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Count the Cost

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1s-bnMOiUAiJHBic2jMZxPbgTuG1xcQu7/view?usp=sharing

[Jesus said:] “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:26-28).

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

Jesus is at the height of His success as we measure it. People are flocking to Him—the numbers growing as He gets closer to Jerusalem. Yet, Jesus has to ruin it by telling the people a bunch of hard truths they can’t handle. He can’t help it. Jesus never compromises the truth, for that would be compromising Himself.

The Lord’s criteria for discipleship are as simple as they sound horrifying: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” You can almost hear the church growth gurus gasp. “That’s not the way to win a following. You have to give the people something they want. Jesus, we know following You involves sacrifice, but if You can, please keep those demands to a minimum. Otherwise, they’ll go and listen to the preacher down the street.”

But that’s not Jesus. He doesn’t want anyone to be His disciple who hasn’t “counted the cost,” for such will not be disciples for long. And let me tell you: The cost of discipleship is high! Remember, Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits Him there. He knows that this crowd will reach its peak on Palm Sunday as He rides triumphantly into the city. He knows that as the week wears on, the crowds will thin. By Friday, they will not cry “Hosanna!” but “Crucify Him!” He knows, in the end, He will be alone. His many followers will abandon Him. Even His Twelve closest friends will scatter. One will betray Him for the price of thirty pieces of silver. Another will deny even knowing Him.

Jesus knows all that, and so He sets forth the conditions for following Him. First, there must be a willingness to leave family ties. The word “hate” sounds harsh to our ears. Jesus means to shock you, to make you realize that nothing dares come before Him in your life as a disciple.         

No, Jesus Christ—Love Incarnate—isn’t commanding you to “hate” as we use and understand the word in English today. For Jesus, “hate” is not so much a feeling, but a choice of the will, a matter of priorities. To “love” one thing and to “hate” another gives preference to the former. Jesus is not calling for you to despise your family members; He is calling upon you to love Him more than them. He is telling you to keep the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” That’s what Jesus means!

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Oh! That’s all He meant!” you must realize that even this level of commitment is far beyond you. Quite naturally, you place family above the Lord. Stalwart supporters of sound doctrine and church discipline may find fault with a pastor or congregation when that doctrine and discipline is applied to their own wayward children. Spouses and children give in to the temptation to skip worship at the request of an unbelieving family member. And who is courageous enough to correct a false teaching when the family is gathered around the table for Christmas dinner? Nobody. You believe that keeping the peace is more important. The cost of discipleship is high, way more than you are willing to pay.

And just so you understand this clearly, Jesus gives it a second go-around: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

What’s Jesus doing? Not only does He not understand all the latest marketing techniques, He seems to have some crazy death wish. Crucifixion is a cruel and agonizing way to die, a form of punishment reserved for the vilest offenders and sub-human slaves. For the Jews, it was the death of the damned. But here, it looks like Jesus is telling you that you have to embrace this terrifying, shame-filled way of dying, this cross and its curse, in order to be His disciple.

That’s right! That’s exactly what’s He’s saying. If you don’t bear your own cross, you’re incapable of being His disciple. Following Jesus means self-denial. It means the sacrifice of your own will for the sake of Christ.

“Cross” here, does not refer to the troubles that commonly come in life to all people. Many of those come as a consequence of our own foolishness or the sins of others or of just living in a fallen world. Rather, for a believer, “bearing a cross” means to accept whatever suffering might result from a sincere commitment to Christ and His kingdom. Sometimes it means standing toe-to-toe with those who are speaking lies or teaching falsely. Other times it means not speaking up for yourself when you are personally attacked, but rather taking the blows for the sake of the greater good of the Church. For most of the disciples present on that day Jesus spoke these words, bearing the cross was more than just a figurative expression. Their confession of Christ meant their own martyr’s death—often on an actual wooden cross. But even if it does not mean literal death for you, the cost of discipleship is high. It is way more than you can pay. And you better realize that before you begin.

Jesus gives two examples to emphasize this point. The first involves counting the costs of constructing a tower. If you were to launch a major building project, wouldn’t you first sit down to find out how much money you need and how much you have before you begin? Otherwise, you may be mocked for starting something you couldn’t finish. Think also of a king. He’s planning for war, but then finds out he’s outnumbered two-to-one. Knowing he will face certain defeat, wouldn’t his best course be to seek terms of peace before he engages in battle?

Count the cost. You simply can’t afford what it costs to be Jesus’ disciple. You don’t have the necessary level of commitment. You don’t have enough to defeat your enemy. You simply can’t do it. No one can meet such impossible demands. The cost of discipleship is just too high.

So what are you to do? Do you throw in the towel, give up, and say, “Why even bother?” Are you like the rich young ruler who wanted to be a disciple? When he heard what Jesus told him to do—to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor—he simply gave up his desire to be a disciple. Jesus says: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

This news should leave you disturbed, troubled, anxious. But before we go on for relief, let me point out two other things.

First, this text well illustrates why I waste no time telling you that you are saved by your commitment to Jesus or by how much you love Him or how hard you are trying—because no one can do it. No one can achieve the level of commitment to hate his family, hate himself, prepare to die, and renounce all things. I certainly include myself in that list!

Second, and far more importantly, I must point out that I have only spoken in terms of the Law so far. Remember, the purpose of God’s Law: It tells you what God demands of you if you are to be perfectly holy and righteous before Him. It is also to show you your sin, to show you that you cannot do it. When Jesus says this, He is preaching the Law. He is declaring to all who hear that the cost of discipleship is extraordinarily high, and it is one that you in your sinfulness are incapable of paying.

Being Jesus’ disciple is impossible! Believe it; get used to it. You don’t have enough “hate” for the things of this world to love God enough. You certainly don’t have the commitment to bear the cross for your own sins. You don’t have the money, the ability, or the strength to build a bridge across that chasm or a stairway to heaven. That’s what Jesus wants you to learn today. When you count the cost, you’ll discover that the cost of discipleship is just too high!

I said earlier no one can meet such impossible demands; but that’s not completely true. There is one exception! The God-man Jesus Christ. Jesus loved His heavenly Father more than His family and His own life. We read in the Gospels that Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him to plead with Him to stop teaching, maybe even to haul Him away. Rather than give in for the sake of family peace, Jesus continued to do the Father’s will that He might go to the cross for us.

Jesus put His heavenly Father’s will over His own. We hear His prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Though He did not wish to suffer, Jesus gave up His own life to complete His Father’s plan for your salvation.

Jesus kept the Law for you and He gives you the credit for His obedience. By His grace, He covers you with His righteousness. Therefore, the Father looks upon you and does not see your sin; He sees Christ’s perfect obedience. Jesus does not demand that you die for your sin, because He has already died for it. Instead, He calls you to confess your sin, to acknowledge that His death is the one you deserve. And then He declares that He shares His death with you. He joins you into His death so that you do not have to die for your sin yourself.

What you cannot do, Jesus does for you. From the cross, He builds His Church. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. No one can pay what it costs, except Jesus. Only He frees you, a lost and condemned creature. Only He has purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.

For you, it’s impossible. The cost of discipleship is too high, way more than you can pay. You just can’t do it by your own reason and strength. But the Holy Spirit has called you through the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, and sanctified, and kept you in the true faith. He does what is impossible—to make you Christ’s disciple, to make you God’s own dear child.

And surprisingly, you will find that you have taken up your cross and followed Jesus. How did this happen? The Apostle Paul says in Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, that, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in  a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (vv 3-6).

In baptism, you were crucified into the death of Christ and raised to life in His resurrection. You have eternal life. And you have the promise that though you die, the Lord will raise the bodies of you and all believers on the Last Day.

The baptismal life is one of dying and rising. The Old Adam must be put to death daily. The Old Adam in you should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

That makes bearing your cross an entirely different matter. To bear your cross is to bear Christ’s cross, and it is not nearly as heavy as when He carried it to Calvary. In fact, your burden is as light as a feather—even lighter! You bear His cross when it is traced upon you in Baptism. This is the cross that you might outwardly sketch upon yourself as you hear the Invocation and receive the Absolution—you will feel no greater a weight or pain of Christ’s cross than that, for He has suffered all the weight and all the pain for you.

Rather than demanding your body and blood as a sacrifice for your sin, Jesus gives you His body and blood into death for the forgiveness of your sins. In His Supper, He now gives you His risen body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. That is what it means to bear your cross—it means to be forgiven, for in forgiveness Jesus shares His cross with you, taking away your death and giving you His resurrection.

Therefore, set aside all pretenses of your commitment to Christ, for the Lord exposes how weak and unsatisfactory that commitment is. Instead, boast in the Lord. Confess your sins—including your pride in your dedication to Him, and trust solely in His grace and mercy. Give thanks that He has made you His disciple by His commitment, by His sacrifice, His once-for all ultimate sacrifice.

This is the Good News we proclaim to the world: Yes, the cost of discipleship is high, but it has been paid by Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of 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

The Glory That Comes from Man… Or God?

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Procession_in_the_Streets_of_Jerusalem_(Le_cortège_dans_les_rues_de_Jérusalem)_-_James_Tissot
Jesus’ Triumphal Procession into Jerusalem” by James Tissot

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“Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him. Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in [Jesus], but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:41-43).

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

The news spread quickly that Jesus was in Bethany, and large numbers of people headed there to see Him. With the influx of pilgrims in Jerusalem getting ready for the Passover, it wasn’t long before a great crowd had gathered. No doubt, their curiosity was doubly piqued, since they would also be able to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had recently raised from the dead. Realizing they were losing the battle for public opinion, the chief priests decided to kill Jesus. They would do whatever was necessary to end Jesus’ popularity. They added Lazarus to their hit list, for many Jews believed in Jesus because He had raised Lazarus from the dead.

Jesus had arrived in Bethany on Friday. The dinner at Mary and Martha’s, the anointing by Mary, and the gathering of the crowd took place after His arrival, with the Sabbath intervening. On the next day—Palm Sunday—the ever-growing crowd learned that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. They cut palm branches and went out to the road to meet Him, receiving Him with all the pomp and circumstance of a king as the Jewish leaders feared they might.

The people hailed Jesus with words from Psalm 118:25-26: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” This was from the Hallel, sung as part of the Passover feast. For centuries, Jews had sung it in anticipation of the Lamb of God on His way to be their sacrifice. But they weren’t thinking of sacrifice that day; they received Jesus as Israel’s King.

It happened spontaneously, but it was foretold years earlier. Jesus rode a young donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. The messianic King from David’s line entered Jerusalem amid the praise and glory of the crowd.

The Pharisees cursed their bad fortune. Every threat they had made, every trap they had set, every accusation they had leveled, hadn’t accomplished a thing. Jesus was, on that day, more popular than ever. The Jewish leaders reacted as we often do when we realize we are no longer in control—frustrated and fearful. “Look, the world has gone after Him,” they exclaimed in classic hyperbole.

To the Pharisees, “the world” meant primarily the Jewish people. But Christ came for the whole world. Even then and there some Greeks were among the crowd. They singled out Philip from Jesus’ disciples and made their intentions known: “We wish to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Up to this time, Jesus had insisted repeatedly that His hour had not yet come. But now, He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

What Jesus came to do He likened to a seed of grain. That seed remains nothing but a lonely seed unless it is planted. But when it is buried in the ground and dies there, a plant grows from it and bears fruit. Similarly, Jesus would not bear the fruit of His mission until He first died. All His miraculous signs had no eternal benefit without the miracle of the cross and the empty tomb. The Son of Man had to die for the spiritual harvest to come, the harvest of souls for eternity.

When Jesus warns against loving our lives, He means putting this earthly life first. When we believe in Jesus and have eternal life in Him, worldly living loses its attraction. Everything worldly carries sin’s taint. Only in Jesus does the good life, eternal life, become ours. It would be better to lose this earthly life than to lose Jesus. Our faith in Jesus, however, carries a price. We must follow where He leads. We face sacrifices. We risk the scorn of others. But we do so with the promise of the heavenly Father’s honor and with praise and thanksgiving for His Son.

Jesus had come to Jerusalem to die. As true man, He was troubled by what He faced. The triumphant procession did not change the reality He knew was coming. He already felt the burden we associate with Gethsemane. He opened His soul for us to look in. Jesus was not a robot, heading for the scrap heap without feeling. As true God, He did not simply switch off all sorrow and suffering. His sufferings would be intense beyond measure because of our sin. Still the God-man never wavered from His assigned path. He had come from heaven for this very purpose, prepared for this time. He was there to bring glory to God.

Jesus turned attention from Himself to His Father, praying, “Father, glorify Your name.” The Father answered Jesus’ prayer aloud from heaven. His name had been glorified and would continue to be glorified. By sending His Son in the flesh and through His Son’s miraculous signs, the Father received glory (John 1:14). In the events to come, Christ’s work of salvation—His death, resurrection, and ascension—would most assuredly glorify God’s name further.

The crowd needed to hear the voice as a sign that a truly cosmic event was being set in motion—the confrontation God had predicted in Eden (Genesis 3:15). The judgment of this world would be based on the outcome. The judgment is an ongoing process, as people either in faith accept, or in unbelief, reject Jesus as their Savior. The ruler of this world, Satan, would be driven out as the Seed of the woman emerged as the risen victor. Jesus would break the devil’s power over us.

For all this to happen, Jesus was headed for death by crucifixion. He told the people as much, using an image most of them would have understood, at least in principle. He would be lifted up from the earth on a cross. That lifting up would affect all human beings. Through it and His subsequent exaltation, Jesus would draw all people to Himself. At the cross, all people must invariably accept or reject Jesus as Savior. There are no other paths.

This crowd had just hailed Jesus as the Christ in the line of King David, and now they heard Him talk about Himself as the Son of Man, saying that He must be crucified. They searched for understanding. They believed from Scripture that the Christ would be eternal but assumed that meant He would set up an eternal kingdom on earth. It didn’t make sense to them that the Christ would die. Rather than try to explain away their doubts; He called for them to trust in Him. They didn’t need all their questions answered just then. They needed only to believe.

Still, not all who were gathered that Palm Sunday believed in Jesus even though He had done so many signs in their presence, including the raising of Lazarus. This too, fulfilled messianic prophecy. Isaiah had prophesied this unbelief, and Jesus had quoted him elsewhere to show why many Jews didn’t recognize His messianic claims. They were locked away in their own unbelief.

Isaiah prophesied these things because He had seen the glory that comes from God. In his vision, Isaiah saw the Messiah’s great suffering to achieve our salvation and the Messiah’s glory, restored in the resurrection and ascension.

Many rejected Jesus, but some, even some of the leaders, believed in Jesus. Sad to say, the Pharisees succeeded in intimidating them, so they hid their real views for fear of being put out of the synagogue. They loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God in Christ.

We should not be surprised at this faintheartedness. Our own lives display it today. How often do we Christians fail to confess our faith because we fear the reaction of those around us? How often do you and I love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God?

The fact is, we really have a hard time understanding glory as God defines it. We’re used to glory in human terms. A person finds glory when he is surrounded by power, strength, and prestige. When someone is glorious, he seems invincible. That’s hardly the appearance of the beaten, bloody Man hanging on the cross.

But God measures glory in a different way. In God’s terms, glory is achieved by doing His will. Something none of us is capable of doing ourselves. Not perfectly. Not all the time. But Jesus does, and He does it in our place.

Against all appearances, God is glorifying His name at the cross because Jesus is fulfilling His Father’s plan of salvation, dying the death of sinners so that sinners can be raised to eternal life. That hill outside Jerusalem is a more glorious mountain than Sinai; on Mt. Calvary, Christ defeats sin, death, and the devil.

When the Greeks wished to see Jesus, Jesus pointed them to the cross. That is where the Son of Man is glorified. As a pastor, it is given me (and all pastors) to point you to the cross, time and time again. We do so with reason, because there is your salvation. There you will see the glory that comes from God.

In Christ, you have much more than what the world appears to offer. The world’s glory consists in displays of power, popularity, wealth. All of them are so fleeting. Look how long it takes for the cheering crowds of Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to turn to chants of “Crucify Him!” on Good Friday. How quickly a celebrity can go to persona non grata with one rumor of scandal. How quickly wealth can disappear with a bad investment or shaky economy.

Jesus’ glory is to do His Father’s will. His death is glorious, because by His death He saves you from the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature. Furthermore, He continues to accomplish His Father’s will, visiting you by His Word and Sacraments, working in you forgiveness, life, and salvation.

This is a world of trouble and anxiety because this is a world of sin. You’ll be tempted to love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. In the midst of trouble, trial, and temptation, Jesus visits you with that glorious forgiveness. Where you might be frustrated at your station in life, He calls you His child and an heir of the kingdom of heaven. He reassures you that this time of tribulation will pass and that He will use it for your good and for His glory.

Remember that glory in times of grief. There is little in life that is more heart-breaking than the death of a loved one. Like all people, Christians must also endure grief. But with the grief, they also have the hope of the grain. In the midst of mourning, you know that Christ was put to death and buried in a tomb. You also know that He rose from the dead three days later. You also have the confidence that He is the firstfruits of those fallen asleep, and He will raise His people to everlasting life. Those who have died in the Lord are delivered from suffering; and because they have died in the Lord, they will be raised up to eternal glory on the Last Day.

Remember that glory when troubled by guilt. The devil still accuses; but since he has no access to the throne of God anymore, he whispers the accusations into your ear instead. He would abuse your conscience and try to convince you that, despite Jesus’ death, you still stand guilty before God. He seeks to make your guilt appear far more real than the cross. But the devil has been lying since he first slithered into Eden, and his accusations are falsehood at the foundation. Have you sinned? Yes, that much is true. Do you still stand guilty before God? No, because Christ has died to take away your sins. The true blood of Christ has covered and removed evidence of your sin before God. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

The glory that comes from God is found in the cross, because that is where the Savior saves you. By gloriously fulfilling His Father’s plan for your salvation, Jesus takes your sins away and give you eternal life. He rescues you from tribulation, from guilt, and from death. He declares you His holy, innocent child, and makes you an heir of eternal life. Because of His death, the risen Lord now utters these glorious words to you: 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

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“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.

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Theologians All: Of Glory or of the Cross

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“The Three Crosses” by Rembrandt

Click here to listen to this sermon.

And they said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:37-38).

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

Fellow theologians. Yes, that’s right. I called you a theologian. Regardless of the level of your religious training, you are a theologian. All of us are theologians. Being a theologian just means thinking and speaking about God. And it is impossible to go for long without thinking about God. Things happen. Accidents. Tragedies. Death. Disaster. Disease. Disappointment. And there is also good fortune. Unexpected success or escape from danger. Experience of great beauty or pleasure. Sheer grace. Chance encounters that determine our lives. Love.

With each of these things—good or bad—we begin to wonder. God pops into our thinking and conversation. We may cry out in agony, “Why God?” or in relief, “Thank God!” or in praise, “Thank you God!” Or we may just use God’s name to curse. Sooner or later we are likely to get thinking about God and wondering if there is some logic to it all in our lives, or some injustice. We become theologians. Then the question becomes: What kind of theologian will we be?

Actually, there are only two kinds of theologians: theologians of the cross and theologians of glory. In comparing the two, we find the theologian of the cross looks at the adversity and suffering in the world and recognizes it as a consequence of sin. He further prays to God in faith and trust, and says, “not my will, but Yours be done, O Lord.” And he knows that, come what may, he is the baptized and redeemed child of God, and trusting in Christ the crucified, he bears all the crosses that the Lord lays upon him and rejoices in the promise of eternal life.

The theologian of glory, on the other hand, views life as quid pro quo—you get what you give. Adversity and suffering are a direct punishment for either unbelief or weak faith. Strong faith means earthly wealth and prosperity—health without suffering, joy without sorrow. If you’re a true believer, you’ll have no earthly cares because your every wish is God’s command, and you can simply tell Him to remove all thorns and crosses, and He will do it speedily.

We’ll get into the consequences for each of these theologies a little later. For now, consider the disciples of Jesus—James and John—and decide what kind of theologians they seem to be when they come to Jesus with a request. “Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left in Your glory.”

Imagine your favorite boss gathering you all in the breakroom to tearfully announce he is stepping down because he has a terminal disease, and you have the nerve to pull him off to the side to ask him if he’d be willing to recommend you to management as his replacement. Talk about insensitive!

But even their starting premise exposes their glory theology: “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” This is a textbook example of how the modern theology of glory treats God. One uses God as a means to an end—for health, happiness, and all other personal purposes.

Jesus responds: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Such language might recall the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, but here Jesus is using it as figurative language for what is going to happen to Him. Jesus refers to His passion and crucifixion as drinking from the cup and being baptized.

You might remember the Old Testament references to someone drinking from the cup of God’s wrath. This is what Jesus is talking about—the cup of suffering and a baptism of blood. He does not come right out and ask James and John, “Do you want to come and be crucified as I will be?” But perhaps that would have been easier for the disciples to understand. At this point, they still do not accept that Jesus must be tortured and killed. They seem to think He’s going to establish His eternal Messianic kingdom with a wave of His hand!

The inability of the disciples to comprehend and accept the passion and death of our Lord is a consequence of the theology of glory, and it continues to show itself today. While the theologian of the cross accepts suffering and turns to the Lord for strength in the certain hope of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, the theologian of glory is in spiritual danger when he encounters suffering, because he has been led to believe that suffering will not be a part of the Christian life.

And each one of us is a glory theologian by nature. Even when we have Jesus’ teaching about bearing our crosses and being persecuted for His name’s sake, we still respond to trials and adversity with despair, shock, and we ask “Why? Why, O God, are You placing this upon me?”

Our Old Adam also wants us to believe that our conduct as God’s children will somehow insulate us from hardship. This is what makes the theology of glory so deadly, for it is often far more subtle than the obvious examples.

Anyone who is familiar with the words of Jesus should be suspicious of those who preach of the excitement of the Christian life. We’ve all heard those enthusiastic types who talk about how your life will be changed forever when you receive Jesus into your heart. There are those who truly believe that becoming a Christian will solve all your financial difficulties, fix your troubled marriage, and make you a better person in general. And in the end, it creates a false sense of security because it teaches you to believe that God owes you something.

But what happens to such a Christian (who, by the way, may truly have a living and saving faith) when he receives word that he has a terminal disease—or loses a loved one—or loses all his worldly possessions in a natural disaster or house fire? Will faith built upon such a faulty foundation stand in the storm?

The Scriptures reveal the consequences of this glory theology. One need look no farther than Jesus’ disciples, who gathered together and hid in fear after He was crucified. That first Good Friday did not end in quiet reverence and hopeful anticipation of the first Easter morning. No, there were followers of Jesus who were left in the depths of despair because they expected the kingdom of glory to come without suffering, and they thought all was lost because Jesus had died.

The Lord Jesus told James and John that they didn’t know what they were asking when they said they wanted Him to grant them whatever they requested. And it is the same for you today. When your theology of glory trumps your theology of the cross, you begin to expect the Lord to grant you your every wish, and you expect Him to explain Himself when He lays crosses upon you. But when your crosses appear to outnumber your blessings, you will be tempted to despair and to doubt your Lord’s provision for you. Your Lord has promised to grant you everything you need, but not everything you want.

Christ Jesus is not a means to an end. He is The End. And He has taught you how you are to pray. No prayer for temporal blessings should be rendered to God without including, “Thy will be done.” For prayer, itself, is communion between the Christian’s believing heart and his Lord. And the believing heart will seek only that which is in accordance with the holy, just, and perfect will of God.

The nature of one’s prayers, however, is only the beginning of the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. James and John started out with a request for a “blank check,” but upon further questioning from Jesus they revealed their greater error of seeking glory without crosses.

Dear Christians, do not be deceived. Do not expect a Christian life that is free from serious illness, strife, and suffering. For if that is the theology you embrace, you will have no place to turn when you do hear bad news from your doctor, your banking statement, or your newspaper. For the theology of glory, the bad news of life chokes off the good news of the Gospel. Glory theology does not deal sufficiently with our sin or its effects. Sin is an inconvenient sidebar—a slight bump in the road. Or it is looked upon as a sign that one does not have true faith.

But glory theology rears its ugly head in the most disgusting manner when it tells the Christian that his suffering is a result of his weak faith and secret sins. It has little use for the suffering and death of Jesus, for in glory theology, Jesus did His thing 2,000 years ago—He died for our sins and is our Savior, but now we can focus on more pertinent things like how He can help us run a better business, fix our broken relationships, and teach us how to be healthier.

But once again, Christ Jesus is not a means to an end. He is the end. And He is the one and only focus of the theology of the cross. Theology of the cross keeps its eye on the ball, who is the crucified and risen Christ. And He is the Christ who came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. It is the Christ who is not your self-help guru, but the Christ who shed His blood and died for your sins and was raised again for your justification.

This Christ did not say, “Believe in Me and I’ll grant you your every wish and desire,” but rather said, “You will be hated and persecuted for My name’s sake, and you will suffer and perhaps die for believing in Me.”

What are we to say to this? “Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints!” Rejoice, dear Christians, when you face trials and sufferings for they drive you to the cross. They force you to focus on the only source of true comfort, peace, and hope—Christ and Him crucified for your sins.

Jesus said that anyone who would be His disciple must pick up His cross and follow Him. But He also promises you blessed and eternal rest in Him at the end of this life. Christ Jesus, your Lord has already conquered sin for you, and has defeated the greatest and final enemy, death itself. And this He has done so that He might promise you full forgiveness of all your sins.

As God’s children, you will indeed drink the cup of suffering as long as you are on this earth. You will be harassed by the unbelieving world, you will face trials and hardship, and you will be tormented by conscience and contrition over sin. Yet Christ Jesus has promised to give you peace from these crosses. He forgives you of your iniquity—He absolves you of your sin and separates them from you as far as the east is from the west. He invites you to His altar, where He gives you the visible and tangible promise in His body and blood that were given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.

Furthermore, He invites you to come to Him at all times and places through prayer, in the knowledge that all of your crosses, whether they be sickness, bereavement, doubt, or fear, are all temporary and are placed upon you to re-center your focus and life on Him.

And remember, when you ask God to remove these things from you, that Jesus Himself prayed the Father take the cup of suffering away from Him, and He did not. Had the Father granted His dear Son His request, He would not have gone to the cross—and where would that have left you now?

Remember also, that St. Paul, when he suffered from a certain thorn of the flesh, asked the Lord three times for relief, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” And God did not remove the suffering from Him.

God’s grace is sufficient for you, dear Christian, for in it you have the sure and certain promise: “You are forgiven of all of 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.