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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Response to the Rationalists

John 12:20-50

Of all the difficulties the Sunday School teacher faces, that of the rationalist may be the most frustrating. The common thought of our time is so different from the ages of faith that many of the illustrations of the Scripture make no sense before someone gains faith. Today, however, we will see the response to the rationalist, naturalist culture of the time. It is worth some study.

The Greeks

(John 12:20-22 NIV) Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. {21} They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus." {22} Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

No doubt the Greeks went to Philip because of his accent – looking for someone who spoke enough Greek to be understood well. This little conversation shows us the basic approach to the modern age:

·         As ever and always, the faith is a matter of “who”, not “what” – “we would see Jesus.”

·         It begins with an attitude of worship. They came to worship; from the rightness of those hearts will spring their salvation.

·         They are taken from friend to friend. Not by books nor by mighty words, but by the power of person to person evangelism is the rationalist brought to Christ.

The Greeks are the philosophers and scientists of the ancient world. We will now see how Jesus speaks to them.

The Power of Paradox

(John 12:23-33 NIV) Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. {24} I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. {25} The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. {26} Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. {27} "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. {28} Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." {29} The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. {30} Jesus said, "This voice was for your benefit, not mine. {31} Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. {32} But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." {33} He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

Throughout the New Testament there is a consistent theme, the power of paradox. Do things the world’s way, in the best of the world’s wisdom, and you will fail. Do things God’s way, which seems like foolishness to the smart, and you will be blessed beyond imagination. How do we explain this to the scientific mind?

The Philosophy

Jesus begins with an analogy. St. Augustine remarked that God is so far above us that He can only be understood by analogy, and that is what Christ is doing here. He draws them the picture of a kernel of grain (the word here is a generic one for grain). They know (scientifically) that unless you bury it, it will not reproduce – but when you do it reproduces bountifully. So he establishes the principle of paradox in their minds as not something strange, but something already familiar – just unnoticed.

The principle is just this: if you love your life, you lose it. Despise it, and gain so much more. Like the hypochondriac who gets sicker with more attention to his health, our world chases after older whisky, younger women, faster cars and more money. The money fails, the whisky becomes cheap as the car breaks down. Of the women it is not polite to speak. The world’s way is a failure, because it cannot satisfy. It is like giving salt water to a thirsty man – it just brings on more thirst.

Jesus now gives us the application. He tells us to be like him, to follow him. We are to be his servants, and as such we are not above our master. Look at his life; one of service. He sought no worldly wealth nor honor; he had none of the trappings of success which we esteem. Yet who has greater honor? If you think not, I will give you this test. In five years, Princess Diana will be a footnote. The name of Mother Teresa will still command awe.

The application is not without reward. The kingdom is still the pearl of great price. By giving all we gain all; the reward is eternal life.

Personal application

We now get a glimpse of Jesus in a really contemplative mood. Robert E, Lee looked out at the battlefield carnage of Chancellorsville and commented, “It is well that war is so horrible, lest we grow fond of it.” In that remark we saw the inner Lee, the man so allured by combat that its horrors seemed necessary for its prevention. In these remarks we see Jesus in much the same way.

First, he is troubled. Why not? He knows he is going to a horrible, painful and disgraceful death. He is “Son of Man,” human like us, and he knows the fear of the cross. So we must deal with fear, too, and seeing how he finds courage may help us do likewise.

Courage is not the absence of fear; that is insanity. It is not the denial of fear; that is bravado, a game for boys. Courage is the overcoming of fear. Jesus contemplates asking his father to spare him (and indeed, in Gethsemane, he will ask him for that), but takes courage from the purpose of God. It is an emotional moment.

But this is not just a sigh of resignation. This is not, “I guess I gotta.” The spirit soars when you see the inspiration: it is to the glory of God. Not mere duty (the sublimest word in the English language, according to Lee) but glory. Greatness does not consist in just getting by.

The result

God’s purpose is to be fulfilled. The voice from heaven thunders, and encouragement is given. Interestingly, some hear the voice as that of an angel; others hear only thunder. Sometimes the message depends on the batteries in the hearing aid.

It is the same with all other evidence that God provides. He will not force himself upon any of us. He does not want to be the conqueror of our souls but the lover – and love must woo, not ravish. All miracles fall into this category. They are to encourage us to believe.

On Judgment

The time

Up to this point in history God has spoken only to the Jews in any direct sense. Other nations have seen his wonders and concluded what they may, but only the Jews have the one true God. We can see the sense in which Christ says that the world will now be judged, for the world will now begin to know the truth. Until this point God has been merciful in judging the world because He has provided them with “no input.” That condition now changes, for the church will be established and the world will know the will of God.

The Prince

The same applies to the spiritual system of the world. It is exceedingly interesting to note that until the time of Christ virtually all the religions established outside the Jews were polytheistic. People worshiped a collection of gods and goddesses of their own invention (or at least they thought of their own invention). Paul tells us that these are indeed demons in the service of Satan.[1] But after the time of Christ the “invention” of new religions changed greatly. Islam and Mormonism depend on “new revelations;” Christian Science depends on “brilliant new interpretations.” But no one discovers a new god – until very recently.

It may be coincidence (if you believe in such) but I offer for your consideration the amilliennialist view. In it, the binding of Satan in Revelation happens at the cross – and his power to deceive in demonic religions is restrained. If this view is correct, the flourishing of “New Age” religions would be a sign that he is unleashed, and that our Lord’s return is very near. (Even so, Lord Jesus, come!)

Lifting Up

Christ now makes a comparison that clearly rings with the crowd. He says he must be lifted up. They would see the comparison to the fiery serpents of Moses’ time,[2] and so see a prophecy of his death. The paradox is now complete: by his death we enter into life. The Greeks are satisfied; the principle and its application are now seen. But the religious Jews are not so satisfied.

The Objections

(John 12:34-36 NIV) The crowd spoke up, "We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, 'The Son of Man must be lifted up'? Who is this 'Son of Man'?" {35} Then Jesus told them, "You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. {36} Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light." When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.

(Kindly note that the Greeks are not doing the objecting! They have their answer, but it does not ring well with the religious men. Satan, defeated in logic, falls back upon ritual and law.)

“We have heard”

The inquiring mind starts with the willingness to be rid of preconceived notions; the mind of ritual esteems them. They clearly understand “lifted up” to be a prophecy of the crucifixion to come, and they know this cannot be. They read it in the law. If you give me the ability to separate chapter and verse, I can prove almost anything.

Jesus’ answer: have faith

There is a conceptual problem we must deal with that has been raised here, and it is not trivial. It runs something like this: don’t I have to have a complete understanding – all the answers, in other words – before I can say I believe? The problem is not severe to most Christians, but to those who are intellectual in their faith it is most troubling. Any intellectual objection to the faith seems mountainous, because intellect must understand.

Now, in no other area of human life would we tolerate this. Let me give you an example. Suppose you are the captain of a battleship. A sailor comes running up to the bridge in a panic, screaming that there is a hole in the bottom the size of a quarter, and it’s spurting water! Do you turn the ship around and run for drydock? No, you steam on while sending someone down to plug the hole. You know that the ship as a whole is seaworthy; the leaks can be plugged as you sail.

The same is true in our intellectual pursuits in life. If you build a business, you can’t see the future. You take what precautions you can, and then you go on, tolerating the uncertainty. Jesus tells us to do the same here.

Nothing in this world shows itself as a certainty. Jesus’ answer is to trust the light you have. Sail the battleship on and don’t panic. There are two reasons for this:

·         First, so you do not stumble. Think how foolish our captain would look if every little problem caused him to return to port. The ship is sound, carry on.

·         Second, so you will “become” sons of light. One reason you do not know the answers is that you have not experienced them yet. How can you experience the answers if you will not go on?

Meditation and Response

(John 12:37-50 NIV) Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. {38} This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" {39} For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: {40} "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn--and I would heal them." {41} Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke about him. {42} Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; {43} for they loved praise from men more than praise from God. {44} Then Jesus cried out, "When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. {45} When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. {46} I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. {47} "As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. {48} There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. {49} For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. {50} I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say."

Seeing and not seeing

One of the great mysteries of the faith is this: why is it that some people will hear the Gospel and simply turn away, hardening their hearts? We know that if left to themselves, with no help to reform, people will go from bad to worse. Some enjoy the process so much that no words will turn them back. The Scripture often speaks of God hardening their hearts. It seems that those who choose to reject the word of God will find themselves much more wicked for the experience. Rejecting God brings peril in this world and the next.

Others, however, see and believe – in secret. These are now Sunday Christians, those who are so glad to go to church on Sunday because now they can finally act like the Christians they think they are. The problem is identified carefully here. They love the praise of men more than praise from God. A failing, but a human one all the same.

Placing the choice

Jesus now places the choice before them. He tells them plainly that He is the Incarnation of God. If you believe Jesus, you believe God, If you see Jesus, you see God. Why? Because when Jesus speaks, God speaks. How much more plainly can he tell us that He is God in the flesh? This puts the choice clearly before us: who is this Jesus?

His Purpose

The choice is placed before us, and we have time to consider it. It is his purpose to be light – to show us that He is the way to God. Indeed, we need to understand that his purpose for us is not judgment, but salvation. He does not want any of us to be condemned. Judgment is deferred to the Last Day. On that day the choices we have made will be made final, and we ourselves will be judged. In a very real sense God sends no one to hell; the inhabitants of hell are all volunteers. It is his will and purpose that all should be saved. Graciously, that word “all” includes me.

[1] 1 Corinthians 10:20

[2] Deuteronomy 8:15, John 3:14

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