Mobbed

During my time in seminary in spring 1984, my classmate Max McLean made a dramatic presentation to the entire student body during a time of chapel. His presentation was an imagined drama which went over the decisions which Pontius Pilate faced on the day that Jesus Christ came before him, and he had to make the decision as to whether Jesus would live or die. He was speaking as Pilate as he might have agonized later over the choices that were given to him that morning, the different pressures he was under from different directions. He  kept coming back to the one question: “What would you have done?”

The gospels go over much of the political and judicial process which resulted in the death sentence for Jesus Christ as it happened in Jerusalem about 30 CE. There was more than one hand at work in this situation, though, as the visible political and judicial machinery of the Roman government ground onward to the final result. Surely a serious Christian considering these passages will understand that they showcase the corruption of the political and judicial process in this sinful, fallen world due to the sinful, fallen hearts of the people who are part of the political and judicial process. Many of the parts of the political and legal machinery are familiar to us also from the common political and legal processes of mankind;. We can understand what was going on because we also have some understanding of the way that political and legal proceedings work in this world. 

These passages that deal with the political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate also show what can happen to the followers of Jesus in this world just as it has also often happened throughout history.  Here we also see the portents of the treatment of the innocent believer in Jesus who has broken no laws but has come under the disapproval of those who are in positions of political and religious authority – and make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still as serious a threat to the powers that be in his followers as he was when he was physically here on earth standing before Pontius Pilate. So throughout so many ages since then so many believers who have undergone persecution and probable martyrdom have found themselves understanding and sympathizing with what happened to Jesus, and they would find in the gospels the same Lord who sympathizes with them because he was there first as the innocent sufferer before the bar of wickedly politicized judicial proceedings.

But there is still another hand at work in these circumstances as well. In our age we may come to these passages where we think we are simply observers through the narration, but at the end find that we are no longer just observers at all, but rather full participants in this situation as it was unfolding. To be certain, these are definitely objective historical events that really happened, but these passages tell us of events also with a real significance beyond the past that continues to draw us in now, to where the audience finds that they are part of the story as well, and that they were there from the very beginning. These passages are like a news article about something which we come to the startled realization that we were there when the event happened, but that we didn’t realize it until long after the event happened. The circumstances now that we will consider together involved a reversal of the death sentence for a stunningly and notoriously guilty party and the just punishment which the guilty man deserved was put upon the innocent person. This was more just than a travesty of human justice. Through our view of the proceedings we can see beyond what was happening and look beyond them to the controversial and totally innocent person at the center of the controversy. It is starling to consider that the person , who had nothing to say in this passage, was actually the one in charge of the proceedings from beginning to end. It is astonishing to see that he was the one who had written the script, how the players on this stage around him were acting out their cruelty of their own hearts with him as their intended victim. None of them were really in control of these proceedings, and the actual result was beyond any of them and not within the control of any of them, but it was all under the control of the one person who was there and silent at this time.

“According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them. But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas. And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:6-15, Dale’s sight translation).

The death sentence on Jesus was the ultimate tradeoff. It was an attempted exchange for temporary political expediency, but the exchange that was actually attempted was not the exchange that was actually achieved. Here, the human political desperation and judicial expediency that sought a tradeoff to and the cruelty of a mob seeking to indulge their own bloodthirsty agenda resulted in the true exchange of lives which brings real life and freedom.

In the corrupt judicial proceedings of this world, there are often people who seek for the release of the guilty parties without regard to their guilt before God and man. The terrible injustice of this world may then result, as it often has throughout human history,  in the exchange of the lives of the unquestionably guilty for the lives of the unquestionably innocent. But what happened then still points to the ultimate human need for real life freedom that ultimately comes from the ultimate need for the exchange of the life of the completely innocent for the lives of the completely guilty.

The drama that happened then, and in which we are still participants, begins in verses 6-8:  “According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them.”

The custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover which the gospel mentioned is not well attested outside the New Testament but not unprecedented throughout the known judicial proceedings of the Roman empire. And the guilty man who was known as Barabbas is unknown beyond what the New Testament says. He was, though, apparently, well known enough that his name needed little further explanation 23-30 years later, when the gospel of Mark was most likely written. He was most definitely an armed robber and a  murderer, and  apparently something of a political revolutionary and radical, a ‘desperate character.’ He may have been part of a criminal gang which gave a revolutionary and political rationale for their crimes.

So here is where the mob starts to become evident. There seem to have been a number of those in the crowd that came to Pilate and they were apparently seeking to have this character released by Pilate as part of the custom. They may have come entirely with that purpose in that mind and they may have already become worked up to seek the release of Barabbas. A few might have mixed in with the crowd that gathered around to see what Pilate would do about Jesus as the Jewish high priests and their underlings dragged Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

The whole size of this crowd that became a mob may have started with a couple of dozen and grown to several hundred in this crowd, may have grown still further as time went on; the gospel writers were not concerned with counting heads in the crowd at this time. And maybe some came not with any animosity toward Jesus but rather simply wanting this Barabbas character released. They may have had some sympathy with his professed radical and revolutionary bent; after all, they were part of a nation that was occupied by the imperial power of Rome and like many at that time they wanted to be free from Rome. But still others may have been paid stooges of the high priest clan; the ‘retired’ high priest Annas, the father in law of the official high priest Caiaphas, was in fact known at that time for hiring and inciting mobs. And some of those there in that group may have even been part of the group that came out with torches and staves, like the crowd of peasants in an old horror movie, to the Garden of Gethsemane during the previous night to arrest Jesus.

So then like now, the desire for political freedom can often result in or be the excuse for deeper crimes in this world of sin.  The human heart, the sin factory that often produces horrible crimes can make desperate characters out of so many, and many others like Barabbas have been produced throughout the ages, and the crowds may call for their release without regard to their crimes. Certainly here we can see the warning not to idolize the radicals and revolutionaries of this world who are often criminals as bad as those they are protesting, such as the current unthinking idolization of Che Guevara and the current unthinking idolatry of political violence by so many. The desperation of the professed radical the actual criminal and the crowds desperate for political freedom simply compounds the real problem. The problem for each of them was not Rome but their own heart. Even John Lennon saw through this, where he advised the would be revolutionary of his time: “You better free your mind instead . . .”And here we come ourselves the place where we realize that we are the desperate characters ourselves, and we understand the failure of our best intentions to achieve the freedom that we crave. The freedom that we crave is really not a political freedom but from the power of sin and death, and that is the freedom that can come only from the Son of God. “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. . . . If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free . .  (John 8:31-32, 34, 36).

The necessary tradeoff requires that one would be unquestionably guilty and another would  be unquestionably innocent. But the tradeoff that was attempted then on this basis wasn’t the one which actually happened. The desperation for one tradeoff based on political and judicial expediency ironically, then, results in another which actually is the intent of God in these circumstances. What happens in this situation is the real plan of the one who is really in charge and pulling the strings in these situations.

In verses 9-11 we can see how Pilate desperately and clumsily tries to do the right things in that situation: “But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas.” He obviously knows the injustice of the charges against Jesus. He knows that the previous trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, as well as the crowds, were being stirred up to demand the death of an innocent man. Here on the platform in the city of Jerusalem was a minor Roman official and politician who was trying clumsily to appease the popular demand and let Jesus off at the same time. He was trying to direct them from the guilty party – Barabbas — release the innocent Jesus. He was faced with a crowd that came with some desire that they dare not express to his face for their political liberty from Rome and who wanted a criminal who had some popular sympathy released instead of Jesus. The crowd kept up their demands for the release of Barabbas when Pilate tried to suggest to them that the Jesus who should be released was the other innocent Jesus.

Pilate’s clumsy attempt at a tradeoff then started to backfire in the face of the crowd that wouldn’t accept his attempt to redirect them from Barabbas to Jesus. At this point the crowds were also being instigated to seek the release of Barabbas by the ruling priests. This would be Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies  — and here they were themselves stirring up the mob as Annas  himself was notorious for doing. They were desperate themselves as now they saw the danger that Jesus could get off at this point. What actually happened here may not have been anything more than them stepping forward from the sidelines at this point to call for the release of Barabbas – just stepping forward so they could be recognized, turning to the crowd and leading them in calling for Barabbas. This would not  have been out of any desire for Barabbas to be free, but from their desire for Jesus to be executed and for making certain that their murderous intent was fulfilled so they could be rid of Jesus and the threat he was to their status quo. Even here, though, no one there got what he or she wanted except Jesus. And note also how often this same kind of scene was repeated throughout the book of Acts whenever the pride, position, privileges and profits were threatened by the gospel and the freedom which Jesus brings – the incited mob, the fury of the religious and political leaders, and the calm of the innocent who were being called upon to suffer.

So despite the best intentions and attempts of many people to do the right thing, those cannot achieve what only God can provide. All the attempts to pull strings and maneuver behind the scenes only play into the plans which God already has made. Our own plans and tradeoffs within the sinful machinery of this world will ultimately backfire, and only God gets what he wants in these situations. It’s so  common throughout the ages, that the murderous hostility of the world towards the people of God only goes to fulfill the actual will and purposes of God in that situation. Even in the hour of his death, as he was being burned at the stake in Oxford, England,  the reforming bishop Hugh Latimer died with this assurance as he said to his compatriot Nicholas Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out . . .”

In this world, good intentions, a desperate attempt to try to do the right thing, often does not achieve what we’re aiming for. We still live in and need to deal with the machinery of this fallen world that can crush our best intentions and most desperate efforts. What we often fail to do and need to do is to see beyond the outward circumstances of the machinery to the ultimate purposes of God in that situation. We need to see what God is providing in that situation, and to know, understand and pursue his will in his power before the political and judicial machinery of this world. 

The tradeoff that looked expedient then had been ultimately in the plan of God from all eternity. In that situation God himself was orchestrating the events which ended up meeting the most desperate need of this world. The desperation of this world demanded the exchange of the death of Jesus for the guilty parties of this world. What was demanded in that situation turns out to have been the cry of the real need of this world, of the people everywhere, in every time. The desperation of this world called for the death of Jesus. The cry then the exhibition of a deeper need than anyone in the mob then and there realized. What was then shouted as a murderous demand echoed in the purpose and foreknowledge of God as the answer of God to the most desperate need of this world.

In verses 12-13, then, Pilate then put the question to the crowds as to what he was to do with Jesus: “And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ .” Here we see the Pontius Pilate known to history. At the end he is just an average politician shirking his responsibility to uphold civil justice. There was no reason for Pilate to put the question to the crowd at all about what he was to do with Jesus. He was the governor that the Roman emperor Tiberius had appointed, and his was the authority alone on what to do with Jesus. But apparently the crowd had become more unruly, and perhaps Pilate feared a riot. So when he put the question to the crowd the ginned up mob called back for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas.

Under the Old Testament Law stoning was the normal way of execution for the purported crime of blasphemy. Twice during the ministry of Jesus his Jewish audiences had already tried to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31) – and it would actually as in the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22, though, indicated crucifixion and not stoning. So in the call for crucifixion the mob was unwittingly making themselves part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament. That’s what they were actually doing, though they had no idea or intention that they were doing it. But even more see the monstrous cruelty of that crowd that was willing to trade the life of Jesus for Barabbas. See their  complete indifference to the crimes of Barabbas and their disrespect for the innocence and life of Jesus. See even more their utter disobedience to the OT commands not to follow others in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2, Proverbs 1:10-11, 15).  So they were calling for the legal penalty for murder and sedition for Barabbas under the law of the time to be applied to Jesus instead. At this moment became the de facto place where mob rule occurred in the legal and judicial proceeding around the trial and execution of Jesus. So despite having a hostile governor in Pilate who wasn’t inclined to give in to what they wanted, the mob ruled and their demand for crucifixion becomes explicit and ultimately successful. And though it hadn’t been explicitly part of the earlier conversation, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders knew that was the penalty the religious leaders were seeking when they turned Jesus over to him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Roman justice.

Here the power of sin to inflame the hearts of people in this world is spectacularly visible. Sinful hearts influencing the sinful hearts of others into cruelty and murderous hatred is shown starkly in the proceedings concerning the execution of Jesus.This shows  the reality is that the crowd often not a restraint to criminal behavior but a goad to criminal behavior. It’s so much easier so often in a mob for otherwise reasonable people to become dismissive of the legal rights and lives of innocent people. This shows that others cannot be our salvation but they do often just lead us deeper into sinful and criminal behavior. But behind the desperate cruelty of the crowds is the cry of the desperate need of this world for a Savior. The shout of the crowd was ironically the cry of this world and the cry of desperate spiritual and eternal need.  Their real need was not political freedom but the freedom which Jesus really brings through the gospel. This was something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself realized. He became good friends with Billy Graham in the years before his tragic assassination and often attended conferences with the Billy Graham team. But when Billy Graham offered to come join him in the streets, Dr. King encouraged him to continue preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and to support his goals by example and not to join him in the streets: “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets.”

Political and legal authority and power cannot provide for the desperate need of this world, then. The political and legal institutions ultimately come down to the people who are in charge. And they are as sinful and fallible as anyone else and they cannot save us any more than they can save themselves. 

Pontius Pilate admits defeat and gives in to the demands of the mob like the gospel says in verses 14-15: “And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” So Pilate eventually gives in to the will of the crowd. He did make several legitimate attempts to release Jesus, or at least punish him with something less than the death penalty. Even with all the shouting, the crowds never gave him any explicit, legitimate reason for the capital punishment of Jesus any more than the Jewish religious authorities did. There was nothing he could write to the emperor as to why this prisoner would have been executed. According to the other gospels, Pilate did some more waffling back and forth, and part of this drama was the famous symbolic washing of the hands from the gospel of Matthew. But finally he was just and simply a public official swayed by the demands of the mob. He turned Jesus over to the beating, the severe flogging that would happen as the preparation for the crucifixion. He turned out at the end to be simply the minor public official and politician who disliked his position and the place where he was assigned, as well as the people he had to deal with. And so he did what the average person and the average politician would have done in his place. He gave up and simply went along with the demands of the mob.

Make no mistake, here is a great warning here against any idolatry or hope and faith in any political figure in this world! Pilate at least tried to do the right thing, and that’s much more than could be said of many current political figures in many, many decisions and situations. Ultimately, though, our politicians themselves are part of the sinful and fallen political and legal machinery of this world as much as anyone else. They cannot save themselves from the desperation of this fallen world. They themselves are just as much in need of the same tradeoff of the innocent for the guilty. They themselves need the only escape and freedom that they can find for themselves is the same exchange that each of us needs to save us from the sin of our lives and this world.  

Ultimately, though, all this came about with the wisdom and power of God in our world, that he was able to use these circumstances to bring about the tradeoff that we so desperately needed. There are no miracles in these passages. Rather he allowed the tendencies of human nature and the political, religious and legal machinery of this fallen world to grind to their conclusion, come up with the result that they would end up with. The authors of the final result on the scene already directing the end result. God the Father who was sending his Son to be the Savior of the world was there directing the circumstances. The Son stood there as the wickedness of this world brought him to the place where he could be the innocent suffering for the guilty of all times and places. The Holy Spirit had inspired and provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament so that we could recognize and understand what was really happening here. The God of the Bible was ultimately the one who was writing the script and pulling the strings despite all the people on the scene who thought that they were directing the circumstances. The God  of the Bible was there and he was providing for the Son of God to be offered as the one who takes away the sin of the world. He had already given the world the answer to its most desperate need for freedom and salvation.

AT THE END, WE FIND OURSELVES IN THE PLACE OF BARABBAS, THE CROWDS, AND PONTIUS PILATE. THE SAME JESUS WHO STOOD THERE WAITING FOR THE DECISION OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR AND THE CROWDS, WHOSE LIFE WAS TRADED FOR A GUILTY MAN, IS THE SAME JESUS WHO LOOKS FOR THE DECISION FROM YOU HERE AND NOW. YOU NOW, WHEREVER YOU ARE, FIND YOURSELF IN THE SAME POSITION HAVING TO MAKE A DECISION ABOUT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD. THE BIG DECISION AND THE BIGGEST DECISION IS WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH HIS CLAIMS ABOUT HIMSELF AND WHAT HE DID FOR YOU. THE FALSE SAVIORS OF THIS WORLD SHOW THAT THEY CANNOT SAVE US FROM THE REAL NEEDS FOR FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT WE ALL HAVE. THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MACHINERY OF THIS WORLD WILL NEVER BRING US THE REAL FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT CAN COME ONLY FROM JESUS. THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD AND THE DESPERATION OF THE MOB CAN NEVER TAKE US TO THE PLACE OF TRUE FREEDOM AND SALVATION WHICH ONLY IS IN JESUS.

Consider then who you are following: the crowd or the Lord? Have you ever really understood that the crowd cannot save you when you come before God to face him and his justice alone? In that time, if you’re a believer in Jesus, it’s not about being a follower of other people, even other believers, but following Jesus alone. So who are you following?

Consider also: the Lord who stood before the crowd knows what cruelty and betrayal is. And know this as well: the crowd will betray you if you choose to follow Jesus. In those times you will need to come to him for strength, comfort, guidance and direction. This has been the common experience of believers in Jesus Christ in all ages, and not one of us is exempt from this reality.

Consider the tradeoff which happened then. Consider what Jesus did for you. He stood there and took the penalty which the justice of God demanded for our sins. Have you ever really understood that? Have you received the salvation that Jesus came to bring?

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God’s Home Invasion: Jesus Breaks Down the Doors and Breaks Out the Captives

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once wrote, “ . . .  eccentricity is the privilege of genius.”

Most of the pioneers of the world have been those who have dared to buck the status quo, and someone at some time has usually splattered their reputations during their lifetimes with charges of either insanity or maliciousness. It’s not unusual, then, to find that the same charges were directed against Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, during his early life and ministry. These charges came from people who were close to him and people who were of sterling religious reputation, during the time which he spoke the will of the Father and did the miracles of power which challenged the course of this world into sin, disease and death.

The charges which came against Jesus came as the wave of popularity began to rise after the first months of his earthly ministry. The rumblings of opposition began early, and they eventually were to culminate in the plot against him in Jerusalem from the whole religious establishment which led to his crucifixion. But Jesus did  not allow any of those misguided and slanderous statements against him and his ministry to pass without serious challenges directly to those who were making them, and in this we see the astute perception of Jesus and his personal formidability in confrontation as he dealt with the statements of the opposition swiftly and decisively. In this we see more of his wisdom, resolution and moral courage of the one perfect man who has ever lived before this world, and his unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness, to echo the words of C.S. Lewis. But in this we see the same personality of the God who revealed himself in the Old Testament, but with the perfection of humanity in his tenderness and razor sharp reason. We see here in Jesus the condescension of Deity in stooping to live among us, teach us and correct us during our most severe misperceptions and most horrible errors. We see the tough love of the Son of God, who did not consider himself too high and mighty to simply ignore our sins and turn the other way, but who rebuked us in his love, the supremely tough, yet heartbreakingly tender love of the Son of God.

This, then, is the setting of one of the hard sayings of Jesus, if not the hardest, especially when guilt, neuroticism and obsessive-compulsive disorder  misconstrues it. Understanding the situation, though, and why the statement was made discloses what the unforgivable sin really was and why it was unforgivable. But even more, as we go into the passage, we will also find the scriptural basis for something that many of us may never have truly realized had been based in scripture.

“And then he is coming into the house, and the crowd is coming together, so that they’re unable even to have a meal. And when his family heard about it they came out to apprehend him, because they were thinking, ‘He’s out of his mind.’ And the teachers of the law from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He has Beelzebul ,’ and that, ‘He is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons.’ And when he had called them together he started saying to them, ‘How is Satan able to cast out Satan? If his dominion is divided against itself, his dominion is not able to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house is not able to stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he is unable to stand but has come to an end. But no one is able to come into the house of a strong man and take his stuff unless he first handcuffs the strong man, and then he is able to ransack his house. Understand this: all things will be forgiven the sons of men, even  their sins and slanders with which they blaspheme; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not ever have forgiveness in eternity, because he is guilty of an eternal sin . . .’  — because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:20-30, Dale’s sight translation).

Misunderstanding and opposition accompanied the ministry of Jesus. This is the setting for one of the hardest sayings of Jesus in the gospels, and it is necessary to understand this to understand what Jesus said in its larger context.  It’s also very instructive to consider what is happening in this passage, since in it we’ll find something that we never thought that we would find there – something that some have even said is not even in scripture, but which formed a cornerstone of the apologetics of C.S. Lewis.

The first misunderstanding that followed the ministry of Jesus was the misdiagnosis of his mental health. This came from people who were genuinely well disposed to him – but they were sincerely wrong about him. Their misunderstanding of what was happening with him led them to attempt to rein him in and shut him down, and this may well rank as one of their biggest blunders and misconceptions.

This is what is happening when Mark describes the pandemonium of a crowd that mobbed Jesus when he was in a house and seemingly trying just to get in a meal: “And then he is coming into the house, and the crowd is coming together, so that they’re unable even to have a meal. And when his family heard about it they came out to apprehend him, because they were thinking, ‘He’s out of his mind.’” This description is part of the plain, vivid, blue collar language of Mark when he described the ministry of Jesus. The phrase which I’ve translated, “ . . . his family . . .” is an idiom which seems to mean that; it’s not the literal term for family. The phrase could also mean his friends, which would seemingly mean his neighborhood and family friends from Nazareth. But the appearance of his literal family on the edge of the crowd later, in verse 31, indicates from the later context that this would have more likely have been his family members – his mother and brothers.

So the situation became so crazy with the crowds at some point that his own family transferred the assessment of the situation to their assessment of the mental health of Jesus himself. I’ve translated the words, “ . . . they were thinking . . .” but the words in the original are, “ . . .  they were saying.” It seemed from the context that this was more the meaning – sometimes the phrase does mean this – but either way, they had thought up and were working each other up with a false assessment of Jesus himself. And there is no ambiguity in the phrase which I’ve translated, “He’s out of his mind.” Other, more colloquial translations could be, “He’s crazy!” or “He’s off his rocker!” There is no misunderstanding at all of what this phrase means in the original language. Those people who were coming out to take charge of Jesus considered him at this point to be mentally unbalanced. Since in the ancient world there were no men in white coats to bring a person in to a mental hospital, it was up to the family to do something about someone who was showing signs of being mentally disturbed, and this statement about Jesus, unique to the gospel of Mark, shows that at this point in his ministry his family was going so far as to come out to where he was preaching and teaching to bring him in.

This sentence also shows the blue collar frankness of Mark. It’s understandable that some of his family members might have, from third party reports, misconstrued what was happening in the ministry of Jesus. This report of what happened was also not at all complimentary to the members of Jesus’s family who were still alive and still prominent in leadership throughout the churches. But this little sentence is also a strong argument for the trustworthiness of the gospel of Mark, since he included things like this that might have been embarrassing to the early church, and it shows even more that the stories about Jesus preserved in the gospels are not fabrications, since they include these realistic and understandable details that simply would not be characteristic of a pious fiction.

But even more – this little sentence shows how sadly and utterly mistaken the opinions and assessments of family members may be. They may not understand what God is doing in the life of a loved one, since all they’ve seen over the years have been the ordinary circumstances of growth and development. They may misunderstand those who are entirely in the will of God, and their opinions and authority, which are nevertheless to be respected and valued, are not the final assessment and the ultimate authority. It’s necessary for us today to remember this, since if Jesus met with this kind of misunderstanding from his family during his earthly life, those of us who have taken up the cross to follow him as his disciples cannot consider ourselves above that same kind of misunderstanding.

But the misunderstanding of family members was only part of what Jesus encountered at this time in his ministry. Far more serious and far worse was what he found with the slanderous opposition from the religious leaders from Jerusalem. They were trying to spread the rumor that the ministry of Jesus came through demonic power. They saw him as serious religious competition, and they were seeking to discredit him and blacken his reputation by attributing his miracles to the power of spiritual evil.

This is what Mark wrote about what was happening: “And the teachers of the law from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He has Beelzebul ,’ and that, ‘He is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons.’” This apparently wasn’t just a small, one time, off hand, trite saying which could have been sarcasm or a joke which was misunderstood. Rather, this was something that they were spreading around behind his back; it was despicable slanderous opposition. They were in effect trying to smear Jesus with the reputation that he was in league with evil powers and pretty much a practitioner of black magic himself. This charge pretty much carried the implication that Jesus was possessed and probably insane was well – a wicked, insane man who was himself the tool of the most powerful demons. And this charge in fact continued after the ministry of Jesus and was repeated later in the Talmud. But this charge also is hostile testimony to the reality of the miracles of Jesus. Even those in the most malicious opposition to Jesus could not deny that his miracles were real and that they really happened. Their reality was such that all the opposition could do was to stoop to the charge that they were accomplished through demonic power, and through a demonic power superior to that which was showing itself in the people that they knew were already possessed.

This charge came from those who were in the positions of religious authority there – the most astute Biblical scholars there. They themselves also performed exorcisms as well – but they could not argue with the fact that Jesus always was successful whenever he cast out demons. The malicious reaction to the ministry of Jesus shows, then, the inadequacy of religious authority as such as compared with the authority and power of Jesus himself. Their reaction shows that roles, titles and careful Biblical scholarship does not necessarily add up to spiritual discernment nor proper understanding and application of the Word of God. They totally missed what the Spirit of God was doing there in the land of Palestine about 30 A.D.

Thus Jesus shows that even a perfect life and ministry may meet with misunderstanding from relatives and slander from others. He shows that in a world of sin spiritual ignorance can cloud the understanding of the most well intentioned and best educated people. He shows that there is a breaking point to the opinions of other human beings to be the reliable standard of truth and righteousness when God comes into human history and starts something totally new, as he did when the Son of God came into our world and began his ministry.

This then throws the question back to each one of us. Do we have the mentality that would have agreed with the rumors back then? Are we too quick to believe what others are saying without ourselves examining the scriptures and seeking to know whether what is happening is God’s incomparable working? I fear that too many believers over the years are far too ready to believe rumor and hearsay themselves, and not to speak the truth, refrain from gossip and be discreet with what they say. But even more – it brings us back to the Word of God as well as the standard of what is true and right. Not one of those things would have been said about Jesus if they had taken the Word of God and had seen Jesus through that infallible lens.

But there’s more to the story, definitely. Jesus did not leave the charges against him unanswered. Jesus answered misunderstanding and slander with compassionate but relentless logic. With a few plain, commonsense words of unbreakable logic he drove the charges into nonsense. With his quiet, pointed rebuke he implicitly answers one charge and explicitly answers the other. 

The clarity of his reaction was not the reaction of paranoia. If Jesus had truly been unbalanced, the expected reaction would have been the raving mania of an unbalanced mind clinging desperately to a deluded and depraved image of itself. Even more, his reply is remarkable in its understatement and seriousness. With singular accuracy and sanity he gives a pointed answer that shows himself not only in full possession of his reason, but far more reasonable than anyone that he addressed. His words are those of one who is full control of himself and with full discernment of the situation. It would indeed not be too much to say, in fact, that Jesus was the only truly consistently sane person in human history, with mind, will and emotions unclouded and untouched by human sin and depravity – but that’s something to be explored at another time and in more depth.

So this is what Mark tells as how Jesus answered the teachers of the Law who were charging him with demonic power: “And when he had called them together he started saying to them, ‘How is Satan able to cast out Satan? If his dominion is divided against itself, his dominion is not able to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house is not able to stand. And if Satan rises up against himself and is divided, he is unable to stand but has come to an end. But no one is able to come into the house of a strong man and take his stuff unless he first handcuffs the strong man, and then he is able to ransack his house.’”

Mark presents Jesus as showing the utter impossibility of his miracles happening through demonic powers by the analogies of the divided house, the divided kingdom and the ransacked house of the handcuffed strong man. These analogies were apparently given in a rebuke, inside whatever house Jesus happened to have been standing at the moment. His twelve disciples were apparently there as witnesses of what was said. He delivered this rebuke and correction with tact and courtesy and did not publicly shame the teachers of the Law before the crowds. His rebuke showed his hatred for their sin of slander and his righteous stand against it, but as it has yet to be seen, this rebuke has a deadly seriousness as well.

The argument which Jesus uses in these analogies is a form of reductio ad absurdum: pushing an opponent’s point to its logical conclusion where it will be clearly understood to be ridiculous. He took their charge, that he was acting by demonic power, and drew the inevitable conclusion that he was driving out demons by demonic power there was division and anarchy in the kingdom of Satan. This was ridiculous to people who had as a matter of their lives seen the blatant work of spiritual evil in the lives of others, and it was common knowledge to them about the coordination and cooperation of the forces of spiritual evil. So the conclusion is that the exorcisms of Jesus cannot be by demonic power. QED. And the charges against him are both illogical and malicious. QED.

But Jesus goes on and, by the analogy of the strong man who is handcuffed and has his house ransacked, that there is something more powerful than the most powerful ruler of spiritual evil at work in his ministry. The One who is stronger than the most powerful and evil of the evil ones is there and exercising his power and authority. In fact, the reality of the exorcisms shows that the power of the kingdom of God – his ruling dominion – was there in the presence of the anointed King, the Son of God. Jesus was letting his actions speak for themselves in their results, as he was willing to do throughout his ministry. And his actions directed them to the proper conclusion about what was happening in his ministry. He shows them that their unbelief is illogical and in fact in spite of what they had been seeing right in front of their faces, but which they were nevertheless bending over backwards in their slander to avoid coming to the conclusion that the Messiah was there and that the Son of God had come.

It could easily be said that what Jesus was pointing out to the teachers of the Law was like the well known statement of Sherlock Holmes: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Jesus pointed out that it was impossible that he could be acting through demonic power, and, however improbable they may have considered it, that it was the truth that they were standing before King Jesus, the conqueror, the one stronger than Satan. His miracles and exorcisms were themselves the evidence that he was the one with the authority of the Son of God and accomplishing the compassionate will of God in the power of the Spirit of God. So what they were seeing was the ultimate home invasion – the ultimate kingdom takeover – and the evidence was the number of those that they had seen before their eyes who were healed and delivered through the ministry of Jesus.

The evidence was that right there before them was a reality which they had to come to grips with. His life and ministry were demonstrating the truth of the statement of I John 3:8: “This was why the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” And this was the conclusion that Athanasius, a pastor and theologian who lived after 300 A.D., came to: “From such ordinary acts as being born and taking food, he was recognized as actually being in the body; but by the extraordinary acts which he did through the body he proved himself to be the Son of God.”

So by this point let’s consider what we’ve found here in the gospel of Mark. We’ve found that there were a few who charged Jesus with being crazy – a lunatic. We’ve found that there are those who charged Jesus with being the very devil of hell, the ultimate spiritual counterfeit – a liar. And we’ve found that Jesus himself pointed to his own ministry as being the evidence of his being the promised Messiah – Lord. So here we have something striking that appears in the writings of C.S. Lewis as the trilemma: that these are the three alternatives that Jesus has given us to assess his ministry – Lord, liar or lunatic – but the conclusion that he leads us to as the ultimate conclusion is one that is demonstrated throughout the gospels – Lord. I’ve heard criticisms of the trilemma, that it is not itself scriptural, and certainly I don’t think that it should be forced into any passage of scripture, but it is remarkable that within these few verses you find all three being set forth: lunatic, by his misguided family; liar, by his malicious critics; and Lord, by his own direction to the results of his ministry.

And when the results of his ministry were considered, they were real and lasting. It was asserted that people whom Jesus healed during his earthly ministry were still walking around about A.D. 100 – it’s easily plausible they had been children who he had healed during the years of A.D. 27-30. And I think that the analogy of the ministry of Jesus as a home invasion that brought freedom to captives from evil gains more clarity when it is compared to the freeing of Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus and Michelle Knight from the clutches of Ariel Castro (Ariel Castro kidnappings). These three innocent women were taken captive for years by an evil man but freed from evil when forces stronger than the evil man came to break down the doors and rescue them. This dramatic story, with the story of their own faith and prayers for deliverance, captivated the world. And this is a very apt analogy to Jesus tying up the strong man and ransacking his house – bringing freedom to the captives of sin, disease and demonic oppression.

But there’s even more to be considered here that will do well to our souls from the Word of God. There’s more to be understood from understanding what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was. What Jesus said to the teachers of the Law on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was a warning to them to cease their slander. It’s easy to see that they were words wrung out of him by the situation with which he was faced. Of all that Jesus said, I can see these as words he would rather not have ever had to say.

So Jesus concluded what he was saying to the teachers of the law with this most serious warning: “Understand this: all things will be forgiven the sons of men, even  their sins and slanders with which they blaspheme; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not ever have forgiveness in eternity, because he is guilty of an eternal sin . . .’  — because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

I don’t think that we can see this as Jesus pronouncing a statement of final judgment on the teachers of the law. He himself said of his earthly ministry in John 8:15: “I pass judgment on no one.” Rather, this must be seen first of all as an extremely serious warning of how serious their slander was. He was warning them of the final consequence of the slander that they were directing against him was implicating the Holy Spirit. The gravity of this warning comes with his words which I’ve translated, “Understand this.” This was Jesus’s characteristic idiom which he used for emphasis; in other places it’s translated,m “I tell you the truth.” It’s been considered to be equivalent to the Old Testament expression of God, “As I live, saith the LORD.”  And what Jesus is warning them against is an explicit and unretracted declaration the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus is the work of spiritual evil. Jesus does not say why it is unforgivable, but it is most likely because is means an inability to receive forgiveness and that it is a symptom of a moral disease that is incurable. It is an utter moral blindness that cannot see the light at all and cannot recognize the presence of the forgiving God among them. It means a decided preference for moral darkness and an utter obstinacy that hates, resists and slanders the genuine working of God through Jesus Christ and calls it pure evil.

As a matter of pastoral care, this sin cannot be the symptom of a diseased mind, of a messed up thinking mechanism such as in obsessive compulsive disorder, that seizes upon this thought and subjects the person to an endless series of self accusations and attacks, like a kind of mental auto-immune disease. Nor can this be a mere passing, inadvertent thought that comes across the mind of a believer. I cannot say that it’s impossible for anyone in our day and age to have committed it, since I don’t know the actual threshold of when a person passes over any kind of sin of word to where this one is committed. But I consider that Jesus delivered this as a warning and not a condemning declaration that there was hope even for those who were saying such things and that they themselves were not unforgivable. Indeed, I don’t believe that Jesus would even have taken the trouble to speak to them and warn them if he had considered them unforgivable because of what they had said. I do believe that it’s impossible for anyone who has ever put his or her faith in Jesus Christ for eternal life to have committed this, and the evidence of regeneration is more than enough to show that it has not been committed by anyone. So I think that it comes down to not being obsessed about this one saying, but this transgression will not become clear and clearly judged until eternity, and it is not for us ever to conclude that anyone has ever committed this sin, or the forgivability or unforgivability of any sin before God, or to judge others or even ourselves on whether we have committed an unforgivable sin.

Ultimately, then, all that is in this passage directs us to the proper reception of Jesus Christ for all that he truly is. He is the Stronger One who invaded the house of utter evil to set the captives free, as the rest of the gospel of Mark shows us as well. His call to us is what it was at the beginning of the gospel of Mark: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has arrived. Repent and believe the good news!” His call is to recognize him as the anointed King of God, the Son of God who came as a Jewish man in first century Palestine, who did miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, and who dies for us on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and who rose again to provide eternal life for all who put their trust in him.

So then, the falsehoods that have already been exploded about Jesus work even more to show the truth about him!  Truly the Son of God came to earth for the salvation of men and women! It happened, and it’s real. Jesus Christ does do miracles! He did miracles of salvation then, and now, in the power of his death and resurrection he continues to do them. So he now calls us to receive him as the Savior now, and the Lord of our lives, to submit to his authority, to receive the forgiveness of our sins and to experience the power of his risen life.

Jesus Christ truly does miracles of salvation from sin to eternal life. Therefore, he calls us to truth him for our salvation, whether this is the first step of faith to acknowledge him as Lord and Savior, or in the continuing trust in him for our lives. And even more, we cannot leave this reality just at the place where it touches us; this means that we also need to seek him for the miracles of salvation for our friends and relatives who have yet to come face to face with the Savior.

Jesus Christ really does do miracles of healing. There is still healing and deliverance from the power of the enemy in his name. So we can continue to seek his power for our most intractable problems of physical disease and infirmity, and for the most impossible situations of spiritual evil. Through prayer and the exercise of his delegated authority in his name he still continues to wreak havoc and ransack the house of the enemy.

The ultimate miracle of the Son of God is yet to come, though. He is coming back to take us to himself, to purify and glorify us finally and entirely beyond sin, disease and death, to be like him and with him forever. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

The Promise of His Coming

Many years ago, in London, England, a man in despair went to drown himself in the River Thames. On the way to the river, though, he happened to see a copy of the painting, “Hope.” This was a painting of a blindfolded woman who was sitting on top of the world and playing on the one string left on her harp. The man turned and went back home, as he exclaimed, “Well, I have one string – I have a little boy at home.”

In a time of great difficulty and discouragement for many, that was the kind of hope that God held out for his people. The year was 732 BC. It was during the difficult years of the reign of the ungodly king Ahaz, in his capital city of Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz had led a life of wickedness and idolatry, and even sacrificed his son to a pagan god (either Baal-Rimmon or Molech).  But now the worst consequences of his wickedness had begun to arrive: the northern kingdom of Israel and the pagan kingdom of Syria had allied together against Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah, and they planned to set up a puppet king in Jerusalem. This would have meant an end to the independence of their nation and its becoming the slave state of the northern alliance. But God had his man on the spot to give them the message of hope and encouragement when the very survival of their nation seemed to be at stake. God gave the prophet Isaiah a vision of the King that was to come, and this would be someone infinitely better than the ungodly and incompetent Ahaz. This vision was an expansion on the earlier prophecy which God had given through Isaiah of the greater King from the line of David who was to come, and who would be marked as the center of the promises of God and the hopes of the people of God by being born of a virgin. Though the people of God would experience more oppression in the centuries to come through the world powers that would appear temporarily on the scene, through the prophet God pointed ahead to a time hundreds of years later to show them the Light of Salvation, the Son to be born of a virgin, who would ironically be the direct descendant of the incompetent Ahaz himself, and would bring his people freedom from the ultimate oppression itself.

This prophecy that God gave through Isaiah remains as the encouragement of the people of God today, as a foundation stone for the faith and hope of the people of God of all ages, but even more so today, since we now live on the other side of the first installment of the fulfillment of the prophecy. We now live since the time that the promised King first came, Jesus Christ, who lived and ministered among us, who died and rose again, and who now reigns from heaven. But we also can draw encouragement that there is an installment of the prophecy which is yet to be fulfilled, and when it is completely fulfilled, the promised King, born of a virgin, will return in glory and will rule openly over all the earth. Though we often hear these words during the Christmas season, in the incomparable setting of Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah, we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for their meaning as we together consider what they meant at the time when these words first came through the prophet Isaiah.

So here is what Isaiah said, to the people of his time and to the people of God of all ages:

“There will no longer be any darkness to those who were in despair;
Previously he humiliated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
But afterwards he will make glorious the land by the way of the sea,
The land by the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles!
The nation walking in darkness has seen a great light,
To the dwellers in the land of deepest darkness a great light has shone forth!
You have enlarged the nation, you have made their joy great,
Before your presence they rejoice, with the joy of a great harvest,
Or as men exult when they divide their spoils,
Because the heavy yoke,
The iron bar on their shoulders,
The ruling rod of the oppressor
You have shattered like on the day of Midian,
Because every soldier’s boot, every iron shin guard,
Every garment rolled in blood,
Is only destined for burning, simply fuel for the fire.
Because to us a child is born, a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders!
And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace!
And of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will be on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
And establish and increase it
With judgment and righteousness, from then until forever!
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

(Isaiah 9:1-7).

When God’s people living in distressing times, God’s promise of the Light of salvation remains. The Light of salvation isn’t some mystical mist, feelings of exaltation or anything like that, but a Person, and the Light of salvation is Salvation in person. The deliverance of God, the Light of salvation, is in the person of his Son, the promised King, and he comes to those who are in hopeless situations, where there is suffering, to deliver those who trust in him.

The Light of God’s salvation came first to the land and the people where it seemed like the darkness had its headquarters. The joy of deliverance would come by the prophecy from the center of the land of the northern alliance, from the people who would seem to be under the most evil and incompetent rulers of that day. It would come to the land of Galilee, and that land was then under the sway of the pagans.

In verses 1-2, Isaiah directs his prophecy to the land of Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles.

“There will no longer be any darkness to those who were in despair;
Previously he humiliated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
But afterwards he will make glorious the land by the way of the sea,
The land by the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles!
The nation walking in darkness has seen a great light,
To the dwellers in the land of deepest darkness a great light has shone forth!”

 

In ancient Israel, the land which was called Galilee then and now was always the first to suffer under the invasion of foreign powers. In a very short time after this prophecy was given, it would also be the first to suffer under the invasion of the Assyrian war machine, the terrifyingly brutal empire of that day. The prior context is a part of the rebuke of God through Isaiah to Ahaz, and it shows how God takes ungodly and incompetent rulers to task. And in the prior context God tells the godly and faithful in Israel to remain faithful and not to be terrified or intimidated by every scary rumor that they would hear. He also advises them to trust in God and his Word, and not to turn aside to the psychics and ghost whisperers of that day, since that path only leads to further darkness, dissatisfaction and despair that are the marks of oppression of a spiritual nature, as it does today as well. But then the prophecy through Isaiah turns to that land he called Galilee of the Gentiles, and that had been Israelite territory for about five hundred years, ever since God had given it to the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali during the time of Joshua, when the Israelites conquered the land after they had left Egypt during the time of Moses.

Isaiah had called the Galilee of the Gentiles a land of no joy, and that was certainly an understatement for the suffering of that time and the suffering to come.  Because it was on the northern borders, the Galilee was often the first piece of territory picked off by invaders and conquerors from the northern borders of Israel. These invaders were in earlier years from the Aramaean states that are a part of modern Syria, and later in the time of Isaiah, from the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire centered around the cities of Calah, Asshur and Nineveh, in what is now northern Iraq. After the amazing ministry of Jonah in Nineveh some years earlier, the Assyrians seem to have been restrained in their drive for conquest of the whole Middle East, but they were soon to start back on that same path. And, as far as the land of Israel was concerned, the area of Galilee that Isaiah was speaking to would be the first to suffer. But, in the times to come, the first to suffer would be the first to experience something wonderful in the years to come. Centuries later, the fulfillment would come about, and it would not be a political liberation but something greater and deeper. The fulfillment would begin in the ministry of Jesus Christ in the land of Galilee, during the time of about 27-30 A.D., when he brought relief from spiritual and physical oppression in his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. The Light of salvation in person in those years came to an area despised for its religious and social impurity, and brought, and the apostle Matthew in fact pointed to the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy (Matthew 4:12-17). And it seems that this prophecy did point forward to Jesus’s declaration in the gospel of John, “I am the Light of the world! Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!”

This shows the continuing modus operandi of God himself, that he brings the Light of salvation to the hopeless situations, and to the people who other people despise, bypass and exploit. He directs his greatest blessings to the most difficult situations and the most impossible people, and the freedom through his Son seems to come where the darkness may seem to be descending forever. The God of the Bible greatly desires to bring great joy and victory into places and lives marked by oppression and suffering. But he understands the real needs of the human heart and the human life more than any, and he knows that the real need of mankind is for more than political freedom from oppression and satisfaction of their physical needs, but rather, freedom from the power of sin over the human heart.

In so many circumstances we may forget this, and look to the satisfaction of the physical needs rather than the real needs of the human heart, but God provides for the need in ways in which we often would not do ourselves. For example, there was once a woman in Anchorage, Alaska many years ago who had been living in adultery with a married man, but who then became pregnant and was abandoned by him. After having been left alone, she threw herself on her bed and prayed, “O God, I haven’t talked with you for years, but if you are there, if you are real, please answer me. I have made a terrible mess of my life and I need your help. I need forgiveness. I want to live differently.”

God then directed her to go to the first church she saw, and there was a citywide conference on spiritual growth going on. She went in, paid the fee and came alone every night. The leader of the conference noticed her and her isolation in the midst of so many others, but he later found her coming to speak privately to him after the fourth night. He then shared with her the gospel of Jesus Christ, and she came to believe in the Savior that Isaiah had pointed to, and receive all the benefits of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Her problem, as she knew, wasn’t simply her circumstances, but the problem was with her heart and the way that she had been living, and she received what she needed to walk out of the darkness of her past into the light of the salvation which Jesus brought.

Ultimately, then, the Light of salvation which God promises means victory over our oppressions, since the conquering King is mightier than all the might of the oppressors. Before the power of the King who is to come all the equipment of the oppressor simply seems to melt away.

In verses 3-4, Isaiah went on to declare that the land of no joy, Galilee of the Gentiles, would become a land which would experience great joy as the mercy of God arrived there. He said,

“You have enlarged the nation, you have made their joy great,
Before your presence they rejoice, with the joy of a great harvest,
Or as men exult when they divide their spoils,
Because the heavy yoke,
The iron bar on their shoulders,
The ruling rod of the oppressor
You have shattered like on the day of Midian,
Because every soldier’s boot, every iron shin guard,
Every garment rolled in blood,
Is only destined for burning, simply fuel for the fire.”

The comparisons for this joy were as a time of great harvest or in dividing the spoils after a great military victory – perhaps the modern analogies would be a great stock market boom, a great victory like the Gulf War or World War II, or even a great victory for one’s favorite sports team. There would  be a miraculous victory over the oppressors, like that of Gideon over the vast army of Midian, which had taken place in about the same area about four hundred years earlier. During the lifetime of Isaiah there would have been a comparable miraculous victory over the Assyrians, in which no human would even have lifted a hand – and which, incidentally, is also attested by the secular Greek historian Herodotus. In the time of Jesus, the people would have also been looking for a political and military deliverance from the Romans, since the Roman oppression tended to be more visible in Galilee than in Jerusalem. But the promise of God’s miraculous deliverance would not be military and political, but rather the beginning of a peace that would never end, that would receive its final culmination at the return of Jesus Christ.

Though the power of oppression and evil may seem great, the power of God’s deliverance will always be greater still. Often, throughout the ages, the people of God, the people of the Bible, have been the oppressed and conquered rather than the conquerors and the oppressors. But all the might of a human war machine is nothing before the almighty Savior. Evil empires may arise, but they will all unravel and fall before the God who rules and governs the nations. This has been the comfort of the people of God in all ages, and it will certainly be so for the last generation that will face the ultimate evil empire and the ultimate evil emperor himself, the Antichrist. But ultimately, the joy of triumph will not be that of the false messiahs that precede the ultimate false messiah, and the ultimate false messiah, but all the vast, world dominating machinery of evil will simply melt away before the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Therefore, our hope in our own dark circumstances is the light of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the hope that gives us strength to endure even if the darkness seems to be gathering and asserting itself. By his mere presence, the coming of the Light of salvation will dispel the darkness, so believers in Jesus Christ need not despair of any situation as hopeless, even if the whole world around them seems to be covered with darkness. There is especially no need for hopelessness, despair, self pity and anger even if we seem to think that the circumstances of our lives are hopeless, because they are not!

The deliverance, then, that the Light of salvation in person wants to bring into our lives, then is first of all within our hearts, to bring us his joy even in the midst of our difficult circumstances in this life. Too often this is something that we may think is the least when often it is the most important thing that we need. There was once that a social worker verbally flogged David Wilkerson for giving people false hopes, but then a young woman named Rosa gave him inestimable encouragement. She told how she laughed when he had said that Jesus could live in her heart, and how she was drawn to the Word of God when she was told he could give her power over sin. She said that night when she had asked Jesus to change her heart, that the horrible block on which she lived changed. There were still piles of stinking garbage around and roaches in the apartment, and she still had many problems, but, “Jesus has changed the biggest problem of all. he has shown me how to live with myself.”

So then, God’s Light of salvation in Jesus Christ remains when his people face distressing times, but even more, God’s promise of salvation points forward to the King who was to come. The Son that he promised would be the source of salvation for the despised and downtrodden people of God, and what a Son would be that King who was to come! His anointed King, the Messiah, would be the fulfillment of all the promises of God, and the glory of the ruling Messiah would be the source of salvation for his people.

The King who was to come as the fulfillment of salvation would be certainly more than an mere human being and more than any earthly ruler before or since. The prophecy says that he would be born a human male, but the amazing titles which he is given sows that he would be more than an ordinary man. The prophecy speaks about someone who is born and yet is eternal, man and yet more than man.

The prophet Isaiah then ex[ands upon an earlier promise that he had made to Ahaz in verse 6:

“Because to us a child is born, a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders!
And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace!”

It was certainly in the same time period, and may have even been on the same occasion he spoke to Ahaz face to face in 7:14, about the ruling Son from the house of David who was to be born of  a virgin. In this passage Isaiah explains more about what the prophetic name “Emmanuel” would mean, “God with us.” He would be “Wonderful,” which was the name of the angel of the Lord who had appeared to Manoah, the father of Samson, and who himself turned out to be God and accepted sacrifice as God himself. He would be “Counselor,” the great Teacher, and Jesus himself accepted this title fully of himself during his earthly ministry. Moreover, he would be “Mighty God,” the God of Israel himself in person, and he would be called, “The Everlasting Father,” as eternal as God himself and the “Prince of Peace,” the ultimate peacemaker as God himself. The ruling Son from the house of David, the King who was to come, would certainly be born human, but he would also be someone who would also have the attributes of God himself, and this is something that would be possible only if he were both God and man.

This also shows something remarkable about the way that the God of the Bible works things out as he intervenes in our lives and in the history of our world. His promises and his course of action may not really be comprehensible to us until it happens. This is the way that the promises of God and the prophecies of the Messiah happened in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But as he did with Jesus, he most certainly will do the unprecedented and unexpected for his people, as he did when he became man in the person of his Son. We often cannot know how he will act to fulfill his promises beforehand, but we can rely on him to fulfill his promises; we may find him doing things that we do not and cannot anticipate, but we will certainly find him acting powerfully, compassionately and lovingly for his glory in the person of his Son for his people. And in Jesus, God has come himself and has not remained distant. It is like a legend of a Shah of Iran some centuries ago. He disguised himself as a poor man, and came and sat with the man who tended the fire for the furnace to heat the water for the public baths. He proceeded to visit with him day after day, until one day when the Shah revealed his true identity to the poor man. The poor man looked into the Shah’s face with love and wonder and said, “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food, and to care about what happens to me. On others you may bestow rich gifts, but to me you have given yourself!”

God’s promise of salvation through his King, then, shows his utter trustworthiness. Through Jesus Christ he has fulfilled his promises to the royal dynasty of David, the royal house of Israel, and to all the people of God in all ages. The dynasty that reached its fullest dominion in Jesus Christ shows the utter faithfulness of God to his promises to all ages.

Isaiah went on to declare that all this would be accomplished not by anything that they would do but by the zealous determination of  God to fulfill his own promises to the house of David:

“And of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will be on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
And establish and increase it
With judgment and righteousness, from then until forever!
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

The fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ stand as a witness forever to the utter trustworthiness of the God of the Bible and his utter dedication to the fulfillment of his own Word. God had already given promises to David years earlier, but through Isaiah, those promises were expanded even more to that someone else who would be greater than Solomon, the immediate heir of David. The King who would reign forever on the throne of David would be the final recipient of the promises of God through Isaiah to the people of God, and that Forever King would have no adversary ever that could resist his power and authority. The final application of this prophecy, then, is to the glory of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus, who has all power in heaven and on earth, and who is returning to rule this world directly, up close and in person.

Because of the precise and trustworthy fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, there is the certainty for the child of God through faith in Jesus Christ that the God of the Bible remembers and fulfills his own promises. There is the assurance that the God of the Bible has a meticulous faithfulness to all that he says he will do. And the basis of our faith in him and our faith in his Word is not anything in ourselves and the strength of our convictions, confidence or feelings, but the faithfulness which God has shown throughout the centuries to do exactly what he has promised. The faith of the believer in Christ is not the presumption of and our expectations of what we want, but rather the trust in and reception of what God has already said and promised. So a strong faith is only the humble confidence in what God has said, and daring to take him at his Word, rather than trusting to our own ideas and our own estimation of the circumstances, no matter how promising nor how dark they may seem. And this is the kind of confidence which is found in the words of ‘Chester,’ which was one of the runners-up to be the national anthem of the United States of America:

“Let our tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slavery clank her galling chains,
We fear them not,
We trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.”

The God of the Bible will always fulfill his Word, but in his own way and in his own time. To his glory he will often go beyond our own ideas and expectations to do much more than we had thought, but in our difficulties he will above all give us himself. This is the reason for us to trust him, to receive his companionship through Jesus Christ, to follow his Word, and to live with the sense of adventure and wonder that comes when God’s surprises arrive and fulfill our deepest desires.

The message of the prophet of God, then, is, “Wait for the King! Everything is moving forward to the time that he arrives here, and everything will be all right when  he gets here!” So, we now live on the other side of the first coming of the King, after his birth at Bethlehem. We live on the other side of the testimony to what God has done for us through his life, ministry, death and resurrection. If we have repented of our sins and put our faith in him, his Light of salvation, the pardon for our sins and acceptance with God that means eternal life, has already shone into our lives. And yet we wait for him also, for his return in glory, when he will openly and directly exercise his authority over the earth as the King and Master of all. Because of him we know that God cares when people are in suffering and oppression. Because of him we know that God is faithful, that he fulfills his Word even if great stretches of time take place between the promise and the fulfillment. Because of him we know that God’s purpose for our world from all eternity has been that all power and authority, all the glory of Deity, and all wisdom and salvation, would center in and be embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus has come, then, and is yet to return, there is opportunity to receive the eternal life which he died and rose again to provide. He comes as the Light and joy of salvation to those who repent of their sins and put their trust in him. So the question comes to you: have you trusted in the King? Have you received the gift of eternal life which he died to provide for you, and which you could not have earned by yourself? Have you declared your allegiance, that the King is your Lord and Master, by the public declaration of your faith in him?

If you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ, and you have received eternal life, does your life show genuine loyalty to him? Are you loyal to him in your daily obedience to him in following his Word daily, since any day could the the day that you would meet him? Are you demonstrating your loyalty to the other people of his family and kingdom, your brothers and sisters in Christ, by dealing honestly with them and with self sacrificial love? Do you show the glory of the kingdom through lives of purity, holiness and love, so that others see a family resemblance to the King in your life? Finally, do you seek to enlist others to loyalty to the King by your witness to him?

The One Relationship That Saves

This is how a man in prison once described himself: “This is my fifth time in prison. I’m serving eight years for fraud. I was dirty outside my body, and I never used to wash. I was dirty inside my heart: lust, hatred, revenge, anger and malice.”

Then he gave the description of the change Christ had made in his life: “I was able to stop reading dirty books, I was able to stop using dirty words, and the greatest of all, I was able to love the people whom I had hated . . . For the first time in my life I am . . . free of the filth that has been inside me for years. The truth has made me free, the truth being our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This kind of changed life, cleansed from the inside out, is incontrovertible evidence for the reality of the salvation of Jesus Christ. Even more, the living evidence for the reception of salvation by Jesus Christ, the only Savior, is the new direction and control of the person’s life. The living evidence is a life that is not ruled by sin anymore, but that the new Master is Jesus, and his word guides that person’s life. 

During the time of his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus himself gave this same challenge to show this kind of changed, cleansed life to some Jews who had professed to believe in him as the Messiah. They had made some kind of profession of faith in him as the Messiah, but he then challenged them to a deeper and more accurate understanding of who he truly is and what he has promised to do. They might have seen him as not much more than a political Messiah, who had come to free Israel from the Romans and to restore the kingship of David. Jesus, though, gave them an invitation something deeper, and something that was part of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. He challenged them to be his disciples in more than name only, and then to find the freedom from the bondage of sin as they followed his Word. Through that way, they would come to experience the truth of who he is as the Son of God, and they would experience the true freedom which he had come to bring them.

“Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ “

“They answered him, ‘We are the descendants of Abraham, and we have never been in slavery to anyone. What do you mean that, ‘You will become free?’’”

“Jesus answered them, ‘I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, but the Son remains forever. If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free. I know that you are the descendants of Abraham; but you are seeking to kill me, because my Word does not find a place to stay in you. I am speaking what I have seen from the Father; and you are doing what you have heard from your father’” (John 8:31-38).

Following the Word of Jesus shows a genuine saving relationship with him.  That relationship with the Savior, which he calls being his genuine disciple, is  demonstrated by following him as Teacher and Master. The evidence that discipleship is genuine is following the Word of Jesus. 

The challenge to follow the word of Jesus means a personal encounter with saving and liberating truth. This challenge is not to learn new ideas and notions, but to know Truth in Person, to know Jesus himself in the fullness of that saving relationship. This challenge that Jesus gave and continues to give then finds its response from the person who has truly received salvation through Christ, and that response is to follow the Word of Jesus.

In verses 31-32, Jesus gave another one of his challenges to those who were around him: “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” This challenge does not seem to have been given to the twelve apostles, but it is most likely that John the apostle, the author of the gospel, was there to hear it and to witness what followed later. Jesus gave this challenge given to a group of Jews, and it probably took place in or somewhere around Jerusalem. Throughout the gospel John doesn’t give much more than a bare setting for these long discourses where the emphasis is on the words of Jesus and his interaction with the people to whom he was peaching and teaching. The group of Jews that Jesus addressed seem to have been a group who had made had made some kind of public professions of faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah. I don’t think that it’s too much to say that they had probably said something about Jesus being the Messiah and had been baptized as disciples of Jesus. We don’t know how many of them there were; I think that it may have been somewhere around twenty in this group, but it could easily have been many more, since the prior verse, verse 30 says, “As he was saying these things many put their faith in him.” So, Jesus then came back with this challenge to them to prove it and to follow his teaching thereafter. He called them to the reasonable outcome of that declaration of their belief and that was  to accept his teaching as the new direction of their lives. 

Jesus often gave this kind of challenge to those who wanted to be his disciples or made some kind of profession of faith in him as Messiah. He expected their full attention, belief, submission and obedience to him first. This was not something entirely new here in the gospel of John, but it is more like a statement of something that he called for many other places in his teaching, such as in the conclusions to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21-23 and the Sermon on the Plateau in Luke 6:46-49 — which were probably different accounts of the same discourse. In those other places he gave the implied promise of safety in the final and eternal judgment of God, but here he promises something different, and it will later become clear why he promises something different. His promise is that they will come to know the personal experience of the truth, the liberating power of Christ himself, Truth in Person (for more on Jesus as the Truth in Person, see John  1:14, 1:27 and 14:6). Here, as compared to the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plateau, he starts with the conclusion as the introduction. Rather than give them the fuller explanation of his promises and the practices that he expected that he gave to his disciples in Galilee, he starts here with his expectation of obedience to his Word.

Through the Word of Jesus himself that has come down to us, the challenge of obedience to the teaching of Jesus is still what he calls for as the demonstration of a true saving faith in Christ. It is the culmination of a genuine trust in him for all that he said that he is and all that he has showed that he is. It is what changes the terms of Christian commitment from the repetition of accepted words or a prayer to words and actions that show submission to the word of Jesus as the outcome of a true profession of faith. This cannot be against the grace of God in any way unless someone is willing to go to the self contradictory extreme that Jesus himself, the grace of God in person (John 1:14), was expecting something contrary to the grace of God. Jesus was calling them to pretty much what the apostle Paul called, “. . . the obedience of faith  . . .” (Romans 1:5). He was calling for those who had professed faith in him to show the demonstration of the genuine faith that has truly received the grace of God for salvation. He was calling for them to be more than disciples in name only but to come to the full realization of what it means to be his disciple, to experience the freedom that he brings from the guilt and power of sin. And for them, this would mean continued adherence to his preaching and teaching, and after his death and resurrection, continued fellowship with his church and adherence his Word as it continued through the preaching and teaching of his apostles (Acts 2:47) and became the complete inspired written Word of God (II Timothy 3:16-17).s

This wholehearted discipleship to Jesus Christ, to follow his Word, is truly the outcome of a faith that believes that he truly is the Son of God and the promised Messiah of God. Unfortunately, many have over the centuries and in our own day preferred to treat the Word of Jesus as something less than fully reliable and the Lord Jesus as someone to be relied upon less than themselves. They show some of the unnecessary reluctance that amounts to actual unbelief that an airline passenger discovered who was sitting next to a Boeing engineer on a piston engine, propeller driven airliner in 1958. It was shortly after the first flight of the Boeing 707 which was the first American commercial jet propelled airliner. The engineer mentioned the extensive testing on the engines of the 707, and the experience of Boeing with large aircraft and engines from the World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bomber to the mighty B-52 Stratofortress bomber. Then the other passenger asked the Boeing engineer if he had flown on the 707 and received the reply, “I think I’ll wait until it’s been in service awhile.”

Ultimately, then, the reality of a genuine decision to trust in Christ is not in saying some accepted and familiar Christian buzzwords. Nor is it found in association with church people and following the socially acceptable ways of thinking, speaking and acting within an evangelical social circle. Unfortunately, that is about all many have within our churches, and it explains why so many do not think, speak and act as if they were following the Word of God. Surveys consistently show that there are anywhere from 25%-40% within our evangelical churches that are in that area of repeating and imitating what they see and hear but are not being ruled by Jesus Christ as Lord through his Word. So, there does need definitely to be a renewed emphasis that the reality of a genuine decision to trust in Christ is a complete reset of the direction of the will, and it resets away from doing what I want and what I find convenient and self serving to the direction of the that follows the Word of Jesus Christ. And this does bring about a need for the renewed emphasis on the disciplemaking as the normal ministry of the gathered church that can never, ever be neglected for the next shiny new trend.

So then,  the first outward discernment of saving faith is the response to the expressed will of the Lord Jesus in his Word. And then, the true discipleship, the true saving relationship to Jesus finds that Jesus continues to impart the power of his salvation to the believer. And then obedience to the will as expressed in the Word of Jesus shows for all the world a real faith and submission to allow Jesus to be one’s Savior from sin in daily life and eternity. And then, it is as a believer continues in obedience to the Word of Jesus that he or she shows true discipleship to Jesus. And then this true discipleship to Jesus, living in a genuine saving relationship to him, means freedom from bondage to sin. And this is true of all the benefits of salvation: they come from that personal relationship with Jesus, and that relationship is the only relationship which saves. This true discipleship, the reception and sharing of life with the Son of God, means that he brings in his power to conquer the bondage of people in sin, in the way that they naturally are in themselves. So many times we can only come down to the conclusion that the problem with the way things are in our lives, in our families and around is simply comes down to the way that we are in ourselves. But only the almighty Son of God can deliver anyone from the way that he or she is in himself or herself.

The power of the Son of God brings true freedom from the natural tendencies to sin that are part of all of us as human beings. Only he can give the power to break the settled tendencies of human nature in a fallen world. Only the almighty Son of God, who is greater than the way that people are by nature and by choice, can provide them with the escape from the way that they are. And here Jesus does something that he does throughout the gospel of John: he ties all the promises of salvation to the relationship with himself as the Savior. And this brings us back to the truth of scripture that all the grace of God is in Jesus Christ and the promises and power of salvation are in the possession of that person that is in that saving relationship.

In verses 33-36, this specific group of Jews who had professed in Jesus showed that they didn’t get where he was going with what he had said about being set free, and so they went back to their reliance on their Jewish heritage, as the descendants of Abraham. So Jesus went on to clarify what he meant.

“They answered him, ‘We are the descendants of Abraham, and we have never been in slavery to anyone. What do you mean that, ‘You will become free?’’”

“Jesus answered them, ‘I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, but the Son remains forever. If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free!’”

This group seemed to be argumentative and willing to contradict what Jesus had told them. Jesus really did want them to experience the reality of what he had said, so he furnishes them a further explanation of his meaning. This is so much like the personality of the  Jesus of the gospels, that he makes a radical statement to those around them, and they need to find out more from him of what he meant. But this group seemed to be more contradictory and argumentative than some of the others that Jesus had his discussions and explanations with throughout the gospels, and it will soon be apparent why. When Jesus talked about true freedom, they fell back on their presumed relationship to God as sons by their association with their common ancestor Abraham (v. 41). Even more, they looked at their civil standing as freeborn citizens are their reasons to start out their request for more information with a contradiction of Jesus. But Jesus exposed that their presumed position as freeborn descendants of Abraham was contradictory to their actual status as slaves to sin. Their actual status and habitual practice and attitude was the same as that of every human being by nature, heritage and direction. Their actual status was the same as that of everyone else in their lifetime defiance and resistance of the will of God the heritage that they had received from Adam.

So Jesus went on to explain the facts as they knew them in a society where slave holding was legal. The slave can be bought or sold, and has no natural, permanent place in the household. And the household that Jesus was talking about was the household of God the Father, and only the the eternal Son had a legitimate place there. He was stating to them that their real freedom would come from him, who is the eternal Son, and that it would be freedom from the bondage of sin. So then, that relationship with him is the true saving relationship, as he would later state in his great High Priestly prayer to God the Father, in the presence of his disciples: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent” (John 17:3, King James Version).  And here, in his explanation, he specifically ties the power to be set free from sin to being and remaining in that saving relationship through obedience to his Word. He calls them away from their trust in what they thought was their birthright and heritage as Jews, as the descendants of Abraham, and their civil freedom, to see their true need and that he was there to provide for it.

This promise is also tied to the identity which Jesus had already been showing them by their words and their deeds. He was claiming to the the Son of God, their promised Messiah, and to be the truth that sets them free. This would have been an utterly preposterous claim to make if Jesus had been merely a human teacher, and if Jesus had come merely to show people how to live better. But the stupendous promise which Jesus is making here is that he is not here just to make them better than they were before – to be slaves more dressed up and presentable than they were before, but still to be slaves – but to set them free, and to make them, by implication, as free as he himself is from the penalty and power of sin. This is how I would describe living as a believer in Christ, then, and as an obedient disciple: living in the freedom of the Son, and learning how to live like sons and daughters of God. And the apostle John took this into two of the different diagnostic criteria in the letter of I John as to whether a person’s profession of faith in Jesus is genuine: “By this we know that we are in him (Jesus): the person who says the he or she is abiding in him ought to live as he himself lived . . . Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness, because sin is lawlessness. And we know that he was manifested so that he might take away sin, and there is no sin in him. Everyone remaining in him (continuous present in the original language) does not continue to sin (continuous present in the original language)  . . .” (I John 2:6, 3:4-6).

The way that people are, as natural sinners, means that someone else must save not only from the guilt of sin but also from its power. The Savior from sin comes from the outside to bring his life and power. The salvation of Jesus thus means growing conquest of sin rather than the reverse. And thus the fellowship with Jesus as Savior means his freedom comes to the obedient disciple. This, then, has a great bearing on two things what I have seen happening in the lives of many believers in many churches across the United States.

The first thing which I see happening is that many professed believers in Christ have too little grasp on the understanding that it is the one relationship that saves that can save themselves and others from  our sins and the social and psychological effects of our sins and the sins of others. Understanding this should bring an end to what I have often called the growing psychological perfectionism of many believers, where they seem to place more trust in psychological terms and methods than plain adherence to scripture and following Jesus Christ as Lord of one’s life and Savior from all sins. There does seem to be a scrambling of many after giving and receiving one more bit of amateur therapy or to find and pass on and this little nugget or magical little formula that I think that can rescue you or me from something that I think needs to be fixed, or to find and digest that  one more book by a Christian author that seems to promise rescue from something. We forget that Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God who can bring freedom, that the relationship with him is what will save, and that no one will ever be rescued from sin by a word of supposed wisdom from another believer, that none of us can be the Messiah for ourselves or anyone else ever at any time.

The second thing which I see happening is the tendency of Christian parents to trust the salvation of their own children to association with other believers. I can call this the expectation of salvation through immersion, which even gets to be a kind of forced immersion where it comes through controlling parents, in the evangelical environment and infrastructure, where the ‘right’ way to bring up children becomes keeping them in church and then sending them to  Christian schools, colleges, etc., and expecting that that kind of immersion will save my children. What this kind of coerced and forced immersion often amounts to is trusting Jesus for my own salvation, but trusting churchianity to save my children. They may have not come to know the Son of God as Lord and Savior, but simply to say and do what pleases the others in their environment and infrastructure. The hope in this means that when they walk away that they may not be rejecting Jesus but the controlling, stifling and suffocating infrastructure that they have been raised in, and that they may never have truly come to know the freedom that the Son of God offers them – and that gives a real opportunity to the church, to make it clear what salvation is really about, that one relationship that really saves.

Even more, this brings out the often extensive lack of understanding and experience of the real victory in Jesus that he brings us. He has not promised to make us perfect in this life, but there is much, much more in close relationship and fellowship with Jesus that provides us with conquering grace over sin. I’m often appalled by the shallow songs which are circulating in many worship services. They seem to offer more of a generic forgiveness based up0n a good guy, easygoing God rather than the pardon from sins and reprieve from an eternal hell and conquering grace that Jesus provides. This kind of generic forgiveness is more like the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer described rather than the life and freedom which the scriptural Jesus offered. If, as Tim Keller has said, people come to church to seek victory over their sins, can we say that we are we offering it as the promise of the Jesus of scripture? Or are we  nitpicking them with rules or repeating to the same kind of silly, second hand, dumbed down psychological constructs that they can find in any secular self help book?

The power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to free from slavery to sin is something that is unique to him and something that must be unique, consistent and continuous in the message of the church. It means hope for anyone who is coming from the depths of the consequences and misery of his or her own sin. It means that there’s hope for conquest for that person who started drinking with friends to be sociable and finds himself of herself getting drunk on Friday and Saturday nights and coming to church with a strong case of guilt and misery. It means the hope of conquering grace for that person who tried the stick of marijuana, and finds that he or she is having difficulty putting behind even if he or she has received salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. It means hope of freedom for that person who has been falling into bed with someone with whom he or she is not married despite the growing agony of his or her conscience, and who comes to church on Sunday mornings hearing about and asking for forgiveness but not being pointed to the freedom that the Son of God brings. It means the hope of freedom for that man, or nowadays, woman, as well, who has become trapped in gazing at naked people and sexual acts between other people. It also means hope for people who have been or who are being pigeonholed by other believers for something, anything, that may have happened in their past –that tendency of dying churches and proud, self righteous professed believers to hold those who sinned in ways that they did not approve under the shadowy cloud of those sins, that incident or incidents in their past – in short, that tendency of some professed believers to try to chain other believers to their past and to make them slaves to their past. Jesus is not the person to make a person a slave to his or her past, but to free a person from his or her past, and we need to keep on saying that as long as it takes until the day that Jesus returns. He is not the person to try to define people by what they may have done at one time or another that was legitimately sin or socially disapproved. Rather, as the Savior, he offers each one who comes to him in repentance and faith a new present and future of freedom of life in the Son.

It does bear repeating that this is not salvation by works, by earning or attempting to earn any credit before God by doing any kind of good deed. The freedom which comes through being a freed slave brings no glory or credit to the freed slave, but to the person who frees the slave. Rather, the is freedom is the human will freed from the power of sin living in the power of the freedom that the Son of God brings. It is living in the power of that one relationship that saves. It is like what the former professional football player Steve Foley told about. He had discovered that some other players and coaches had peace no matter if they won or lost, but he had found only emptiness in his life. Then one night so he knelt by his bed and asked Jesus to come into his life and change him. And the change then came. Here’s how he described it: “My language used to be filthy. One day a guy beat me for a touchdown in practice, and I started to let loose my usual barrage. But this time I was brought up short. I can’t explain it, except that the Holy Spirit was at work. I knew that God wasn’t getting any glory from my mouth. Soon I quit swearing completely.”

The wonderful reality, then, is that the disciple who puts his faith in Jesus as his Savior, who makes the choice to follow his will, will find that the risen Lord is there to free the broken and fallen will from the power of sin. This is then the path of freedom, which the disciple has, so that the disciple  can follow through with that choice of obedience. But unfortunately, there are those who refuse to follow Jesus and thus show that they see no need of him. What this amounts to is a virtual refusal of him as Savior when there is no response to his words.

Jesus went on to speak further to this group of Jews about their spiritual condition based upon the answers that they gave him and the agenda which they had kept hidden. This then shows that habitual resistance to the Word of Jesus is evidence of a false profession of faith in Jesus. Though there may be an outward profession of faith in Jesus and association with his disciples, there may still be a continual, habitual, uncaring resistance and defiance to the Word of Jesus, and even a real, underlying hostility to him. This ultimately shows that there has never been a change of masters in that person’s life.  

In this conversation Jesus gets to the bottom of false and spurious professions of faith, and he shows that they come when people attempt to fit Jesus into their expectations and ways of doing things. At the bottom there is that desire ultimately for that person to retain personal control of the life rather than live for the Master. And this is what Jesus exposed with this group of Jews who had made professions of faith in Jesus as Messiah but who were starting to argue with him and contradict his Word.

In verses 37-38, Jesus exposes the underlying agenda of this group of Jews who had professed faith in him: “ . . . but you are seeking to kill me, because my Word does not find a place to stay in you. I am speaking what I have seen from the Father; and you are doing what you have heard from your father.’” Thus the evidence that he holds up in front of them of their true state before him is their own underlying hostility to Jesus and their contradiction of his own utterances. They had made seemingly some outward profession of him as the Messiah, but they had already shown to him the incontrovertible evidence of the falseness of their faith. In their contradiction of what he had said to them about their need, they had made a virtual declaration that they did not feel the need of him either to save them or direct them. They were satisfied with what they had by birth and tradition. Thus they had given him a demonstration that their faith was no more than a concession to the atmosphere of Messianic expectancy that came with the ministry of Jesus. Their faith in him was only going along with the social atmosphere, and it was not a personal trust and loyalty to Jesus. With some of them, their profession of faith in him was then exposed as covering something much more sinister. So when he put to the test of their profession of faith simply by calling them to obedience to him as the Messiah, they refused his word and turned back to trust in their own heritage and traditions.  

Jesus went on to show them the nature of what they were refusing and where the ultimate source and nature of their refusal. Jesus asserted, as he did many times throughout his ministry, that his teaching, his word came from his direct personal communion with the Father as the eternal Son, and the implication that he gives, as he states plainly elsewhere throughout his ministry, that to reject him was to reject God. But then he gave his own diagnosis of them as unsaved (v. 47) because of their rejection of his word and their underlying hostility to them. They showed their true nature to him by their underlying agenda and their arguing with him. They were showing that they were under the influence of their own sinful tendencies and that their own underlying sinful tendencies were being directed by the unseen spiritual influence of the devil. Their true spiritual state was revealed with their underlying and hidden murderous hostility to the truth and habitual falsehood. It is certainly not a far leap from Jesus’s diagnosis of this group to what the apostle Paul had to say about the state of mankind apart from the salvation of Christ: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and sins,  in which you used to live according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience . . .” (Ephesians 2:1-2).

Certainly no church leader or member should take it upon himself or herself to make it a quest or a habit to seek out and judge the reality of the professions of faith among other believers, although the tendencies of human judgmentalism, criticism and antagonism may incline some to try. Rather, the quality of the professions of faith among believers demonstrate themselves  when the word of Jesus through the Spirit of God reveals the heart and life of that person over the course of time. Those who have made spurious professions of faith show their true colors either in personal confession and genuine repentance and faith when the Holy Spirit reveals their real need to them and they truly receive salvation, or in moral and spiritual degeneration over time due to habitual resistance to the truth. Even more, those who have made spurious professions of faith often demonstrate a pattern of continuous hostility to the truth of the gospel and surreptitious or even overt harassment of other believers in Christ who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully. They may not be a part of hidden plans to kill Jesus, but they may claim to be saved by faith in Christ but oppose his gospel and seek to abuse and harass his people. 

At this point this may sound theoretical, but any length of pastoral experience or experience with leadership in the church can find a number of such examples. For instance, during a time of revival in 1970, a respected businessman and church member rose to reveal that he had been an active church member and had even run youth camps but had never come to Christ. He revealed his life of antagonism toward and surreptitious harassment of people in the church, and how it had been part of the personal turmoil he had practiced since his childhood. He then revealed how he had come to Christ just a few days before, and how he had been spending the next few days apologizing and making amends to the people he had hurt and offended. I’ve heard the testimony of another couple who came to a church for their wedding ceremony, told the pastor in the premarital counseling that they were believers, and came back years later when they came to Christ in reality for salvation and apologized for their earlier mendacity. There are other stories that come out from time to time – the man who pretended to be a Christian to win the woman who became his wife, only to confess later on that he had lied, or the person who came to church to find a venue for his or her musical talent, and so on. There are a lot of personal and social reasons that some people may say the words which they think will please, impress or manipulate others in regard to their own experience of salvation, and church people need not to be naïve about them.

Nevertheless, I encourage everyone that only with greatest care and consideration should anyone approach to question the reality of the salvation of another person who has had a strong background in church attendance and involvement. As a matter of pastoral care, a simple private conversation can often clear things up. It’s a good idea for a pastor or concerned elders to go over the circumstances of conversion, nature of faith, personal habits of reading the word, occasions of past disobedience and conquest of past sins by the power of Jesus of each church member and regular attender, and certainly with each one in any position of leadership and ministry responsibility. This may be done when a person asks for church membership, but my experience is that too many of these discussions simply rubber stamp anyone who says anything that sounds at all like a belief in God. This private and compassionate discussion is certainly not in any way a quest for something to nail someone with or to discredit that person with from his or her past. Rather, it is to give everyone within the church a compassionate checkup and diagnosis of their standing before God based upon the scriptures. This will often result in opportunities for sharing the gospel in depth with a person with a suspect profession of faith, but it will just as often result in a deeper assurance for the person who does give a scriptural account of salvation and the others who hear it.

So then, the point at which a person demonstrates that he or she has rejected trust in Jesus and the Lordship of Jesus shows, in these cases, that the person probably never genuinely received the Lord in the first place. But that does not have to be the end of the story. The person who made a false profession can also make a new, real and genuine decision and truly experience eternal life in Christ. But it also points out the need to avoid the kind of songs, preaching and teaching that does not assume that people who come to our churches are all right with God just because they show up, even if they do so Sunday after Sunday.

That same Jesus who spoke to that group about the freedom that he offers then went to pay the price for the freedom that he gives by his own death. His cry of, “It is finished!” – “TETELESTAI!” (John 19:30) was his cry proclaiming his freedom for his people. His cry of “It is finished!” during his last few moments of life on the cross was his dying declaration that the freedom that he brings is not cheap grace, but the most expensive gift that he could give. Though there were false professions of faith within his own ministry, our faith is not in the consistency of people but in the reality of the Savior and his saving power. Even though some may say the accepted words and  associate with the people of the church for a while, this may be contrary to reality, but this is no reason for an unreasonable suspicion of other, but rather for each one to consider his or her own profession of faith and experience of salvation before God. To examine our own hearts and experience according to what scripture says about salvation is the responsibility of each one of us, to see whether your faith corresponds to the scriptural depiction of someone who has received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ. If, then, our own faith declares Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, fully God and fully man, who died on the cross for the sins of the world, and who has risen again, to be the risen Lord in heaven who is returning for his people, if we can truly say that we have responded in the scriptural manner of repentance, the decision to turn from one’s sin as the direction of one’s life to the will of God, and faith in Jesus Christ alone for one’s own salvation. Consider then whether your scriptural confession of Christ and the response of repentance and faith has then resulted in a personal, daily relationship with the risen Lord, who has now been imparting to you his victory over sin and death in your life.

If your confession and experience correspond to what the Word of God says, then praise God for your reception of eternal life, and continue then to live in daily faith in Christ and submission to his Word. Make his Word the direction of your life, and humble submission to his will your greatest desire and highest pleasure. If Jesus is a real Savior, his Word is worth following and worth trusting more than anything you may hear from others and anything else that you will ever learn, think or conclude even from within yourself.

If you have truly received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ, continue to trust Jesus for daily victory over sin. While you can and should certainly trust him for forgiveness daily, to keep the relationship close and the conscience clear with God, there will be less sin to hinder your testimony and grieve the Holy Spirit and more of a testimony to glorify God and reason for joy in God if you experience his victory over sin. So then, come clean, and confess the quick temper, the arrogant stubbornness, the easy deceit, the lustful thought and look, the rebellious selfishness and impatience for what they are before God. But then ask God to change you and for the Lord Jesus to give you his freedom and his victory in your life, to live in and experience his conquering grace to his glory.

If, then,  you find now that you have not truly put your faith in Christ, that he is not the Lord of your life and your only hope for heaven, don’t care about how it appears before anyone else, especially if you have a religious association and reputation. Embarrassment before other people, even people you love and seek to impress, is the least of your problems.  Rather seek for the reality of a life changed by faith in Jesus Christ, and confess your faking it before the God who really is there first of all. Renounce any hopes for heaven except the Lord Jesus who died on the cross for you, and renounce any other Master than the Lord who rose from the dead and has all authority in heaven and on earth.

John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul and the Imperative Mood in Evangelism

Many years ago I heard Dr. Lewis Foster, professor of New Testament at Cincinnati Bible Seminary and one of the translators of the New International Version, give this illustration at a college age retreat for the Christian Student Fellowship ministries at Miami University, The University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University. The camera that he had at the time, which was quite high-tech for the 1970s, had a feature in the view finder which split the image horizontally down the middle. As he explained it, when he would focus the image, both halves of the image would eventually come into sync and eventually  merge into one, and the camera would be in focus. He told us this to tell us how we needed to bring the Jesus of our experience and the Jesus of scripture into sync to give us a clear picture of Jesus and put our Christian lives into correct focus.

Ultimately, the only Jesus worth knowing and worth believing is the one of scripture. The gospels are the trustworthy accounts that were set down for us to tell us who Jesus Christ is, and to tell us about his birth, life, ministry, and especially his death and resurrection. The Christ of the Bible is the Christ of our experience, if we have been born again of his Spirit by faith in him. The inspired Word of the Bible is the guide to the truth about the Lord that we claim to believe in, to his will that we claim to follow, and to the glory of the one  we claim to love and praise.

It can be quite startling for someone who has seen, heard or read some of the distorted pictures of Jesus in our movies, our history classes and texts or even in some of our religious institutions, to read how Jesus began his ministry in the gospel of Mark. This summary of the habitual message of Jesus, from Mark, the recorder and translator of the eyewitness and apostle Peter, describes Jesus as someone who burst onto the scene with good news. He started his ministry preaching the gospel, as Mark put it, and calling people to repentance and faith. It tells of how Jesus came with good news to the pity party of first century Judaism as they smarted under the domination and oppression of Rome. It tells of how he came with good news that called for a response, of repentance and faith.

So here is what Mark wrote down for us: “After John [the Baptist] was sent up to prison, Jesus came into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God, and was saying, ‘The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has arrived. Repent and believe the good news!’”

The real message of Jesus Christ is that the kingdom of God has arrived. His ministry centered around the message that the time of God’s intervention into our world which had been promised by the prophets had begun. So he came and gave the message that was the fulfillment of the longings of the people of God, then and in all ages, had arrived in him and through his ministry.

Jesus began his ministry with the good news of the kingdom of God. He did not point to anything else or anyone else as the reason why he could make that stupendous claim.  Rather, he himself was the fulfillment. He was the kingdom of God in person, the center and the fulfillment of the promises which came through the Old Testament prophets. His sovereign authority and power were the demonstration of the truth of the promises, and in Jesus Christ the promises of God become reality.

When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, Jesus took up where the ministry of John the Baptist left off. Herod Antipas, one of the sons of the Herod who had been king of Judea when Jesus was born, had John the Baptist apprehended and imprisoned. Jesus had already spent some time with John and his disciples in the area of Jordan in Judea, but now returned to Galilee where he had grown up in Nazareth. John had declared that there was a more powerful one to follow, and Jesus took up his ministry as the one that John had been predicting would come.  And so Mark wrote, “After John [the Baptist] was sent up to prison, Jesus came into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God . . . “ Jesus  came as the good news of the kingdom of God both in his person and in his message. He came as the anointed King, with the authority and power of the Son of God, with the power over sin, disease and death. But his message was summarized as the good news of the kingdom, because it was good news that the King whom God had appointed had come. Indeed, the wording of Mark also shows a real intention to show Jesus as the fulfillment of the prediction of Isaiah on his return to Galilee:

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news,
Proclaiming peace, bringing good news of good things, proclaiming salvation,
Saying to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

(Isaiah 52:7 — Dale’s sight translation of the Hebrew, informed also by the Septuagint).

Indeed, in the original Hebrew, there’s that word for salvation, yeshuah, which sounds a lot like Jesus’s name – Yeshua — in Aramaic. This may well be  And this takes up and continues the opening words and prophecy of Isaiah with which Mark’s gospel opened: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God – just as it has been written in the book of Isaiah the prophet . . .” . So, the good news of the kingdom of God is the the King has come with the salvation of God.

Now, the gospel of the kingdom is not the physical presence of the anointed King, and his conscious use of his sovereign authority over sin, disease, death and the kingdom of Satan. Rather, it has become the gospel of the crucified and risen Son of God. He is still the same anointed King, though, and still has the same authority over sin, disease, death and the kingdom of Satan. Since his ascension into heaven, he still gives eternal life and righteousness through those who come under his sovereignty and enter his kingdom by being born again of his Spirit. This is still the good news that the King has come, and that now through his spiritual presence through his Holy Spirit in his people he still brings salvation. This good news is still the stupendous news that brings hope in the midst of this world. This gospel is the same gospel that once came to Winston Churchill once said to Billy Graham: “I am an old man. Life has lost all meaning. I am ready to take a fateful leap into the unknown. Young man, can you give me a ray of hope?”

So then, the message of Jesus that the kingdom of God had arrived meant that the time had come when God was fulfilling his promises made in centuries past. God had announced his purposes long ago through the Old Testament prophets, and now these promises had begun to reach their fulfillment in him. All the goodness that God had for his people had arrived, in the person and ministry of his anointed King from the line of David, Jesus of Nazareth.

The summary of the form of the gospel that Jesus proclaimed, appropriate to the opening of his ministry, was, “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has arrived.” Though there are many Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, when Jesus said that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God had arrived, he is specifically referring back to Daniel 2:44 and 7:22. The first reference came in the dream that God gave to the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar, which the prophet Daniel had to interpret for him, of the four empires that there would be, including his own. In the days of the fourth empire, which we now know as the Roman empire, God was to set up his own kingdom. In the second reference, as part of the interpretation of a vision that Daniel himself had of the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven, God would set up a kingdom for his people. So Jesus was saying that the time had come when this kingdom was being set up and being given to the people of God, and it was coming at the prophesied time and according to its predicted schedule. Therefore Jesus, who himself would call himself the Son of Man throughout his ministry in conscious identification of himself with the Son of Man of Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:13-14, was announcing the fulfillment of prophecy to them. He came as the King to the people who had the Old Testament revelation, all the Bible that there was up to that time, who were looking for its fulfillment. He did not bring a new ritual, a new set of rules or anything else, but in him, God came in person, in the person of God the Son, to set up his kingdom. This brings the understanding that the good news that came through Jesus was fulfillment of the promises of God.

Though the content of the gospel itself has changed through addition, as more of God’s promises were fulfilled through Jesus, even to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the reality is that the message is fulfillment of the promises of God and the prophecies of the Old Testament. So often, when we go over the central events of the gospel, as the life and ministry of Jesus came then to the cross and the empty tomb, we may miss the stupendous understanding that it was all fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and the promises of God. But Jesus took special care to keep on explaining this in depth to the apostles after his resurrection, in a time which some have called his post-resurrection ministry, on how his the circumstances of his life, ministry, death and resurrection were the fulfillment of what God had already declared through the Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 44-45). Even in the statement of the outline of the gospel, the apostle Paul repeated several times that it was according to the scriptures: “I make known among you, brothers and sisters, the gospel with which I evangelized you, which you have received, in which you stand and by which you are saved — by that word with which I evangelized you, if indeed you are holding fast to it – apart from which you would have believed in vain. I passed on to you as of first importance that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he arose on the third day according to the scriptures . . .”   (I Corinthians 15:1 -4 ).

So, even in this day and age, where some voices are coming up again that say that the Old Testament is not really necessary, and some may even want to do like the ancient heretic Marcion and ditch the Old Testament, the gospel of Jesus Christ establishes for all time the continuing validity and relevance of the Old Testament, since his coming was in fulfillment of the Old Testament. Even more, it becomes necessary to chop all the passages out of the gospels where they point out the different places in his life, ministry, death and resurrection where he fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. And then whatever gospel that there may be left of Jesus seems as if it lacks foundation and context, and all that is left are some moralizing stories, some miracles which they usually gloss over as well, and a death that seems more tragic than purposeful and a resurrection that seems more gratuitous than victorious.

And because the content of the message began in the prophetic Word of God in the Old Testament, and was fulfilled and explained by Jesus Christ himself through his ministry, there is no authority on earth for anyone ever to change or alter the gospel message. Again, there are some who may try to excise parts of the message out to try to make it more appealing to those who make no profession of following Christ – the parts that they say that the post modern mind cannot accept. We’ve heard that kind of thing before for almost every generation  in the church in the Western world for the past five hundred years or so. In fact, from before and after the First World War, the attempt was to downplay the parts that some said that the modern mind cannot accept. One word added to the cliché – the post modern mind instead of the modern mind, and the same error that emptied mainline churches pops up again. But the center of the gospel has always remained Jesus Christ, the promised King, the Son of God crucified and risen, despite the reappearance of the same readiness to cave in to the intellectual fashions of the moment.

And so the question comes on where anyone else can come into a church of Jesus Christ and claim any kind of authority for changing the content of the gospel, and changing proclaiming the message of the good news of the gospel into something else – like doing some kind of good deed or church task. In the past pastors and teachers within the body of Christ, in clarifying what Biblical evangelism really is, have often had to say that inviting people to church is a good thing and a good deed, but in itself it is not evangelism as defined and practiced by Jesus and the apostles. We’ve also had to say that doing some church support ministry such as teaching Sunday School or playing the piano is not in itself evangelism, though there may be opportunities for evangelism. (And sometimes I’ve startled some people within churches by saying that church musicians – directors, composers, instrumentalists and singers – need themselves to be grounded in the Word of God and to be able to share their faith – and that may transform much of the current music from its current emotionality and superficiality to something that reflects more of a Biblical faith and universal Christian experience. ) And we’ve had to say that doing humanitarian deeds as Christian service is not itself evangelism, though again it may well furnish opportunities for witness and corroborate the reality of how the gospel transforms people.

But when we read about Jesus proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God, we can correct a misleading picture and cultural stereotype which many may have of evangelizing – of a man in a tie and suspenders, yelling, huffing and puffing in a microphone in a deep accent from the southern United States, as he is “preaching the gospel”  — like a character from the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Certainly many who may have fit that stereotype during the 1920s and the 1930s did preach a Biblical gospel, were not corrupt as the fictional Elmer Gantry, and did lead many to a real salvation in Christ.The reaction of some to that kind of straw man character is to the style, and they may consider themselves more sophisticated. But we can see Jesus speaking in his normal calm, controlled, direct and forthright style – sometimes stupendously compassionate and kind, at other times commanding with all the authority of the Son of God — as he did so much throughout the gospels. So then he showed us a genuinely Christlike way to proclaim the gospel and truly evangelize – the Biblical content in a truly Christlike way, without the stereotypical style that some have associated with evangelism, and which they have avoided because they want to appear more sophisticated and intelligent than a straw man stereotype.

But even further — the very coming of Jesus Christ as the promised King was therefore the corroboration of the truthfulness and faithfulness of the God of the Bible. He is the God who stands by his promises and purposes, even if others might forget them, be indifferent to them, or even be skeptical or dismissive of them. The good that he has promised will come about just as he had said. And this is a reason for every believer in Jesus Christ to  look forward with anticipation for the fulfillment of all the promises of God for his people and to live in the strength of his promises. Though the kingdom came in its opening installment in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and continues since his death and resurrection in his church, the citizens of his kingdom, yet there is all the fullness of his kingdom yet to come, when he returns in glory. This will mean that we can continue to live in  hope and anticipation, with the knowledge that through Jesus Christ we know, love and serve an eternally faithful, truthful and trustworthy God. It is like the reply of a Marine during the Korean War to the reporter Marguerite Higgins, when she found him eating beans in –42 degree Fahrenheit weather. She asked him, “If I were God, and could grant you anything you wished, what would you like?”

The Marine replied, “Give me tomorrow!”

In the fulfillment of his promises to bring his kingdom into this world, and the fulfillment of his promises through Jesus, God has given us tomorrow. The coming of Jesus Christ into this world meant that God’s kingdom has already arrived, and there is yet more to come, when it comes in its fullness. The saving sovereignty of Jesus Christ means freedom from the power of sin, disease and death through the power of his death and resurrection. God’s message to this world began in the ministry of his Son and continues with us today. This means that the good news for us today started with the good news that Jesus came with both in his message and in his presence so many years ago. And this is the good news which he has passed on for us to share with the entire world until he returns.

The reality of the kingdom being present now is not something that brings the goodness of God to everyone and anyone without a personal response. The reality of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ calls for repentance and faith. The reality that came with Jesus still calls for our response and acceptance. The valid, expected responses to the good news of the kingdom of God still remains exactly what Jesus was calling for in his ministry.

The call for repentance was very definitely part of the ministry of Jesus. The reality of the presence of the kingdom called for this response, and Jesus was plain in calling for it. He himself had all the authority in himself to call for repentance, and he did so as part of the condition for anyone to participate in the kingdom of God. His call reflects the impossibility of acknowledging and coming under the sovereignty of God, becoming a part of the kingdom, while remaining in selfish charge of one’s own life. His call was for a complete change of life as the proper response to the good news of the kingdom of God, for people to turn from sin to follow the will of God.

Jesus simply used that one word, “Repent!” This verb came in the imperative mood, as a command to the people whom he heard. In this command to repentance he followed clearly the Old Testament prophets who called the people of God to repentance, and here as the anointed King he also fulfilled the ministry and office of prophet – not a moralizing teacher, but someone clearly echoing the message of the Old Testament prophets.

This is why Jesus didn’t have to spend much time defining repentance for those who heard him. First century Jews were well aware of what repentance meant from the prophets. Here is how Isaiah defined it:

“Seek the LORD while he may be found,
Call on him while he is near!
Let the wicked man forget about his own way,
And the evil man his own thoughts and plans,
And let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
And to our God, because he will abundantly pardon.”

(Isaiah 55:6-7, Dale’s sight translation).

Turning away from sin – and not just from an outward act, but also the very thoughts, intentions, plans and schemes to think, speak and act outside the will of God — and turning to God for pardon and mercy – that is the scriptural definition of repentance. And the prophet Hosea even went so far as to give the Israelites some specific words to say to God to express repentance, to tell him of their turning away from sin to him:

“Turn, Israel, to the LORD your God,
Take these words with you to him, and turn to the LORD,
Say to him, ‘Forgive our sin, And receive us for good, so that we may offer you the fruit of our lips.’”

(Hosea 14:2-3, Dale’s sight translation).

And just as Mark already wrote a few words earlier, the baptism with which John the Baptist came was a baptism of repentance, and as the people were baptized they confessed their sins. So, with this emphasis on repentance, John was recognized as a prophet clearly taking up the Old Testament call to repentance, and Jesus took it up as well. Though they both made predictions – John of the immediate appearance of Jesus, and Jesus of his own crucifixion and resurrection, as well as the events leading up to his second coming (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21), they were not regarded as prophets for making predictions. Rather, the call for repentance marked them clearly as prophets consistent with the prophets God sent to Israel during the centuries of the Old Testament. So it’s noteworthy that while during his ministry, then, that Jesus was recognized not just as a teacher, but also as a prophet – just like his forerunner, John the Baptist.

So then, it can be quite shocking to some when they really pay attention to what Jesus said when he once defined his mission as, “I have not come to call the ‘righteous’, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31). And even more startling to anyone who has been propagandized by the picture of  Jesus as a moralizing story teller, is this declaration of Jesus: “I say to you, unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:4). And in his post resurrection ministry, he put the emphasis on repentance as a clear part of the expected response to the message of the gospel (Luke 24:47) in practically the same words which he had used earlier and which had been characteristic of the ministry of John the Baptist.

So on the day of Pentecost, at the conclusion of his great proclamation of the gospel, it’s no wonder that the apostle Peter concluded, “Repent! And be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). These words clearly echoed the prophecies of John the Baptist and of Jesus, but were now being fulfilled in the age of the gospel. And apparently at the conclusion of his sermon he went on to plead at length with those who heard to “Save yourselves from this broken generation” (Acts 2:40). And this call to repentance was a part of the ministry of Paul as well – but more on that shortly.

So then, this was part of the expected response to the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ: becoming part of his kingdom calls for repentance. This means the renunciation of all self righteous pretensions, of holding to getting one’s own way at all costs to oneself and to others, and it means trusting in God’s readiness to forgive. The message of repentance was not intended to put anyone down, but to give people the truth about themselves so that they could enter the blessings of the kingdom. This message of repentance is the invitation of love and grace to receive forgiveness and to change the direction of one’s life into the direction of the kingdom of God.

This message of repentance needs regularly to be asserted in every age of the church of Jesus Christ, and it is in full accord with the direction of his earthly ministry and his stated expectations during his post resurrection ministry. It addresses the reality of a person which is known deep inside each person’s conscience, about the reality of one’s own sin, but it also demonstrates genuine faith in the readiness of God to forgive. This means turning from sin, and even the thoughts, intentions and schemes of sin, and turning toward following the will of God, so that the direction of one’s own personal life is turned into the direction of the kingdom of God.

How repentance is a change of heart leading to a change of life and a change of sides can be understood from an incident which happened during the ministry of John Wesley. There was a group of his followers that were planning to hold a meeting in a barn, and there was a group that opposed them. So one man hid inside the barn inside a sack. He was planning to open the door after the meeting started, to let the others from his group in to break up the meeting. But after the singing, prayer and preaching of the gospel began, the man hiding inside the sack came under deep conviction, and came to Christ that evening. He never opened the door to let the others in, because he had repented and he had changed sides.

But repentance was not all that Jesus called for in response to the good news that he brought. He expected to be believed and trusted as the anointed King of God, the Savior who had come at the predicted time. So, coming into the blessings of his kingdom means trusting the word of the King.

Jesus called for faith in himself as a part of the response that he expected to himself and to his ministry. As Mark recorded, he said, “ . . .believe the good news!” Faith in the good news meant confidence in the word of the messenger, and the bearer of the good news was the King himself. As he came and presented himself as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, of all the hopes of the people of Israel, he expected those who heard him to accept his word and believe him. He called for confidence in his words and promises, as the Son of God, God’s chosen ruler of his people. This entailed more than just acceptance of the facts of monotheism, of belief that there is one God, but also of the claims and trustworthiness of the messenger from God, the Messiah himself, the promised King. And as it would become evident throughout his ministry, the reality of this faith would mean following the King. And this new emphasis on faith in the Messiah as leading to personal salvation as being central to the personal conversations and public teaching of Jesus is also the central theme to the gospel of John.

This was a new emphasis, then, in the response that was expected with the inception of the age of the kingdom of God with the ministry of Jesus. Faith in the Old Testament was belief in one God, the God of Israel and the renunciation of idolatry, and while trust in him was expected and encouraged, the explicit call to faith becomes much more prominent with the arrival of Jesus and start of his ministry. But with the coming of John the Baptist, who pointed to the people to the Messiah in their midst, and with the ministry of Jesus, faith in the Messiah became paramount to become a partaker of the blessings of the kingdom of God. And this emphasis on faith continued after the life and ministry of Jesus came to the culmination of his earthly mission in his crucifixion and resurrection, so that belief in the gospel came to its full New Covenant meaning of faith in Jesus, King Messiah, the Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins and rose again to life. He is now the crucified and risen Son of God who calls for our full trust and allegiance still, and for faith in his good news of his salvation that he has brought. Certainly belief in his gospel means concurrence with the facts of his death and resurrection, but even more, it is a personal, conscious trust and allegiance to him. It is trust in his good new which opens our lives to where we can receive all the goodness of God in his kingdom, as we trust in his word and the trustworthiness of the messenger, who was the King himself.

This call to faith in the crucified and risen Son of God continued onward in the New Testament ministry of the gospel. The apostle Peter concluded his message to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius, “All the prophets bear witness that everyone who puts his or her faith in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). The apostle Paul told the jailer of Philippi, “Put your faith in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . .” (Acts 16:31). And Paul joined repentance and faith together as the expected response to the gospel when he said that he had “ . . . testified to both Jews and Greek about repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). And it was Paul who defined what it meant to come to saving faith in Jesus when he wrote in the epistle to the Romans, “ . . .  if you acknowledge with your mouth that, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and you believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved . . .” (Romans 10:9).

This is also an emphasis that needs to be kept paramount in the preaching and teaching of the church of Jesus Christ in all places and in all times. Belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ is saving faith. J. Gresham Machen once wrote, “  . . . saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as he is offered to us in the gospel.” It involves acceptance of the truth about Jesus as in the New Testament, not merely as a historical figure, but as the Son of God who came, suffered and died and rose again, and trusting him alone for one’s eternal salvation. And this is what brings anyone now into his Kingdom and into the fullness of the goodness of God that his Kingdom brings.

In the Old Testament, God told his people, “I set before you the way of life and the way of death. Now choose life!” ( In Jesus Christ, God came as the sovereign King, God’s own anointed Son, as the bearer and messenger of the Kingdom of God, came near to us and in person to set before us the way of life and the way of death, and call us to choose life by repentance and faith in his good news. In his preaching and teaching, then, Jesus expected response to his message. He expected no complacency or a business as usual attitude to his message. Moreover, he, as well as John the Baptist, the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul and the Old Testament prophets were totally unashamed of using the imperative mood to call people to repentance and faith. They did not deliver requests to think about it for a little while. They called for, and expected response to their message. And responses they received as they called for repentance and faith: 300o on the of Pentecost, some several thousand more after another time of great preaching and teaching in the Jerusalem Temple, the household of Cornelius, the Philippian jailer, Lydia the seller of purple dye, and so on. They would all take the time to explain the gospel in depth and to explain repentance and faith in depth, as well as to answer honest questions with honest answers, but they were all calling for a verdict and a decision in response to the gospel of God.

The nature of the kingdom of God, as the salvation and sovereignty of God through Jesus Christ, then, calls for the response of repentance and faith. The people of God today do not need to have any kind of reluctance in making this known. Some will question our authority to command this; we can point to the command that we received from the Word of God and our own response to the command to do just that. Some will dislike it because of their theological position that repentance and faith are the gifts from God, and must come from the working of God. We can point to the reality that the Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures is present when the gospel is proclaimed to bestow those gifts of repentance and faith, and that he inspired the Word which set forth the direct commands to men and women of all ages to repent and believe in the gospel. Some will simply not like the style of directly calling men and women to repent and believe in the gospel. But there is no need for any kind of false dichotomy between immediate response or allowing people more time to consider their response of repentance and faith. It would be scriptural to give a clear understanding of the gospel and clear directions of what repentance and faith, as well as making it clear that an immediate response is possible and that a delay can be eternally fatal as to anyone who wants to consider his or her response at length. There does not need to be great pressure on anyone but rather loving clarity and even loving pleading, much as Peter gave on the day of Pentecost.

But even more, making clear the expected response of the human will to the gospel in repentance and faith – which can be understood themselves to be good works brought about in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as John and Charles Wesley asserted – can correct an impression that some may have that being born again means waiting for God to zap them with the same kind of experience of overwhelming love and joy that so many believers may give witness. The reality of the turning to God through repentance and faith in Christ as he is presented in the gospel does not require any kind of passive waiting on God to provide anyone with any kind of experience. Rather, there is the conscious response to the gospel in repentance and faith and many may have an overwhelming experience of the joy of salvation at that time, but there is no need to seek or look for that same kind of experience. At the same time, there is no gradual sliding into the kingdom of God, but rather a real point of decision in response to the call of the gospel through Jesus Christ to repentance and faith. It is as Henry Wright once wrote: “No man or woman oozes unconsciously into the Kingdom of God. In the final analysis, all enlist, and every soldier knows when he enlisted.”

Through the message of his gospel, then, King Jesus has challenged each of us personally to enter his kingdom. This good news comes from the risen Lord himself, and he himself, in his death and resurrection, is the gospel himself. Life, righteousness and healing are the blessings of his kingdom to those who respond to him, who come to him by repentance and faith and then find out how good the good news really is.

The sovereignty of Jesus Christ means freedom from the reign of sin, death, disease and Satan, and entrance into his reign of salvation, to eternal life and righteousness. This is the good news that calls for our response in repentance and faith: repentance to receive forgiveness and faith to receive eternal life from the King. It means for each one who comes to the King in repentance and faith a place of personal place of acceptance in his kingdom, pardon for sins, acceptance with God and the possession of eternal life. So the question comes to each one of us: have you responded to the invitation of the King?

The sovereignty of Jesus Christ, in his saving power and authority, is our message to the world. The salvation which was secured by his death and resurrection is available to everyone. That is the reason for our witness to others, and for our working together to bring his message to all the world. The entrance of the kingdom of God to our world is good news for everyone, and we cannot keep that message to ourselves.

But finally, the sovereignty of Jesus Christ is the reason for our praise and rejoicing. We cannot remain sullen and self pitying, as if he had never come to our world as the kingdom of God and salvation of God incarnate. He came to give freedom from the penalty and power of sin, and living in that freedom means the joy and the celebration of how the kingdom of God has come into our world and how it has entered and changed our lives.

An Old But Still Good Article On the Emotional Life of Jesus

Here’s a link to the excellent article, The Emotional Life of Our Lord, by Benjamin B. Warfield. It’s well worth reading simply for the deep thought and consideration of the gospels and the incarnation of the Son of God.

The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What does this mean?

The first part of the gospel: What Christ has done for us

“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures . . .” (I Corinthians 15:1-4).

“This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day . . . “ (Luke 24:46).

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel . . . “ (I Timothy 2:8).

These are the central events of the gospel: Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection. Most people in North America know these facts of the gospel. Many times those who are unsaved have no awareness of what Christ has done through these events for salvation.

Why Christ died: he died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins

  1. Because no human morality, even based upon divinely inspired commands, could earn righteousness before God and eternal life”: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21). Scripture explains elsewhere (such as Romans 3:23, Psalm 14:1-3, Isaiah 64:6) the nature of sin, that all people are sinners and that no one can earn or deserve eternal life.

  2. Because God had to punish sin: “He was delivered over to death on account of our sins . . .” (Romans 4:25: see also Romans 3:25-26). ” . . . without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins . . .” (Hebrews 9:22). His death was the death that we deserved for our sins: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

  3. Because God loves the sinful people of this world, and he wants them to have eternal life: “For God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “God shows his love to us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Why Christ rose from the dead on the third day: the promise of his resurrection

  1. As the demonstration that sin was completely atoned for, and the demonstration of the victory of Christ over death, the consequence of sin:
    “(he) was raised to life on account of our justification”
    (Romans 4:25). “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:17).

  2. As the promise of the resurrection of the believer: “By his power God raise the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also” (I Corinthians 6:14).


What does this mean to me?

  1. Salvation is found only through what Christ has done for us, and through him alone. This means that we need to be clear in what we think and say about the nature of salvation: it is not in church membership or church attendance or anything that anyone can do for themselves, but only in what he has done for everyone. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

  2. The believer looks forward to a glorious future of being like Christ in his resurrection: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power the enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).


All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.