The Heidelberg Catechism: Lord's Day 17
45. Question: How does Christ's resurrection benefit us?
Answer: First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, so that He could make us share in the righteousness which He had obtained for us by His death. Second, by His power we too are raised up to a new life. Third, Christ's resurrection is to us a sure pledge of our glorious resurrection.
 Rom. 4:25; I Cor. 15:16-20; I Pet. 1:3-5.  Rom. 6:5-11; Eph. 2:4-6; Col. 3:1-4.  Rom. 8:11; I Cor. 15:12-23; Phil. 3:20, 21.
The Heidelberg Catechism: Lord's Day 15
37. Question: What do you confess when you say that He suffered?
Answer: During all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, He has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
 Is. 53; I Tim. 2:6; I Pet. 2:24; 3:18.  Rom. 3:25; I Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 10:14; I John 2:2; 4:10.  Rom. 8:1-4; Gal. 3:13; Col. 1:13; Heb. 9:12; I Pet 1:18, 19.  John 3:16; Rom. 3:24-26; II Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:15.
38. Question: Why did He suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?
Answer: Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so He freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
 Luke 23:13-24; John 19:4, 12-16.  Is. 53:4, 5; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13.
39. Question: Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?
Answer: Yes. Thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay on me, for a crucified one was cursed by God.
 Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13.
The Heidelberg Catechism: Lord's Day 11
29. Question: Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Savior?
Answer: Because He saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.
 Matt. 1:21; Heb. 7:25.  Is. 43:11; John 15:4, 5; Acts 4:11, 12; I Tim. 2:5.
30. Question: Do those believe in the only Savior Jesus who seek their salvation and well-being from saints, in themselves, or anywhere else?
Answer: No. Though they boast of Him in words, they in fact deny the only Savior Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or those who by true faith accept this Savior must find in Him all that is necessary for their salvation.
 I Cor. 1:12, 13; Gal. 5:4.  Col. 1:19, 20; 2:10; I John 1:7.
A Christmas Baby
On a Christmas day in 1965, I was born in Asheville, North Carolina. Two nurses cleaned me up and brought me to my mom and dad in a Christmas stocking.
My birth meant a lot to my mom and dad (or so they have led me to believe). But our country did not rejoice at my birth. The state of North Carolina did not rejoice at my birth. In fact, the city of Asheville did not rejoice at my birth. My birth did not make the national papers. It did not even make the local paper. There were no geopolitical implications that came from my being born into this world.
But there were huge implications when Princess Lalla Salma gave birth to a daughter named, Lalla Khadija. Her husband, King Mohammed the 6th of Morocco, was so excited when his daughter was born, he wanted to celebrate in a big way. Instead of giving out cigars, he pardoned 8,836 prisoners and reduced the sentences of 24,218 others. The Justice Ministry said the pardons were a humanitarian gesture. (from the Preaching Today website).
Talk about setting the captives free.
What the Birth of Jesus Did Not Mean
Well, the birth of Jesus also had a few implications. A few major implications, in fact. The problem was that it just wasn’t what the people were expecting.
The first part of the beautiful words from Isaiah 9:6 reminds us,
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
You see, the promised Messiah was supposed to ride in on a mighty horse, bearing a sword, to overturn the political and military structures and put Israel back on top. At least that is how many first century Jews understood that text and others like it.
What the Birth of Jesus Did Mean
Let’s take a look at one verse in Matthew’s Gospel to see what it says about why Jesus was born. Matthew 1:21 says,
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (emphasis mine)
Joseph’s Marching Orders
The Gospel of Luke records the angel announcement and conversation with Mary about giving birth to Jesus. But in Matthew, the angel is addressing Joseph. This is important because it was prophesied in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David.
Luke gives us Mary’s genealogy to show us she was a biological descendant of David. But there is something a little different going on in Matthew’s Gospel. In that Gospel, Joseph is never called Jesus’ father. Joseph is his adoptive father, so to speak. Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus was a great miracle of the Holy Spirit. And so, God was the Father of Jesus.
But the key to this part of verse 21 is this – by giving Jesus his name, Joseph was accepting responsibility for raising Jesus as his own. “YOU shall call his name Jesus…” In that culture, the act of naming a baby gave the child legal status in the family. And so, Jesus was biologically linked to King David through Mary and legally related to David through Joseph.
Name Him “Jesus”
Now here’s what didn’t happen: God didn’t say to Mary and Joseph, “Go down to the Bethlehem Barnes and Noble and pick up a baby name book. The couple didn’t consult Great Baby Names of Hebrew History, 3rd Edition.
God, through the angel said, You shall, you will, you must, you are to call this baby boy, “Jesus.” And so, God told Mary and Joseph what to name their son.
Something About That Name
In a recent children’s Christmas Eve service at the church I serve, the service featured a story called, “Operation: No More Tears!” It began with Isaiah foretelling God’s “rescue plan” to save his people. We find the fulfillment of that prophecy in the birth and naming of Jesus.
The name, “Jesus,” was the Greek form of the name, “Joshua.” It was a common name in Israel. It literally means, “Jehovah is salvation” or “God saves.” The angel told Joseph the baby boy was to be named “Jesus” because he would save his people from their sins.
Again, however, the salvation most of the first century Jews had in mind was a national liberation. They wanted to be freed from those who oppressed them. In this case, it was the Romans. They wanted a kingly figure in the style of King David to ride into town, with sword drawn, and take out their enemies.
But the prophecy that best points to the kind of salvation Jesus would bring is found in Psalm 130:8, which says,
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.
The salvation Jesus would bring would primarily be spiritual, though it would certainly have implications for every sphere of life. As the words to an old hymn remind us, there is something powerful indeed about the name of Jesus.
The name, “Jesus” represents our deliverance from sin and our reconciliation with God. Acts 4:12 says this about the name of Jesus,
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (emphasis mine)
The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 2:10, puts it this way,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (emphasis mine)
And who did Jesus come to save? “His people.” “His people” certainly meant Israel. We know he came first to “his own” as John 1:11 puts it. “His own” meant the Jews.
But we also know there is a wider context. Undoubtedly Matthew, the same Gospel writer who gave us the Great Commission, which commands us to go into all the world to make disciples of every nation, understood it was not only Israel Jesus came to save.
The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that Jesus came for Jew and Gentile. Paul writes this in Romans 1:16,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
For a Jew, the word “Gentile” or “Greek” simply meant everyone else… everyone who’s not Jewish. In other words, Jesus came to save everyone who would believe… Jew and Gentile alike.
Now think about that – Jesus cam to save his people from their sins. “His people” would have included a lot of very, so-called, “religious” people, not just those who were described as “sinners.” Jesus came to say that no one can be delivered from their sin by their own religious works, no matter how good. We’re all b born in sin and our sins can never be atoned for by our religious works, whether they’re Jewish or Gentle good works.
So, here is the question for us. Maybe you have asked this yourself. Why couldn’t Jesus just parachute out of heaven as an adult and go straight to the Cross? The answer: because he had to be truly God and truly human, and live that life.
As God, he would be able to atone for the infinite transgression of sin and bridge the infinite gulf between God and us. As human, he would live a life, be tempted just like the rest of us, yet remain without sin.
And as the God-man, a sinless human, a lamb who takes away the sin of the world, as John the Baptist referred to him (John 1:29), he could die in our place and take the punishment we deserved. You see, his life of perfect righteousness was just as important as his sacrificial death. Because if he were a sinner like the rest of us, then his death would not have even saved his life, much less ours.
By taking on human flesh and living among us, God revealed just how much he loves those he came to save. In one of my favorite hymns, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley reminds us of this piercing truth,
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we may no more may die,
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.
Read Matthew 1:21 again,
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus was born for this. Talk about implications!
The birth of Jesus has eternal implications. It has temporal implications. It has implications for every sphere of your life.
Have you called out to Jesus to save you from your sins? And have you entrusted your life – given your whole existence to him? If not, let today be the day.
Thanks be to God for his holy and sacrificial love.
Index of Spiritual Indicators
In the early 1960's, the U.S. Bureau of the Census came out with what was called, the "Index of Leading Economic Indicators." The Bureau chose 11 indicators of the American economy and used them to interpret current business developments and to predict future economic trends.
In 1993, William Bennett released what he called, the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. His goal was to examine the moral, social, and behavioral conditions of modern America. It showed, for example, in 1960 there were 288,000 violent crimes committed. In 1991, there were 1,900,000 violent crimes committed. He revealed the average SAT score in 1960 was 975, and in 1992, the average score was 899. That’s just a sampling of what he examined in his study.
Then, in 1996, another index came out. This one was done by George Barna, who is a famous pollster of religious statistics. His little book was called, The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators.
Here were some of Barna’s findings 20 years ago:
Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics was this,
"most Americans believe that ...salvation is an outcome to be earned through their good character or behavior. …Six out of ten people (57%) believe that ‘if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their lives, they will earn a place in heaven.’"
Barna then reported, "this perspective has remained constant throughout the 90's." His present research has revealed this statistic hasn’t changed much. This figure means at least 57% of Americans are relying on themselves for their eternal life. And yet, as staggering as that figure is, it’s really not new. It really isn’t much different from what Jesus experienced in his day. In fact, it was because of this mindset Jesus told the parable in Luke 18:9-14.
The Pharisee and Tax Collector
Jesus must have lost some brownie points with the Pharisees when he told this parable. Why? Because the Pharisees made it their life's mission to live exemplary moral and religious lives. In fact, they were so concerned about how they lived, they wouldn't even walk by someone they considered a sinner. They would literally cross to the other side of the road to avoid being near them.
Along comes Jesus. He spoke directly to those "who were confident of their own righteousness" and those "who looked down on everybody else..."(v.9) (Emphasis mine)
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector." (verse 10)
This was an extreme contrast. The Pharisees were regarded as holy men. These were men who worked hard at being righteous. Then there was the tax collector. Few people were regarded lower than the tax collector. The Jews despised tax collectors in that day because they were seen as Jewish traitors to the Roman government.
It was in that context Jesus declared,
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers-- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'" (verses 11-12)
Do you see what's going on? We observe this Pharisee talking about how wonderful he is. He’s showing off his spiritual resume. He's listing for God, just in case God was too busy to notice, all his marvelous accomplishments. He seems to be saying, “Just look here, Lord: I tithe, I go to church, I fast. What a good boy am I."
Then Jesus shows us the tax collector’s mindset. Jesus states,
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.'" (verse 13)
There he was, a tax collector, in all his misery. He had come to a place in his life where he realized only God could save him. Thus, he asked God for his mercy and sought forgiveness for being a sinner. This was true faith and repentance.
A Justified Man
Then, in verse 14, Jesus concluded with these words:
"I tell you the truth, this man (the tax collector), went down to his house "justified" rather than the other, for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted." (verse 14)
Jesus teaches that at that moment of faith and repentance, the tax collector went to his house a justified man. What does it mean to be justified? Justification answers this question:
How can a sinful person be made right (or brought into a right relationship) with a perfect and holy God?
According to Barna’s statistics, 57% of Americans would answer the way the Pharisee did, by pointing out all their good works and drawing attention to their worthiness.
In contrast to that sort of mindset, Jesus plainly shows us it’s only through the humility of the tax collector that we can be right with God. This is how we apply or receive God’s free offer of grace. By humbling himself before God in faith and repentance, the tax collector was immediately justified, Jesus tells us. His justification (or, being declared righteous) was immediate. There were no good works he needed to do first.
Therefore, to be right with God, or to be justified – to be saved – involves two things.
First of all, there’s the need to repent. As you’ve discovered in your own life, you must recognize you have sinned before you will ask for forgiveness. It’s similar to discovering you are sick before you decide to go to the doctor to get better. If you don’t know you’re sick, you probably won’t go to the doctor.
My Dog Max
That is why God does not hesitate in the pages of Scripture to let us know we’re fallen and broken individuals. Scripture clearly says we owe an impossible debt because of sin. Yet not everyone recognizes this debt. Not everyone realizes they are lost in sin. Certainly the Pharisee didn't realize it. He was too caught up in how good he thought he was. Sadly, there are many people who are like my dog Max was the day he got lost.
Max was a great dog. I got Max while I was serving my first church. We basically saved each other. I found him as a puppy at the Humane Society and saved him from an uncertain future. He saved me from loneliness as I was a single pastor at the time.
The day after the East Coast experienced what became known as, the "Storm of the Century," Max and I visited my parents who live in Northeast Florida. Max loved to run around their backyard. Since it was fenced in, I would let him stay out there for long periods of time. On this particular day, my parents and I decided to run some errands and I didn’t think twice about letting Max stay in the backyard. About two-and-a-half hours later we got back home, only to discover Max was missing. Unbeknownst to us, part of the fence had blown over because of the storm.
I called and called for Max but there was no response. I looked all around their neighborhood, but there was no sign of Max anywhere. He was lost. I began to panic. It was a Friday afternoon, at rush hour, and my parents live near a road, which even on a slow day, is very busy. Max didn't know his way around and I got really worried.
I decided I needed to get into my truck and drive around some of the neighborhoods near my parents’ house. After what seemed like hours, I finally made my way to the neighborhood directly behind the woods which were behind my parents’ house. I drove up and down the streets of the neighborhood very slowly, calling out for Max. No luck. Suddenly, as I pulled down the last street of the neighborhood, I saw something that caught my eye.
There were some kids down the street, throwing a stick to a dog. As I got closer and closer, I recognized who it was. It was Max! I had been scared to death because he was lost, and the kids told me he had been there for about 30 minutes, playing catch with them. He was having a great time! I was searching high and low for my lost dog and he was playing around. He didn't even know he was lost, and yet he was.
Scripture teaches us that in our fallen condition, we’re a lot like Max. We’re lost in sin, and yet, left to ourselves, we don't even know it.
That’s why we need God’s prevenient grace, which we looked at in the last chapter. This is the grace which awakens us to our need for Christ and draws us to God. Jesus declares the good news is that when we humbly recognize and admit our sinfulness and indebtedness to God, like the tax collector, we’ll be forgiven. This is only able to happen because of God’s justifying or saving grace.
It’s the grace of God that enables us to say yes to what God has done for us in Christ. It enables us to remove our trust in ourselves and place it in Christ alone. In a manner of speaking, this is what happened to the tax collector. He wasn't puffed up with a false sense of accomplishment. He knew very well what his place was before a perfect and holy God. That’s why he threw himself on the mercy of God.
Secondly, we're called to place our trust, or faith, in God as he has revealed himself through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Even though the Pharisee practiced all the rules of morality and lived a very religious life, he wasn’t right with God. All of his acts were just that - acts. They were external behaviors. They looked good from the outside, but there was no concern about a proper inward attitude and motivation of the heart. His good works weren’t done out of a sense of gratitude or obedience to God. He wasn’t living that way for God's glory but for his own. It was almost as though he practiced all of his good deeds so he could brag about how good he was. It was in the midst of his boasting that he revealed his sins of pride, arrogance and self-reliance. He didn't realize God not only looks at the outward things, but also at the heart, the inward things. God cares about why you do what you do.
The tax collector acknowledged his total dependence upon God's mercy. He knew he couldn’t save himself.
There's only one person who ever lived a perfect and sinless life, and that's Jesus Christ. Faith means trusting in his life of perfect obedience to God's will. It means completely depending on Christ's death on the cross for the cleansing of your sins. That’s why saving faith isn’t based on anything we’ve done or could ever do. It’s about trusting God and the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Head and Heart
Picture a man who's just fallen off a cliff. As he falls to his certain death, he reaches out in desperation and grabs a small limb. He knows the limb won't hold him very long, but he's hanging on for dear life. As he looks up he sees how steep the cliff is and he knows he could never climb up. As he looks down, he sees the jagged peaks just waiting for the inevitable. He begins to panic.
Suddenly he sees an angelic figure floating above him. And so he screams, “Save me! Save me!"
"Do you believe I can save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the powerful wings and the mighty arms, so he says: "Yes, I believe you can save me." "Do you believe I will save you?" the angel asks. The man sees the compassionate, merciful face of the angel, and so he cries out, "Yes, yes, I believe!"
"Well then," the angel says: "Let go!" Still hanging on for dear life, the man yells back: "Is there anybody else up there?!" (Ken Boa, I'm Glad You Asked)
Brothers, there’s no use having the right information, or even believing it’s true, if you don’t put your personal trust in what you know.
When my youngest son was two years old, my wife took him to the YMCA for swimming lessons. Usually my wife would get into the water first and then call to my son to jump to her. He was able to plainly see her standing there in front of him. He knew she could catch him. More than that, even at two years of age, he knew she loved him and would catch him. But if he never jumped to her he would have revealed he wasn’t really committed to that knowledge. He had to jump.
The tax collector turned his back on his sin and turned his face toward God as he sought forgiveness. He placed his trust in God. The Pharisee spent his time giving God his spiritual resume, telling God how wonderful and religious he was. He trusted himself.
Which one are you, the Pharisee or the tax collector?
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’s 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 that 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’s always existed.
Look for Jesus
We won’t go back quite that far in this lesson, 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, in order 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 that 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 that 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, today is the day of salvation.
It’s A Small World
In our study on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, our last lesson is perhaps the most controversial. It has been an issue from virtually the beginning of the church. However, we may experience it more keenly today as we feel the world getting smaller and smaller.
Two or three generations ago it may have been unlikely that a Christian family knew another family who practiced a different religion from theirs. Today, a neighborhood street may be filled with those who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or even no religion at all. Add to that the increasing prevalence of the Internet as an online community, via social media, and the world feels even smaller. At any given time of the day, you can communicate with someone who lives on the other side of the world. 24-hour news sources give us up-to-the-second news reports of what’s happening in every corner of the globe.
It is not a surprise then that our multicultural world has given rise to religious pluralism. And this can be a good thing. We have much to learn from people with different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. Tolerance in these relationships is a good thing and essential for individuals and communities to continue growing.
The Early Church
However, what marked Christianity as distinct in its earliest days continues to do so today: its exclusivity regarding its truth-claims about the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Such a view brought on persecution of Christians in first-century Rome and things haven’t changed much today. The Romans allowed different religions to be practiced, as long as proper religious homage was made to Caesar. This was untenable for Christians who said Christ alone was Lord. Today a Christian who professes that the Christian worldview alone is true, and that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, might be accused of being intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted, and today, even hateful. Christianity isn’t the only religion that makes exclusive truth-claims, but in our country, at least, it is the one that takes the most heat for doing so.
And yet, the truth is, our day is no more pluralistic than Christians who lived in biblical times. The Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralist world, in competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions. In fact, many books in both the Old and New Testaments were written as arguments against the competing religions that Israel and the early Christian community faced daily. Alister McGrath writes,
“Ancient Israel was acutely aware that its faith was not shared by its neighbors. The existence of other religions was simply a fact of life for the Israelites. It caused them no great difficulties, in that they believed that theirs happened to be right, whereas others were wrong. The same pattern emerges in the New Testament. From the first days of its existence, Christianity has recognized the existence of other religions and the challenge they posed. …Christianity was born amid religious pluralism.”
Similarly, Michael Green comments,
“I find it ironic that people object to the proclamation of the Christian gospel these days because so many other faiths jostle on the doorstep of our global village. What’s new? The variety of faiths in antiquity was even greater than it is today. And the early Christians, making as they did ultimate claims for Jesus, met the problem of other faiths head-on from the very outset. Their approach was interesting… They did not denounce other faiths. They simply proclaimed Jesus with all the power and persuasiveness as their disposal.”
The early church faced lions, became burning torches in Nero’s garden, and experienced other such persecution, because they believed what they were proclaiming was actually true. But ours is not a day when we seem to be overly concerned about objective, transcendent, and immutable truth. People today may still use the word “truth,” but it has become a synonym for “preference” when it is couched in phrases such as, “live your truth,” “that’s true for you, but not for me,” and so on. By many today, the notion of truth is filtered purely through a subjective and personal lens of feeling and personal preference, instead of being understood as objectively revealed by a transcendent source. Some latitude may be given to “facts” in the realm of the hard sciences, but certainly not in religion or philosophy.
Therefore, it is important to remember that Christianity was born in the midst a similar cultural climate of a plurality of religious beliefs and philosophies. And it was proclaimed passionately because it was believed to actually be true, and not merely a personal preference. Christians today recognize that we experience similar diversity in our culture as the early church did in theirs, and we must also remember we have the very same truth to tell in our day.
But isn’t it arrogant to claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to God? The only path to salvation? Perhaps my answer will surprise you, but I would say “yes,” it is arrogant. One is justified in accusing Christians of arrogance… if. If what we believe and what we proclaim as the truth are merely our own opinions and ideas, then we are arrogant indeed.
If Christianity is nothing more than a man-made religion, or a political power-play, then we would rightly be accused of arrogance and worse. However, the Christian claim has always been that Christianity is not true because Christians say it is, but because the Bible teaches it. Christians who believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, therefore, believe Christian truth is God’s revelation, not human opinion.
I can heartily relate with one theologian who said that he did not come to Christianity because he was looking to find the most intolerant, bigoted, and closed-minded religion on the block. He said that he, like millions of other Christians, opened the Bible, checked out its claims, and was transformed as God moved in and through his Word. That was, and continues to be, my experience as well.
So far throughout this study we have learned about the bold claims made by Christ as well as about him by others. We have come to understand that he was no mere man, but truly God in the flesh. He was not just a good teacher or political revolutionary, but the Son of God, sent to save his people from their sin. As Lord of heaven and earth Jesus had the power and authority to heal the sick and raise the dead. As Lord over every sphere of life, he could rightfully expect that his teachings – about his identity, his purpose, how we ought to live in this world, and how we can gain eternal life – should be believed, embraced, and lived out. This portrait of Jesus Christ should lead us to the conclusion that he has no equals.
The Bible Says
Generally speaking, Scripture teaches such a view of Jesus throughout its pages but makes specific statements about him as well. Here are a few examples of texts that help us appreciate that Jesus is not simply a way, but the way. As God incarnate and Lord of all, how could he be otherwise?
Acts 4:12 - Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
1 Timothy 2:5 - For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,
John 3:16-18 - 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Matthew 7:13-14 - “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
These texts, and others that could be cited, drive home with specificity, what all the lessons we have learned throughout this study have been teaching us more broadly; that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and there is no other way to the Father but through the Person and Work of Jesus. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus says about himself. Let’s take a deeper look at a particular text in which we find this truth-claim being made by our Lord.
Jesus says in John 14:1-7,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”
5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
We might find it easy to read these words and move past them if we are very familiar with them. Yet, we need to look carefully at what we find in these verses.
Comfort for Troubled Hearts
Jesus begins in verse 1 by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We might assume these are just words of encouragement that are meant for any person in any circumstance. Perhaps we think that Jesus is talking about the ordinary trials of life, and this is a mere pep-talk to his disciples. But upon a closer inspection we discover, as we read these words in context, that Jesus is speaking to some very confused people. We must remember this little band of disciples had left everything to follow Jesus - their homes, families, jobs… everything. They were invested. They were committed.
In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had just told them that he was going to be leaving them. Furthermore, he added that they were not going to be able to follow him where he was going. What did this mean? Well, Jesus knew significant, even severe, trouble was coming his way, and soon. It was in that context that he told them to not let their hearts be troubled. By “heart” he was addressing their whole being – their thoughts and feelings, their wills and emotions.
Why would he say that? Didn’t they have good reason to worry? Wasn’t their beloved master, teacher and friend going to leave them? Who wouldn’t worry in such circumstances, especially one who had been so committed and given up so much? And now he’s leaving them? Yet Jesus tells them to not let their hearts be troubled. He then follows up those words by saying, “You believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1b).
It’s Who You Know
Have you ever known more about a situation than the person you were talking to? Maybe it was a scary situation, and you needed your friend or family member to know it was going to be okay, because you had knowledge that would help them see the bigger picture of how things were going to work out in a positive way. Thus, you might encourage them by saying, “trust me.” A fuller version of those words might include, “You can’t understand why this happening right now, but if you would just trust me, you would be able to put your mind at ease.”
Jesus was telling his disciples that they were going to have to trust God, and him, in this situation. This trust would have the power to sustain them during this difficult time because the object of their trust – God – was worthy of their trust. In a manner of speaking, Jesus was telling them that God was larger than the uncertain situation they faced and that nothing had caught him off guard. He also told them they should have the same trust in him that they had in God, which is not an unimportant point.
Though the disciples did not understand his words, throughout his ministry Jesus often told them his mission would one day come to an end and he would have to leave them. In verse 2, Jesus let them know where he was going. He was going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. That must have blown their minds. Did they even have a category for such a statement? Probably not, yet they knew, loved, and trusted the One from whom such a statement came. We know from the rest of Scripture that “my Father’s house” refers to being in the unveiled presence of God, what we call “heaven.” Jesus was saying that in heaven there is room for all; there are many rooms or places to dwell.
He even elaborates by saying that he would not have told them all this if it were not true. In other words, they had no reason to worry about God’s provision for his people. This is all part of God’s providential plan. Jesus meant these words to bring comfort and assurance to his disciples. Once again, he is letting them know they have good reason to trust in God, as well as him.
The Place He Is Going
In verse 3, Jesus said,
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
As students of Scripture, some two thousand years later, we have the advantage of knowing the ministry of Jesus was coming to an end. Within hours of this conversation, Jesus was going to be arrested and crucified. More than that, we know that three days later he would rise from the dead and would not resume the same kind of life with his disciples that they had grown accustomed to. We also know that the place he was going to prepare for them does not refer to any sort of earthly dwelling. Yet, like the disciples then, we today must also trust Jesus and take his word for it. Never having been to heaven ourselves, we must trust the arrangements he has made on our behalf.
The larger point Jesus is making here is that although he is going away, he will not forget them while he’s gone. He has their best interest at heart and is concerned about their welfare. That is the kind of friend we have in Jesus.
The Way to Get There
Jesus not only assures his disciples that he will not forget them, and that he is going to prepare a place for them, but he also tells them he is going to come back and take them to be with him. He then adds these puzzling words in verse 4,
You know the way to the place where I am going.
It is God’s plan that Jesus will come back in due course so that he and his followers will be together in heaven, in the very presence of God. Jesus does not spend time telling his disciples what that experience will be like, but he does seem to make this point: whatever heaven will be like, the most wonderful part of it is that we will be with our Lord forever. And Jesus assures his disciples that they know the way to this unimaginably glorious and beautiful place where they will be going.
It is at this point that “honest Thomas” asks in verse 5,
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
It is at this point Jesus shares the words that have convicted and encouraged the hearts and minds of Christians for two thousand years. He answered Thomas with these words in verse 6,
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
It is at this point in the conversation that Jesus moves from talking about the eternal destination of his followers to the path of that destination. In fact, he tells them they already know the way. In other words, Jesus is telling them that what he is saying now is no different from what he had been teaching them all along.
Jesus Is the Way
To put it plainly, Jesus declares to them that he is the way. Unlike other religious founders and leaders, he is not teaching them a way to go, but that he himself is the way to the Father. That kind of emphatic, self-referential statement may sound odd, or even offensive, to our ears. We are used to people telling us they are pointing us in the right direction, but not claiming to be the way themselves. Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, and others claimed to be “pointers” of a way to enlightenment or to God, but Jesus is saying something different. For Jesus did not only teach people a way of life, but he died on the cross as an atonement for their sins and thus, made the only way possible for people to come to God. In fact, he did more than make a way, he was the way. Many people died on Roman crosses, but only one of those people was God incarnate, who lived a perfectly holy and righteous life, thereby becoming the only acceptable sacrifice for the sin of the world.
Jesus removes all ambiguity from his statement by adding in the second part of verse 6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, the Father is the destination and Jesus is the way. The phrase “No one” in this verse is a universal negative. In other words, “how many people can get to the Father by other means?” According to Jesus, “none.” How do we get to the Father? According to Jesus, only through him.
The Only Way
It is vital to understand that Christians did not invent their belief that Jesus is the only way to God. We believe Jesus taught it. We also believe that because he taught that truth, he also commanded us to respond to this great commission,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18b-20a)
If you are a Christian and have become persuaded that Jesus is who he claimed to be, that he is the only path to the Father, and that he commanded his followers to make disciples of all the nations by teaching them everything he taught, then we cannot remain silent. In fact, it would be arrogant to believe these things about Jesus and not tell others. Can you image thinking, “I know better than God. Yes, God has graciously provided a way for me and others to enjoy his extravagant riches in his glorious presence for all eternity. Yet, it might offend others if I share this truth with them, therefore, I will remain silent.”
No faithful Christian, with a clear conscience, could think such a thing. Instead, God calls us to bear witness to Christ in every sphere of life as the ambassadors, stewards, and servants of his truth, with our words and our actions. What a privilege we have been given to lead others to Christ, the only way to the Father. I once heard a Christian speaker ask this humbling question: “My question,” he asked, “is not, why has God provided only one way to him, but why has he provided any way at all?” Entitled thinking leads us to believe we are owed something by God. A person with a biblical worldview, however, understands that even the smallest kindness we experience in this life is the result of God’s bountiful grace. How much more, then, eternity in his unveiled presence? That’s good news we cannot possibly keep to ourselves. Thanks be to God.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.