Sermons, Uncategorized

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

“The Protestations of St. Peter” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

[Jesus said:] And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It may be the case, that as Jesus meets with His disciples near Caesarea Philippi, He is geographically farther away from Jerusalem than at any other time in His earthly ministry. The town was about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee, at the base of Mount Hermon. That’s around 100 miles from Jerusalem, a long trip in the day when just about every land journey was completed on foot.

Whether or not Matthew intends the geographical perspective of distance and separation to highlight how far apart the religious establishment in Jerusalem is from Jesus, the comparison is certainly applicable. It is also true that the religious leaders of Jerusalem would have looked down on the inhabitants of this area that had been the northernmost region of the nation of Israel in its heyday, with much the same perspective that the political class and cultural elites of our country look on SW Minnesota as “flyover country.” They couldn’t believe that anything good or worthwhile would ever come from or happen there.

As Jesus has journeyed from the town to town, region to region, the constant theme has been the various answers to the question: “What do you think of Jesus?” In Galilee, religious leaders and crowds alike do not know how to answer that question rightly. The Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem thinking that they know how to pose the important questions (Matthew 15:1-12). The Sadducees join the Pharisees in demanding that Jesus give a sign to validate His ministry of words and deeds (Matthew 16:1-14). But Jesus has refused to meet with them on their terms. Jerusalem and her leaders are not the focal point of the new thing that God is doing to reestablish His kingdom of mercy and truth in Israel and in the world. Jesus is that center! Tragically, Jerusalem and her representatives have shown no signs of repenting and believing; they are far away from Jesus.

One begins to wonder: Will anyone in Israel grasp the real significance of Jesus and His kingdom of God ministry? Of all the people that have encountered Jesus, the Canaanite woman we heard from last week has displayed the strongest faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus’ disciples themselves are an uncertain commodity. On the one hand, after Jesus saved Peter from his near-disastrous demand to walk on the water, the disciples in the boat joined in confessing, “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33). However, in the debates over the traditions of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-20), the feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:29-38), and Jesus’ warning about the leaven of false teaching of the religious leaders (Matthew 16:5-12), the disciples have not exactly distinguished themselves by displaying a firm grasp on the truth. It appears the knowledge of Jesus’ identity is too high for any human beings to attain. And so, it is.

It is, however, also the Father’s good pleasure to reveal the Son to little children (Matthew 11:25-26), and that is what Matthew offers in this account at Caesarea Philippi that brings the question of Jesus’ identity to a climax.   

Jesus begins with public perception. Not because He needs to take a poll to know what anybody thinks about anything. He already knows. In a way designed to set up the false or incorrect perceptions of His identity so as to highlight the truth, Jesus asks His disciples what they have heard from others. Most people seem to put Jesus into a prophetic mold, but beyond that agreement, there are a variety of answers. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). Certainly, there are similarities between the careers of Israel’s prophets and the ministry of Jesus, but it is in no way sufficient to name Jesus merely as a prophet of the kind God sent in the Old Testament. Those prophets merely foreshadowed Him and His ministry.

So, Jesus moves on to personal confession. Who do you say I am?” He asks the Twelve. Notice, that Jesus’ question has to do with what they say. It is a reminder that faith in the heart is always accompanied by words in the mouth (see Romans 10:9-10).

Peter’s confession always gets the attention, and rightfully so. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he declares. Notice that “the Christ” connects Jesus to the people of Israel, while “the Son of the living God” connects Jesus to the Creator and all people. What makes Peter’s confession noteworthy to Jesus, however, is not its specific formulation, but that it did not come from Peter himself. The Father made it known to him, which is how it always works. The Father reveals Jesus and the result is a faithful confession.

Simon’s words have revealed what God the Father Himself has placed into his heart, and so, Jesus proclaims him blessed, one who has been reconciled and restored to the Father. God’s salvation consists of Jesus Himself, and one receives that salvation by being brought to a true knowledge of Jesus—even if that true knowledge is not yet completely formed. Simon is not praised for his great insight; he is pronounced blessed because God the Father has revealed the Son to him.

Jesus continues speaking to His disciples and matches the apostle’s earlier emphasis. Where Simon had said, “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus says, “You are Peter” (Matthew 16:18). Although certainty is not possible, it may very well be the case that it was at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus first applied the label “Peter” to Simon. This also seems to be the first time in ancient literature that “rock” (petros) ever was used as a proper name. As far as nicknames go, “Rock” is certainly better than “Little-Faith.”

After giving Simon a new name, Jesus makes a promise. “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus speaks the promise to Peter, who is standing as the first among equals in the company of the other apostles. Jesus promises that He will build His Church upon the rock of Peter and his confession of Christ. And that is precisely what He will do: He will call, equip, and put in use in wonderful and terrible ways the men who were the unique and unrepeatable group of the holy apostles, whose chief task it was to speak the truth about Jesus.

What is more, Jesus promises: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus acknowledges that during the time when He is building His Church upon the apostles and their confession of Him, this assembly of disciples will find itself under assault. If one wishes to specify more exactly what threat Jesus’ words envision, perhaps it is the idea that Satan will send his forces out of the gates of Hades to assault Jesus’ disciples, the Church. The battle, as Paul will later say, will not be with mere flesh and blood, but with spiritual rulers of evil (Ephesians 6:12).

As fierce as the battle may be, however, the Christ, God’s Son, will not allow Satan and his ways ultimately to gain the upper hand. In the battle when Jesus’ disciples cry out in faith, God will honor the prayer that Jesus taught the Church to pray: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

This confession of Peter and Jesus’ reply isn’t just an earth-shattering moment; it’s a hell shattering moment. Jesus has just declared that He’s come to defeat sin, death, and devil. Not only that, but He’s going to share the victory with His people—He’s going to build His Church upon Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

This promise does not, of course, guarantee that any particular congregation or denomination or historical manifestation of visible Christian fellowship or confession will never pass away. Christ’s Church is here thought of in general terms, as we might say, the una sancta, “the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed). This is a tenet of faith to which we cling despite the fracturing, corruption, and demise of so many Christian institutions.

“On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).That is what Jesus promises to and about His Church. It is a timely promise for us. The pandemic is putting Jesus’ assurance to the test. Many congregations across the country have not resumed in-person worship services. Congregations like ours that have returned to in-person worship services are still seeing a significant decline in participation that already had been dropping precipitously the last few years. None of us knows what the future holds.

We have traditionally measured engagement in the Church and maturity of faith with Sunday morning attendance. Not only is this no longer a reliable measure, but we are also being forced to consider why and how we have been measuring things that way, as well as why we do what we are accustomed to doing as the Church every week. What are the essentials?

As we consider such foundational questions, Jesus’ promise of endurance becomes crucially significant. Whatever the “new normal” may be, and whatever Bible study, worship, and our life together may look like in the short and long terms, the Church will endure. Not even the gates of Hell will prevail against it. In a context where just about everything else seems up in the air, there is certainty in Christ. Two things are ultimately certain in life, and they are not death and taxes. It is Jesus’ return and the preservation of His people until that day.

The justification for this promise is Jesus’ resurrection. The gates of Hell, which He encountered in His death (“He descended into Hell”), did not prevail against Him. Neither will they prevail  against His body on earth. History gives us plenty of examples of times when this promise was tested. Every time Jesus has delivered. The existence of this congregation in worship (whether online or in-person) is the latest evidence locally.

In Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, what has been called the Magna Carta of the Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Confessors addressed Jesus’ promise and defined “Church”: “Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” [1] Where you find the Gospel purely taught and the Sacraments correctly administered, you find the Church. There, in the means of grace, God’s people are blessed.

So, here, at this time and this place, by God’s grace, you are blessed. You are just as blessed as Peter. By His Word, the Father has revealed to you Jesus—the Christ, the Son of the living God. By His Word, the Lord has shown you by your sin: by His Law, He has let you feel them bind you so that you repent, and by His Gospel He releases them from you so that you might have salvation.

It is sure, because Christ had conquered sin and death, devil and hell.

So next time you hear the Absolution, listen carefully: it’s not just words, but a proclamation so powerful that the devil can’t contradict it, that the very gates of hell can’t prevail against it. When you kneel at the altar, rejoice that you receive the body and blood of the Son of the living God, the body and blood that opens the gates of heaven for you. You are built on Christ, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against Him or His people. Where Christ is, the devil must flee; and when your sins are loosed, he has nothing left to work with. So let us send the evil one scurrying away again:

In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 34). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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Built on the Rock the Church Shall Stand

Trinity Bulletin Cover

Our theme for the 125th anniversary of Trinity Lutheran Church is “Built on the Rock the Church Shall Stand,” based upon the hymn of the same name. Admittedly, it is not a very original theme—other congregations, including this one, have used it before—but it is hard to think of a more appropriate theme. Trinity Lutheran Church in Jasper, Minnesota is built on rock. The building itself literally rests on the quartzite rock that is so abundant in the area. The foundation of the church building is made of this rock. More importantly, Trinity Lutheran Church in built upon the Rock, Christ Jesus Himself. He is the foundation of His Church of which this congregation is a part, and we are to build upon Him and His Word. Throughout her long history, the faithful pastors and parishioners of this congregation have proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners in this community—in good times and in bad.

As I write this article, news has just come out of a huge fire at the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. While it seems they were able to save most of the structure and contents, the roof made of wood dried by the centuries was completely burned up and destroyed. The steeples and spires crumbled and fell. Regarding this catastrophe, one of my friends, Kelly Klages, reflected:

Preserve and conserve what you can. Don’t assume that what you take for granted will always be there, especially if it is neglected and unvalued. It takes the blink of an eye for a fickle bit of wind to change, and the effects can be devastating and irreversible. Say no to apathy. This is especially true for the things of faith. It is true for your own church and your own congregation.

This advice seems especially fitting on the occasion of Trinity’s 125th anniversary. Early in its history, this congregation experienced a devastating fire that destroyed the entire building. But within months, the people of this congregation had already built and dedicated the structure that we worship in today. It is important to look back and preserve the history and memories of a congregation and its people. We cannot assume that this church—the building or the congregation—will be around forever. But it is even more important is for us to remember why Trinity Lutheran Church was founded, why it was rebuilt, and why it continues to serve God’s people in this community.

Just before He ascended to the Father’s right hand, Jesus gave His disciples a mission and command: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20). The Church of all times and all places is sent out to share the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ with the world, beginning at home. Toward this end the Lord gives us His Word and Sacraments. As you can see from the lists of baptisms, confirmations, Christian marriages, and Christian burials, the pastors and people of Trinity have been diligently at this work throughout the years. Many souls have been brought into the kingdom of God through water and Word. Many men, women, and children have been nurtured in the faith through God’s Word preached and taught in its purity, and many repentant sinners have received Christ’s body and blood given in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion for the forgiveness of their sins.

When you look back at the pictures from the history of Trinity, it might be easy to wistfully desire “the good ol’ days.” You see the pictures from the days when the pews were all full and the Sunday School and choir were bursting at the seams. You see pictures of young men and women who have moved away. I know it’s easy to think of that as Trinity’s loss, but I prefer to think of it as the kingdom’s gain. Many of those young men and women have gone on to be active members and leaders in other congregations across the state, the country, and even in different places in the world. Much like parents raise up their children to be responsible, godly adults so they can one day leave the nest and establish their own home, this congregation has raised up many men and women who serve the Lord and their neighbor in other locations in the ways that were taught and had modeled here at Trinity.

As for the future: How long will Trinity Lutheran Church be here? Nobody, but God knows. That’s true for all of us. But we do have Christ’s promise that as long as He sees fit to have His name proclaimed in this location, He will be with us. “Were we but two His name to tell, Yet He would deign with us to dwell With all His grace and favor” (LSB #645, v 3). We are not called to certain achievements or earthly goals; we are simply called to be faithful. Let this, then, be our prayer:

Grant then, O God, Your will be done,
That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come
Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know My own; My own know Me.
You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you always.” (LSB #645, v 5).

In Christ,

Pastor Robert E. Moeller, Jr.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Will of God

MysteryClick here to listen to this sermon.

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:7–9).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“Listen, I tell you a mystery”—so Paul writes the Corinthians concerning the resurrection of the body. Today, in our text from his letter to the Ephesians, Paul also tells us a mystery, a mystery made known to us by God. This is not a different mystery, but the same one, for it has its substance and its solution in Christ Jesus.

From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie, the characters and authors of mysteries are part of our culture. Even those who usually write in other genres often try their hand at mystery writing, learning the difficulty of keeping the reader interested, but not thoroughly lost, taking them through twists of plot, secret passages, locked rooms, red herrings, mistaken identities, and other tricks of the trade.

The greatest selling book of all times is actually a mystery. Of course, I mean the Bible. The Bible tells the story with all the wicked twists and turns provided by Satan and sinful humanity. Meanwhile, God’s countermoves exceed even those of the evil one. And because of the Holy Spirit, we already know how the mystery of God’s will toward us comes out.

Ordinarily, when we know the solution, we’re done with the “whodunit.” But not this one. Even knowing how it all ends, we marvel at the way in which the love of God is revealed. Because of the Holy Spirit, we see our salvation plainly, and we are astonished at the blindness of those still perishing in their sins. This is the mystery that captivates us even when we know how it comes out.

When Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, He includes a petition asking that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray this often. But Luke omits this petition, perhaps because his Gentile readers would not have understood what Matthew’s Jewish readers already knew about God’s will.

Most of the ancient world didn’t know how to make sense out of life’s complexities. God’s will was a mystery to them. Some thought everything that happened in the world was due to luck, purely a matter of random chance. Others believed it was already predetermined and set down by fate. Neither understanding was totally right. Neither chance nor fate accounts for the ebb and flow of events in our lives, much less in the world at large.

The same confusion can happen to us when we read the Bible. On the one hand, it looks like people are saved because they accept Jesus as their Savior or they don’t. On the other hand, it sometimes sounds like salvation is predetermined and nothing we do can change it, like in our text. Phrases like “He chose us…before the foundation of the world,” “He predestined us,” and “according to the purpose of His will,” muddy up the water.

What’s the solution to this mystery of God’s will? The answer—and it should not surprise us—is found at the cross.

You see, it’s a frightening thing to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven if He wants to punish us for our sins. It’s not that we don’t deserve His wrath. We do! But we don’t want to have it actually happen to us. And we wouldn’t dare to pray this petition, “Thy will be done,” if God was capricious, mean, or uncaring. We’d be doomed.

The Good News, is that God’s will is for our salvation from the law’s justice. It is God’s will that people be saved through faith in Jesus. And, in spite of our sin and the world’s evil and Satan’s opposition, God saves sinners! He did this by becoming a human being, living a perfect life, and dying for our sins.

We have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior because God gave it to us, not because we chose Him (Ephesians 2:8–9). On our own, we could’ve never solved this great mystery. For “[God’s] greatness no one can fathom.” As Jesus, told His disciples, this mystery is kept hidden from unbelievers (Mark 4:11), and we cannot solve it on our own for these reasons:

First, we blew our “in” with the One who knew the solution. Ever since the Fall, we’re all born as sinners divorced from God and in disharmony with our fellow human beings. We all think only of ourselves, our own wants, and own perceived needs. And that makes it a mystery as to how God would ever love us.

Second, by nature, we purposely close our eyes and our minds to God and turn away from godly deeds. As Jesus pointed out to the scribes and Pharisees, we’re all blind men, following blind guides.

Third, we could never buy off the only One who knew the secret. The secret to the mystery is not for sale. As Paul asked the Roman Christians, “Who has given a gift to [God] that He should repay him?” (Romans 11:35).

But Jesus has revealed the mystery to those who believe in Him. As our text says, “making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9). Through faith in Jesus, the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you and me (Mark 4:11).

“How can this be?” you might ask. “How can Jesus reveal the mystery of God’s will when we could not find the answer ourselves?” The answer—like the solutions to many mysteries—is quite simple once it has been revealed. Jesus is the One we were created to be!

Jesus was and is in perfect harmony with God. Jesus told His opponents, “I do nothing on My own authority, but speak just as the Father taught Me. And He who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing Him” (John 8:28-29).

Throughout His entire life, Jesus kept His eyes on His Father and did only His will—even when that meant sacrificing Himself for those who deserved only punishment. Jesus knew perfectly His Father’s mind, for He and the Father are one, and what He did revealed the mystery of the Father’s will toward us.

On the cross, Jesus purchased salvation, “not with gold or silver,” but with a price much higher, “with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent sufferings and death.” That’s how this mystery came out, and it’s a happy ending for us!

Now, even knowing the solution, we want to revisit this mystery over and over again. As we ponder the wonderful gift of the Gospel in our hearts, we remember Christ’s work of salvation and what that means for our lives.

We remember that Christ restores the harmony of creation that was lost in the fall. He makes everything new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We remember that Christ restores spiritual sight to understand that God’s will toward us is love and forgiveness (John 9). He opens our eyes to recognize our sin and need for a Savior. He opens our eyes to see that He is that Savior.

We remember that Christ bends our will to His Father’s will. By the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament, Jesus reveals His Father’s will and continues to bind us together in love and unity (John 17:20-26).

And we remember that Christ gave us salvation and this knowledge of the mind of God as a free gift. We have been saved, not by our own works, but by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9)

This is the one mystery we can tell others without having to first issue a spoiler alert.

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians will seek to participate in and spread our newfound harmony with God. We are enabled to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We can love our neighbor as ourselves and build him up for good.

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians wish to focus on the source of our salvation. As the writer of Hebrews urges, we are able to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:2) as we run the race of faith that has been set before us.

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians desire to receive Christ’s blessings of Word and Sacrament. We thankfully remember our baptism. We hunger and thirst for His true body and blood. We long to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We want to be about the works of God, demonstrating His work in us (Ephesians 2:10).

Now understanding the incomprehensible, the mystery that God’s will is our salvation, we Christians participate in the gift, even as God continually blesses us with it (Philippians 2:12-13). We freely and fully share this gift with others as we tell them the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“Aha!” exclaims the mystery reader. “Now I see!” when the solution is revealed. And so do we! Not perfectly, for we still view God “through a glass darkly.” But we can follow the plot of our salvation from eternity’s forever back into Eden, where God cursed the serpent and promised the Savior. We can follow the golden thread throughout the Old Testament, where God’s desire to save His people—even when rebellious and unworthy—pushes the narrative forward. Foreshadowing freedom from sin, death, and the devil, the Lord rescues His people from bondage in Egypt, brings them through the waters of the Red Sea, and takes them to the Promised Land. Preparing us for the keeping of the promised Savior, God continually keeps His other promises in the time and manner He desires.

Now we’ve gone through it again. Still a great story! Especially as we see ourselves in it! This mystery isn’t about someone else; this is our story. Christ dies for you and me that we might live. Christ lives for you and me that we might die to sin. Christ takes away our sin and gives us His perfect righteousness and obedience. Christ removes our worries and gives us peace. Christ becomes a lowly human being that the lowliest of us might receive the inheritance given only to the firstborn Son. Christ’s Father abandons Him so we will never be forsaken. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:7–9).

The mystery is solved! In Christ, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, in Him—for the sake of His person and work—you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Three That Testify: The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John
“The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John” by Hendrick ter Brugghen

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:7-8).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Is pure doctrine so important that it is worth arguing about? Worth ruffling a few feathers? Worth enduring suffering for? St. John certainly thought so. His first epistle, from which comes our text, is wholly and vigorously polemical, aimed at false teachers and the heresies they were putting forth.

Before the end of the 1st century AD, false teachers had already arisen within the Church. “They went out from us,” John writes, “but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). These false teachers had apparently established themselves as a separate community. They continued to make vigorous propaganda for their cause (2 John 7, 10), an early form of Gnosticism, which constituted a threat to the Church (1 John 2:27; 3:7).

They were a real threat, for they were very “religious” men. They were “spiritual” men and claimed the prophetic authority of the Holy Spirit for their teaching (1 John 4:1). They cultivated a high and solemn sort of piety, a piety that claimed immediate communion with God and operated with slogans such as “I know Him,” “I abide in Him,” “I am in the Light” (1 John 2:4, 6, 9), and “I love God” (1 John 4:20). They likely felt themselves, and professed themselves, to be a new elite in Christendom, the “next level of Christian.”

It was no wonder that they deceived many and that many who remained in the Church were perhaps not fully convinced that the Church had been in the right when it separated itself from them. Or there might well have been some who were still secretly attracted to this brilliant new theology.

The false teachers deceived many, but they did not deceive John. The eyes that had seen the Word of life in the flesh (1 John 1:1) saw these men for what they were. They were, in John’s clear vision, not prophets of God, but false prophets (1 John 4:1). Their words were inspired not by the Spirit of truth, but by their spirit of error (1 John 4:6). They were not the Christ’s, but the very embodiment of the Antichrist, the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3), who inspires the lie.

What was this lie? They denied the full humanity of the Christ. They denied that Jesus, the man in history, was the Christ, the Son of God (1 John 2:22; 4:3), who had come “in the flesh” (1 John 4:2). We get a hint of how far this denial went in the words of John that state positively the significance of the Christ who came in the flesh: “This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood” (1 John 5:6).

These words are in themselves somewhat obscure, but they become clearer against the background of the heresy of Cerinthus and his followers, of which Irenaeus has left us a description (ANF 1:352). Cerinthus taught that Jesus was a man among men, a superior man but still merely a man, the Son of Joseph and Mary. At His Baptism, the heavenly “Christ” descended upon Him in the form of a dove and enabled Him to reveal the hitherto unknown God and to perform miracles. At His Passion, however, “the heavenly Christ” again left Jesus, and only Jesus the man suffered and died. In other words, the Christ came “by water” (the Baptism of Jesus), but did not come “by blood” (the Passion and death of Jesus).

With this false theology, the cross of Jesus, the shed blood of the Son of God, which the apostolic witness celebrated as the crown and culmination of the ministry of Christ, was thus ignored or relegated to the background. The blood of Jesus, the Son of God, was no longer the blood that “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

Where the cross is not taken seriously, sin is no longer taken seriously. Men, whose proud piety centers in their assumed knowledge of God and ignore the cross in which God has revealed Himself as both the Judge of sinful man and the Forgiver of sinners, can think of sin as something that need not concern them. They can say, “We have not sinned,” and thus make a liar out of God, who has in the cross declared all people have sinned (1 John 1:8, 10) and has in the cross given His Son as the “propitiation… for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

Such a piety is more palatable to this world than the truth. The offense of the cross is gone, and the lives of Christians are no longer a walking indictment of the sins of the world. The world that does not recognize the children of God (1 John 3:1), but rather hates them (1 John 3:13), can come to terms with these men and with the Christ whom they proclaim, because He is a toothless lion, not much different than the next holy man or cult leader or self-help guru. St. John says of these heretics: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5).

Over against these men and their teaching, John asserts, the full reality of the incarnation, the eternal Word becoming flesh, the fact that life and communion with God are to be found in Jesus, the Christ, who came and died for people’s sin in the flesh, or they will not be found at all. John meets the danger that threatens the Church by a powerfully positive restatement of what the Christian life really is, a passionate appeal to recognize in action the full measure of the gift and the full extent of the claim of that grace of God which has given us fellowship with the Father and with the Son.

John had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, His Passion, death, and resurrection, and ascension. In the introduction to his first epistle, John tells us how he had seen and handled and touched the body of the resurrected Christ, and that life is found only in fellowship with Jesus Christ.

But notice how the apostle does not rely solely upon his own testimony: “This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:6-8).

Because so much of the way God deals with people is subtle and indirect, because so much of our life with God is hidden (Colossians 3:3), and because Satan and his false teachers seek to lead us astray, we believers are vulnerable to doubts and misbelief. Amid competing viewpoints, how can you tell who is telling the truth? How can anybody be sure of anything about God?

The Lord Himself long ago established for the Israelite courts a procedure for determining the truth (Deuteronomy 17:16; 19:15). The procedure was to find two or three objective witnesses besides the plaintiff. Jesus Himself used that format as He established His claim as the Savior before a skeptical crowd of His countrymen: “If I alone bear witness about Myself, My testimony is not deemed true. There is another who bears witness about Me, and I know that the testimony that be bears about Me is true” (John 5:31-32). Jesus cites John the Baptist as His witness, and then cites His heavenly Father, whose booming voice at the time of His Baptism publicly affirmed Jesus as His beloved Son.

As to what specifically John means by “the Spirit and the water and the blood,” there are three interesting interpretations. Each has some merit, and I think the full answer is in a combination of the three. Let’s consider them briefly.

For many centuries, going back at least to Saint Augustine in the 5th century, many Christians assumed that “water and blood” was an allusion to the separated fluids that ran from the pierced side of the crucified Savior. John was right there by the cross at the time, and in his Gospel account, he immediately points to those separated fluids as proof that Jesus Christ was truly dead, proof that the sacrifice for the world’s sins had truly been made. He wrote: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of His bones will be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on Him whom they have pierced’” (John 19:35–37).

John’s point in our verse, then, is to contradict the false teachers’ claim either that the death of Christ never happened or that it was only the death of Jesus but not the death of the heavenly “Christ” that happened on the cross.

A second possibility appeals to many commentators. They understand the words water and blood to refer to the beginning and ending of Jesus’ public ministry. Cerinthus and the other gnostic teachers denied the two natures of Christ, claiming that the “Christ” from heaven simply came down and rested on the man Jesus during His teaching ministry. They were more interested in Jesus as a teacher of morality than as the personal sacrifice of God’s Son for the sins of the world.

John’s references to water, then, would be to Jesus’ Baptism. At the Jordan, the Father’s voice boomed out His authentication of Jesus’ identity as His Son and His approval of the Son’s mission. The reference to blood would be to the crucifixion, where the words of Jesus and signs and wonders that occurred at His death convinced even a Roman military officer and his execution detachment: “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

Another interesting and scriptural possibility for the meaning of blood, water, and Spirit is that they are references to the means of grace—Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word of God. These three things, after all, are our lifeline to Christ. This is how we know. The Scriptures are the foundation for everything we know about God. They alone bear sure witness to the creation, fall, promises, incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. What better way to drive doubt from our hearts than to go to the Word!

The sacraments personalize the Gospel in a most wondrous way. There is no mistaking, who is receiving God’s grace when the water of rebirth and renewal splashes on someone’s head in God’s triune name. There is no mistaking for whom God’s love and forgiveness are intended when the body and blood of the Lord Himself are placed right in someone’s mouth.

Do you see why all this is important? Why allowing this error to gain traction would be so deadly to your faith? Because if it was not Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God incarnate, both true God and true man, all the way from His birth to His Baptism to His suffering and death to His resurrection and ascension—if it is not this one and the same Jesus who is your Savior, then you have no Savior!

If Jesus were just a man—a really righteous man perhaps, who suffered and died on the cross—well, good for Him, maybe God would reward Him. But that wouldn’t do you any good. On the other hand, if Jesus is indeed the very Son of God, and He sheds His holy blood for you and for all the other sinners of the world—well, then His suffering and death have infinite value, sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world and to win your forgiveness and thus your eternal life.

Which He does. And because He has, you are covered and cleansed by Jesus’ holy blood. Indeed, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.