Sermon, January 10, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We have the joy again this morning of coming to God’s Word. To open it, to read it, to study it, to unfold the truths that it has for us, and to apply it to our lives. It’s been another tough week in our lives as a nation, thinking especially about goings-on at the national political level. But in the end, those things have less impact on our lives than our personal struggles. Undoubtedly it’s been an even tougher week for many people individually. So we should first thank God for the opportunity, for the time that he has set aside for us to lay aside the things of earth, and instead focus on the great gifts he has for us in his Word. Turn with me now to the close of John, chapter 3. We will read verses 31-36. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
The Word of the Lord.
The Word of the Lord. For several days in the middle of this week, I can honestly tell you that I felt a bit disillusioned, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, and the comfort that kept coming back to me was the text of the second movement of the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms. I don’t expect you to be able to recall that in a moment, so I’ll tell you. It’s a well-known text that begins sort of bleakly. 1 Peter chapter 1, verses 24 and 25. The start of it is “for all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.” All flesh—grass. Glory to be found in the things of flesh—withering. Like I said, a little bleak, but we know how that text ends, right?
The grass withers, the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.
What a beautiful reminder that is. Coincidentally, that is just how it is set so powerfully in the music. All the music concerning the grass is haunting, and then there is a complete shift at the word “Aber,”—but!—“des Herrn Wort bleibet in ewigket!” No matter what happens, no matter what is swirling around, it’s all grass, and the only thing that remains is the Word of the Lord. Amen for that! And in the music, that great promise, just announced is followed by a joyous fugue on a text from Isaiah 35:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
So if you’re feeling at all disillusioned at any time, I commend those texts and that piece to you. There are few better ways to spend 15 minutes of your life than listening to the second movement of Brahms’ Requiem with those beautiful texts in front of you.
Now, bringing that up is not just an aside, or something unrelated to the text we have today, this text that closes out chapter 3 in John. That familiar passage from first Peter, which many pastors recite every Sunday immediately after reading the scripture for the sermon—maybe I should try that too—that passage points to a truth that is both so high that it is impossible to fully comprehend, yet at the same time is so simple as to be immediately understood.
So too is it here, at the end of chapter 3 in John. We have in front of us several verses of incredibly lofty language, describing realities that are well beyond our full understanding, but at the same time tells us things that are so simple that they need no clarification, no nuance. In fact, if you would add any nuance to them—as some people do—they would cease to be true.
I’ll be honest, I almost didn’t preach on this text this week, almost jumped ahead right to chapter 4, because as I meditated on it a bit, I realized that in this sermon I just might end up repeating myself. As we go through it, we’ll see that a lot of it is a summary of the teachings that have come before. In a lot of ways, these six verses are a fitting end to the story of John the Baptist that we just studied last week. That is why, as I considered it, I thought about jumping on to the next story, and why the pastors whose sermons I read on John as a part of my study, none of them preached on these verses alone, and included them with the preceding story as a sort of summary. Maybe they were the wiser ones, I don’t know!
That does make sense to lump these verses with the story of John the Baptist and his disciples. These verses summarize what John was saying about how different he and Christ are. They are not competitors, they are completely different from each other, their places in the story are completely distinct, and they have vastly different jobs to do in the story. The envy in the hearts of John’s disciples was a direct result of misunderstanding those things.
So I’m going to take the risk of boring you by repeating myself, because in a way, that’s what the text does here. And if God saw fit to hammer into our heads and hearts the same things over and over again, it must be important. So let’s go through this sort of summary paragraph and see both the lofty and the simple.
One thing you may note right away is that the quotation marks end at the previous verse, so the translators assume that these are not necessarily part of the words spoken by John the Baptist to his disciples, that they are instead a summary of teaching for the readers. But what exactly is the extent of this summary? Is it just to this story, or is it this chapter? Or, since this is the last that we see of John the Baptist, does it summarize all of his ministry? Or might it summarize all of the teaching in the book of John up to this point? In the end I’m not sure how much it matters, but it is helpful for us to look back and see how these statements are supported by parts of the teaching that have come before, how the teaching is consistent in its content. Let’s look at that first statement that comprises verse 31:
31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.
This may seem relatively simple, but this is a beautiful statement showing the vast gulf between heaven and earth, between the greatness of Jesus and the lowliness of man. If we take this in the context of the episode of John the Baptist that just happened, it is an excellent way to further draw the distinction between his ministry, his task, and that of Jesus. He talked about being the friend that stands beside Jesus the bridegroom, standing beside and rejoicing in the great wedding happening. This statement in verse 31 goes even further and reemphasizes the fact that they are not on the same playing field at all. He who comes from above—he is above all. There is nothing that is not from above that even approaches what is above. In fact, that is exactly what the next phrase says: He who is of the earth—we assume this is referring both to John the Baptist in the immediate context—he speaks in an earthly way. And if John the Baptist is limited to speaking in an earthly way with how blessed he is with understanding, how much more are all of us lowly people trapped in our earthly ways.
It doesn’t say that we each speak in a heavenly way to some extent, it says no, we are limited to the ways of the earth here. Jesus is something entirely different because he is from above, not from the earth. This goes back to John’s disciples discouraged that their ministry was losing steam. “We were first, now it looks like Jesus has a bunch more followers than us, what should we do about that?” John answers them and basically says “Jesus is here, why would we care if people stop listening to us? We only want them to listen to us to the extent that they hear us say, look at Jesus over there!” Why would we trade the words of Jesus, and the opportunity to follow him, for the ways, or the rewards of the earth? This is not a matter of degree of excellence or greatness, it’s man down here, and Jesus from above. It’s a fundamental distinction.
I heard from someone once about the simplest summary of evangelism, and it really is understanding this distinction. You can sum up the basic message of evangelism, in three simple statements, nine words: I am not good. God is good. I need God. If you believe those three things, if you come to those realizations, there is nothing that you can do but run to Christ. You have to understand the depth of your misery, understand that God has the pathway out of that misery, and then understand that what he has you need. He is from above, you are from below, he can, and wants to take you above. It’s not, “you’re close, you’re almost above, he’s going to reach down and get you the rest of the way, thanks for climbing up so far!” No. Jesus, from heaven. You, from earth. John just said in verse 27 that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him” from where? “Heaven.” Given him from heaven.
There’s another facet of this statement that stretches back to the beginning of the chapter and the story of Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. But the word that is translated “again” or “anew” in that phrase, most literally means, “from above.” You need to be born from above! It’s the same distinction. Jesus, above, Nicodemus, below, and he remains below, born of earth, until he receives his new birth, from above. It is above, in heaven where all good things reside, from where all good things come, and where all of our good treasure should be stored.
To apply this point, it makes me think about this week and all of the machinations of government. In government there is a lot of power to be hold, to exercise. And the fight over control of that power is bewildering, because we look at it and say, “What is the point? What justifies the extreme ends that people will go to to injure political rivals? Is it really worth all of the lying, the distorting, the deceiving of masses of people, the secrets, outright criminal behavior of some to exercise power?” We look at some people in the upper levels of government who have been a part of it for so long, and we wonder, why don’t they just go and play with their grandkids? Why spend the last years of your life rolling around in the literal and figurative swamp that is Washington D. C.?
But I, and we can only look at it that way because we see beyond. We see heaven. We see gifts waiting for us that no amount of power in this world will or could ever satisfy. He who is from above, is above all, and he’s promised to take us home and give us those gifts. All flesh is grass, and all of its glory, like the flower of the grass, but still grass. But through our faith in Christ we are born from above—all the glory of the earth is nothing. But he who is of the earth, for him, that’s all there is, and then we can start to understand why the pursuit of power can be so consuming, and worth so much evil to obtain.
What does that do to worry? It is banished. God has saved me and I am his, I now see the things of the world in a completely different way.
Going on to verse 32 we are given another great truth: He, meaning Jesus, bears witness to what he has seen and heard. Jesus does not merely believe the things he’s saying, the things that he is preaching, when he speaks of salvation, when he speaks about God, he is bearing witness. When you go to trial, head to court as a witness, if you would speculate or give an opinion as your evidence, what would you hear? Objection! You can only testify to things that you know, that you have seen. None of us have seen the Father, none of us come from heaven, but here is one who does. Jesus, the Christ, bears witness to what he has seen and heard, because he comes from heaven, he comes from above, as was just stated. And this fact that Jesus is testifying not to a belief but to a reality is bolstered by verse 34 and 35, where, in case you didn’t get it before, the author reminds you:
34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.
Jesus has the Spirit not just a bit, he has it without measure. He doesn’t just utter godly words, he utters the literal words of God. He hasn’t been given just some things by the Father, he’s been given all things. That’s it. When Jesus is testifying about anything, he is doing it with firsthand knowledge, using the literal words of God, inspired completely by the Spirit, and as the owner of all things. Wow. I told you, pretty lofty language. And when it speaks of the Trinity like this, it’s impossible to comprehend, those truths are too great to fully understand. But the message is simple—when Jesus speaks, we hear God speaking. And that is simple but so profound. When Jesus speaks, we hear God. Jesus is the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
So here is the testimony of someone not just greater altogether other than John, someone from above, speaking the words of God. What happens with this testimony of Christ?
32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That hearkens all the way back to the beginning of the book. It sounds an awful lot like a restatement of John 1:11-12, doesn’t it?
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
It’s phrased almost exactly the same way—they did not receive him, no one receives his testimony. Their ears and eyes are closed to his testimony. And again, immediately after that we hear of others, of some who do receive his testimony, those who believe in his name. In chapter one he says to that group, to those he gave the right to become children of God. Here in chapter three it says that those who believe set their seal on the truth, that God is true. They receive the testimony of Jesus, and then they testify about him themselves.
And that leads ultimately to the final verse penned here before the narrative moves on to a different direction in chapter 4. The final verse restates something that’s been said several times already:
36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Of all of the statements in this passage, perhaps this is the clearest, the least figurative, the most cut-and-dry. There are two paths, and only two paths. And here is where I feel myself repeating myself over and over again, but if God repeats himself in the scriptures, then so must I! There are only two paths, and God through the testimony of the apostle John and John the Baptist is making that abundantly clear. One path to life. One path to wrath. And notice it says that the “wrath of God remains on him.” It doesn’t come on the sinner, it remains on the sinner. This is another way of saying what John said back in verse 18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already. Condemnation is your default condition because you are born in the flesh. Wrath is your default position because you are a sinner.
The world hates this message, because we like to think that we are in control. We start out our lives neutral with God, and then we put some things in the good, or plus column, and we put some things in the minus column, because we’re not good all the time, and in the end we’ll see if the good outweighs the bad. Do you remember Paul railing against the folly of that thinking in Philippians? He said in chapter 3, verse 4 and following:
I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
We bring nothing to the table. Our only hope is right here, in the Son, Jesus Christ. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. So where do you put your faith? If it is in the things of this world, forget it. The wisest wisdom that this world has to offer is folly, right. Paul says it well in 1 Corinthians 3:18:
18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men.
There is only one path out of the misery that is this world, and that is through Jesus Christ. It is only in him that we have hope. And did you notice one other little word in the end of our passage? It doesn’t say that whoever believes will get eternal life, as if it’s something we will get in the future. No, it says that whoever believes has eternal life. It’s yours already if you believe. The gospel, the good news is the loftiest of lofty things, and also profoundly simple. Faith in Christ = eternal life and everlasting joy.
So when we have difficult weeks, difficult months, difficult years, take heart. Believing in Jesus Christ may not change the situation around you—you will still struggle with people you interact with. Your government will still be filled with people there for the power, politicians will still lie, armies and nations will still rise and fall. But when you believe in Christ, none of that matters, because you have the greatest prize anyone can have, and it comes to you freely from the hand of the one who has already overcome the world. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for encouraging me in my heart not to skip over this passage, and instead revel this week in the glory of your gospel. Help us when we struggle with things in this life. When trials come fix our eyes ever more firmly on the future glory you’ve promised, and focus us on those tasks for which you placed each of us here, and not the distractions of the world. Thank you for the salvation that comes to us through your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.