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.

Uncategorized

Theologians All: Of Glory or of the Cross

the-three-crosses-1653
“The Three Crosses” by Rembrandt

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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.