Sermon for March 30, 2018 (Good Friday)

Scripture readings: Isa.52:13-15, 52:1-12; Ps. 22; 
Heb.10:16-25; John 18:1-40, 19:1-42

Sermon by Ted Johnston (from John 19:16b-42)
(drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary, Donald Guthrie in The New Bible Commentary, Michael Card in The Parable of Joy, and F.F. Bruce in The Gospel of John)

Jesus: Crucified, Dead and Buried

Here is a video from GCI Media that would make a good call to worship for this Good Friday service.On Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/257629415.

Introduction

[You might want to begin by leading the congregation in reciting the Apostle’s Creed.]

The Apostle’s Creed states it with simplicity: Jesus was “crucified, dead, and buried.” These three events in our Lord’s sacrifice are described in John 19:16–42. Here on Good Friday, the day on which Jesus died on the cross, we should understand these three great events not only historically (that they happened), but also theologically (why they happened).

1. Crucified (John 19:16b–27)

Pilate ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, handing him over to Roman soldiers who were responsible for executing the sentence. Jesus is now in their hands, yet, he is fully in control, carrying his own cross:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, “They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” So this is what the soldiers did.

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:16b–27)

The place of crucifixion was known as The Place of the Skull (Golgotha in Aramaic, Calvary in Latin). There Jesus was crucified between two criminals adding to his humiliation and fulfilling Isa. 53:12, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” He was treated like a common criminal—nailed to a cross and hung up for all to see. Because it was the Passover season, there were thousands of visitors in Jerusalem. The place of execution was on a main road just beyond the city walls where many people would pass. Jesus was a well-known figure, so his arrest and condemnation would be topics for discussion. It was natural for people to gather and watch the grim scene.

Christ on the Cross by Bloch
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The crime of those being crucified was typically announced on a placard attached to their cross. Pilate ordered that Jesus’ placard read, “Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews.” The chief priests protested, but Pilate refused to change it. He knew this placard would insult and embarrass the Jewish religious establishment. The fact that it was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek shows that our Lord was crucified in a place where many peoples and nations met. What Jesus did, he did for the whole world!

At most Roman crucifixions a centurion would be assigned with four soldiers to assist. Since Jesus was a popular rabbi with many followers, Pilate may have assigned more guards. It was the privilege of the soldiers to share whatever personal belongings the victims had; so they divided up Jesus’ clothing (clothing in those days was highly valuable). He would have had a turban, a pair of sandals, an undergarment (the seamless robe), an outer garment, and a girdle. The four men each took a piece of his clothing, and then they gambled for the seamless robe, thus fulfilling Ps. 22:18.

A group of women, along with the apostle John, stood near the cross. It took courage to stand there in the midst of such hatred and ridicule, but their being there must have encouraged Jesus. The first time we meet Jesus’ mother Mary in the Gospel of John, she is attending a wedding; now she is preparing for a burial. The hour had come—she was experiencing “the sword” that had been predicted years before (Luke 2:35).

Jesus assured Mary of his love, and gave his closest disciple to be her adopted son to care for her. Whether that moment John took Mary away from the scene and took her home, we do not know. We do know that he cared for her and that she was among the believers in the Upper Room as they awaited Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Even while he was performing the great work of redemption, Jesus was faithful to his responsibilities as a son.

2. Dead (John 19:28–30)

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28–30)

Our Lord knew what was going on—he was fully in control as he obeyed the Father’s will. He had refused to drink the pain-deadening wine that was always offered to those about to be crucified (Matt. 27:34). In order to fulfill the Scriptures (probably Ps. 69:21), he said, “I thirst.” He was enduring real physical suffering in a real human body (that he retains, now glorified). He had just emerged from three hours of darkness when he felt the full weight of human sin (Matt. 27:45–49). There were physical reasons for his thirst (Ps. 22:15), but there were also spiritual reasons (Ps. 42:1–2).

One of the soldiers took pity on Jesus and moistened his lips with the cheap vinegar wine the soldiers drank to refresh themselves. His feet were perhaps three or four feet from the ground, so it would be easy for the man to put a sponge at the end of a reed and give Jesus a drink. This action also fulfilled prophecy (Ps. 69:3).

The drink of vinegar did not fully quench Jesus’ thirst, but it did enable him to utter that shout of triumph, in a loud voice, “It is finished,” which in Greek is tetelestai, meaning it is finished or accomplished. All Scripture that was due to be accomplished in Jesus’ passion had now been accomplished: the entire purpose for which the Father had sent the Son into the world was now assured of fulfillment, and since that purpose included the salvation of the world, salvation and eternal life were henceforth freely available to all.

“The Descent from the Cross” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus’ death is a central theme in the Gospel of John and John uses several pictures to describe and define it, thus making it clear that Jesus’ death was not an accident—it was a divine appointment. He was not murdered in one sense—he willingly gave his life for us. His death was an atonement, not just an example. He actually accomplished the work of redemption on the cross. Also, Jesus’ death was voluntary: he willingly dismissed his spirit (John 19:30; and note John 10:17–18). He “gave himself” for us (Gal. 2:20).

3. Buried (John 19:31–42)

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.

The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”

Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:31–42)

Two groups of people were involved in our Lord’s burial: Roman soldiers (John 19:31–37), and Jewish believers (John 19:38–42). It was not unusual for victims to remain on the cross in a lingering death, so the Jewish religious leaders did all they could to hasten the death of Jesus and the two thieves so that they would die before the Sabbath day began (late Friday afternoon). However, our Lord was in control; and he dismissed his spirit at “the ninth hour,” which was 3 P.M. (Matt. 27:45–50).

It is remarkable that the Roman soldiers did not do what they were commanded to do—break the victims’ legs—but they did do what they were not supposed to do—pierce the Savior’s side! In both matters, they fulfilled the word of God! The bones of the Passover lamb were not to be broken (Ex. 12:46), so our Lord’s bones were protected. His side was to be pierced (Zech. 12:10), so that was done by one of the soldiers.

John saw special significance in the blood and water that came from the wound in Jesus’ side. For one thing, it proved that Jesus had a real body (1 John 1:1–4) and had experienced a real death. By the time John wrote this book, there were false teachers in the church claiming Jesus did not have a truly human body. God made it clear that Jesus is who he claimed to be, God come in the flesh. John makes it clear that the water and blood should encourage us to believe that Jesus is indeed the Christ (John 20:31).

When the soldiers were through with their gruesome work, Jesus’ friends took over. God provided two high-ranking men to prepare Jesus’ body for burial and to place it in a proper tomb. Had Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus not been there, it is likely that Jesus’ body would have been thrown into a ditch somewhere and perhaps burned (as likely happened to the two theives crucified with Jesus). If the friends of a victim appeared, the Romans were happy to give them the body to get it off their hands.

Joseph of Arimathea was rich, a prominent member of the Jewish council, a good and righteous man who had not consented to what the council did, a member of the believing minority of Jews who were praying for Messiah to come, and a follower of Jesus. It was he who asked for the body of Jesus and, with his friend Nicodemus, gave our Savior a decent burial. Matthew, Luke, and John all tell us that the tomb Joseph provided Jesus was new. John informs us that Joseph was a secret disciple for fear of the Jews. From the human standpoint, Joseph kept “under cover” because he feared the Jews; but from the divine standpoint, he was being protected so he could be available to bury the body of Jesus.

We met Nicodemus already in John 3. Though he started off with confusion at night, he ended up with open confession in the daylight. Nicodemus thus came out of the dark and into the light and, with Joseph, was not ashamed to publicly identify with Jesus. When the two men touched his dead body, they defiled themselves and could not participate in Passover. But, no matter, they had found the Lamb of God!

“Burial of Christ” by Bloch
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is evident that Joseph and Nicodemus had carefully planned their activities at Calvary. Given that it was the Passover, they would have been unable at the last minute to both secure a tomb and purchase 65 pounds of spices. No sooner had Jesus died than Joseph went to Pilate and received permission to take the body. Nicodemus stayed at the cross to make sure nothing happened to Jesus’ body.

The men worked quickly to finish their work before sundown and the start of the Sabbath. They could not give Jesus’ body the full ministry of washing and anointing that was traditional, but they did the best they could. Mary of Bethany had already anointed Jesus’ body for burial (John 12:1–8). Some of the other women watched the two men minister to Jesus, and they witnessed his burial (Matt. 27:61). They planned to return after the Sabbath was over and complete the burial procedures (Luke 23:55–24:1).

All of these followers of Jesus boldly identified with Jesus at a time when he seemed like a failure and his cause hopelessly defeated. As far as we know, of all of Jesus’ inner circle of 12 disciples, only John was with Jesus at the cross.

Conclusion

Jesus our Lord: crucified, dead and now buried. Our Lord now rested in his tomb, awaiting the dawn of the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) on Easter Sunday morning. See you then!


Note: Though in many Christian traditions, communion is not offered on Good Friday, if your congregation did not share the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, you may wish to have communion following this sermon on Good Friday. Here are notes (by Jonathan Stepp) to guide you:

On this day during Holy Week, we have good cause to speak of the bread and wine in terms of Jesus’ death on the cross. As Scripture says, the bread and wine “proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Cor. 11:26). The reason Jesus  suffered and died was not to appease an angry Father who would forgive us only if someone was tortured to death. Rather, the crucifixion is the circumcision of our hearts—the cutting away of our sinful human nature (Col. 2:11)—and the victory of Jesus over Satan, by which we are set free from death (Heb. 2:14). Notice especially the verse from Hebrews: “By his death he set free those who all their lives were in slavery to the fear of death.”

Jesus’ death changed human nature, not the Father’s nature. It was not the Father’s attitude that needed to be changed by Jesus’ death—it was fallen, sinful human nature that needed to be changed. This is why the bread and wine are symbols of what took place on the cross.

By sharing in human nature through his body and blood, the Son shared in the human condition and gave us a share in his divine condition. When Jesus died, we all died with him (2 Cor. 5:14). Communion on Good Friday is our celebration of how fallen human nature died once, for all time, in the death of Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols of the human nature that was crucified in Christ on the cross.

Sermon for March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday)

Scripture readings: Ex. 12:1-4, 5-14; Ps. 116:1-2, 12-19;
1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Sermon by Ted Johnston (from John 13)
(drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary, Michael Card in The Parable of Joy, and F.F. Bruce in The Gospel of John)

Lessons from the Upper Room

Introduction

Our Gospel reading this evening is from John 13. The events there occurred on Thursday evening during Holy Week in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There Jesus met with his disciples and conveyed his farewell message. The part of the message in John 13 addresses four progressive topics from the perspective of four relationships. Let’s prayerfully examine what the Spirit is saying to the church concerning Jesus and our life in him.

1. Humility: Jesus and the Father (John 13:1-5)

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:1-5)

Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, then on Monday he cleansed the temple. Tuesday was a day of conflict as the religious leaders sought to trip him up and get evidence to arrest him. Wednesday was probably a day of rest, but now it is Thursday evening and he meets in the Upper Room in Jerusalem with his disciples for a meal, intimate fellowship, and important instruction. The end is near. Jesus is aware that “the time had come.”

What was this divinely appointed “time”? It was the time when Jesus would be glorified through his death, resurrection and ascension. From the human point of view, it meant suffering. But from the divine point of view, it meant glory. Jesus would soon leave this world and return to the Father who sent him, having finished his work on earth (John 17:4). They could not even arrest Jesus, let alone kill him, until the right time had arrived.

Jesus seems aware of what was about to transpire. For example, he knew that Judas would betray him. He also knew that the Father had given him all things (John 13:3). This statement parallels John 3:35. Even in his humiliation, our Lord had all things through his Father. He was poor and yet he was rich. Because Jesus knew who he was, where he came from, what he had, and where he was going, he was complete master of the situation.

What Jesus knew helped determine what Jesus did (John 13:4–5). The disciples were, no doubt, shocked when they saw Jesus rise from supper, lay aside his outer garments, wrap a towel around his waist, take a basin of water, and wash their feet. Jewish servants did not wash their masters’ feet, though Gentile slaves might. It was a menial task, and yet Jesus did it!

“Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” by Brown
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The background to this foot washing is found in Luke 22:24-30 where Jesus is addressing the competitive spirit in the hearts of his disciples who seemed fond of disputing over which was the greatest. Their self-serving attitude was the opposite of the self-less spirit of Jesus. So Jesus gives them an object-lesson in humility, which rebukes their self-centeredness.

Think about this: The Father had put all things into the Son’s hands, yet Jesus, the Son of God, picks up a towel and a basin! His humility was not born of poverty, but of riches. He was rich, yet became poor voluntarily for our sakes as Paul notes in 2 Cor. 8:9. John highlights Jesus’ humility even while magnifying his deity: “The Son can do nothing by himself” (John 5:19, 30). “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). “My teaching is not my own” (John 7:16). “I am not seeking glory for myself” (John 8:50). “These words you hear are not my own” (John 14:24).

Jesus was Sovereign God, yet he took the place of a servant. He had all things in his hands, yet he picked up a towel. He was Lord and Master, yet he served his followers. True humility grows out of our union with Christ, the truly humble one. In that union, we share Jesus’ desire to know and do the Father’s will so that the Father’s name is glorified.

Note: if you are conducting a footwashing ceremony during this service, you could place it here in the sermon.

2. Service: Jesus and Peter (John 13:6–11)

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. (John 13:6–11)

As Peter watched the Lord wash his friends’ feet, he became more and more disturbed and could not understand what Jesus was doing. The Greek word here translated “wash” means “to wash a part of the body.” Jesus contrasts this with one who has been bathed all over. The distinction is important.

Jesus says to them, “unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). The Greek word translated “part” carries the meaning here of “participation, having a share in someone or something.” God “bathes us all over” in salvation by baptizing us into Christ—by bringing us into union with Christ; and that is a settled relationship that cannot change (the verb had a bath in John 13:10 is in the perfect tense—it speaks to something that is accomplished once and for all time). However, our ongoing participation with or communion with Christ depends on our ongoing fellowship with him, and that fellowship involves Jesus’ continuously cleansing (washing) us through the Spirit. We participate in that washing as we confess our sins and our continual need for him (1 John 1:9). Sin hinders our walk with the Lord; and through confession we participate in Jesus’ ongoing washing of our “feet,” which are symbolic of our lives.

This basic truth of our life and ministry with Christ, by the Spirit, is beautifully illustrated in the old covenant priesthood. When the priest was consecrated, he was bathed all over (Ex. 29:4), and that experience was never repeated. However, during his daily ministry, he became defiled; so it was necessary that he wash his hands and feet at the brass laver in the courtyard (Ex. 30:18–21). Only then could he enter the holy place and trim the lamps, eat the holy bread, or burn the incense.

The Lord has cleansed us through the sacrifice of his life including his death on the cross—a work we become aware of through the revelation of his word, by the Spirit (John 15:3; Eph. 5:25–26). The “water of the word” keeps our hearts and minds clean so that we will avoid the pollutions of this world. But when we sin, we have a loving High Priest in heaven who hears our confession, extends the forgiveness that is already ours and so by his word and Spirit cleanses us (1 John 2:1–2).

Peter did not understand what Jeus was doing; but instead of waiting for an explanation, he impulsively tried to tell the Lord what to do. There is a strong double negative in John 13:8: “You shall by no means wash my feet, no, never” (Wuest translation). Peter meant it! Then when he discovered that to refuse the Lord would mean losinv the Lord’s fellowship, he went in the opposite direction and asked for a complete bath!

We can learn an important lesson here: don’t question the Lord’s will or work, and don’t try to change it. Jesus knows what he is doing! Peter had a difficult time accepting Jesus’ ministry to him because Peter was not yet ready to minister to the other disciples. It takes humility and grace to serve others, but it also takes humility and grace to allow others to serve us. The beautiful thing about a submissive spirit is that it can both give and receive to the glory of God. John was careful to point out that Peter and Judas were in a different relationship with Jesus. Yes, Jesus washed Judas’ feet, but it did Judas no good—he had not been bathed all over.

It’s a wonderful thing to deepen your fellowship with Jesus and your participation in his ministry. We need to allow him to continually wash our feet so that we may wash the feet of others with him.

3. Happiness: Jesus and the Disciples (John 13:12–17)

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12–17)

Jesus addresses a third topic here with a beatitude: “Now that you know these things [the importance of humility and service], you will be blessed [“happy” KJV] if you do them” (John 13:17). It’s not enough to hear, understand and approve of humility and service—one must follow through in action and that will bring a blessing (happiness) to the doer. True happiness is a life lived out of our union with Christ—a life joined to Christ as he does his Father’s will through the direction and power of the Spirit. This is the life of humbly participating with Christ, by the Spirit, in serving others.

In John 13:12, Jesus asked the disciples if they understood what he had done for them by washing their feet. Because he knew that they didn’t understand, he explained what he had done and why: he had given them an object lesson in humble service—an example of the spirit and approach they were to follow in their ministries and lives. The world thinks of happiness as the result of others serving us, but real joy comes when we serve others in the name of Christ.

Because Jesus was their Master, he had every right to command their service. But instead, he served them! He gave them an example of true Christian ministry. On multiple occasions during the previous three years, he had taught them lessons about humility and service; but now he demonstrated those lessons, showing in graphic terms that the servant (slave) is not greater than his master; so, if the master becomes a slave, where does that put the slave? On the same level as the master!

By becoming a servant, our Lord did not push us down: he lifted us up! He dignified sacrifice and service. This was unusual in a culture where Romans had no use for humility, and Greeks despised manual labor. Jesus combined these two when he washed the disciples’ feet, then told them to do likewise—to become humble servants of others.

4. Hypocrisy: Jesus and Judas (John 13:18–35)

“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’ I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.

As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor.

As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:18–35)

A dark shadow now fell across the scene as Jesus dealt with Judas, the traitor. At this pivotal moment, his life now hanging in the balance, Jesus had two great concerns: to fulfill the word of God (13:18–30) and to magnify the glory of God (13:31–35). Included in these concerns was his concern that Judas’ treachery not weaken the faith of the other disciples. This is why he related it to the prophetic word of Scripture: when the disciples saw all this fulfilled, it would make their faith stronger (John 8:28). Judas had been disloyal, but Jesus expected the other disciples to be loyal to him.

Peter signaled to John, who was the closest to Jesus at the table, and asked him to find out who the traitor was. The Lord’s reply to John was not heard by all the disciples; they were carrying on discussions among themselves about who the traitor might be (Luke 22:23). When Jesus gave the bread to Judas, it was interpreted as an act of love and honor. In fact, Judas was seated at the place of honor, so our Lord’s actions were seen in that light: He was bestowing a special honor on Judas. No wonder, after Judas left the room, the disciples got into an argument over who was the greatest (Luke 22:24–30).

John was, no doubt, stunned by this revelation, but before he could say or do anything, Jesus had sent Judas on his way. Even though Satan had entered Judas, it was Jesus who was in charge. He lived on the timetable given to him by the Father, and he wanted to fulfill what was written in Scripture. Since Judas was the treasurer, it was logical for the disciples to conclude that he had been sent on a special mission by Jesus. Earlier, Judas had hypocritically expressed an interest in the poor, so they thought perhaps Judas was on an errand of mercy to help the poor.

Keep in mind that Judas knew what he was doing and that he did it deliberately. He had already met with the Jewish religious leaders and agreed to lead them to Jesus in such a way that there would not be any public disturbance (Luke 21:37–22:6). He heard Jesus say, “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been born!” (Matt. 26:24). Yet, Judas persisted in his unbelief and treachery.

John’s little phrase “and it was night” carries a tremendous impact when you remember that light and dark are important spiritual images in John’s Gospel. Jesus is the Light of the world (8:12), but Judas rejected Jesus and went out into darkness; and for Judas, it is still night! Those who do evil hate the light (John 3:18–21).

The instant Judas was gone, Jesus began to instruct his disciples and prepare them for his crucifixion and his return to heaven. It was after Judas’ departure that he instituted the Lord’s Supper (mentioned in the other Gospels, but not by John). Judas was out in the night, controlled by the prince of darkness, Satan; but Jesus was in the light, sharing love and truth with his beloved disciples. What a contrast!

The theme now changes to the glory of God (13:31–35). From the human perspective, the death of Christ was a dastardly deed involving unspeakable suffering and humiliation; but from the divine perspective it was the revelation of the glory of God. “The hour is come for the Son of man to be glorified” (John 12:23). What did it mean for Jesus to glorify the Father? He tells us in his prayer: “I have brought you glory on the earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

God is glorified when we faithfully do what he calls us to do. In Jesus’ case, the Father’s will was that the Son die for humanity, be raised from the dead, and ascend to heaven. Through all this, the Son glorified the Father and the Father glorified the Son (John 17:1, 5).

There would come a time when the Son would be glorified in these disciples (John 17:10), but they could not follow him at that time. Peter boasted that he would follow the Lord even to death (Luke 22:33), but unfortunately ended up denying him three times. Jesus had said to the Jews on two occasions that they would seek him, but not be able to find him or follow him (John 7:33–36; 8:21–24). He did not tell his disciples that they would not be able to find him, but he did say that to the unbelieving Jews. One day the believing disciples would go to be with him (John 14:1–3), and they would also see him after his resurrection. But during this time of his suffering and death, it was important that they not try to follow him.

The disciples’ responsibility was to love one another just as Christ had loved them. They would need this love in the forthcoming hours, when their Master would be taken from them and their brave spokesman, Peter, would fail him and them. All of them would fail, and the only thing that would bring them back together would be their love for Jesus and each other.

The word love is used only 12 times in John 1–12, but in John 13–21 it is used 44 times! It is a key word in Jesus’ farewell sermon to his disciples, as well as a burden in his High Priestly Prayer (John 17:26). The word new does not mean “new in time,” because love has been important to God’s people even from Old Testament times (Lev. 19:18). Rather, it means “new in experience, fresh”—the opposite of “worn out.” Love would take on a new meaning and power because of the death of Jesus on the cross (John 15:13). With the coming of the Spirit, love would have a new power in their lives.

Conclusion

This section begins and ends with love: Jesus’ love for his own (John 13:1) and their love for one another. It is love that is the true evidence that we belong to Jesus. The early church leader Tertullian quoted pagans as saying of Christians, “See how they love one another.” How do we give evidence of that love? By doing what Jesus did: laying down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). And the way we do that is through a heart of humility—taking the lower place and serving. This leads us to an experience of true happiness—which is the heart of Jesus—and in sharing his heart we avoid displaying the heart of hypocrisy that plagued Judas. Amen.


Note: Following this conclusion would be a good time to offer the Lord’s Supper (Communion). Here are some notes (written by Jonathan Stepp) that might help you:

As we celebrate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and his washing of their feet, we are also celebrating Jesus’ institution of the symbols of the bread and wine to represent his human nature. This celebration is a good time each year to summarize all that the Son’s indwelling of our human nature means: how the bread and wine symbolize the way in which the Son has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, brought our human nature into the Trinity, said “no” to sin and “yes” to the Father on our behalf, crucified our sinful nature, raised up our bodies in his resurrection, and carried humanity into the communion of the Trinity at the Father’s right hand.

Sermon for March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday)

Scripture readings: Isa. 7:10-14; Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29;
Heb. 10:4-10; John 12:12-16

Sermon by Ted Johnston (from Hebrews 10:1-25)
(drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and F.F. Bruce in The Epistle to the Hebrews)

Jesus’ Better Sacrifice

Here is a video from GCI Media that would make a good call to worship for this Palm/Passion Sunday service. On Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/257629062.

Introduction

Today is the final Sunday in Lent. It’s also Palm Sunday (also called Passion Sunday), which begins Holy Week, culminating next Sunday with Easter.

On Palm/Passion Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, prepared to give his life as the sacrifice for our sins. Let’s reflect on that stunning truth by returning to the book of Hebrews where, last week, we saw that Jesus’ high priesthood under the new covenant is superior to that of the Aaronic priesthood under the old covenant. Now, in Hebrews 10:1-25, we’ll note three ways Jesus’ sacrifice under the new covenant is better than the sacrifices offered under the old covenant.

1. Jesus’ sacrifice takes away sin (Heb. 10:1-10)

By nature, we humans are sinners, and our actions prove it. What is the solution? Not old covenant sacrifices, which only served to expose sin, pointing beyond themselves to the only solution: Jesus’ perfect and final sacrifice. In chapter 10, the author of Hebrews describes that better sacrifice in three ways: its need, its provision and its effectiveness.

“Christ on the Cross” by Bloch
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
a. The need for Jesus’ sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-4)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10:1–4)

The sacrifices offered under the old covenant, which were ordained by God, were in force for hundreds of years. How then can they be seen as inferior? The answer is that the nature of the old covenant sacrifices made them inferior. The Law of Moses was but “a shadow of the good things that are coming” and not the reality. The sacrificial system of the Law of Moses (the old covenant) was a type or picture of the sacrifice Jesus would make for us. This meant that the old covenant system was temporary—it did not accomplish anything permanent, nor was it designed to. The repetition of the sacrifices day after day, and the Day of Atonement year after year, pointed out the entire system’s inherent weakness.

Also, animal sacrifices could never completely deal with human guilt. Though God promised forgiveness to believing worshipers under the old covenant, this was only a judicial covering of sin and not the removal of sin’s guilt from people’s hearts. Had that occurred, these worshipers would not have needed to offer additional sacrifices, which served only as reminders of sin. True, the sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement covered the nation’s sins; but those sins were not “cleansed” and the people did not receive from God an inward witness of forgiveness and acceptance. There thus remained a desperate need for a better sacrifice than that provided by the blood of bulls and of goats, which could not take away sins. Only the better sacrifice of Jesus does that.

b. The provision of Jesus’ sacrifice (Heb. 10:5-9)

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’” First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” —though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. (Heb. 10:5–9)

It was God, not any human, who provided the needed sacrifice. The quotation here is from the Septuagint translation of Ps. 40:6–8, which the author of Hebrews applies to Jesus in his incarnation (“when Christ came into the world”). The quotation makes it clear that Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the old covenant sacrifices. The word sacrifice refers to the animal sacrifices and offering to the meal and drink offerings. All these typify Jesus’ sacrifice, revealing some aspect of his work for our salvation.

The phrase “a body you prepared for me” (verse 5) is how the Septuagint paraphrases the original Hebrew of Ps. 40:6, which in the NIV reads “My ears you have opened.” In both translations, the idea is of God’s servant (Jesus in this case) willingly offering himself in sacrifice to God. “Opened ears” suggest a readiness to hear and obey God’s will. God gave his Son a human body that he might fulfill the Father’s will on earth.

Twice in this paragraph (verses 6 and 8), God’s displeasure with the old covenant sacrifices is stated. This does not mean these sacrifices were wrong, or that sincere worshipers received no benefit. It means that God took no delight in sacrifices as such, apart from the obedient hearts of the worshipers. No amount of sacrifice can substitute for an obedient heart!

Jesus came to do the Father’s will (verse 7). His will is the new covenant, which replaced the old. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus “set aside” the first covenant to establish the second. The original Jewish Christian readers of this letter would have understood the import of this shocking statement—why go back to a covenant that has been taken away?

c. The effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice (Heb. 10:10)

And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10:10)

Believers have been “made holy” (“sanctified”—meaning “set apart”) by the offering of Jesus’ body given as a sacrifice once and for all. No old covenant sacrifice did that. Old covenant worshipers had to repeatedly be purified (made “holy”) from their ceremonial defilement. But new covenant “saints” are “set apart” finally and completely—not because of their merit or works, but because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.

2. Jesus’ sacrifice need not be repeated (Heb. 10:11–18)

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. (Heb. 10:11–18)

Once again, the writer of Hebrews contrasts the old covenant high priest with Jesus, the Great High Priest of the new covenant. The fact that Jesus sat down after ascending to the Father, is proof that his work was completed. In contrast, the ministry of old covenant priests was never done and never different: they offered the same sacrifices day after day after day. This repetition was proof that their sacrifices did not actually take away sins. What tens of thousands of animal sacrifices could not accomplish, Jesus accomplished forever and for all with his one, perfect sacrifice.

The phrase “sat down” refers us to Ps. 110:1: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Jesus is now in the place of exaltation and victory. When he returns, he will overcome every enemy and usher in the fullness of the Father’s kingdom. Those who trust him now need not fear, for they have been “made perfect forever” (Heb. 10:14). Indeed, believers experience “fullness in Christ” (Col. 2:10). By virtue of our union with Jesus, we stand perfect before God.

How do we know that we have this standing before God? One important way is through the Spirit’s witness in Scripture (the written word of God) to God’s work on our behalf (Heb. 10:15–18). In Heb. 10:16–17, the writer quotes Jer. 31:33–34. Old covenant worshipers could not say that they “no longer… felt guilty for their sins” (Heb. 10:2). But new covenant believers can say that—because of what Jesus has done, their sins and iniquities are remembered no more. Thus there is “no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Heb. 10:18). Why? Because none is needed.

As we begin to trust Jesus, we experience the truth that all our sins have been forgiven in and through him. This spiritual awakening, which is a gift to us from the Spirit, removes from us all sense of guilt. By faith we know that the matter of sin has been completely settled forever, and we are set free to live accordingly. In this way we are “being made holy” (Heb. 10:14b).

3. Jesus’ sacrifice opens the way to God (Heb. 10:19–25)

No old covenant worshiper would have been bold enough to try to enter the most holy place in the tabernacle or temple. Even the high priest entered there only once each year. The thick curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place served as a barrier between people and God. Only the death of Christ could tear that curtain down (Mark 15:38), opening the way for people into the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells. With these truths in mind, the author of Hebrews now offers a gracious invitation:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:19–25)

Our confidence to enter the most holy place (i.e. God’s presence) rests on the finished work of Jesus, our Great High Priest. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest of the old covenant could not enter the most holy place in the temple unless he had the blood of the sacrifice (Heb. 9:7). But our entrance into God’s presence is not because of an animal’s blood, but because of Jesus’ shed blood. This open way into God’s presence is new (in the sense of recent or fresh) and is not a part of the old covenant that is “obsolete and aging” and “soon” (from the perspective of when Hebrews was written, which was apparently before the temple’s destruction in AD 70) to “disappear” (Heb. 8:13). The new way of the new covenant is also said to be living because Jesus “always lives to intercede” for us (Heb. 7:25). Jesus himself is the new and living way! He is the new covenant.

We come to God freely and confidently through Jesus, our high priest over the “house of God” (the church, Heb. 3:6). When his flesh was torn on the cross, and his life sacrificed, God tore the curtain in the temple, symbolizing the new and living way being opened for all who put their trust in Jesus. We express that trust by responding in three ways, which the author of Hebrews outlines as an invitation with three parts:

a. Let us draw near (Heb. 10:22)

Under the old covenant the priests could only approach God’s presence in the temple after various ritual washings. Under the new covenant we all have open access to God through Jesus because of the inward washing that his life, death, resurrection and ascension have provided for humankind. In Jesus, “our hearts have been sprinkled” and our “bodies washed with pure water.” As a result we have full fellowship with God; and so we are invited to “draw near”—to take full advantage of the access that is ours in Christ. So let us not draw back! Let us not be timid! Let us not be unbelieving! Rather, let us be bold, courageous and full of faith!

b. Let us hold unswervingly (Heb. 10:23)

The original Jewish Christian readers of Hebrews were being tempted to forsake their profession of Jesus to return to the old covenant worship of their Jewish families and friends. The exhortation to them to hold on is not about holding on to their salvation (which is secure in Christ), but to “hold unswervingly to the hope” that they “profess” [confess]. They can do so with confidence and tenacity because the one who has given them all these promises of help in time of need is “faithful,” and so can be unreservedly trusted. When believers have their hope fixed on Christ, and rely on the faithfulness of God, then they will not waver. Brothers and sisters, let us not look back—let us look ahead in hope, trusting Christ!

c. Let us meet together (Heb. 10:24–25)

Our confidence as believers to enter God’s presence in Jesus is expressed not only personally but corporately. It’s likely that these Jewish Christians were meeting in the synagogue with fellow Jews on the Sabbath and then in Christian assembly on Sunday. But now they were being tempted to pull back from Christian assembly. The author of Hebrews declares that they must not do so—they must continue to meet together!

And so it is with us today—our fellowship with God must never become selfish. We are called into fellowship with other believers in local churches like ours. The emphasis here in Hebrews is not on what a believer gets from church attendance, but rather on what they contribute in consideration of others. Faithfulness in church attendance encourages our brothers and sisters in Christ and spurs them on “to love and good deeds.” One of the strong motives for this faithfulness is the coming (“the Day”) of Jesus Christ. The only other place the word translated “meeting together” is used in the New Testament is in 2 Thess. 2:1, where it is translated “gathered” and deals with Jesus’ return at the end of the age.

Conclusion

Dear friends, despite the obstacles we face as Christians, we have great reason to be confident—to press forward with faith and perseverance. Why? Because the Lord we serve is our superior sacrifice—his sacrifice on our behalf is sufficient for all our need. Our perfect, mighty High Priest will see us through—he will guide us and take us on to perfection. So don’t cave to the temptation to turn back or let down! Press on dear ones!

May this coming Holy Week be for us all a vivid reminder of who Jesus is and of the perfect sacrifice that he has given on our behalf. Amen.

The heart of team-based leadership

By Ted Johnston, CAD Publications Editor

Ted Johnston

Given this month’s theme of leadership, I thought it might be helpful to share what my experience tells me is a vital aspect of developing leaders—both new ones and veterans. Rather than “flying solo,” effective leaders practice team-based leadership. They know how to either lead a team of leaders, or function otherwise as part of a leadership team.

An expectation and mandate

Team-based leadership has become the expected norm in our modern, post-modern world, which is increasingly collaborative, interactive and flexible. Team-based leadership is also a biblical mandate. As noted by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 12:1-30, God has designed the church to operate at all levels as what it truly is: the body of Christ, with interconnected, cooperating parts.

The heart of it all

The heart that undergirds team-based leadership in the church is helpfully addressed by Bryan Taylor in the Winter 2015 issue of Outcomes magazine. His article looks at what Henri Nouwen says about leadership in the book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a Story of Homecoming. Nouwen gleans insights from Rembrandt’s painting, “Return of the Prodigal Son.”

“Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some key statements from Taylor’s article:

In human terms, the concept of management implies power, control, achievement and competition, yet spiritually we realize that we are called to something much greater. Ultimately, we are called to a spiritual paternity—a divinely inspired fathership of those we are called to lead, guide and encourage. (p. 33)

Taylor then addresses Nouwen’s and Rembrandt’s insights derived from the example of the father of the Prodigal Son:

Do Nouwen and Rembrandt have anything to teach us? I believe that for today’s Christian leader, the answer is a resounding yes! The father in Rembrandt’s picture has much to teach us about leadership, engagement and teamwork. (p. 33)

The fire of love

In studying Rembrandt’s painting, Nouwen observed that the light highlighting the painting emanates from the father. For Nouwen, this “fire of love” is the father’s compassion. Acting out of his loving concern for his son, the father’s motive is not “to grasp, conquer, and regulate the visible, but to transform the visible in the fire of love.” An effective team leader does likewise, knowing how to “give up” any “demand for control, pride, self-gratification and strength” in favor of deeply loving the other team members. According to Nouwen, this love, which was so lavishly expressed by the father to his wayward son…

…cannot force, constrain, push, or pull.  It offers freedom to reject the love or to love in return… That freedom includes the possibility of leaving home and going to a distant country and losing everything. (p. 33)

Effective leadership teams necessarily have a primary leader—a leader of leaders. However, in accord with the example of the Prodigal Son’s father, that leadership is grounded in love, not a need to be in charge, to exert control, and certainly not to satisfy one’s ego. Like the father in the picture, effective leaders relate to their teams with joy, forgiveness and generosity.

A test of love

Because effective leaders possess these qualities, it is not difficult for them when another team member rises to the top and even replaces them. Moving from primary to “second chair” leadership is not easy, but it’s key to a leadership team developing in a way that one generation seamlessly replaces another. It has brought me great joy to participate in several such transitions within GCI, including the one currently underway as GCI President Joseph Tkach prepares GCI Vice President Greg Williams to take his place. I see the Triune God at work in this, and that gives me great hope concerning GCI’s future.

Several years ago, I led GCI’s GenMin leadership team and Greg was a key leader on the team. After a few years, I handed primary leadership of the team over to Greg and was part of his team. Eventually, Greg handed leadership of the GenMin team to Anthony Mullins, and Greg replaced Dan Rogers as primary leader of the GCI Church Administration and Development (CAD) team. Once again (and continuing to this day), I found myself on a team led by Greg. There was a time when I was his “boss,” and now he is mine. That makes me smile with great joy!

My point here is that effective leadership teams have flexible, even interchangeable parts. But such flexibility works only when team members love each other and have high regard for one another above themselves. In short, leadership teams work well when they operate in accordance with the ethos of love exhibited by the father of the Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting (which had a profound impact on how Henri Nouwen thought about Christian leadership).

Conclusion

My prayer is that leaders reading this will experience the joy of being part of a ministry team, and that their joy will increase as their team develops to the point where they are able to pass leadership on to others.

Sermon for March 18, 2018

Scripture readings: Jer. 31:31-34; Ps. 51:1-12;
Heb. 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Sermon by Ted Johnston (from Heb. 4:14-5:10) 
(drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and F.F. Bruce in The Epistle to the Hebrews)

Jesus’ Better Priesthood

Introduction

On this, the 5th Sunday in Lent, our reading in the Epistles takes us to Hebrews 4, where we are reminded that Moses did not lead Israel into the “rest” of the Promised Land. Instead, Joshua led God’s people across the Jordan, though he was unable to lead them into their promised spiritual rest. But what about Aaron, Israel’s first high priest? Could not the Aaronic priesthood of the old covenant with its sacrifices and ceremonies bring troubled souls into the promised rest of God? The Jewish Christians who received the letter we call Hebrews were sorely tempted to believe it could. They were wrong.

The High Priest offering incense on the altar
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of these Jewish Christians were leaving Christianity to return to the Jewish religion as a way to escape the severe trials they were facing. After all, any Jew could travel to Jerusalem and see the temple with the priests ministering at the altar. Here was something visible and concrete. In times of persecution, it’s easier to walk by sight than by faith.

A central theme of Hebrews is Jesus’ unique high priesthood, which continues even now in heaven, where he is ministering on behalf of his people. Is the high priesthood of Jesus superior to that of Aaron and his successors? The answer is Yes, and the writer of Hebrews proves this assertion by making four points that we’ll review in this sermon.

1. Jesus is superior in his person and position (Heb. 4:14-16)

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:14-16)

Jesus is the GREAT high priest as contrasted with Aaron, who was merely the high priest. In this section of his letter, the author shows that Jesus is superior to Aaron and those who succeeded him as high priest in four ways:

a). Jesus’ person is greater. He is fully God and fully human. He is “Jesus, the Son of God,” with “Jesus” identifying his humanity and his ministry on earth (Jesus means savior), and “Son of God” affirming that he is God. As the unique God-man, Jesus unites humankind to God and brings to humankind all that God has for them.

b). Jesus’ position is greater. Aaron and his successors ministered in the tabernacle and temple on earth, but Jesus “ascended into heaven” (Heb. 4:14), with heaven being the place of God’s dwelling. How much better it is to have a high priest who ministers in a heavenly tabernacle than in a temple made of human hands on earth!

Painting showing Jesus’ high priestly ministry by Salgado
(public domain by Wikimedia Commons)

c). Jesus’ throne is greater. His throne is “the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). The mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant in the temple was God’s throne in Israel, but it was veiled from the common people who were not allowed to enter the temple. Moreover, only the high priest could enter the temple’s holy of holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement. But in Christ, every believer is invited, and even encouraged, to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.” What a great throne it is, because our great high priest is ministering there!

d). Jesus’ ministry is greater. Jesus ministers mercy and grace to those who come to him for help. Mercy means God does not give us what we deserve; grace means he gives us what we don’t deserve. No old covenant high priest could minister mercy and grace in the same way. When an Israelite was tempted, he could not easily run to the high priest for help; and he certainly could not enter the holy of holies for God’s help. But as those who have faith in Jesus, we may run to our high priest at any time, in any circumstance, and in him find the help we need.


In the midst of giving these four ways in which Jesus’ high priesthood is superior to Aaron’s, the author of Hebrews gives us two exhortations  concerning how we should respond as we face tests and trials:

  • Resist giving up the faith (Heb. 4:14)

The Jewish Christians were being tempted to turn away from Jesus (Heb. 3:6, 14). It was not a matter of losing their salvation, since salvation through Christ is eternal (Heb. 5:9). Rather, they were tempted to give up their public “profession” of the faith. In returning to the Jewish faith, they would be telling everyone that they had no faith in Christ. Their unbelief would bring reproach to Christ’s name and have dire consequences for their personal walk with Christ. We must resist giving up the faith!

  • Come boldly to God for help (Heb. 4:16)

No trial is too great, no temptation too strong, but that Jesus can and will give his people the mercy and grace they need. “But he is so far away!” some may argue. “And he is the perfect Son of God! What can he know about my problems?” But that is a part of his greatness! When Jesus was ministering on earth, he experienced all that we experience, and more. After all, a sinless person would feel temptations and trials in a much greater way than you and I could ever feel them. Jesus, in his humanity, was tempted, yet he never succumbed, he never sinned; and he is able to help us when we are tempted. We must come boldly to God for help!

2. Jesus is superior in his ordination (Heb. 5:1, 4-6)

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins…. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:1, 4-6)

No man could appoint himself as a priest, let alone high priest. Aaron was chosen by God to minister on behalf of the people. His main task was at the altar: to offer the sacrifices God had appointed. Unless the sacrifices were offered in the right place, by the right person, at the right times, they were not accepted by God.

The very existence of a priesthood and a system of sacrifices gave evidence of humanity’s estrangement from God. It was an act of grace on God’s part that he instituted the priesthood and sacrificial system of the old covenant. That system was then fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus, who is both the sacrifice and the high priest who ministers to God’s people on the basis of his once-for-all self-sacrifice.

As we read here in Heb. 5, Jesus did not appoint himself as high priest. He was appointed by the Father. The quotation in Heb. 5:5 is from Psalm 2:7. This psalm was already quoted in Heb. 1:5 to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. But the emphasis in Heb. 5:5 is on the priesthood of Jesus, not on his deity. What significance, then, does this quotation have for the argument? The answer is found in Acts 13:33–34, where Paul quotes Psalm 2:7 and explains its meaning. The phrase, “Today I have become your Father” refers to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension—by which he rose from the dead in a glorified human body and ascended bodily into heaven to become our great high priest at the throne of grace. When Aaron was ordained to the priesthood, he offered the sacrifices of animals. But Jesus, to become our high priest, offered himself, and then he rose from the dead and ascended!

God the Father not only said, “You are my Son” in Psalm 2:7, he also said, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, quoting Ps. 110:4). This psalm was also quoted earlier in Heb. 1:13 to affirm Jesus’ final victory over his enemies. When Aaron was ordained, God did not speak directly to him and declare his priesthood. But the Father did make this special declaration concerning his Son. Two factors make Christ’s priesthood unique and, therefore, his ordination greater:

a. He is high priest forever

No old covenant priest ministered forever—each died and relinquished the office to a successor. The word “forever” is an important one in Hebrews, used at least six times to affirm that Christ’s high priesthood is forever (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21, 24, 28). And, since he is priest forever, he gives his people salvation forever (Heb. 7:23–28).

b. He belongs to a different order from old covenant priests

The old covenant priests belonged to the order of Aaron; Jesus belongs to the priestly order of Melchizedek, who is mentioned in Gen. 14:17–24 and Ps. 110:4. His name means “King of Righteousness,” and he was “King of Salem [peace].” He was both a priest and a king—a combination found otherwise only in Jesus.

The reason Jesus can be “a priest forever” is that he belongs to the “order of Melchizedek.” As far as the Old Testament record is concerned, Melchizedek did not die (Heb. 7:1–3). He was a real man, so he did die at some point, though the record is not given to us. Melchizedek is thus a picture for us of Jesus who is a priest forever. But Melchizedek also pictures Jesus as a heavenly high priest. Jesus could never have served as a priest when he was on earth because he did not belong to the tribe of Levi. Jesus was a Jew, of the tribe of Judah. He became the sacrifice on earth that he might become the high priest in heaven.

3. Jesus is superior in his sympathy (Heb. 5:2, 7-8)

He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness….  During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…. (Heb. 5:2, 7-8)

Every old covenant high priest had to minister to people who were sinners: those “ignorant and… going astray” (Heb. 5:2). They should have been able to identify with such sinners, for they were also sinners, as attested by the fact that on the Day of Atonement they had to offer a sacrifice for themselves before they offered one for the nation. Sadly, our own sin often blinds us to the need of other sinners and we become judgmental rather than being empathetic. Not so with Jesus, who shares fully in our humanity, yet is without sin. In this way, he empathizes with us in a way that is not clouded or diminished. He is able perfectly to meet our need when we sin.

Jesus was prepared for this high priestly ministry during his journey in the flesh on this earth (Heb. 5:7–8). He experienced fully the infirmities of our fallen nature, yet without sin. He knew what it was to grow and mature, to experience extreme hunger and thirst, as well as weariness. He also faced temptations to sin and persecution at the hands of sinful men.

But how could the perfect Son of God “learn obedience”? In the same way any son does: by the experiences of life. We must remember that our Lord, in his earthly walk, lived by faith in the Father’s will. As God, he needed to learn nothing. But as the Son of God come in human flesh, he had to experience that which his people experience, so that he might be able to minister to them as their high priest. He did not need to learn how to obey because it would be impossible for God to be disobedient. Rather, as God clothed in human flesh, he had to learn what was involved in human obedience. In this way, he identifies fully and empathetically with us.

Jesus’ preparation involved his experience of death. The writer of Hebrews focuses on our Lord’s experience in the Garden of Gethsemane (Heb. 5:7), where he bore the excruciating weight of the sins of the world. In the garden he did not pray to be saved from death, but out of death; and God answered (“heard” Heb. 5:7) his prayer by raising him from the dead (the issue addressed in the Old Testament quote in Heb. 5:5). Our great high priest understands our need, suffers with us and for us, and gives us the grace needed to face each trial.

4. Jesus offered a superior sacrifice (Heb. 5:3, 9-10)

This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people…. and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:3, 9-10)

Two important issues are involved here. First, Jesus did not need to offer any sacrifices for himself. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest first had to sacrifice for himself; and then he could offer sacrifices for the nation. Since Jesus is the sinless Son of God, there was no need for him to sacrifice for himself. He was in perfect fellowship with the Father and needed no cleansing. Second, Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, whereas the old covenant sacrifices had to be repeated over and over. Furthermore, those sacrifices could only cover sins; they could not cleanse sins. It required the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God for sin to be cleansed and removed.

Because he is the sinless, eternal Son of God, and because he offered a perfect sacrifice, Jesus is the “source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9). No old covenant priest could offer that. The phrase “once made perfect” does not suggest that Jesus was ever imperfect. The word means “made complete.” Through suffering, Jesus was equipped for his heavenly ministry as our high priest. He is able in every way to save, keep and strengthen his people.

Does the phrase “all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9) suggest that, if we do not obey him, we may lose our salvation? The answer is no—in view here is the idea of trusting Jesus to save us. In the New Testament to obey Jesus is to put our faith in him. In doing that, we experience his eternal salvation, which is the continuous ministry of our high priest who keeps, disciplines and strengthens us, even through times of doubt and trial.

Conclusion

Clearly, Jesus’ high priesthood is superior to that of Aaron and his successors under the old covenant. Thus it would be foolish for anyone to return to the inferiorities of the Law when they could enjoy the superiorities of Jesus and his new covenant. Amen.

From Greg: Don’t offend or be offended

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders,

Greg and Susan Williams

In 2018, our theme for GCI Equipper is A year of transitions. One of those transitions involves our leadership as we seek to identify, equip and appoint new pastors and ministry leaders, while helping existing ones continue to grow. What  Spirit-enabled competencies do we want our leaders to develop? We address several in this issue—I encourage you to give each your prayerful consideration.

Let’s begin by noting that effective leaders avoid offending others and being offended. Though church leaders must lead, skillful ones do so with tact and diplomacy, and they are not thin-skinned (easily offended). We learn a lot about this Christ-like leadership competency from the example of Andrew Young and the teachings of Scripture. Let me explain.

The example of Andrew Young

Andrew Young (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew Young, Jr. is well known to folks who, like myself, have lived in Atlanta, GA. Young has filled multiple important leadership roles over a long and storied career: church pastor, advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., US Congressman, US Ambassador to the UN and Mayor of Atlanta. Now 85 years old, he continues to be an important leader in working for racial justice and reconciliation—a topic fraught with possibilities for offense, yet one he effectively addresses in non-offensive ways. This ability was on display recently in an NBC Meet the Press interview, where Young commented concerning the current racial strife in the United States:

We have to keep our eyes on the prize—and the prize is not vengeance, not getting even, but the prize is redemption. (~11:45 in the video).

The teachings of Scripture

As we know, redemption is the centerpiece of Jesus’ work on our behalf. It involves his whole life—from birth, through his ministry, and to the cross. It’s a work that he continues as our High Priest, sending the Holy Spirit, who transforms us into Christ’s image. We are called to reflect Jesus, including in the way we lead. I recently was doing a Bible study to help me think more deeply about the leadership competency of not being offensive and not being offended. I came upon several relevant passages:

 Great peace have they which love thy law: And nothing shall offend them. (Ps. 119:165, KJV)

Jesus teaches us that loving God’s law means to whole-heartedly love God and to love others as Jesus loved us. Loving God brings great peace and security because we know God is for us. It places our minds on the higher good, and allows our expectations to rest in Jesus as opposed to putting trust in mortals, material possessions, or our general life circumstance. Loving others as Jesus loved us means always putting others first. It’s difficult to cause offense or be offended when our focus is on others rather than on the self. This too leads to peace and keeps us free from scandal or stumbling over matters that disturb our peace.

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God. (1 Cor. 10:32)

Paul explains that it is not acceptable to use even lawful things in ways that offend others. By referring to Jews, Greeks and the church of God, Paul is being all-inclusive. In our eating, drinking, and all we do, the primary object is always to glorify God. While it is true that we cannot prevent others from taking offense, Paul reminds us to avoid those things we know will cause offense.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19)

James emphasizes the importance of listening before speaking or otherwise acting. We should listen to the written word (Holy Scripture) under the guidance of the Living Word (Jesus)—it’s important to hear from God above the loud noises of strife and confusion that are so rampant in our world. Instruction from God’s word allows us to filter that noise, then empowers us to not react in visceral outbursts.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)

Conclusion

Following these teachings of Scripture leads to wisdom and the tranquility we need to be effective leaders. In keeping with the heart of God, who alone is our judge, we don’t look for revenge. Rather, as both Andrew Young and Scripture teach, we look to the “prize” of redemption. We want everyone, including those who offend us, to rest in the redemptive care, which includes the perfect judgment of their Savior. As Young mentions in the interview, his father taught him to not become emotionally imbalanced when provoked, but rather to be patient and engage his mind. Being smart versus getting angry wins every time!

As Christians, we have been given the mind and presence of Christ through the Spirit’s indwelling. Yielding to Christ’s voice, rather than to the loud divisive voice of the world around us, is an everyday struggle. Jesus’ exclamation from the cross, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,” is the ultimate example for us to follow in a crazy world where offense seems to be the norm. Instead of taking offense or being offensive, we choose to think the best of people and to react with forgiveness. We choose to love as Jesus loves— putting others first.

Placing our trust in our all-knowing triune God, and seeking to glorify him in all we do, is the true path to keeping us secure. Remembering Andrew Young’s timely words, that redemption is the prize, will keep us focused when challenging events come our way.

Finding my peace in Christ,
Greg Williams

PS: For additional resources related to developing ministry competency, go to www.gci.org/competency.

Growing as church leaders

This issue of GCI Equipper focuses on ways church leaders and leadership teams can, through the Spirit, grow in ministry with Jesus. 

From Greg: Don’t offend or be offended
Greg Williams addresses an aspect of leadership competency that is exemplified by Andrew Young and addressed in Scripture.

Andrew Young

On Leadership: Be interested before being interesting
Rick Shallenberger reminds leaders of the importance of listening deeply.

On being and building a REAL team
Greg Williams explores what it means to be truly team-based.

The heart of team-based leadership
Ted Johnston notes that love is the foundation of team-based leadership.

Kid’s Korner: On leading children
Lance McKinnon explores our calling to help children see Jesus.

RCL sermons for March 2018
Here are the Revised Common Lectionary-synced sermons for March:
Sermon for March 4, 2018
Sermon for March 11, 2018
Sermon for March 18, 2018
Sermon for March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday)
Sermon for March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday)
Sermon for March 30, 2018 (Good Friday)

In case you missed the sermons for February, here they are:
Sermon for February 4
Sermon for February 11
Sermon for February 18
Sermon for February 25

Kids Korner: On leading children

By Lance McKinnon

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (Prov. 22:6)

Shortly after college, I decided to investigate a teaching career in the public school system. I signed up to substitute teach at a nearby middle school to see if this would be a good fit.

I got my answer the first week. It was Friday during the last class of the day. The kids were ready to go home, and I quickly realized I had little influence in that room. These kids needed leadership, and I aimed to give it to them. But everything I did only made matters worse.

I began with threats of extra work. No response. I carried out those threats. Nothing. I then had some of the more troublesome students sit in the hallway. This was a miscalculation—I had now incentivized the other children to join their ranks. The noise level got worse, and the kids were running all over the place. I did what I thought any self-respecting man should do—I rose to my full stature of 6 foot 3, stuck out my chest like an attacking rooster, and crowed at the top of my lungs: SHUUUTUUUP!!!

This set in motion a series of events. First, the room came to a screeching halt as each child turned towards me with a wide-eyed, open-mouth stare, as if seeing me for the first time. Then, they started looking at each other, their open mouths slowly closing into grins, till finally I heard the sound that brought my short teaching career to a welcomed end—snickering.

I had nothing. I stood there, humiliated, wondering if there were legal ramifications for abandoning a class without notice. Then, before I could turn around and escape, every kid in the room abruptly stood to attention, scampered to their desk and sat down as if waiting for instruction. I turned around to find that my shout for silence was received as an SOS call by the teachers down the hall. There in the doorway stood three ladies, half my size, and twice my age. They weren’t glaring, scowling or even frowning. They spoke no words at all (and thankfully they weren’t snickering). They just stood there with the presence of an immovable fortress. I realized it was time for me to join my students by scampering to my desk to await their instructions. The only thing appropriate about class that day was its subject—history.

That may not be the best story to set up an article on leading our children. Clearly, I’m not qualified. But those three ladies taught me something about how the Trinity views leadership—it’s about relationship.

As a new substitute teacher, I was completely disconnected from those kids. My attempts at bringing them onto my agenda were pointless. But the three ladies in the doorway knew these kids inside and out. They were probably teaching before most of those kids were born. The kids knew them—they had been taught in their classes and had eaten with them every day in the school year. These wise and skillful women didn’t need to say or do anything for the kids to fall in line. They just needed to be seen.

“Hand in Hand” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

It seems this was part of what Jesus was getting at when he told the disciples to basically get out of the way and “Let the little children come to me” (Matt. 19:14). The disciples had their own agenda, which didn’t allow room for children to see Jesus. In contrast, Jesus treated the children as one who knew them before they were even born. They belong to him and to his kingdom, and it’s his relationship with the children that sets the agenda. Not the other way around.

Jesus’ reprimand of the disciples stands as a cautionary warning to not lead children with our own agenda driving our actions. As we follow Jesus’ lead, we see that blessing children with hands-on relationship is what he is up to. It is in a hands-on relationship that Jesus is seen at work, bringing forth blessing for each child. He is still doing that today and invites us to join in.

Whether we are a worker in a children’s ministry, a parent, or an overseer of children in some other compacity, we all have the call to let children see Jesus through the blessing of hands-on relationship. Like adults, children see Jesus most clearly in the eyes of others who do not overlook them.

I wonder how many times I’ve let my personal agenda blind me to the needs of a child who would have been blessed with just a little attention from me. I can think of many times when I was a youth that positive attention from an adult—an encouraging word, a gift, time spent without an agenda—blessed me in ways I still draw from.

Perhaps this approach does not sound like real leadership, at least not the way we usually think of it. Isn’t leadership about leading others into fulfilling an agenda? Perhaps, but when the agenda is about relationship, our view of leadership radically changes. Relationship is not a means to get kids on board or in line. Relationship is both the means and the ends.

Though understanding this does not negate our responsibility to teach and train our kids, it does remind us that we do so via relationships, which are primary, with all else flowing from them. In and through relationships, our kids are helped to see Jesus in unhindered ways. How they respond is then between them and the Spirit and we can provide a guiding hand. Relationship is thus vital to discipleship—it helps kids see Jesus, and it helps us, their disciplers, see Jesus as well.

On being and building a REAL team

By Greg Williams, CAD Director

Whether it’s a team in GCI’s Home Office, or the leadership team in one of our congregations, I believe it’s vital that we all become what I call a “REAL team”—one that possesses the characteristics listed in this box:

A REAL team is made up of real people with diverse personalities, experiences, talents, preferences and even faults. Bringing them together to form a REAL team is not easy, but it’s vital to being a healthy church.

How is your team?

Let me ask you some questions that will help you evaluate your leadership team: Do its members work well together? Do they trust one another? Are there deep relational connections? Do they share the same ministry vision? Do they work in a collaborative spirit to fulfill that vision? Is the experience of being on the team both challenging and rewarding? Is the team growing together—deepening its commitment to God and to one another? Are team members contributing out of their giftedness and passion? Are they in positions where they can do so? These are good questions to ask in honestly evaluating whether or not you have a REAL team, and thus if your congregation’s leadership is truly team-based.

Cladis on being team-based

George Cladis, in his book, Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders, shows how important team-based leadership is to the health of a congregation. He paints a compelling, theologically-grounded vision for how effective leadership teams are built and then operate. I highly recommend his book, and hope your team will go through it together (click on the picture at right to order). If you do, I think you’ll be enlightened, strengthened and more aligned with who God is and who you are in him.

Cladis works from the foundational understanding of the perichoretic relations of the Trinity, viewed as a joy-filled “dance” in which the Father, Son and Spirit relate in perfect freedom, intimacy and harmony. God’s tri-personal relating is the ideal image for how we want to relate within our leadership teams—helping each one become a REAL team. As we know, doing so takes the triune God’s inspiration and empowerment.

“The Dance of Grace” by Mark Keathley (used with Art of the South permission)

Ways to build a REAL team

What can you do to help your leadership team become a REAL team? Here are three suggestions:

1. Spend time together

To establish and sustain relational connections, a REAL team has frequent interactions. They meet, of course, to attend to regular church business. But they also meet just to bond. For that, I suggest having an annual retreat where there is opportunity for deep sharing, assessment and focused prayer, along with meaningful planning. I also suggest that the team play together. Doing so deepens a sense of community and trust.

2. Pray together

I have in mind here the need for more than prayers bookending team meetings. CAD team members report to one another each month in writing (we’re scattered around the country). Those reports have a section devoted to personal prayer requests. I’m honored and grateful knowing that my dear colleagues are praying for the needs and wants of the Williams family! As you pray for each other on the team, don’t forget to follow up on the results, so team members can rejoice in what God is doing. A REAL team has this quality of genuine sharing and caring.

3. Be washed in the Word together

It’s easy for a leadership team to slip into merely doing routine church business (budgets, schedules, etc.) forgetting the importance of helping one another grow as disciples of Jesus. I recommend that team meetings include some time devoted to discussing Scripture. You might also consider holding a Bible-based small group with your leaders for a part of the year (say six weeks). GCI has a long history of being a community of devoted Bible students—that’s a strength we don’t want to lose. A REAL team is informed and inspired by Holy Scripture.

Conclusion

For GCI, 2018 will be a year of transitions. One such transition is our continuing shift toward leadership that is more team-based—leadership that more fully reflects the reality that the body of Christ is a priesthood of all believers. I’ve heard many of our leaders say, “We can do more together than we can individually.” How true that is! Please live out this truth, experiencing the power of being a REAL team. I know you’ll be blessed if you do, for you will be participating in the reality of the perichoretic relations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who invite you and your team into the deep relationships that come only from them.

Sermon for March 11, 2018

Scripture readings: Num. 21:4-9; Ps. 107:1-3, 17-22;
Eph. 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from John 3:14-21, Numbers 21:4-9 and Ephesians 2:1-10)

Look to Jesus (A Snake Story)

Introduction

Our Gospel reading on this 4th Sunday of Lent includes a beloved verse of Scripture that has been called the gospel in a nutshell:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16, NRSV)

Nicodemus encounters Jesus

When Jesus spoke these now familiar words, he was in conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (ruling council). Unlike most of his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus seemed truly interested and open to hearing what Jesus had to teach about God.

“Nicodemus Coming to Christ” by Tanner
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus explained to Nicodemus that to “see the kingdom of God,” one must be “born again.” Though Nicodemus heard what Jesus said, he was confused by what Jesus meant. Jesus explained that he was talking about spiritual, not physical birth.

The Son must be lifted up (the serpent on the pole)

As the conversation with Nicodemus continued, Jesus said something that seems very strange to us—he compares himself to a snake:

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15, NRSV)

Jesus is referring to the Old Testament account where Moses made a bronze serpent, attached it to a pole, then told the snake-bitten Israelites to look to it in order to be healed. Why snake-bitten? Because, as usual, the people were complaining against God and Moses. They said it was God’s and Moses’ fault that they had no water and no food. They did have water and they did have food, but they didn’t like what God had given. Bread from heaven just wasn’t good enough for them. Sounds like children who don’t want to eat their vegetables! They seemed to have forgotten that they had been freed from slavery and were on a journey to a land of promise they could call their own. That’s when the snakes appeared and attacked them.

After this reality check, with repentance and seeking help, they came to Moses. Staring death in the face can be quite the motivator!

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Num. 21:7-9, NRSV)

“Moses and the Brazen Serpent on a Pole” by Hoet 
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Many years later, King Hezekiah of Judah had to have the bronze serpent destroyed because the people, true to form, were worshiping it along with their other idols (2 Kings 18:4).

Nicodemus knew these Old Testament stories well. All Pharisees were scholars of the Hebrew Bible and even memorized large sections of it. Perhaps he could see, at least partially, what Jesus was alluding to. He probably immediately thought of Jesus’ ability to heal the sick.

Look to Jesus

What Nicodemus did not understand was that Jesus was foretelling his being “lifted up” in crucifixion, and that all who believed on him would be healed of sin and so inherit eternal life. Jesus, as he often did, was using a physical analogy to explain a spiritual lesson—in this case the one he was teaching Nicodemus.

Just as the Israelites did nothing to save their sorry lives but look to the bronze serpent on a pole, so we come to Jesus empty-handed, having no righteousness of our own, looking to Jesus and his sacrifice, believing in him, trusting our lives to him. We come to Jesus accepting, not doing.

Oh yes, we are told in Scripture to be obedient, but our obedience is our grateful response to what Christ has already done in our lives. Our obedience doesn’t gain us brownie points toward our salvation or, as some might believe, our rank in the kingdom. Sorry, but anything we can do ourselves is just not good enough. We must take on Jesus’ righteousness—we must look to Jesus.

Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus that God, rather than being out to get us, has sent us his one and only Son to save us:

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:17-18, NRSV)

How many church signs say just the opposite, that Jesus did come to judge and to condemn. “You think it’s hot here!” or “If you don’t accept the bread of life, you’ll be toast!” It makes you wonder if whoever is responsible for those signs really believes they are going to encourage anyone to come to church!

Receive God’s wonderful grace

Given the way we are wired, it’s hard for us to understand that Jesus has done it all for us—paid our debt, took our judgment upon himself, removed any obstacles between us and reconciliation with God. Even for us who believe in Christ, it’s difficult to fathom the enormity of what Christ has done for us, to grasp how all-encompassing his sacrifice is.

Grace is so wonderful, it’s hard to comprehend.

God’s love for us and his desire to fellowship with us wicked, sinful people is so great that he sacrificed his Son to make it happen. Through Christ, and out of love for us, God has removed all the obstacles in the way of that fellowship. Let’s read the apostle Paul’s reminder of how grateful we should be for what Christ has done on our behalf:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. (Eph. 2:1-3, NRSV)

When we look around us at the evil in the world, we can’t deny we have had our part in it. It is only by God’s grace that we have been delivered. And it is out of gratitude for that deliverance, for salvation, that we live our lives as obedient followers of Jesus, which includes sharing his love for all people with those who do not yet know him and so are still suffering the consequences, the guilt and shame of sin in their lives.

We have good news to share!

Rather than rejecting us, God the Father acted in and through Jesus to reconcile all people to himself. From God’s side, there is no longer any barrier between God and humanity. In Christ and by the Spirit we can communicate and fellowship with God!

It is not God’s will that anyone fails to take advantage of this grace, though Scripture says some will reject God’s act of love, repudiating the reconciliation that is theirs with God in Christ. Doing so will be their choice, not God’s.

There’s a sense of joy in Paul’s words about this grace, as he continues in Ephesians:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph. 2:4-10, NRSV)

It’s all of grace, which means it’s all about Jesus—who he is and what he has done for us, on our behalf. Even in our prayers to God the Father, it is to Jesus that we look. Note what T.F. Torrance has to say:

We do not come before God, then, worshipping him and praying to him in our own name, or in our own significance, but in the name and significance of Jesus Christ alone, for worship and prayer are not ways in which we express ourselves but ways in which we hold up before the Father his beloved Son, take refuge in his atoning sacrifice, and make that our only plea. “Nothing in my hands I bring; Simply to thy Cross I cling.”            (from “The Mediation of Christ”)

Conclusion

As we conclude, let me ask: How are we saved? Is it by faithfully attending church every week? That’s good, but is that enough? Is it by how much of the Bible we memorize? Also good, but is that enough? Is it by what we eat or don’t eat, or by how we dress or by what political party we vote for? No, sorry. As Paul says, it’s by grace that we have been saved, through faith. Our salvation is not our doing—it’s God’s gift. It’s not the result of our works, not even of our faith. It’s all about Jesus—his sacrifice and his faithfulness, not our own. Thank you, Jesus!

Seeing Jesus’ horrible torment and death on the cross, we learn just how bad sin is. But, thank God, our sin and guilt have been removed through his perfect sacrifice on our behalf—a sacrifice that included his whole life, all the way to the cross. It is a “done deal”—our debt has been paid in full. God is not out to get us (he never was!). He wants to embrace us in his arms just as the father greeted his returning wayward prodigal son. God is in the saving, not the condemning, business. Thank you, Father!

That’s really good news, don’t you think? Yes, it is, and it is too good not to share. Amen.