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The Rule of Fear

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

I suspect that the longer a preacher works with a congregation, the more the congregation gets used to the preacher and can identify his particular hobbyhorses.  That being the case, I’m sure that some of you, at least, have figured out that I’m particularly interested in fear.  In my time, I’ve seen a dismayingly large number of people give in to fear in their spiritual lives, and whenever they do, it never works out well.  Fear is a much bigger spiritual problem than we commonly recognize!

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that fear operates to destroy us in a particular way.  This characteristic of fear is not an obvious one.  Indeed, it leads to results that are the opposite of what we would expect.  Nonetheless, it appears to me to be true.

What I see is this:  whenever we give in to fear, we bring the thing that we fear upon us.  When we sin because we are afraid of some outcome, we actually are inviting that thing to happen.  I’ve seen this happen in real life, but it happens in the pages of Scripture too.  This evening, then, let’s consider some unhappy people who fell before the rule of fear.

The first test case I want us to consider is SAUL.  Saul has a problem with fear throughout his lifetime, but we see him sin because of fear for the first time in 1 Samuel 13:5-14.  As I read this story, I honestly feel a fair amount of sympathy for Saul.  He’s in a terrible situation!  Saul hasn’t been king for very long at all, so he’s still unsteady on his feet.  The Philistines are invading with a massive army.  Samuel has told Saul to wait for him to come and offer sacrifices, but Samuel is nowhere to be seen.  The people are terrified, and with every day that Samuel doesn’t show up, more of them desert.

Naturally, Saul is afraid, and because he is afraid, he does something that he knows is wrong.  He offers the sacrifices himself.  Is this understandable?  Absolutely.  Does that make it right?  Absolutely not!  In fact, this is one of the characteristics of fear that we need to watch out for:  it makes sin appear excusable.  We think it’s OK to do something we normally wouldn’t do because we’re afraid.  However, God does not want us to show fear in doing wrong.  He wants us to show faith in continuing to do right.

As Saul’s faith would have been rewarded, his fear is punished.  Samuel appears just as he finishes the burnt offerings.  Remember how the rule of fear is that you bring the fear upon you?  Look at it here.  Saul offered the sacrifices because he was afraid of losing his kingdom.  Now, Samuel tells him that because he offered the sacrifices, he will lose his kingdom.  Because of his sin, Saul must face the very thing he was afraid of.

Our second illustration is ZEDEKIAH.  Here, turn with me to Jeremiah 38:14-23.  You know, it’s interesting.  We think of the books of Kings and Chronicles as books of history, and Jeremiah as a book of prophecy, but Jeremiah contains much more detail about the end of the kingdom of Judah than either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles.  This story is one of many that are recorded in Jeremiah and not elsewhere.

In any event, during the final siege of Jerusalem, at a point where Jeremiah already has been imprisoned for telling the truth, Zedekiah secretly summons him.  He asks for a word from the Lord.  Jeremiah tells him that if he wants to survive and wants the city to be spared, he needs to surrender immediately.

However, Zedekiah is afraid.  He is concerned that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews who already have gone over to the Chaldeans will abuse him.  Jeremiah tells him that won’t happen, but he can tell that Zedekiah doesn’t believe him, so he warns the unhappy king that if he does not surrender, he will be taken, the city will be burned, and his household will be destroyed.  Sadly, this is the way things play out.  As the next chapter of Jeremiah reveals, Zedekiah tries to flee but is taken.  In punishment, the Babylonians kill his sons before his eyes and then blind him so that it is the last thing he will ever see.

The tragic story of Zedekiah illustrates a particular kind of fear:  the fear of dealing with the unpleasant consequences of sin.  Zedekiah was a wicked king, and Jerusalem was under siege in the first place because of his wickedness.  It was time for him to face the music, to do what he could to make his peace with the Babylonians and with God.  However, he was afraid to do that, so he lost everything that remained.

So too for us.  There are times when we also must face the music.  It can be really painful to work through the consequences of our sin, but if we refuse, the consequences will be  even worse.

Finally, let’s consider THE ONE-TALENT SERVANT.  We see his story in Matthew 25:14-18, 24-27.  This is a familiar parable, and we’re only considering the unpleasant part.  Elsewhere, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant work to earn more and are rewarded.  Here, rather than seeing opportunity like they did, the one-talent servant sees only the prospect of failure.  He is worried about being punished by his unsympathetic master, and his fear paralyzes him.  He buries his talent, and when the master returns, he tries to argue that his failure is his master’s fault because his master made him afraid.

What’s the outcome?  We should be starting to see the pattern by now.  Saul was afraid of losing his kingdom, sinned, and lost it.  Zedekiah was afraid of being tortured, sinned, and was tortured.  Similarly, the one-talent servant was afraid of being punished, disobeyed, and was punished.  He gave into his fear and brought the thing he feared upon himself.

Today, we must beware of the fear of failure in serving the Lord too.  How often do we see some spiritual opportunity before us, but we are afraid of failing, and so we don’t take it?  Let’s think about this.  Yes, if we take action for the Lord, we risk failure.  However, if we never do anything, we guarantee failure.  Nobody ever succeeds at what they refuse to attempt!

There are times when serving God demands that we step into the unknown.  That’s not easy or fun.  I’m here to tell you, brethren, I’m a conservative soul.  By nature, I hate taking risks like that!  However, if we allow Satan to use our fears to keep us from acting, none of us ever will accomplish anything for God at all.

Reframing Evangelism

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

As has been announced, today at 3, Jason is going to facilitate a brainstorming session in Room 10 about evangelism.  I intend to be there, and I would encourage everyone else here to attend as well. 

This morning, though, I would like us to consider evangelism more generally, not just what we should do, but how we should think about it.  I am sure that when at least some of you figured out what the sermon topic was going to be, you said to yourself “Oh, great.  Evangelism,” and sank down a little deeper in the pew.  For many Christians, evangelism sermons are guilt-trip sermons.  Here is this commandment, and we’re not keeping it, so anything the preacher says about evangelism is going to make us feel bad and not change our behavior.

That’s not my intention this morning.  I’m not here to beat anybody up.  Instead, I want to help.  Let me suggest that maybe part of our struggles with evangelism is the way that we think about it, that the same fear and guilt that all those evangelism sermons stir up is part of the problem.  Today, then, let’s spend a few minutes reframing evangelism.

First, I think, we need to UNDERSTAND OUR SITUATION.  Consider what Jesus has to say about the original context of the gospel in Matthew 24:4-14.  In context, He is talking about the events that will lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and it is obvious that the road is going to be rough.  There are going to be wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecution.  However, in this span of 40 troubled years, the gospel is going to be preached to all the nations.

We know from the rest of the New Testament that during that time, the gospel saw great success.  Now, it might seem strange that the gospel was so successful in such troubled times, but let me suggest to you this morning that the gospel was successful because the times were troubled.  When everything else was falling apart, people were more disposed to turn to God.

Today, the times also are troubled.  Many of our certainties about life have been upended.  We don’t know what the future holds.  People are afraid.  Many are turning for answers to politics, just as many people did in the first century.  However, I think those political answers will disappoint, or worse, just as they did 2000 years ago.

That leaves the field wide open for the gospel.  In troubled times, God is the best and only answer.  I admit that I’m uncertain about the future too, but ultimately, I’m not worried about it, because I know whom I have believed.  God is going to take care of me, He is going to take care of all of us, and when others come to Him, He will take care of them too.  We are the only people who can promise peace and security and guarantee that it will happen, and if you don’t think that’s powerfully appealing right now, you don’t understand people at all!

Second, let’s spend some time UNDERSTANDING OURSELVES.  As an entrée into this topic, let’s look at Philippians 4:15-16.  Here, we learn that of all the churches Paul established, the church in Philippi was the only one to support him during his second missionary journey.  They were a generous church when others weren’t.

From this, I want to introduce an idea that is both a duh point and incredibly important.  Churches are different.  Just like people have different strengths and weaknesses, churches have different strengths and weaknesses too.  In fact, it’s fair to say that churches have different personalities and identities too.  Even if a church does pretty much the same thing on Sunday morning as another church, that different personality is going to shape the way it operates in a million tiny ways.

Since I came here, I’ve invested a lot of thought in figuring out the Jackson Heights church personality.  Lauren can testify that when we were on vacation a couple weeks back, I spent hours trying to pin it down.  I think the best way to sum it up is to say that the Jackson Heights church is a gracious church.  As a whole, this church really likes helping people and being nice to them.  That is our core identity.

Again, this shows up in a million tiny ways.  It shows up in the way that we welcome visitors.  It shows up in the way the members are so generous to people who come through the door wanting money.  It shows up in the way we try to bring new members in and make them part of the group.  And so on.

Now, I know that some of you long-time Jackson-Heightsians are listening to this and saying, “So?”  Trust me when I say that other churches are not like this.  Things this congregation takes for granted don’t happen everywhere else.  They make us distinctive.

I say all of this for two reasons.  First, it is a powerfully attractive personality to have.  Who doesn’t want to be part of a gracious group of people that will treat them well and really likes helping others?  Second, once we’ve identified our strengths, that will help us to play to our strengths and be as effective as possible.

With this in mind, let’s consider the interplay between THE GOSPEL AND MERCY.  Here, look at the words of Jesus in Luke 10:36-37.  This is the punchline of the parable of the good Samaritan.  Jesus’ message is clear.  We choose who our neighbors are, and we choose by showing mercy to them.

The parable of the good Samaritan isn’t exactly a secret.  I would imagine that there are many in this room who have helped a stranded stranger or a man who was down on his luck because they wanted to go and do likewise.  I think that’s wonderful!  I hope that those of you who have been doing this will continue to do so and that those who haven’t will start.

However, I think that the most important application of the parable is one that we perhaps haven’t thought about, and that’s evangelism.  Feeding the hungry is an act of mercy.  Caring for the sick is an act of mercy.  How much more, then, is introducing the lost and hurting to Jesus also an act of mercy?

Yes, I know that proclaiming the gospel is a commandment, but maybe it will help us be more vocal if we don’t think of the commandment as our motivation.  If the only reason we’re reaching out to people in the world is so that God won’t be mad at us, that can only make us self-centered and self-conscious.  Really, that kind of evangelism is about us, not them.

By contrast, mercy is other-centered and not at all conscious of itself.  We are merciful because we see the plight of others and respond.  There are lots of people here who are great at seeing others’ needs and then helping, and that’s exactly what evangelism is.

Don’t go through life, then, with this little voice in the back of your head saying, “I have to tell others about Jesus, or I’m letting God down.”  Go through life looking for people who need help:  the neighbor who has lost their mom, the co-worker who is going through a divorce, the friend whose kids have gone off the rails. 

Then, we. . . help them.  We tell them that we’re hurting with them, but that we know a place where they can go where people will love and care for them, where they can find a spiritual family and a spiritual home.   And if they think Christians are great, just wait until they get to know Christ! 

They Wrote What They Saw

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

During our week and a half of vacation, we drove for more than 3000 miles.  About 400 of those miles were through the state of Nebraska.  I am sure that Nebraska is a great state for growing corn in, but when it comes to scenery, I’ve seen better.  There’s not much to look at but corn and roadside signs.

This being Nebraska, a fair percentage of the signs had some religious message.  Generally, they weren’t particularly profound, but there was one that I particularly liked.  It said, simply, “They wrote what they saw,” and provided a number that you could call for more information.

I have no idea what kind of information you would get if you called the number, but that’s a great point!  It speaks to one of the key issues underlying our faith:  the reliability of the Scriptural accounts of Jesus.  If, on the one hand, the stories of Jesus’ life were sourceless legends written down hundreds of years after the events they contain supposedly occurred, that’s not much to build our faith around.  If, on the other hand, the stories we have come from eyewitnesses who demonstrated their sincerity, we have strong reason to remain disciples.  This evening, then, let’s consider what it means that they wrote what they saw.

The first eyewitness we will consider is the apostle PETER.  We see his eyewitness testimony in 2 Peter 1:16-18.  Apparently, at this point in time, there is some question about whether the events of the Transfiguration occurred.  In response, because Peter knows that he is going to die soon, he feels compelled to set the record straight. 

He affirms that he, along with James and John, saw Jesus transformed in a way that revealed His divine glory and majesty.  He heard the voice of God Himself confirm that Jesus was His Son.  He says this is not made-up legend or myth.  This is fact.

That’s what Peter claims.  Is Peter a reliable witness, in this and the other claims he made about Jesus?  The evidence points to yes.  If this is a lie, it certainly did not benefit Peter.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  Because he proclaimed Jesus as Christ, Peter was arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and condemned to die.  All that happened in just the first 11 chapters of Acts.  Even though the rest of his life story is not recorded for us, it probably went about the same.  He could have avoided all of that pain by recanting or even just shutting up.

As he is writing 2 Peter, he is convinced that he is about to die.  Even though he doesn’t specify the manner of his coming death, John 21 reveals that he was going to be killed for his faith in Christ.  Once again, if he is lying, all he has to do to get out of trouble is to give up on the lie.

Even beyond that, if he believes he’s about to die, what’s the point in lying, anyway?  In the law of our country, dying declarations are given particular evidentiary force because it is presumed that someone on their deathbed will tell the truth.

And yet, what do we see Peter saying at the end of his life?  It’s the same story.  He is still claiming to be an eyewitness to proofs that Jesus is the Son of God.

Next, let’s consider JOHN.  Look at what he says in 1 John 1:1-2.  This is nothing less than a claim of John’s involvement in the ministry of Jesus from beginning to end.  He says that he heard, he saw, he carefully examined, and he even touched.  His conclusion from all that is that eternal life is attainable through Jesus.

In the gospel of John, John goes into much greater detail.  Everything that the book contains is his eyewitness testimony, but at particular points of the narrative, John emphasizes his personal involvement.  During the Last Supper, John was the one who asked Jesus who would betray Him.  John was present for Jesus’ show trial before the Sanhedrin.  He watched when the Roman soldiers came to the body of Jesus on the cross, concluded that he was already dead, and stuck a spear into his side to prove the point.  On the morning of the resurrection, he and Peter looked into the empty tomb.  He was the first to recognize Jesus standing by the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

These are the claims that John makes for himself, and once again, he lived his whole life as though those claims were true.  He was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned right next to Peter.  He too had to hide from the persecution of Saul.  When he writes the book of Revelation, he does so as a prisoner on the island of Patmos.

Basically, from beginning to end of his long life, John gets nothing but misery because of his testimony about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Frankly, if John was a liar, he was the dumbest liar ever to walk the face of the earth.  He didn’t write what he made up.  He wrote what he saw.

Finally this evening, let’s consider PAUL.  We see his eyewitness testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:8-9.  The event that he describes here leads to one of the most dramatic life changes in all of human history.  On one side of the event is Saul of Tarsus, proud persecutor of the church, foremost enemy of the gospel of Christ.  On the other side of the event is Paul the apostle, servant of the church, proclaimer of the gospel of Christ. 

What could cause such a profound change?  In Paul’s own words, Jesus appeared to him just as He had to the other apostles.  That event on the road outside Damascus changed Paul’s life and the future of Christianity forever. 

This is what Paul claims.  Is there reason to accept him as a reliable witness? 

The reasons start, I think, with his conversion himself.  As a Hebrew of Hebrews, probably a member of the Sanhedrin already, Saul had prosperity, comfort, respect—everything that people want.  He gave all that up to join with a poor, hated, persecuted minority sect.

During the time of his apostleship, he himself suffered greatly.  He went throughout the Mediterranean world and got beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and stoned for his pains.  He was so poor that sometimes he didn’t even have enough to eat. 

Like Peter, Paul also writes a book at the end of his life, 2 Timothy.  He’s not dying peacefully in bed.  Instead, he is back in prison—again—and he is about to be executed for the cause of Christ.  And yet, what does he keep proclaiming?  In 2 Timothy 2:8, it’s the same old story.  Jesus rose from the dead.  What’s more, he even encourages Timothy to suffer for Christ like he has suffered!

This is not the behavior of a liar.  Instead, this is the behavior of an intelligent man—and Paul was extremely intelligent—who considered the evidence before him and was so sure that Jesus was Lord that he staked his life on it, even at the cost of everything else.  As with Peter and John, Paul’s testimony shows all the signs of a genuine eyewitness account.

Loving Your [Political] Enemies

Thursday, September 17, 2020

It’s no secret to anyone who pays attention that year by year, the political climate in our country grows more and more toxic.  Political dialogue is dominated by extremist voices on both sides who openly describe people on the other side as their enemies.  Believing the best about one’s opponents is unheard of.  Civility is nonexistent.  Rumors are flying of civil disorder if the wrong side wins, and sometimes even if the wrong side loses.

All of this says that the upcoming election is a very important one for Christians, though maybe not the way that you think.  The truly meaningful choice before us is not whether we vote Republican or Democrat.  It is whether, however we vote, we allow ourselves to be dragged down into the mud with the world, or whether we glorify Christ in what we do, say, and think.  Some will say that the fate of the nation is at stake in November, but our souls are at stake right now. 

In particular, let’s evaluate ourselves according to the standard of Matthew 5:43-44.  Here, our Lord tells us that we are to love not only our neighbor, but even those who hate and persecute us.  These were challenging words when He first said them, and they remain challenging today.  With this in mind, let’s consider loving our political enemies.

This morning, let’s evaluate ourselves on this according to four Biblical standards.  The first is, “DON’T RETURN EVIL FOR EVIL.”  This comes from 1 Peter 3:8-9.  By the point in his life when he was writing this, Peter knew a thing or two about persecution.  He knew what it was like to be beaten and humiliated even when he had done nothing wrong.  Nonetheless, he warns us that it’s wrong to repay the wicked in their own coin.

I see two political applications here.  The first is that it is not godly to respond to the other side’s evil with our evil.  One of the political diseases of our time is whataboutism.  Whenever somebody in our party, it’s common for partisans to reply with, “Well, what about when So-and-So did Thus-and-Such?” as though hypocrisy on the other side mitigates bad behavior on our side.  Evil conduct doesn’t become less evil because the other side did it first.  Sin is sin, even when it’s practiced by somebody on the home team.

Similarly, we must beware of approving in our hearts when a political commentator on our side attacks the other side with vicious sarcasm.  It doesn’t matter whether we think they deserve it.  Hate-filled vitriol is hate-filled vitriol regardless of the source, and Christians never should have anything to do with it.  When we buy in to political savagery, it inevitably corrupts us.

Second, we must be sure NOT TO REJOICE IN UNRIGHTEOUSNESS.  This, of course, is 1 Corinthians 13:6.  This is a familiar passage, but this morning, I want to put a little different spin on it.  Rather than talking about our attitude toward unrighteousness in the people we love, I want to talk about our attitude toward unrighteousness in our political enemies.

Let’s say you flip on the TV or open the Internet browser in the morning, and the first thing you see is a story about awful, wretched behavior by a politician in the other political party.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel gleeful that the wickedness you always knew was there has been exposed for all to see?  Do you feel vindicated that someone you opposed has lived down to your expectations?  “See!  I knew it all along?”

If so, let me suggest that that’s a problem, because that’s not how we respond to wrongdoing in people we love.  When somebody here at Jackson Heights gets trapped in sin, I’m not gleeful.  If some brother I’ve been concerned about for a long time falls away, I don’t feel vindicated because I was right.  Instead, I’m heartbroken!  In fact, if I weren’t, and I went around talking about how glad I was that Brother So-and-So was gone, I’d probably get fired over it.

Brethren, if it’s not loving to rejoice over unrighteousness in our brethren, it’s not loving to rejoice over unrighteousness in our enemies either!  We should never feel justified or satisfied or vindicated by someone else’s wickedness.  If we respond to sin in anyone with anything other than mourning and a prayer for their souls, we’re doing it wrong.

Third, also from 1 Corinthians 13:6, if we love our enemies, we will REJOICE IN THE TRUTH.  Necessarily, that means that we can’t rejoice in lies, and these days, that poses a problem.  Right now, there is no “the news” anymore, like there was when I was kid.  Instead, you have Red News and Blue News, and Red News promotes Red narratives, and Blue News promotes Blue narratives.  What people watch and read and listen to depends on what they believe already. 

In fact, the deeper Red you get, and the deeper Blue you get, the more important the narrative becomes, and the less important the truth becomes.  It is often the case that the most wretched lies put out by far left and far right alike are the stories most eagerly read and shared by partisans.  “The other presidential candidate had an affair with a space alien?  Great!  I’m going to share that on my Facebook page, right next to the inspirational Bible quote from yesterday!”

Brethren, no!  If we love our enemies, we won’t be eager to believe lies about them either.  If you come to me with some whopper of an awful story about my wife, I’m not going to lap that stuff up.  I’m going to be really reluctant to believe you.  Why?  Because I love my wife!  When we want so badly to believe evil about our political enemies that we embrace even falsehood, it reveals that we don’t have a shred of love for them in our hearts.

Finally, it will help us to love our enemies if we ENTRUST OURSELVES TO GOD.  Consider the example of Jesus in 1 Peter 2:23.  Even on the cross, Jesus did not cease to love His enemies, and He was able to endure such terrible suffering because He had entrusted Himself to God.  They could kill His body, but they couldn’t touch what truly mattered.

I predict that over the next couple of months, we’re going to hear a great deal about how this election is going to be one of the most important in our lifetime.  We have to get out and vote right, or else horrible things are going to happen!  Of course, the same people also said that the 2008 election, and the 2012 election, and the 2016 election also were the most important in our lifetimes.  If we’re still here in 2024, I predict that will be called the most important election of our lifetimes too.  All of them are, apparently.

But really, brethren, for the child of God, no election is truly important.  No matter who wins the vote, they can’t touch our relationship with God unless we let them. 

Right now, all is well with us, not because of our earthly blessings, but because our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  On Wednesday, November 4th, if the wrong guy wins the election, it still will be well with us—so long as our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  Even if worst comes to worst, and stormtroopers from the other side come after us, and they drag us out of our homes and stand us up against a wall and shoot us, even then, it will be well with us—so long as our lives are hidden with Christ in God. 

So long as we are with our Lord, our enemies can’t touch us, no matter what they do.  We have no reason to fear them, and that frees us to love them.  If we entrust ourselves to God, something as insignificant as an election isn’t worth worrying about.

Was Jesus Just a Good Teacher?

Friday, September 11, 2020

Every so often, you run into something that makes you scratch your head.  So it was with a survey I read about last week.  Though the full results of the survey won’t be released until the day after tomorrow, the survey conductors released a few advanced snippets.  Among these, they found that a majority of Americans no longer believe that Jesus was God, which is sad but not surprising.

However, the one that blew my mind was that 30 percent of self-identified evangelicals also agreed that Jesus was a good teacher but not God.  Even the supposed Christian conservatives in our country are beginning to question the deity of Christ!  That shocks me, and when I see such a surprising result, normally I start questioning the integrity of the survey conductors.  However, the outfit in question is Ligonier Ministries, a respectable group that has been doing surveys like this for years.

I decided, then, that we need to talk about this.  Lots of people apparently think it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus was merely a human being who said lots of good things.  Is it?  This evening, let’s ask if indeed Jesus was just a good teacher.

In order to answer this question, I think there are three main pieces of evidence we need to consider, evidence from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  The first of these is that HE CLAIMED TO BE THE SOLE SOURCE OF TRUTH.  Look at His exchange with Thomas in John 14:5-6.  We are very used to this idea.  We sing hymns that praise Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  Many of us can quote John 14:6 from memory.

However, I think that because we are so used to it, we no longer are able to see how shocking the words of Jesus are here.  To illustrate how shocking they are, let’s take them out of the mouth of Jesus and put them in somebody else’s mouth—mine.

 Imagine, brethren, that I’m preaching along one Sunday morning, and in the middle of the sermon I say, “I, Matthew W. Bassford, am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  What would you think of that?  I strongly suspect that if I were to say such a thing in deadly earnest, by next Sunday, I no longer would be employed by the Jackson Heights church!

Why?  Because for a mere human being to make that claim would be extraordinarily arrogant.  Even Moses, the great giver of the Law, never claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.  In making that claim, Jesus put Himself over every other teacher of the Law.  He condemned every other religion in existence as false. 

What’s more, He even put Himself over the Law itself.  Think about it.  For thousands of years, the Jews had regarded God’s word as truth.  It was their way to pleasing Him.  If they obeyed, God would give them life.  In saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus is telling His hearers, “You need to quit following the Law and start following Me instead.”

Anybody who makes that claim about themselves cannot be merely a good human teacher.  Either they are leading people astray, or they are a being of such transcendent wisdom that it is right to reject everything else in favor of them.  Jesus did make that claim, so it is impossible for us to believe that He merely is a good teacher.

Second, HE CLAIMED TO BE THE MESSIAH.  Look at the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:25-26.  This, I think, is another shocking claim that has lost its shock value because we are so used to it.  In our society, it’s probably true that most people think that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.

Of course, “Christ” is not a name.  It is a title, and it means the same thing that “Messiah” does.  It means “Anointed One”.  Even this doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in the 21st-century United States, but it would have meant everything in first-century Palestine.

Under the Law of Moses, three classes of people were ceremonially anointed:  prophets, priests, and kings.  Various prophecies throughout the Old Testament predicted the coming of one who simultaneously would be a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, and a king like David.  When He came, this Anointed One would deliver God’s people from their enemies once for all. 

More than anything else, the people of Jesus’ day wanted to see the Messiah come.  Not surprisingly, lots of people tried to take advantage.  Both the New Testament and secular historians record false Christs, people who claimed to be the Messiah and weren’t.

It was possible for somebody to be a false Christ.  What wasn’t possible was to make that claim and simultaneously be a good human teacher.  If you said you were the Christ, either you were, or you were a deceiver on a massive scale.  If you were the Christ, then you also were the Redeemer, the Savior, the Holy One of God.  The true Christ wasn’t somebody who came to pass along a few wise little parables.  He was somebody who came as the greatest fulfillment of divine prophecy ever to be.

Finally, of course, Jesus could not merely be a good human teacher because HE CLAIMED TO BE GOD.  Consider what Jesus says to some opponents of His in John 8:56-59.  Jesus begins this exchange by asserting something that others in His day would have found ridiculous—that Abraham, 2000 years ago, looked ahead prophetically and rejoiced to see the coming of Jesus.

Naturally, the Jews jump all over this.  Who does Jesus think He is, to make such a claim?  In response, Jesus tells them, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  This is not Jesus mixing up His verb tenses.  Instead, He is taking the divine name of God from Exodus 3 and He is appropriating it for Himself.  He is claiming to be eternal, pre-existent, and divine.

The Jews understand perfectly well what Jesus is saying here, so well, in fact, that their next action is to pick up stones to stone Him to death.  These aren’t Greeks who accept the existence of gods and demigods in human form.  For them, for any human being to claim to be God is blasphemy.  Such a one deserved to die.

I’m sure that throughout this sermon, some of you have been thinking about C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument, and this is where it comes to a point.  Jesus claims to be God.  That means that one of three things must be true of Him.  Either He was a con artist, He was out of His mind, or He really was the God He claimed to be. 

Indeed, this claim completely forecloses the possibility that Jesus merely was a good human teacher.  Good human teachers don’t claim to be God.  Evil human teachers might make such a claim, or crazy human teachers, but not good human teachers.

In order to believe, then, that Jesus was a good human teacher and nothing more, these 30 percent of evangelicals must reject the words of Jesus Himself.  Whatever they say about themselves, they are not Christians in any meaningful sense.  For us to be Christians, we must accept not only His goodness and humanity, but also His exclusivity, His Messiahship, and His deity.  There is no other way.

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