! Oh what a day that will be!

Carson’s comments reinforce what Ladd and Schreiner have to say (and help temper Ryle a bit):

It is important to see ‘that Jesus’ statement should not be misconstrued as meaning that h is kingdom is not active in this world, or has nothing to do with this world’ (Beasley-Murray, pg. 331). John certainly expects the power of the inbreaking kingdom to affect this world; elsewhere he insists that the world in conquered by those who believe in Jesus (1 John 5:4). But theirs is the sort of struggle, and victory, that cannot effectively be opposed by armed might.

And although Pilate does not recognize in sincerity the kingship of Jesus, he certainly would have had He seen Him in His glory just 33 years before, and, of course, he now knows the error of His ways being (we assume?) in eternal torment in Hell.

Therefore, as I mentioned before, these men are blind to the truth, and Paul was right in what he spoke to the Corinthians about the veiled nature of Christ’s glory during His time on earth:

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)

18:37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

The Purpose for His Coming

So first we looked at the nature of the kingdom of God, and now we’re going to look at the purpose of His coming.

When Jesus replies to Pilate that He is a king and rules over an other-worldly kingdom, Pilate responds “So you are a king?” and we can almost assume that the sarcasm is kicking in at this point, as Pilate completely misses what Jesus is saying…though I think he will sober up here soon.

Jesus’ reply is not to simply confirm what He’s already said, but to give Pilate some insight into why He came to earth. Namely, He came to bear witness to the truth. This truth is the truth of God’s plan, and His gospel for mankind. Jesus’ mission is summed up in Luke’s gospel this way:

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Now, Jesus ends His explanation by stating that, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” If you are of the truth, if you have “ears to hear”, then you will listen and understand what Jesus is saying.

Remember that John plays up the contrasts in his book, and one of the biggest contrasts is between light and darkness. Pilate is in the darkness. He can’t understand what Jesus is saying to him. It’s all nonsense to his ears – and that’s why that passage from 2 Cor. 4 that I quoted earlier is so important.

It seems hard to fathom that if you were to stand in the presence of the Lord of Glory that you’d be able to miss that He is God incarnate. Yet many did. They’re eyes were darkened, their hearts were hardened, and they were not looking for the kingdom of God to come in such a remarkable way.

Furthermore, Jesus recognized this and explained this reality throughout the gospels, and we have read a lot of it in John’s gospel. For instance, compare these other instances to what we’ve read just now:

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5 ESV)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24 ESV)

And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, [38] and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. (John 5:37-38 ESV)

Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. [44] No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. [45] It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— (John 6:43-45 ESV)

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:43-45 ESV)

We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” [30] The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. [31] We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. [32] Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. [33] If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:29-33 ESV)

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. [16] And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. [17] For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. (John 10:14-17 ESV)

The point all of these citations is to show that Jesus has come on a mission to find His sheep, to seek and save the lost sheep, and that before anyone is saved they are in darkness and unable to find their way to the safety of God’s arms. It is Jesus Himself who searches us out, who calls us to Himself, and whose truth must abide in us if we’re to be saved. It is He who sovereignly changes the hearts and minds of men, softening us to His call and His message, and giving us the truth of His gospel which is able to save our souls.

This is the truth He came to hear witness to, this is the truth He proclaims now before Pilate.

18:38-40 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. [39] But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” [40] They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.

Oh the Irony!

Finally, as we wrap up chapter 18 we read of Pilate’s reply to Jesus’ mission statement that He came to hear witness to the truth. Jesus extolls all the great things that we Christians hold dear and Pilate responds with scoffs. He says, “what is truth?”

Of course the irony of this statement/question is that Pilate scoffs at the notion that there is an absolute truth standard to the man who embodies the truth itself and whose character is the basis for the very standard Pilate doesn’t believe exists.

Ryle is perhaps right that this state of mind reflects that which many rich and powerful men throughout every age have held. Pilate has heard of all the many philosophical systems and ideas in his own time and he’s given up even trying to figure out who and what is right. And I think that perhaps in Pilate’s mind, the very fact that he’s having to try a man for a crime that is so obviously absurd is more evidence in his mind that if there is an absolute standard, it doesn’t seem discernable to him or these ridiculous Jews.

The Response of the Jews

Pilate goes back to the Jews now and, not convinced that there’s anything wrong with this man Jesus – for how can he be a king? – says that he’s willing to release Him and chalk it up to their yearly custom of letting a prisoner go.

It’s fitting of the sarcastic narrative I’ve been painting here of Pilate that he continues to call Jesus ‘The King of the Jews’ – in his mind this is meant to denigrate the Jews that they would have such a lowly king.

Now the response of the Jews seals their fates and fulfills the prophecies that they would reject the Messiah, and stumble over the Great Cornerstone of the Church. Their salvation is at hand, and their reply is an enthusiastic call for the release of the robber Barabbas.

Artorius and Lucius

In the telling of the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD), in ‘the Jewish Wars’, renown Jewish historian Flavius Jospehus recounts a situation in which several Roman soldiers, having already made their way into certain breaches within the outer wall of the temple complex became surrounded by fire and by the Jews to the point where the only escape would be to jump off the precipice to safety.

One solider, named Longus, while thinking of jumping, was urged by his brother Cornellius (also a solider) not to do such a thing and thereby bring disgrace upon himself and his army. The young solider agrees, and instead of surrendering or jumping slays himself rather than give into the Jews.

Meanwhile, another soldier named Artorius, facing a similar predicament, called to a fellow soldier, Lucius, a close friend of his, promising that if he could catch him from the jump Artorius would give Lucius his entire inheritance and land etc. So Lucius rushed over to catch him, and upon doing so hit the ground so hard that he ends up dying while Artorius walks away unharmed.

Now this horrific story awoke within me a great many thoughts about the nature of friendship and rescue. Sometimes we rush to help people who are jumping off cliffs and simply want to use us to break their fall. Sometimes we are the ones who call upon friends to help us out of a jam, only to use them for a time and forget all they did for us. We are selfish people by nature. We want to preserve our own lives and use others to our own benefit but rarely think to repay them for their kindness.

But no matter how we treat others or how good or self-sacrificing our friends are, they can never really solve our deepest needs. In fact, some of our needs are so profound that we’d only crush them under their weight.

As I pondered this passage this morning, what really struck me was the need we all have to be rescued, and how Christ’s rescue is so much better than that of our best friends, and even our spouses. Through the fire and war Artorius jumped into the arms of his friend, a human savior, promising him everything he could think to promise him. Christ’s rescue is not simply more successful, it is carried out of his own strength and grace and initiative. For he is able to bear the weight of our burdens our sin with perfect poise.

So there are two ways in which Christ perfectly bears my burdens. First, Christ carried the weight of my sin upon Himself on the cross, bearing in His own body the stripes that were due me for my sinfulness. The weights of our sins do not overpower His strength, and that is a wonderful truth – he has “overcome the world” (John 16). He has risen victorious over these burdens and crushed death to death.

But what is more, Christ Himself calls us to cast our daily burdens on Him. He doesn’t simply come when we call, but calls us to Himself and enables us to jump. Such is the gift of faith that He imparts to us (Eph. 2); such is the love of our rescuer. This faith was given us at our salvation point, but is also dispensed to us every day and is free for the asking. He wants us to lay our burdens upon Him.

Samuel Rutherford said, “Lay all your loads and your weights by faith upon Christ. Ease yourself, and let Him bear all. He can, He does, He will bear you.”

This is the image I want to carry with me through troubles and snares and difficulties: My savior standing ready to catch me, calling me to Himself, fully able to break my fall if I will only but resign myself to His arms. I only need look to the millions He’s safely caught; His track record is perfect, and His love beckons me on.

3-18-12 Study Notes

3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

  • Not only was he a religious leader, but he was on the Sanhedrin Council; the powerful ruling body of the Jews which made civil, legal, and religious decisions (carried out sentences as well – everything except the death penalty).
  • When I think about a similar kind of historical politico/religious council as an example, I think of the Geneva Council during the time of Calvin, which acted as a sort of political-theocratic governing body.

3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

  • There are many aspects to this verse that need to be noted.  Firstly, we see that Nicodemus came to Christ at night…its said by many commentators that he was likely ashamed of being seen with Jesus.  Surely we ought to ask ourselves the question: Are we ashamed of Christ? Do we come to Him by night because you are afraid to ask the questions you have to ask?
  • The second thing is that Nicodemus says “we” here.  By “we”, he probably means ‘we on the Council know that you have to be from God.  We can tell that you must be from God…there’s a consensus building and we know that you must be from God.’
  • Also, they assume that because He is doing these miracles through the power of God…though later some of them would say that Jesus was doing His miracles through some kind of satanic power (John 8).

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

  • When Jesus says that we must be born again, it means that the Spirit of God must bring us to Spiritual life.  He must raise us from the dead (Eph. 2:1-10) and unite us to life in (and with) Christ.  It is the Spirit who makes us alive, and it is life that comes from Christ/in Christ.  So what the Spirit is effectively doing is uniting us to Christ.
  • In order to really appreciate and/or understand what it means to be made spiritually “alive” to Christ, we must first understand the nature of being dead.  Dead men cannot see the kingdom of God according to Jesus.  Dead men cannot be made alive on their own either, as we will see in verse 5.
  • John Piper says that we have a very difficult time understanding ourselves and the depth of our sin in this spiritual deadness.  “No one knows the extent of his sinfulness. It is deeper than anyone can fathom…Our rebellion is so deep that we cannot detect or desire the glory of Christ in the gospel” says John Piper.  “Therefore, if we are going to be born again, it will rely decisively and ultimately on God.  His decision to make us alive will not be a response to what we as spiritual corpses do, but what we do will be a response to His making us alive.”
  • Certainly its important to realize our former state, for as Piper says, “We will never experience the fullness of the greatness of God’s love for us if we don’t see His love in relation to our former deadness.”

As we examine this mighty truth about our former state, it would be wise to look at a few other verses that give more context to this:

  • Colossians 2:13,14 says, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
  • Ephesians 2:1-10 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
  • Galatians 2:20 says,  “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.”
  • Romans 6:2 says, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

He didn’t understand what Jesus said because he was blind to the reality of the things Jesus was saying.  Dead men can’t understand the gospel because it is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1).

3:5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

  • The first thing I want to address here is the meaning of the “water” here.  Calvin notes that “water” is really similar to the New Testament’s use of the word “wind”: “Accordingly, he employed the words Spirit and water to mean the same thing, and this ought not to be regarded as a harsh or forced interpretation; for it is a frequent and common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word Water or Fire, expressing his power. We sometimes meet with the statement, that it is Christ who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost and with fire, (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16,) where fire means nothing different from the Spirit, but only shows what is his efficacy in us.”
  • To further illustrate the point, the ESV Study Bible notes make the point that, “Wind and Spirit translate the same Greek and Hebrew words.”  Indeed these are meant to convey the same concept.  Calvin certainly agrees with this when he summarizes, “By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit.”
  • John Piper makes several good arguments as to why the word “water” here doesn’t refer to baptism, as some would suppose. He says that the words “spirit” and “water” refer to “a cleansing of the old and a creation of the new.”  Piper argues that even though we are a new creation, we still have the old man, the flesh, and therefore need that cleansing, “If the old human being, John Piper, were completely obliterated, the whole concept of forgiveness and cleansing would be irrelevant.  There would be nothing left over from the past to forgive or cleanse.”  “My guilt must be washed away.  Cleansing with water is a picture of that.”

3:6-7 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [7] Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

  • Here our Lord enumerates on the contrast between that which is the flesh and that which is the Spirit, and what the differences are.  When He says “flesh” it is to mean the same type of “flesh” that Paul mentioned in Romans 7 – this is the human personality, the human will and mind/heart.
  • Just like a human being is in the flesh by God ordained means, so the Spirit creates in us a new creation, a spirit that was dead is now alive.  And this transformation can only be done by the Lord God omnipotent.  There is nothing in the creative process here that we contribute.  We are given faith and place that faith upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are saved.  The Spirit takes care of the rest!

3:8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

  • It’s amazing to think that Jesus, who tells us here that no one knows where the wind comes from or where it goes, was the One who calmed the wind on the Sea of Galilee.  And, of course, the Spirit is not going to do anything that isn’t in perfect harmony with Christ’s mind and the Father’s plan from all eternity.

3:9-10 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” [10] Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?

  • And here we find a stinging rebuke of Nicodemus.  The Lord is telling him that these truths are things that he should have known from close study of the Old Testament.  But Nicodemus was not a believer, nor did it seem he was much of a scholar (though that commentary might have been made about many of the ruling class of the Jews during Jesus’ day).

In summary, how do we teach this to our children? 

When we are “born again” it is God’s supernatural work within us to save us from our sins.  The Holy Spirit breathes brand new spiritual life into us and creates a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17) uniting us with Jesus Christ (this includes the promise of being forever in heaven with Him).  Before being born again we are spiritually dead people (Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 3:17) who do not want God or the things of God (Rom. 3:11) and are actually enemies of God (Col. 1:21), slaves of sin (John 8:34, Rom. 6) and Jesus called us children of the Devil (John 8:44).  But God has intervened on our behalf (Eph. 2:4-5) so that we might trust in Jesus. Our part in salvation is to place our faith/hope in Christ for this salvation. We have to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) in order to be saved.  But even this faith we place in Jesus is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8) and happens the very moment that the Holy Spirit regenerates us (causes us to be born again).

Additional resources: ‘Finally Alive’ by John Piper