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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Argument with the Pharisees

John 8:12-59

It is frequently stated (by the ignorant) that Jesus never claimed to be either the Messiah or God. In the dialog we will read through this morning, this is shown to be completely false. We begin with Jesus’ opening statement in the argument:

(John 8:12 NIV) When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Jesus begins by making the explicit claim to be “the light of the world.” If we are to understand what He meant by that, we must see it as His hearers would have seen it.

Tabernacles was like Thanksgiving; also, note that the Jews considered a tent as shelter, not hardship

 
Remember where He is and what time of the year it is. He is in the Temple courts; it is the Feast of the Tabernacles. To start that feast, the Jews would bring out four huge Menorah (candelabra) and light them the first night of the feast. There would be dancing until dawn by all the chief religious leaders. Interestingly, these Menorah would be placed in the Court of the Women -- the court just inside the outermost court, the Court of the Gentiles. The meaning is clear: God, as personified in the light, is for all the Jews (hence the Court of Women, the outermost of the Jewish courts) and shines his light unto all the world (the Gentiles). The imagery says much.

But there is more. The prophet Isaiah specifically identifies the light of the world:

(Isa 49:6 NIV) he says: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."

Light is also a metaphor for righteousness in the Jewish faith; it is the light to my feet[1], God is described as “my light”[2], and the contrast between light and darkness as good and evil is made plain in the New Testament.[3] James describes God as the “Father of lights”[4], Paul says that God dwells in “unapproachable light”[5], and John states clearly that “God is light.”[6] For Jesus to claim, then, to be the light of the world is to make it clear to the Jews that He is claiming to be God. If you think not, consider the counterpoint the Jews make immediately:

(John 8:13 NIV) The Pharisees challenged him, "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid."

The argument dates back to the Old Testament Law.[7] A man could not be convicted of a capital crime on the testimony of one witness -- so it would stand to reason he could not be convicted of being the Messiah on only one witness either.

Christ makes his reply this way:

(John 8:14-20 NIV) Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. {15} You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. {16} But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. {17} In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. {18} I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me." {19} Then they asked him, "Where is your father?" "You do not know me or my Father," Jesus replied. "If you knew me, you would know my Father also." {20} He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come.

Jesus defends his testimony in approximately four steps:

·         First, if He is God, then his testimony must be true. Who could possibly stand up as a character witness for God? Indeed, in the Old Testament, God is known to “swear by Himself” for there is nothing higher.[8]

·         Secondly, as the Son, who is the expert witness on God?

·         Thirdly, the Father is the second witness. How can this be?

·         By prophecy in the Old Testament

·         By the miracles of Christ (many of which are associated with forgiveness).

·         Finally, there is the “family resemblance.” The point is artistic as well as pious. If you are truly seeking God, how could you fail to recognize Him? If, on the other hand, your “relationship” to God serves only to boost your pride, would you know him if you saw him? (It’s not who’s in your autograph book that counts J).

Jesus now gives the Pharisees a hard shot to the face:

(John 8:21 NIV) Once more Jesus said to them, "I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come."

Note the zinger: “you shall die in your sin.” Common translation to this day: you are going to hell.

The Pharisees misunderstand:

(John 8:22 NIV) This made the Jews ask, "Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, 'Where I go, you cannot come'?"

Jesus now tells them that they must believe in Him:

(John 8:23-24 NIV) But he continued, "You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. {24} I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins."

OK, now it’s clear. Now the Pharisees want to put the question to him: just exactly who are you?[9]

(John 8:25-27 NIV) "Who are you?" they asked. "Just what I have been claiming all along," Jesus replied. {26} "I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world." {27} They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father.

It must have been frustrating. He’s been trying to tell them -- in the style that God would use -- just exactly who He is. And it’s not working. Note that even at this stage, He is not condemning them -- He is warning them. Again, He points them to the Father as a witness to this. The argument is that if you read the Old Testament, you would come up with the same condemnation Jesus would give them.

You can almost sense the beginning of the next statement. They’re going to ask for proof. So, in advance of their thought, He tells them how they can figure it out:

(John 8:28-30 NIV) So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. {29} The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him." {30} Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him.

Jesus makes clear (later[10]) that this is meant to signify his crucifixion. If you will recall, in crucifixion the individual is lifted up from the earth on a cross. It’s as if He is saying, “I know you don’t believe me now, but when you crucify me you will see that I’m all I claim to be.”

There is now a brief interlude for those believers just mentioned:

(John 8:31-36 NIV) To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. {32} Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." {33} They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" {34} Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. {35} Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. {36} So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

It’s a warning message. People are on the fence about Him, and He wants them to have every opportunity to believe. He tries to get them out of their “physical” way of thinking into the spiritual.

The Jews of this time believed quite firmly that any descendant (physically) of Abraham was destined for heaven, no matter what he did. Gentiles were “fit only as fuel for the fires of hell.” As a part of this, they believed that the Jew was intrinsically free -- as the Old Testament commanded.[11] They are physical (or carnal, as the King James might have put it); He is spiritual. And again, they don’t get it.

(John 8:37-42 NIV) I know you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. {38} I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you do what you have heard from your father." {39} "Abraham is our father," they answered. "If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would do the things Abraham did. {40} As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. {41} You are doing the things your own father does." "We are not illegitimate children," they protested. "The only Father we have is God himself." {42} Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me.

There is a side point in here worth the mentioning: Family resemblance is not just physical -- but in character. Christ’s point, again, is that if they had Abraham’s character they would act like Abraham. They would repent.

Jesus now makes it much plainer to them:

(John 8:43-45 NIV) Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. {44} You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. {45} Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!

What a terrible condition to be in! To be so absorbed in your sins that when someone speaks the truth, you cannot believe it. Does it ever happen in our society? Remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Jesus now begins a series of explicit claims to be God, and to be the Messiah. The first concerns his sinlessness:

(John 8:46-47 NIV) Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? {47} He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

The claim is staggering, and passes off so quickly. The debate has escalated to a hard point, and the Pharisees can hardly believe their ears. There is only one logical explanation from their point of view: He’s nuts:

(John 8:48 NIV) The Jews answered him, "Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?"

(In other words, you’re a bum from the wrong side of the tracks, and you’re crazy to boot.)

Jesus now dismisses their comment -- and tells them why he’s not too particularly concerned about it:

(John 8:49-50 NIV) "I am not possessed by a demon," said Jesus, "but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. {50} I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge.

We talked last week about Jesus’ objective -- to seek and save the lost. Objectives are fine in business, but most of us are concerned about “who gets the credit.” Jesus is concerned about that too -- He wants to see credit to the Father (who will give honor to Jesus).

The next claim to be God is quite straight forward:

(John 8:51 NIV) I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death."

This is a staggering claim! No one but God could honestly say this, for no one but God truly can control life and death. He is the author of life.

The Jews know it. One thing you can depend upon, it’s your enemies. They react exactly as if they understood the nature of that claim:

(John 8:52-53 NIV) At this the Jews exclaimed, "Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. {53} Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?"

Indeed, “who do you think you are?” The question is generally aimed at the ego, and Christ takes it as such here:

(John 8:54-55 NNAS) Jesus answered, "If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, 'He is our God'; {55} and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word.

Note the deft turn of phrase. He acknowledges that it sound like He’s puffing himself up -- but actually it is God who does the glorifying. His argument is quite simple. I’m God in the flesh -- and it would not be true to God’s character to deny the truth.

He now provokes them into his final point:

(John 8:56 NIV) Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad."

The claim is incredible to them. They are so stuck on physical reality that they cannot conceive that He could be correct. It gives him the opportunity to put his claim to them in the plainest possible language:

(John 8:57-59 NIV) "You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" {58} "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" {59} At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

If you think this is not clearly the claim to be God, consider two points:

·         The words, “I AM” in Hebrew are the name of God. It was considered utterly blasphemous even to say them (the accepted euphemisms were “the Holy One” or “the Mighty One”). To use these words was blasphemy; to apply them to yourself could mean only one thing.

·         Jesus’ enemies testify that this is the meaning they took from it. A Jew could be stoned to death (at this time) for only three things: adultery, idolatry and murder. The ultimate in idolatry is to set yourself up as God. For this, the Jews were quite prepared to stone him.

This is rather a long, and rather a Jewish, debate. C. S. Lewis summarized the points in it long ago: either He is the Son of God, or a lunatic (“on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg”), or the Devil of Hell. He did not leave any other choice. He did not intend to.

We began this lesson with “the light of the world.” Jesus claims to be that; but he also tells us that we are that light:

(John 9:5 NIV) While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

(Mat 5:14 NIV) "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

Like our Master, we will be misunderstood. People will insist that we cannot mean what we claim; it’s not reasonable. It’s not rational. It’s not scientific. And it’s not. It’s just the truth. The question now is, will we go forth and proclaim Him for what He is?

 


[1] Psalm 119:105

[2] Psalm 27:1, Proverbs 6:23

[3] John 1:4-5; John 3:19-21

[4] James 1:17

[5] 1 Timothy 6:15-16

[6] 1 John 1:5 -- and a metaphor, of course.

[7] See Deuteronomy 17:6

[8] Genesis 22:16, Jeremiah 22:3, Jeremiah 49:13

[9] This passage, especially verse 25, is difficult to translate correctly. See especially the New Revised Standard for a very different meaning.

[10] John 12:32-33

[11] Leviticus 25:39-42

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