More Than We Imagine

This week brings us to the third part of our series, What We Believe. With the Lifeway and Ligonier Ministry State of Theology survey as our jumping off point, we have been working to clarify some pretty core questions of Christian theology on which professed followers of Jesus in our culture recently reflected some pretty profound confusion. We have so far looked at the doctrines of God and the Holy Spirit. This week we are talking about Jesus. No other person in human history has attracted amount of interesting into the question of who exactly they are as Jesus has. Let’s take a look at the Scriptures together to see what He had to say about Himself and what that means for us.

More Than We Imagine

We’re talking about a survey in this new teaching series, so I thought we’d do a little survey of our own this morning. By a show of hands, who currently has an appliance at home that is still working and which is more than ten years old? How about twenty years? Thirty years? Who has an appliance that is still working that is more than thirty years old? They don’t make them like that anymore, do they? 

Okay, let’s change things up just a bit. By a show of hands, how many of you have bought an appliance in the last ten years that you no longer own because you’ve had to replace it? Who has had to replace more than one of the same appliance in the last ten years? More than two? Three? You may want to consider switching brands or whether buying appliances is a strong suit for you. Maybe get someone else to do the shopping for you next time. 

Nothing lasts forever. We know that’s true in general. Companies which once seemed poised to achieve that feat are gone, or at least outgrown to the point of irrelevancy. Bethlehem Steel was once the second largest steel manufacturer in the world. It’s all but gone today. Kodak and Polaroid once absolutely dominated the market when it came to photography. I doubt most folks in here can even remember the last time they bought film, and a third of the room may not even know what a Polaroid camera is. Nothing lasts forever. Not even your old appliances that were built like tanks. Things today are built to be replaced. We live in a disposable society. We expect new things and we get rid of them just as quickly as they arrive. 

As true as this is, though, the other side of the equation here deserves a little attention as well. Sure, nothing lasts forever, but nothing has been around forever either. Everything started somewhere. Apple may be one of the biggest companies in the world, but it started in the garage of a couple of computer nerds (which should just serve as a reminder to everyone that nerds will one day run the world…I’m just saying). A hundred years ago, scientists were generally certain that the universe had been around forever…and then a couple of guys named Einstein and Hubble discovered and proved that it too had a beginning. We can talk another time about how long ago that was, but that it began at some point in the finite past is without debate. When we say that something has been around forever, we just mean a really long time, not actually forever. This morning, though, I want to talk with you about one place where that thinking isn’t actually correct. 

This morning finds us in the third part of our new teaching series, What We Believe. For this season of a few weeks leading us to the grand celebration of Easter, we are talking about just that: what we believe as followers of Jesus. This whole series was prompted by the release of the results of Lifeway and Ligonier Ministry’s “The State of Theology” survey. The research project which is completed every other year surveys the country on a number of different theological and ethical questions. This year’s results were interesting. They were interesting because on a number of questions relating to core issues of Christian theology, one of the groups in our culture most associated with historically orthodox Christian belief expressed some opinions that were anything but historically orthodox. With these rather jarring results in mind and as I said a couple of weeks ago, even though you may be totally clear (not to mention biblically correct) in all of your theological positions, it may be that there are some folks in your life who are not. In this series, I want to make sure you are clear on all these matters so that you can help someone else be clear on them as well. 

Two weeks ago, we talked through the idea that God only accepts worship that is meant for Him. While it is common for people to conflate various religious movements as all being little more than different sides of the same coin, the truth is that they are not the same. People who are giving worship to one god are not also worshiping another. Neither is it fair to say they are simply innocently ignorant of who it is they are really worshiping. The God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures deserves our worship. He is absolutely worthy of it. But He doesn’t want worship that’s not meant for Him. 

Last week, Nate walked you through the fact that the Holy Spirit is a person. He’s the third person of the Trinity. Too often, because folks don’t really know what to do with Him, they just imagine Him to be a kind of impersonal, spiritual force. His being called the “Holy Ghost” on occasion certainly doesn’t help. Yet the Holy Spirit is personal just like God is personal because the Holy Spirit is God. He’s the person of God who is with us between Jesus’ return to the Father and His return to earth. The Holy Spirit is the person, not the force, who is with us while we wait for Jesus’ return.  

This morning we are going to shift gears a bit from God the Father and God the Spirit to God the Son. Several of the statements in the survey quizzed respondents on their thoughts about Jesus. Again, as should be no surprise, the country as a whole has some confused thinking about Him that doesn’t line up very well with the Scriptures. That gives us some points to address in our apologetics and Gospel-sharing efforts as needed, but isn’t something we need to talk about here. What is much more of interest are a couple of places where the expressed opinions of professed Jesus followers don’t line up very well with the Scriptures. Two statements in particular that deserve our attention focused on who Jesus is and what is His relationship to God the Father. 

The first statement says this: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” The country as a whole agreed with that idea to the tune of 55%, 40% of which was strong agreement. Somewhat disturbingly, when you filter the data for the responses of committed Jesus followers the level of agreement shoots up to 73% of which a full 70% expressed strong agreement. I’ll give you the right response to this statement here and we’ll come back and talk about it in just a minute. The right response to that statement is an absolute, unequivocal no. The fact that professed Jesus followers were not only wrong in their responses to this statement, but tended to be wrong almost 30% more often than the culture at large should cause us to sit up and take notice. It is a signal that one of two things is happening. Either a huge portion of the believers who were surveyed didn’t bother to really read the question, saw the words “Jesus” and “greatest,” and instinctively said, “yes!” or a huge portion of the believers in this country have somehow missed out on a fundamental truth about the person to whom they have given their lives. Either way, we’ve got a problem on our hands. 

The second statement we are going to consider this morning has to do with whether or not Jesus was anything more than a great moral teacher. It reads like this: “Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he was not God.” On the whole, a little more than half the country agreed with that. The response of Jesus followers is a little less disturbing than our response to the last statement. Only 43% agreed with the idea. But, when you compare the number of folks who agreed strongly with that idea, committed Jesus followers again eclipsed the culture at large—38% to 31%. Still, in spite of slightly better numbers in the responses of followers of Jesus to this statement, it is nonetheless true that just nearly half of them explicitly deny that Jesus is God. 

Friends, these two ideas don’t represent some niche teaching of the Christian worldview that most people don’t know about. These are absolutely central ideas in the Scriptures. And yet, the views expressed by an alarmingly high number of committed followers of Jesus here fall more in line with the teachings of Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses than historical, orthodox Christianity. And again, like we talked about last time, I know that you are an above-average group. You don’t necessarily need me to remind you of the truth on these matters from the Scriptures. But given these percentages, there’s a good chance you know some folks who do need the reminder. Some of them don’t need so much of a reminder as they do to be taught what is true in the first place. 

The fact of the matter is that missing out on the eternality and divinity of Christ in the Scriptures actually takes some work. It requires that you have already decided Jesus isn’t God before you go to them, and then you can use that lens to explain away the many, many clear indicators that, yes, He really is fully God. What is unfortunately a great deal more likely is that this is all a reflection of just how little Christians are really, seriously engaging with the Scriptures in the first place. I have a sneaking suspicion that if we were able to filter the data to overlap the responses of professed believers and believers who read their Bibles regularly, the level of agreement would go way down for that latter group. The truth is that there are many places in the New Testament where Jesus is identified as one and the same person as God the Father. There is one in particular, though, that I want to take a look at with you this morning. This isn’t the most obvious place to turn, but it stands out to me for a couple of reasons. First, it is Jesus Himself here who claims equality with God which carries with it a little more weight than other people ascribing full divinity to Him. Second, the reaction of the crowds when He does this suggests that even if we don’t want to, they took His claim with deadly seriousness. 

If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy this morning, find your way to John 8. John was Jesus’ best friend on earth and writes his Gospel with a little more of a personal touch than the other Gospel writers bring to their task. Writing about 30 years after the other Gospels had all been written and in a day when wrongheaded thinking about Jesus was popping up all over the place as the church continued to grow throughout the Roman Empire, John gave more attention to some stories the other guys didn’t include that help frame an accurate picture of who Jesus really was. Much of this comes through John’s reporting of some of the conversations Jesus had with the crowds. 

John 8 begins with the story about Jesus’ rescuing a woman who was caught in the act of adultery from being stoned to death for it by the religious leaders of the Jews. John probably didn’t write that story and include it in His Gospel there, but it did probably really happen. Honestly, the story kind of interrupts the larger flow of John’s Gospel where it sits. The interactions we see Jesus having with the crowds—which included the religious leaders of the Jews—in John 8 actually extend back to near the beginning of chapter 7. There we find Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. This was an annual festival when the Jewish people remembered their time in the wilderness during the Exodus. Thousands of people went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the event. They would all stay in tents for a week and have lots of really passionate times of worship. At a particularly key moment in the festival, when the priest was pouring out a cup of water to signify the people’s trust and devotion to the Lord, Jesus issued a loud cry for anyone who was spiritually thirsty to come to Him to find satisfaction for their desire. 

As you might expect, this really got the people talking about who this Jesus was to be claiming something like that. The opinions were split among the people. Some were intrigued, some wanted to get Him. For their part, the Jewish leaders recognized that this was a potentially huge threat to their position and power and sent the temple guards to arrest Him. They returned empty-handed offering as their only excuse, “No man ever spoke like this!” This prompted a debate among the Pharisees in which Nicodemus tried to defend him, but was shouted down by the rest of the group and accused of being a secret Jesus follower (which, of course, he was). 

Later on in the week, Jesus made some other pretty wild claims about Himself including that He is the light of the world. This prompted the whole back-and-forth that occupies most of John 8. By the time we get to near the end of the chapter, the religious leaders of the Jews have gotten so frustrated with Jesus’ continuing to make grander and grander claims about Himself that they finally resort to base name calling. Look at this exchange in the text with me starting in John 8:48. 

“The Jews responded to him [after He told them that they didn’t listen to Him because they weren’t from God], ‘Aren’t we right in saying that you’re a Samaritan and have a demon?’ ‘I do not have a demon,’ Jesus answered. ‘On the contrary, I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it and judges. Truly I tell you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.’ Then the Jews said, ‘Now we know you have a demon. Abraham died and so did the prophets. You say, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets died. Who do you claim to be?”’

Can you hear the tension going up and up and up? Next, things get really intense. “‘If I glorify myself,’ Jesus answered, ‘my glory is nothing. My Father—about whom you say, “He is our God”—he is the one who glorifies me. You do not know him, but I know him. If I were to say I don’t know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him, and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ The Jews replied, ‘You aren’t fifty years old yet, and you’ve seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was hidden and went out of the temple.” 

Don’t you wish you could have been a fly on the temple wall to watch this whole scene unfold? This scene is so thick with emotion you can almost cut it with a knife. And that ending! All John tells us is that “Jesus was hidden and went out of the temple.” How on earth did that happen?!? The temple courtyard where this was all taking place was enormous. And exposed. There was nowhere to hide. It was a gigantic, open space. Jesus would have been there with the disciples and possibly some other followers. How did He escape this? Did someone cause a distraction and Jesus somehow slipped into the crowds and disappeared? I want to know more! But in the midst of all this action and tension, we must not let ourselves miss what Jesus said and how the Jewish leaders reacted to it. 

Now, Jesus and the Jewish leaders both said several things there, so which ones am I talking about? The religious leaders brought up Abraham to use as evidence against Jesus’ claims. Jesus turned this on its head and used Abraham instead to back up what He was saying. When the religious leaders balked at this because as far as they understood it, Jesus couldn’t possibly have anything to do with Abraham who lived hundreds of years before that time, Jesus claimed to be older than Abraham. This wasn’t such a big deal in and of itself. Any crazy person off the street could make such a claim. It was how Jesus did it that so caught their attention and enraged them. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” 

No, Jesus wasn’t using bad grammar here. Instead, when God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush episode, and Moses asked God who he was to tell the people had sent him to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, God told him to tell them, “I AM has sent me to you.” This was the name God gave for Himself. It identifies Him as the foundation of all existence. In other words, by saying this the way He said it, Jesus was not simply claiming to have been around for a long, long time. Jesus was making an explicit claim to be God. We should have no doubts or hesitations about that. 

Jesus’ saying this refutes both the folks who would call Him the greatest being God ever created, and those who would say He’s a great moral teacher, but not actually God. It refutes the former because in claiming God’s “I AM” for Himself, He was saying that He shares in God’s eternality. Insomuch as God has always been, so also has Jesus. He was not created. He is part of the eternally existent Godhead. It refutes the latter because if Jesus didn’t understand Himself to be only a great moral teacher, neither should we. And clearly He didn’t understand Himself to be only a great moral teacher. People who understand themselves in such terms do not make explicit claims to equality with God. 

There’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis in his classic book, Mere Christianity, that phrases this idea better than anybody else ever has: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

There’s more, though. Remember: the significant thing here is not simply what Jesus said, it’s also how the crowd reacted to it. If the crowd somehow thought Jesus was joking or even simply crazy, how do you suppose they would have responded? Perhaps with mocking, derision, or disbelief. When someone crazy says something crazy, you don’t get upset about it. You might shake your head in frustration or resignation, but getting angry doesn’t make any sense. Crazy people are going to say crazy things. How did the crowd actually react here, though? They got angry. Really angry. They got so angry, in fact, that they moved to stone Him to death right on the spot. They were murderously enraged by what Jesus said. Why would they get so worked up about this? There’s only one explanation that makes any sense. They took Him seriously. They were fully convinced that Jesus actually believed the things He was saying to them. They believed Him to really believe He was God. In this, they were convinced not that He was out of His mind, but that He had just committed blasphemy of the highest order. Yes, He had gotten under their skin and we can’t ignore that aspect here, but their reaction forces us to see there was no doubt on their part that Jesus absolutely meant what He said. 

So, what do we do with all of this? Well, when you take this one episode by itself, you are left with an intriguing notion that Jesus really did believe Himself to be God. That’s good, but not a lot. When you take this episode and put it alongside the rest of the attestations of Jesus’ full divinity strewn all across the rest of the New Testament, there’s really only one conclusion that makes any sense: Jesus was fully God. 

Friends, if you know someone who isn’t fully convinced on that point yet who claims to be a follower of Jesus in any capacity, you owe it to them to shore up their misunderstanding. After all, as we talked about two weeks ago, if they don’t believe Jesus was fully God, then they are worshiping a god who is necessarily not triune in His nature. If they are worshiping a non-triune god, then they are not worshiping the God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures. And if they are not worshiping the God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures, then they are worshiping a god who can’t save them. Their faith is in vain. This turns out to be a pretty serious error to make. This may seem like a simple matter of confusion, but I assure you it is not. Jesus was—and is—fully God. And that means He can fully save us. No other god can. 

That’s why this matters so much. Because Jesus is fully God, He can actually save us. His being fully God means that He really was born without sin unlike the rest of us. In His full humanity He could have sinned during His life, but in His full divinity, He didn’t start with sin separating Him from His Father like we do. His being fully God allowed Him the power to do the miracles that revealed Himself to be God. It means that He was able to satisfy the justice of God by His sacrifice. No one who was not fully God could have done that. As one who is fully God, Jesus can give us access to God. We simply go to Him and we are with God. If we commit to sticking with Him, we get to be with God forever. Jesus is fully God. He has been around since eternity past and will still be here into eternity future. He taught us some great and important things, but He was never limited to that. He was—He is—fully God. Jesus is fully God. He is fully God and because of that is worth your giving your life fully to Him. My invitation to you this morning is to do just that if you have not done it before. Don’t settle for being merely interested in Him. If He is really God—and He really is fully God—then that demands a response from you. Don’t let another day go by without making it. Jesus is fully God. Let Him be your God today. 

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