Sermon, September 13, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
I’m not sure if any of you thought of it, but with this Sunday we start the second year of life here in the chapel! God has been faithful in providing for us throughout this past year, even in the time of a pandemic. We’ve been through a lot in the past year, but we’re still here. And we’ve learned a lot as well, myself included! We just finished up five weeks of studying Psalms, and before that we studied Jonah, and before that we had a topical series on Reformed Theology, half online and half in person!
Well, like last year, I thought September was a good time to start something new. I chose to do more standalone messages through the summer because people would likely be in and out, and I would travel a bit too, so that’s not the best time to start a series that is a long unfolding of a story, the best time is when we have a consistent set of uninterrupted weeks to get started.
All that is to say, we’re starting something new today, and it is a study of the Gospel according to John. We looked at individual gospel stories back in March, but as a church we haven’t studied through a gospel since Mark finished up our entire journey through Luke, and though it may not seem like it, that was nearly 2 ½ years ago! So I think it’s about time. I’m not sure ultimately how far we’ll get through it, but we will take it verse by verse, passage by passage, and study a story of Christ as John intended, in his own very unique way. So let’s open our bibles to the book of John, and we will be reading the first five verses. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word for us this morning.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Word of the Lord.
I did think and pray for a while about what to preach through starting today, and at first I found the idea of going through a gospel a little daunting. Even after about fifteen months I’m still pretty new at this and honestly, I really don’t want to screw it up! But then I considered that my limitations should not keep this congregation from hearing the Word that it should hear, and I gravitated toward John specifically because I find it so fascinating. So I ask that you forgive my shortcomings in advance as we go through this. But I have always been eager to really dig into this book deeply because I do find its uniqueness among the gospels fascinating. I can’t wait!
So what about it is so different, what makes it so unique? Perhaps you’ve heard of Matthew, Mark, and Luke being referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels,” and then there is the Gospel of John. Though they differ, the first three gospels have many similarities. Synoptic has the same root and prefix as “synopsis,” which is an overview or a summary of events. Synoptic literally means “same eye,” so using that word – and there is little else that that word is used for except describing the three gospels – using that word says that the first three gospels tell basically the same story, and they do. Mark was the gospel likely written first, and it is the briefest of them all. Matthew was likely written second and builds on Mark – Matthew shares more than half of its content with Mark. And then there’s Luke, who did a whole lot of research into the life of Christ, built his entire story on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and gives us the lengthiest, most complete accounting of things. And there is a lot of overlap between the three, a lot of similar stories and similar records of teaching.
And furthermore, the three synoptic gospels tell their accounts of Jesus in more or less chronological order—there are times when stories are grouped thematically, but for the most part they stay in a chronological order. And we can see that in how they begin. Matthew begins with a genealogy, tracing Jesus all the way back through the generations to Abraham, and then tells the Christmas story. Mark begins his gospel matter-of-factly, with the story in progress, with the ministry of John the Baptist and him baptizing Jesus. And Luke, with all of his research, had been able to start with the foretelling of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he began his story there. So in a way, all three of those begin like biographies of a man, of a person—genealogy, birth story, childhood, start of ministry, etc. The stories all quickly show us that this is a biography of no ordinary man, but in style they begin that way.
Then there is John. There is debate about when John wrote his gospel and why specifically he did, but it is clearly very different than all the rest, and that uniqueness runs throughout the book. And it is rooted in John’s purpose for the book. Like I said, we’re not sure what event or events triggered the writing of this gospel – it could have been to specifically combat heresies, or at the request of some elders in the church -- but John does tell us what he set out to do with its writing. Luke told us at the outset that he wrote his to give an accurate, reliable account of the life of Christ. John tells us at the end, in chapter 20:30-31:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
So that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. That is John’s mission statement. That is why he wrote this book. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are excellent narratives. This, John says, is a persuasive essay. The episodes, the stories, the teaching, the prayers, the way he structures the book, and everything it includes is there to support that purpose: to show Jesus as the Son of God, the promised Messiah.
So while the Synoptic Gospels are structured more like the story of a man who is God, John reads more forcefully as a story of God, who became man. It is referred to sometimes as an account of the spiritual nature of Christ, where the others see Christ as God through the actions and what he says and through his life as a man, the human doings of Jesus the man that prove his divinity. John flips it around and gives us a record of God, and he became man.
Don’t glean from what I say that we should think lesser of the other gospels, certainly not, but the strong Christology in John, the constant and unwavering assertion that Jesus is God is in many ways the key that unlocks all the rest of the doors. Calvin lamented the fact that John came last in order, he said:
As to John being placed the fourth in order, it was done on account of the time when he wrote; but in reading them, a different order would be more advantageous, which is, that when we wish to read in Matthew and the others, that Christ was given to us by the Father, we should first learn from John the purpose for which he was manifested.
He says, once we know why Christ was here, once we have the reality of Christ as the one and only God-man in our minds, then we can read the other gospels with different eyes, see the purpose of Christ coming into the world staring us in the face in all of the gospel accounts. So as we study this, we need to keep God’s purpose through John at the forefront of our minds, his mission statement, to show us that Jesus is God.
How might you start that? How might you begin such an argument for the deity of Christ? Well, you could just come out and say it plainly. Jesus is God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Boom. If you compare that to the other gospels, it really does hit you. In Matthew, for instance, you are given the genealogy, then the record of the virgin birth, and the visit of the wise men, and you are meant to understand through all of this that Jesus is not just a man. And you hear people say things like, “who is this man, that can do this?” or “he spoke as someone with authority,” and then when Jesus is finally referred to as God, it is through the confession of one of the disciples, “who do you say that I am?” and the like. Not so in John, he comes out at the beginning and states his thesis, in no uncertain terms.
Remember the unique focus here—if you’re going to give a full account of the Son of God, from the heaven and not the human perspective, it makes sense for you to go all the way back to the beginning, and state the case plainly. And does he ever! Jesus is God. These words are so familiar, we read them every Christmas, the parallel to the opening of Genesis is undeniable and intentional. And it appears that John is trying to make his unequivocal statements even more so with what follows, just in case you didn’t hear me, he says:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.
And the way John continues is good evidence that he wrote this to combat a heresy already circulating in the church that Christ was not God. Many of the early heresies of the church attack the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. And these opening verses of John, the prologue, is some of the clearest support in all of scripture of the truth of those doctrines. So what are the specific things that John is laying out doctrinally in these statements? We’ll look at that, because it is important:
In the beginning was the Word. There is no way to read this and suggest that John was writing of someone or something other than Christ when he writes the Word. Andin this opening line he places Christ “in the beginning,” you can’t go back any farther than that. And if you think that he’s talking about some other starting point, he phrases it exactly like Genesis so you know that that is the beginning he is referring to. So he is saying that Jesus, the Word, existed before all things. And that is important, because there are many heresies that assert that Christ was did not exist in eternity past, but that he was the first, and greatest, created being. There’s a fundamental problem with that, though, because if he was created he is a creature, and he is not God. And John carefully and completely takes that option away with what he writes in verse 3, he says “just in case you were thinking God created Jesus, ‘All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.’” Not only does he say Jesus was already there when the creation began, he says that it was he who did it. And it wasn’t just most of it, or all of it except himself, he says without him there was nothing made. Nothing was made, is made, will be made, without Jesus the Word. It was all made through him. Jesus is God! Amen!
So John firmly establishes the Deity of Christ here, and makes sure you know that if you had thought there was a time that he did not exist or that he became God at some point, forget it. Thank you, John, you got our attention! But the other, immediately related doctrine that is so supported by this passage is the doctrine of the Trinity. Now the Trinity is a difficult doctrine because it defies our experience, it doesn’t fit into our human brains. One God, three persons. But John starts to give us that both/and sort of relationship in the Trinity right away. Jesus was both with God, and at the same time he was God.
That of course doesn’t make sense, because at no other time do we encounter a being like God. One God, but three persons that make up that God. But what do we confess about the Trinity? The words are chosen very carefully in the Nicene Creed, and not without hundreds of years of debate. Remember what the creed says?
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
Wait a second, didn’t John say that all things were created through Jesus? The creed says the Father is the maker of all things visible and invisible. We’ll come back to that.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all ages,
God of God,
Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made;
being of one substance as the Father,
The way Jesus is referred to here is done very carefully, so that no one may think that Jesus is anything less than, or not fully God. It asserts, like John, that he was not made, he was begotten before all ages. He is, like a son and a father, of the same substance, the same essence as the Father. And like a human son is just as human as his father, Jesus retains all of the God-ness of God as well. And that is what John says here, that he was both with God and he was God. Next in the creed we confess:
By whom all things were made.
And that squares with John perfectly here in his saying that all things were made through Jesus Christ, in eternity past. The important thing to remember here, one God with three persons, one of the resulting realities of that is that all three persons act with the same intent, with the same will. There is nothing that God does that he does not do as a Trinity, including the work of Creation. Yet at the same time the beings are distinct. I have always had trouble fitting the Trinity into my mind, as I’m sure you have been too, but this was explained to me again recently more clearly than I’d understood it until that point, and it shows the tie between John and Genesis even more clearly. It is important to see the entire Trinity in the opening of Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
What do we see here? All three persons of the Trinity. The Father comes to create, and the Spirit of God is hovering over the face of the waters, waiting for the moment. And how does God the Father, who has the story of Creation and all of history in his mind, before time, what vehicle does he use to make that creation a reality? Through the Word. Specifically the words, “let there be light.”
Words make thoughts communicable, don’t they? Jesus, the Word, is the person through which God communicates, reveals his thoughts, his plans. And how are words delivered? Well, they are delivered with breath, or the Spirit. God the Father it the thought, Jesus is the revelation of those thoughts, and the Spirit applies that revelation to beings and gives them life. It’s just like you and I communicate to one another – a thought originates in our minds, is made communicable by way of speech, and that speech is delivered on our breath in spoken word. That is a picture of the function of the Trinity, amazing.
So John begins his gospel with symbolism, and goes on to introduce more symbolic language that will persist throughout the book:
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And we will talk much more about the light next week when we continue on through the rest of the prologue, through verse 18. But these first points, these foundations are so important and need to live in our hearts. I hope I have explained things plainly, because in a way this can start to sound sort of dense. Why is it so important to understand this doctrine, that Jesus is God, and God is a Trinity? Well, because without it, there is no gospel. There is no good news.
Jesus had to be fully God and fully man to accomplish our salvation, something we had an entire message about back in April or May. He had to be fully God in order to sustain, to endure the punishment for our sins and to resist the devil and be without sin. And he had to exist with God in all eternity, not be created, for him to be fully God. These are vital points to our faith. And the application is this: we need to understand these truths and recognize when they are under attack, because they are every day in our culture today. The greatest danger to the purity of the church is within, not without. The devil often does tell blatant mis-truths, but more often than not, his lies are an obscuring of the truth, a twisting it, and mixing truth with a lie makes it all a lie, not half and half.
In the early church, when John was writing this, there were already heresies popping up in the church attacking these truths about who Christ was. The Gnosticism that would press at the church for the next two centuries was already beginning, and one of their primary heresies was that Jesus Christ was not God. Then the Nicene Creed, that clear language that we just looked at was forged in the crucible of Arianism. The followers of Arius used to go around in the streets chanting, “There was a time when he was not,” rejecting the eternity of Jesus Christ. These threats are not new. Neither were they settled in the fourth and fifth centuries and no longer under attack.
Ligonier Ministries released their latest “State of Theology Survey” in the past week, and it is again shows some troubling ideas gaining traction in our culture. In it, there is a series of statements they ask people to agree with or disagree with, and on the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” 30% of people who call themselves Christians agreed with that, they agreed that Jesus was not God. If you put in the “not sure” responses too, that is fully a third of American Christians that do not confess Jesus as God.
And why is that troubling? Because if you don’t confess Jesus as God, then he is not your Savior. And you don’t know your bible, because Jesus calls himself God. John, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit says it unequivocally here at the outset of his gospel.
It’s troubling because if you don’t know Jesus as God, then you are not actually a Christian. So someone who confesses to be a Christian but does not actually confess Christ is fooling themselves. The devil has convinced them that they are all right, that they’ve got the religion side of their lives all figured out and that they have some eternal security, but they do not. The Deity of Christ is a life or death issue, without it, there is no gospel.
So it is our task to constantly, continually stand up and preach the truth about Christ, because John is absolutely right – In the beginning was Jesus, and he was with God, and he was God. And what’s more, in him—and him only—was and is life. In him only is life, and that life is the light of men. We go through life, believers and unbelievers, often thinking that we have some light in us, don’t we? A light that comes from within, through the things we do for one another, love that we show toward one another. But there is no light. Jesus is life, and that is our only light.
So brothers and sisters, say it with me and say it with John, Jesus is God, and because of that he is the only one, ever, that we can rely on to deliver us from the wrath waiting to judge us for our sins. But there’s the good news, isn’t it? He comes to you with open arms, offering the free gift of grace, grace that can only be found in him. Run to the Father, through the Son, and they will give you the Spirit. Repent, and believe. Here begins the story of our salvation, in eternity past. Amen.
Heavenly Father, how amazing are all of your ways, how beautiful this story that you created for us. Thank you for the gospel of John, and the truths it so clearly convinces us of right here. Send your Spirit to help us to understand, and to write these truths on our hearts and not just on our minds, and give us a boldness to proclaim Jesus as Lord to all who cross our paths, because in him is the light of men. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.