The Gospel of Jesus Christ
One of the highlights of attending seminary in Atlanta was sitting under the teaching of Dr. Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was a gifted and world-renowned preacher and preaching instructor. It was a privilege and blessing to take a preaching class taught by him.
One of the things Dr. Craddock taught us, something that has always stayed with me, came from a story he told us. He shared with our class a snippet of a conversation he had with one of his former students who had graduated and was serving a little rural church.
The former student told Dr. Craddock he was going to wake that little country church up. He was going to bring them into the present. He was going to be new and fresh. As an example of this, he wasn’t going to preach the same old tired stuff during Christmas, stuff they all knew. He was going to hit them with something new.
Dr. Craddock lovingly, and I’m sure, convincingly, shared with this eager new preacher that what those people needed, what we all need, especially during the seasons of Advent and Lent, is the old, old story of what God has done in Christ.
The Old, Old Story
It’s not that a preacher shouldn’t seek to know the needs of the congregation and connect with them in their context. The preacher should not seek to be irrelevant. However, the truth is, a clear and honest telling of the old, old story is the most relevant subject there is. Many hymns remind us the “old, old story” is the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here’s how the hymn, “Victory in Jesus,” communicates the old, old story,
I heard an old, old story,
how a Savior came from glory,
how he gave his life on Calvary
to save a wretch like me;
I heard about his groaning,
of his precious blood’s atoning,
then I repented of my sins
and won the victory.
O victory in Jesus, my Savior forever!
he sought me and bought me with his redeeming blood;
he loved me ere I knew him, and all my love is due him;
he plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood.
That’s the old, old story.
When we think about the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the Good News of what God has done in and through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, we usually go back 2,000 years. But the story is older than that. In one sense, it goes all the way back into eternity, into the mind of God who has always existed.
Look for Jesus
We won’t go back quite that far in this chapter, but I do want to show the Good News fulfilled in Jesus was predicted and anticipated in the Old Testament. God didn’t “make it up” on the fly.
When I used to teach Disciple Bible Study, a very detailed and comprehensive study of both the Old and New Testaments, people would often tell me how bogged down they were getting in the Old Testament. They would even tell me they thought it was boring and irrelevant.
In response to this, one of the things I used to encourage them to do to stick with it, was to start looking for Jesus in the pages of the Old Testament. Because he’s there! In fact, he’s all over the place in the Old Testament.
The Testimony of the Apostles
Below are a few Scriptures from the New Testament that help make the case.
Romans 1:1-4 – Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God–  the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures  regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David,  and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Corinthians 15:1-3 – Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…
Galatians 3:6-9 – Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.  The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”  So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Acts 13:26-39 – “Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.  The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.  Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed.  When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.  But God raised him from the dead,  and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.  “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers  he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus… (Emphases added)
Peter and Stephen, in the book of Acts, declare the same truths: all that was accomplished in and through the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ was anticipated and prophesied in the Old Testament.
The Testimony of Jesus
Maybe at this point you are saying, “Well, that sounds good, but that’s just Paul and Peter and Stephen. They’re just men. First, let me remind you Paul’s writings and Peter’s preaching in Acts are just as inspired of God as anything written in the Gospels. However, just for emphasis, let me quote a little of what our Lord himself said, or what was said about him, in the Gospels.
Luke 18:31 – Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.
Luke 24:27 – And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:44 – He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
John 1:45 – Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
John 5:45-46 – “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set.  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.
John 8:56 – Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (Emphases added)
The “Scriptures” Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, Philip, Nathanael, and Stephen spoke of were, of course, the Old Testament. That’s what I mean when I say we ought to look for Jesus and his Gospel in the Old Testament. It’s far from silent on the subject. That’s why we read so much from the Old Testament during the Advent and Lenten seasons. It points to our Lord. Thanks be to God.
What is the Gospel?
Thus far we’ve seen the old, old story is much older than we usually think. But what is the old story about? What is the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ?
The shortest and easiest answer is given to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:16,
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation. It’s God’s answer, his response, to our sin and sinfulness, fallenness, brokenness, rebellion, foolishness, hurts and pain, suffering, and lostness.
God isn’t an aloof deity who sits in heaven, detached from his creation. Even though he created us in his image and declared his creation was good, very good in fact, we, along with our first parents Adam and Eve, have gone our own way. We’ve rebelled against God. We’ve declared ourselves in charge and have resisted him.
And even though God in his perfect holiness and righteousness would have been justified in pouring out his wrath upon us, in his grace he poured out his love instead.
As the Scriptures we’ve already seen tell us, God sent his deeply beloved, one and only Son to live, die, and be raised from the dead for us. Here’s how Paul makes this point.
Romans 3:21-26 – But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–  he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Emphasis added)
Our sinfulness, rebellion, foolishness, and willfulness, were paid for (atoned for) on the Cross by the Lord Jesus Christ. The Scripture says Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us. He received the punishment we deserved.
Because of that great expression of love, we can know God. We can enter into a personal, deep, and abiding relationship with God. We can actually start becoming more and more like Christ in our daily lives. We can be made holy and whole. We can receive both abundant and everlasting life.
But it’s not automatic.
This is where we must choose to enter into the old, old story. We must respond. We must not listen to the story of God’s good news and simply smile and say, “Well, that’s a nice story.” There’s no place for indifference to this story. We must believe the story.
We must place our faith, our trust, in Christ - in who he is, the very Son of God – Son, Savior, and Lord. We must trust in his Work on our behalf – his death upon the Cross for our sin and his resurrection from the dead for our salvation.
We must repent, which means to turn away from our sinfulness, selfishness, and rebellion, and turn instead toward God, in love for him and faithfulness to him. Turning away from sin and toward God doesn’t earn us our salvation. Our salvation is a free gift from God, just as Jesus is a gift to us. But it is a gift we must open, so to speak. We must respond to it. We must receive it in trusting faith.
When we do, not only are we declared righteous before a holy God, but our lives will begin to bear fruit. We’ll show we really love and trust God and his Son Jesus Christ by seeking to live for him, desiring him, obeying him, and by loving our neighbors.
Faith and repentance are not two separate things. They are two aspects of the same thing. They are, if you will, two sides of the same coin.
That’s why Jesus says in Mark 1:15, “Repent and believe the good news!” Friends, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and there is no other.
Enter the Story Yourself
The United Methodist liturgy for Holy Communion describes all this in a beautiful way. It invites us to enter into the story – to become a part of it.
In the United Methodist Church we believe that, through his Holy Spirit, we meet the main character of the old, old story, the Lord Jesus Christ. As we gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ and bow before him, Christ gathers with us in our midst. He is with us in and through his Spirit as we receive his body and blood he so lovingly and freely gave on our behalf.
However, you must enter into this story by faith. United Methodists believe this sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In other words, we don’t receive this grace simply by going through the motions. Instead, it’s with joyful, thankful, love-filled hearts, we receive the bread and cup in faith, trust, and repentance. Our liturgy, based in Scripture, reminds us,
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another.
A few pages further in the hymnal, another order of Communion says this,
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins,
and are in love and charity with your neighbors,
and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God,
and walking henceforth in his holy ways:
Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort,
and make your humble confession to almighty God.
If you’ve never genuinely and consciously repented of your sin and placed your trust in Christ as your Savior and Lord, then let today be the day of salvation.
This devotion is from my book, Foundations: Key Principles for Godly Manhood. Click here to purchase it.
How Many Years of Experience?
Age does not guarantee wisdom. Not even experience guarantees wisdom. There is nothing magical about the lapse of time in one’s life that causes him to become a sage for the ages. We probably all know someone who doesn’t have 25 years of experience at his job, but instead, has experienced the same one year, 25 times in a row. No growth or maturation has taken place.
This was the case in the story of Job. Job’s three friends, older men in the community, were all sharing their insights as to why poor ol’ Job was experiencing such suffering. Each one was way off the mark. Finally, the younger, less experienced Elihu, who had been respectfully silently, observing the back-and-forth of his elders, could no longer sit idly by and allow such error and ignorance to prevail. He responded,
“I am young in years, and you are old; that is why I was fearful, not daring to tell you what I know.  I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’  But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding.  It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right. (Job 32:6-9)
Elihu then went on to provide his diagnoses of Job’s situation.
The Real Source of Wisdom
We learn a very important principle from Elihu: Wisdom does not come automatically with age. Some folks never seem to learn. Instead, true wisdom comes from God himself. Wisdom, God’s wisdom, must be desired and intentionally sought. That takes effort, self-discipline, and commitment. But it will be found only in this way.
The chief source from which we gain godly wisdom is God’s Word. Psalm 119:99 says,
“I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible and its focus, (almost exclusively so), is God’s Word. In that chapter, God’s Word is also referred to as his statute, law, precept, decree, and command. In each case it refers to God’s revelation of himself and his will to his people. His wisdom for the ages can be found therein. This is how he has chosen to guide us. Psalm 119:24 says, “Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors.”
Godly friends and teachers, informed by God’s Word are treasures. But it must be his Word that is the primary source for wisdom. I’ll take a mentor who has been seasoned by years of experience almost every time over a younger, less-experienced person, but especially if the former has walked with God during those years and sat under the tutelage of God’s Word. That’s where wisdom will be found. That’s also why we must “delight” in God’s Word each day – that we too might learn, grow, and one day be a source of godly wisdom for someone else.
Gracious God, you are sovereign, good, and all-wise. You are in control of the universe you have made and know best how it works. You love me and have my best interest at heart. Furthermore, you not only have my best interest but know best how to bring it about in my life. Therefore, I will trust you. Thank you for the gift of your Word that provides direction for me to follow. I needn’t grope in the dark, tripping over obstacles, when your Word is such a radiant and trustworthy light in my life. In the name of the One who is the Light of the world, I pray. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15:1-19
In his book, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, Christian philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, recounts a conversation he once had with a former student of his.
“There ain’t gonna be no Easter this year,” the student remarked to Craig. “What’s that?” Craig asked, just to make sure he heard his student correctly. The student repeated the same line, “There ain’t gonna be no Easter this year.” “And why is that?” Craig asked. “Because they found the body,” the student replied.
Craig commented on this exchange by saying,
“Despite his irreverent humor, my friend displayed a measure of insight often not shared by modern theologians.”
Craig’s student understood that the Christian claim is not that Jesus was “resurrected” figuratively or metaphorically in the hearts of his followers, but that he was raised bodily from the dead. And if his actual body had been found, there would have been no resurrection from the dead. Nothing to celebrate. No Easter.
This is the Apostle Paul’s testimony in our Scripture from 1 Corinthians 15.
Various and Spurious Denials
Throughout my ministry, I have observed a variety of ways the resurrection of Jesus has been denied, sadly sometimes, even from those who profess faith in Christ.
One of the earliest denials of Jesus’ resurrection goes back to the New Testament itself. It is what’s called, the “Conspiracy Theory.” In Matthew’s Gospel we find the Jews explaining away the resurrection. There we discover the chief priests bribing the guards who were stationed at Jesus’ tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15, we read,
When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Other ways it has been denied has been to say that everything that happened can be explained naturally, not supernaturally. Some say Jesus didn’t really die, but that he took medicine to make him appear to be dead. Then, when he was placed in the tomb, he woke up and went on his way. Others say the disciples went to the wrong tomb. If you kept up with the Jesus Seminar in the early 90s, you may remember that their conclusion was,
“After the crucifixion, Jesus’ corpse was probably laid in a shallow grave, barely covered with dirt, and subsequently eaten by wild dogs.”
Finally, there’s even one philosopher who suggested that Jesus had a long-lost twin brother who came to town and fooled all the disciples.
As you can tell from just these examples, there are great lengths people will go to in order to avoid dealing with the risen Lord.
The examples just mentioned represent complete rejections of the bodily resurrection of Jesus by unbelievers, or perhaps those on the fringe of Christianity.
The Problem in the Church
The problem inside the church, however, is another way in which the resurrection of Jesus is denied. It’s a subtle form we have to pay close attention to or else it may sneak by us. It can best be illustrated by the sentiment of one theologian who wrote in a newspaper column,
“If the bones of Jesus Christ were found tomorrow, it would make no great difference to me. I would go on going to church as would a majority of Christians.”
For this particular theologian, the important thing is not what happened to the body of Jesus, but what happened to the spirits of the apostles. A similar view was raised a number of years ago in a Methodist newspaper. The author couldn’t understand what the big deal was concerning whether or not Jesus was actually, bodily, raised from the dead. “The important thing is that we come together like the early church and love one another,” he claimed. I had a classmate in seminary once tell me the same thing.
Of course, that response ignores the issue of “why” the early disciples came together and loved one another in the first place. Perhaps we should take them at their word when they tell us they actually saw the body of the risen Lord. In our Scripture from 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul makes clear that whether or not Jesus really came back from the grave, is a very big deal.
If Christ is Dead
Paul is very logical in his response to doubts about the actual (bodily) resurrection of Jesus. Paul begins in verses 13-14,
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Paul was smart enough to know that if Christ was still in the tomb, then he was still dead. And if Christ is dead, then the Christian message a useless lie, a religion that declares a lot of things that just aren’t true. If Christ is dead, then the Christian faith is futile.
He continues in verses 17-19,
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
In other words, if Christ is not risen from the dead, then there’s nothing behind the faith we proclaim. It’s powerless. There’s no Spirit of Christ who dwells in you. All that talk about the forgiveness of your sins is worthless. There’s no use talking about salvation. God has not honored Christ’s words, life, or death.
If Jesus remains dead, then the death of Jesus was just one of thousands of deaths on Roman crosses. Tragic perhaps, but nothing more.
And if Christ is dead, Paul says, then those of us who believe in him now “are of all people most to be pitied.” We’re no better off than the person who is dying of an incurable disease who puts all their eggs in the power of positive thinking.
But Christ is Risen
But the good news, Paul declares, is that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (verse 20).” That’s the greatest fact in all of history! That’s the fact that changes everything and everyone who believes and trusts it and gives their very lives to it.
All we have to do is look at Paul himself. As Saul of Tarsus, he was a living nightmare to the early Christians. But then he personally encountered the risen Christ. Paul went from one of the greatest enemies of the Christian faith to one of its greatest missionaries.
He was dramatically transformed from an intolerant, bitter, and proud persecutor of the church to a humble servant of the Lord Jesus. Not only did his relationship with Christ change, but so did his relationship with followers of Christ. He came to love them, helped them grow in their faith, and spent his life making more of them.
Was this radical change in Paul’s life the result of nothing more than a psychological warm feeling or was it something more? Paul tells us over and over again that this change was the result of meeting the risen and living Christ! He was so convinced of this that he gave his life as a martyr for his faith in Jesus.
What was true of Paul’s life was true for all the disciples. They went from frightened lambs to bold lions of the faith, traveling the Roman Empire, bearing witness to the risen Christ. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only things that makes sense of this change in their lives.
Our heavenly Father vindicated our Lord Jesus by raising him from the dead. The resurrection revealed that death was not the winner, for Christ defeated even death itself. It was this belief in the resurrection that enabled the disciples to proclaim their crucified Lord as God’s Messiah.
If they didn’t really meet the risen Christ – if they really didn’t believe he was raised from the dead, is it likely they each would have kept up their delusion or charade, all the way to their own persecutions, and ultimately, their deaths? One historian commented that if the disciples didn’t truly believe Jesus was raised from the dead, then the Christian faith would be nothing more than a dead folk religion of the first century.
He Can Transform Us, Too
But he lives! And just as the disciples believed, and just as our hymn proclaims, “We serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that those of us who live two thousand years after the fact can still be in a relationship with him today. It means he’s not dead, but alive! The same risen Christ who transformed Paul and the other disciples can transform us today.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means we can have hope in the midst of trials, suffering, sorrow, despair, and pain.
A figurative, metaphorical resurrection can do none of that.
Alister McGrath tells the story that in Soviet Russia, right after the Communist Revolution in 1917, a government official was tasked with crushing the spirits of the remaining Christians and, ultimately, ridding their country of Christianity altogether.
So, he gathered the people of a particular town so he could discredit and disprove Christianity using all the clever arguments he could muster. He ranted for hours as he sought to show the people just how ridiculous their faith in Christ was.
After he finished, feeling quite satisfied he had done his job well, he offered the platform to anyone who dared to respond to him. A young priest took him up on his offer and came forward. The official told the priest he had two minutes. “I won’t need that long,” the priest replied.
And in a very meek and humble way, the priest approached the podium. After looking at the people for just a few seconds, the priest threw his hands high into the air and shouted, “Christ is risen!”
To which the people responded as one, “Christ is risen indeed!”
And so he is.
Thanks be to God.
Don’t Rush to Easter Just Yet
A Maundy Thursday Reflection
John 12:20-23 - 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
His Time Had Not Yet Come
Throughout the whole of John’s Gospel, which represents the whole of the public ministry of Jesus, our Lord says over and over again, things like, “my time has not yet come.” Or John himself, as he narrates his Gospel, reports that crowds were not able to capture Jesus because his time “had not yet come.”
Therefore, in our Scripture, we learn that Greeks (probably God-fearers, but Gentiles nonetheless) came looking for Jesus. They wanted to see him.
The fact that these non-Jews came to see the Lord gives us a glimpse of the scope of why Jesus came. His death would not be for the atonement of Jews only, but for Gentiles as well. Clearly this is what John wanted us to understand.
His Hour Had Come
Several years ago, I watched the movie, “The Gospel of John,” which captured this scene beautifully. When Jesus was told that Greeks desired to see him, the actor poignantly portrayed Jesus responding in a somber and reflective manner. Of course, his acting decision was speculative, but some speculations are closer than others. I believe his expressions would have been very close to how Jesus must have responded when he realized, “his hour had come.”
Jesus’ words of response in John 12 seem fitting in light of his experience later at Gethsemane, found in Matthew 26:26-44.
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
I sometimes think we suffer the consequences of an “over-familiarity” of a text in Scripture. We are so used to hearing or reading it that it can lose its powerful punch. We often fast forward through the details to get to the “good parts,” which usually means the parts we like or make us feel comfortable. This scene from Gethsemane is an example of what I am talking about.
Perhaps we think to ourselves, “since Jesus knew he was going to be raised from the dead on the third day, his journey to the Cross was not that big a deal for him. Afterall, he’s God incarnate, and he knows how the story ends.
Yet you cannot read this text from Matthew’s Gospel and come away with that perspective. Reread it and take in the significance of these verses again,
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (emphasis mine)
Man of Sorrow
He wanted his friends with him, praying for him. He was sorrowful. Overwhelmed. Troubled. He was sweating drops of blood. This was no walk in the park.
And then, moving through the story, Matthew tells us that our Lord fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”
“May this cup be taken from me.”
Let’s not move too quickly past that part of the verse. Let’s absorb it for a moment.
In 29 years of ministry, I have cried only a small handful of times while preaching a sermon. Two or three incidents were during funerals, as you can imagine. But the time that was not related to a funeral was when I preached from this verse. Why? It is hard to know for sure, but I think it was how this moment in the life of our Lord really hit me, perhaps for the first time.
Would the mocking, beatings, betrayal, nails, and all the rest be painful, even devastating? Absolutely! I do not want to minimize any of that. I am sure it must have been excruciating in ways that none of us will ever really comprehend, despite all the medical reports describing it.
But to have the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom Jesus had had an eternity of inseparable, uninterrupted, joyful, intimate union and fellowship, now “turning his back” on his Son, must have eclipsed any of the physical pain Jesus was experiencing.
For Jesus to bear the filth of our disgusting and overwhelming sin, fallenness, and brokenness must have been truly overwhelming to the One who knew no sin, yet became sin for us.
The realization of all he was going to face must have led our Lord to feel and experience all that Matthew reported to us and more. In the quiet of the garden, who wouldn’t have cried out for another way to complete the mission? Was Jesus really going to have to endure the agony of the Cross and all that went with it? There was no other way. And ultimately Jesus knew this was his Father’s will, as his prayerful response indicated. By God’s grace, our Lord was faithful to his Father, to his mission, and to us.
Our Lord will be arrested tonight.
He will be crucified tomorrow.
Let’s not rush to Easter just yet.
For God So Loved
Jesus and Nicodemus
Our Scripture comes right at the end of a conversation between Jesus and a man called, Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a great Jewish leader, yet he sensed something in or about Jesus that led him to come and speak with Jesus.
But because of his reputation, and the fact that Jesus was not very popular among the Jewish leaders, Nicodemus came at night. It was there and then Jesus taught Nicodemus the truth about how a person must be saved or redeemed – brought into a right relationship with God.
Jesus even scolded Nicodemus for not already knowing this since he was a great leader of the Jewish people.
Moses and the Snake
As Jesus finished up his lesson to Nicodemus, he referred to an event in Jewish history that Nicodemus would have known well. Referencing Numbers 21:4-9, Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:14-15,
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
It is an interesting story, but the short version is this: after God graciously and lovingly rescued his people from bondage in Egypt, they began complaining. They started speaking against God and Moses, suggesting they had been brought out into the wilderness just to die.
Therefore, God sent poisonous snakes among them and the snakes began to bite the people. Many died. As you can imagine, this got the people’s attention, and they began repenting for speaking against God and Moses and pleaded for deliverance and healing from the snakes.
Thus, God told Moses to make a snake, put it on a pole, and then lift it high above the people. And so Moses did just that. He made a bronze snake, put it on the end of a pole, and when the people looked with faith to the image of the snake lifted up, they were physically healed.
After retelling the story, the last point Jesus made to Nicodemus was this: just as Moses lifted up the snake, Jesus himself would be lifted up. By “lifted up” Jesus was referring to his death on the Cross to be sure, but also his resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
And Jesus added, that everyone who looks to him – trustingly believes in him – will have eternal life.
The Bible’s Most Popular Verse
That brings us to the most widely known verse in all the Bible, John 3:16,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 is the most succinct summary of the Gospel in all the Bible. In one verse John tells us God gave his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to live, teach, heal, perform miracles, but ultimately, to die on the Cross.
By doing so, those who look to him in faith, as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake, would be forgiven and delivered from the guilt and power of sin. They would be reclaimed and reconciled to a right and eternal relationship with God. And they would be empowered to live the lives for which they were created.
The Front Door
John declares to us in this beautiful verse that we must reach out to God with our hearts and minds to receive this free gift of eternal life.
John 1:12 says,
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…
We receive Christ by placing our faith in him. Trusting belief. This is more than mere head knowledge or vague acknowledgement. It is to give our very lives to him. To give him ourselves. To be sure, it involves trust, repentance, submission, commitment, obedience, and following him.
But the front door is faith. We must enter through that front door and say, “Yes Lord, thank you. I believe.” Then, what follows, is a life of getting to know him better – following him wherever he may lead. It means desiring to become more and more like him. It means telling others about him, even as we serve them, along our journey through this world.
According to John, those who do respond in faith in this way receive eternal life. Those who do not respond in faith, do not receive eternal life. John says they stand condemned already because they prefer darkness instead of the light that Christ brings into the world.
Now, if you have been paying attention up to this point, perhaps you noticed I left out the central, governing purpose of all that God did through Jesus on our behalf.
John tells us that, “God so loved.”
That phrase, “so loved” means, God loved “in this way,” which involves everything mentioned so far about Jesus being “lifted up” on our behalf.
And please notice, John says God so loved the world. Not just the Jews, but the Gentiles too, which is a way of saying, everyone. God is not only the covenant God of Israel. He is the God of all. He sent Jesus for all. That is why John said, “everyone who believes” and not just the Jews.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:12-13,
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Emphases mine)
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
And this is because, “God so loved.” God’s love expressed in this way, John reminds us in his first epistle, flows from the fact that God is love. It is who God is.
But here is where we need to be careful. We must not go to movies and music, or Hollywood and Hallmark to get our definition of love and then read Scripture through that lens. Instead, we go to Scripture to learn what love is and then look to see how worldly views compare with what the Bible says (and therefore, what God says) about God’s love. This is how we practice the art of spiritual discernment.
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, seldom talked about God’s love without referring to it as a “holy love.” Each of God’s attributes relates to all the rest. God’s attributes do not exist in separate, isolated compartments in which they have nothing to do with one another. Furthermore, God’s attributes are not partial. He is not a 10% one attribute and 15% another and so on. He is 100% each of his attributes, and as I mentioned, they all interrelate and influence the others.
This led A.W. Tozer to write,
From God’s other known attributes we may learn much about his love. We can know, for instance, that because God is self-existent, his love had no beginning; because he is eternal, his love can have no end; because he is infinite, it has no limit; because he is holy, it is the quintessence of all spotless purity…”
Charles Wesley beautifully captured a glimpse of God’s love in his hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”…
Love divine, all loves excelling
Joy of Heaven to Earth come down
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling
All Thy faithful mercies crown
Jesus, Thou art all compassion
Pure, unbounded love Thou art
Visit us with Thy salvation
Enter every trembling heart
That is the love of God. And so how do you respond to that? This idea that God sent his Son to come and save, not a world that was cheering for him, but just the opposite. As the words of the Holy Communion liturgy in the United Methodist hymnal, borrowing from Romans 5:8 put it,
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Emphasis mine)
How do you respond to that? How does that impact you emotionally? Does it fill you with awe? Humility? Reverence? Joy? Gratitude? Indifference? Distaste? Fear? The Apostle John suggests that all those seem to be ways people respond to the glorious announcement of God’s love in Christ.
How about you? Is the good news of God’s love for you in Christ an announcement of indescribable beauty to you? Of horror? Of Indifference?
I want you to know there is a God in heaven who loves you and who went to the greatest lengths to act on your behalf – to win you to himself. To enable you to become the person he created you to be.
He loves and rejoices over you so much he sings. Zephaniah 3:17 says,
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
He loves you so much he offers you eternal life in his presence. But he will not force you to respond in faith, to give your life to Christ. He will not override your will and desire. To those who would prefer not to spend eternity in the presence of God, God replies, “thy will be done.” And yet, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he waits and watches for you. More than that, with his Spirit he lovingly calls you and draws you to himself. And he is doing that today.
The Ultimate Gift
And what is the gift that awaits you when you trust in Christ? The gift is God himself. “Life of abundant joy and immeasurable blessing in the presence of God forever.”
At the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis writes these words about some of the characters in his books,
“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Don’t you want to be a part of that Great Story?
If you have never put your trust in Christ before, reach out to God today and call to him. Trust in him. Enter his Great Story and become a part of it. If you do know Christ, then give thanks and continue to love and follow him. Tell others about him. Invite them to join you in the Greatest Story ever told.
Thanks be to God for the love of God.
Take Jesus at His Word
John 4:50 - Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed.
If the Royal Official Could
The royal official did not first wait for a miracle before he believed. He did not wait for Jesus to first “prove himself” worthy of trust. He took Jesus at his word. He believed Jesus. Jesus told the man his dying son would live. That was all the official needed from the Lord. To be sure, Jesus did not owe the man such kindness, but he was pleased to bless him anyway. That is the definition of grace.
How I wish this verse described me more. To take that step of faith, without prior confirmation of the desired result, can be frightening. Yet I sometimes find myself still wanting that confirmation in advance. Sometimes the Lord is pleased to throw me a bone, despite my small faith. But he would rather have me remember the hundreds upon hundreds of ways he has already proved himself capable and faithful to me and my loved ones throughout my life.
A Work in Progress
And yet I am encouraged. Despite my shortcomings the Lord is still drawing me closer to himself and conforming me more and more to the image of his Son. Slowly (so very slowly) I am maturing in my faith. The trust I long for comes more often than when I first began my pilgrimage. Is that your story too? Can you relate to that?
How precious it is to believe, and then have the eyes to see the blessing and the hands to receive it. The royal official believed first, then experienced the miracle. This is not a presumptuous faith, holding God to promises he never made. It is a dependent faith, one that cries out to God, “My hope is in you and you alone O Lord”.
Prayer and Scripture must undergird our growth in Christ. Reading God’s Word, reminding ourselves daily of his goodness and greatness, and then praying and meditating upon it builds us up with encouragement and confidence for both present and future faith. And this is needed. With such confidence in God, many throughout Scripture were able to face impossible odds and come out victorious on the other side. The nature of our victories may vary, but we too may be confident when we take the Lord at his Word.
Trustworthy God, to whom else shall I turn? You alone have the words of eternal life. You alone are worthy of my hope. Forgive me for those times when I have not trusted you, when I have first turned to other places and people to meet my needs. Out of pure grace you have been faithful to me and my loved ones, time and time again. Your track record in my life is long and spotless. And yet, my faith in you can still be feeble and fleeting. Forgive me. Please give me greater confidence in you, a longer memory of your great work in my life, and help me to draw closer to you, that I might know you better and love you more. In Christ I pray. Amen.
No person fails on purpose. Yet, spiritual, and moral failures abound. A few years ago, I taught a lesson to my church’s men’s group which focused on temptations men face. The workbook we were using quoted C.S. Lewis on this subject and was a turning point for many in the group. Lewis wrote,
“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the person away from the light and out into the nothing… Indeed, the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
The truth communicated by Lewis rang true. It reminded me of something a former mentor of mine once said. He emphasized repeatedly that compromise comes through the smallness of our daily surrenders.
It is giving up that little bit of personal conviction each day. It is the little piece of candy no one will ever know you ate. It is watching that program or visiting that website when you are all alone. You get the picture.
Usually the first surrender to “small, insignificant sins” makes it easier to fall prey to them again and again. The damage comes from the “cumulative effect” Lewis was pointing to. Few people wake up in the morning planning to sin spectacularly later in the day. Yet those daily surrenders build up over time. Give a little ground here and there and before you know it, you are in trouble. In fact, you become practically unrecognizable, even to yourself. You did not plan for this to happen, but those daily surrenders were enough to do the trick.
Therefore, we must be vigilant. We need to work from the foundation of knowing who we are in Christ. We need to count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11). Those “daily surrenders” need not reign over us. The same Spirit who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead dwells in us as well.
Yet, we also need to exercise the self-awareness that recognizes those areas in our lives wherein we are weak. Every person ought to ask himself or herself: Am I being less watchful in some areas of my life than others? Even the small, seemingly insignificant areas? Am I overly confident I would never again fall prey to that particular temptation? A member of my church used to remind me often, “to be forewarned is to be forearmed.”
If you want to avoid those small daily surrenders, then pray for God to deliver you from temptation. But do not forget to do your part. Name those temptations in advance. Talk with a godly person you trust and ask them to hold you accountable. Renew your mind daily in God’s Word. The Apostle Paul shared God’s wisdom on this point when he wrote in Philippians 4:8-9,
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
What are you thinking on?
Merciful and patient Lord, I do not want to sin. I do not want to “fail on purpose.” Yet I confess to you that I have not always put in place or practiced those wise spiritual disciplines that would draw me ever closer to you and protect me from the snares of the devil and my own fleshly weaknesses. Please forgive me and renew me. As David cried out, put a right spirit within me. Give me such a desire for you that turning away from you would be the last thing on my mind. Give me greater Spirit-enabled self-discipline and self-control to practice those means of grace you have given to your children to help us conform more and more to the likeness of your Son, our Lord and Savior. For it is in his name and for his sake I pray. Amen.
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