Believe, Or You Will Die in Your Sins
Passage: John 8:21–29
Sermon from John 8:21-29 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, February 16, 2014
Understanding Misunderstandings in John’s Gospel
Before we jump into our passage this morning, I’d like to lay some groundwork for understanding it. John will often times highlight a particular misunderstanding about Jesus during his earthly ministry. Something about Jesus or what he said will confuse the people around him, and John makes it part of his account. But then, using the insight given him by the Spirit after the resurrection and Jesus’ own teachings, John will remove the misunderstanding for his readers. The misunderstanding arises, and then John solves it; he clarifies it for his readers. He does this so that you and I walk away knowing who Jesus is and claims to be. If the entire aim of John’s Gospel is that you believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:31), these many clarifications ensure that your belief, your faith, is grounded in a true knowledge of who Jesus is and why he came.[1. I was first introduced to this concept in D. A. Carson, "Understandings Misunderstandings in the Fourth Gospel," TynBull 33 (1982): 59-91. An online version of this article is available here.] Saving faith will always be a faith in accordance with true knowledge about the person and work of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 10:2).
So with that in mind, I think our passage has two parts, and both parts include a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words by the Jews that then gets clarified, at least for those reading John’s Gospel and who ‘have ears to hear.’ The first misunderstanding comes in verse 22, with the question, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I’m going you cannot come;’” and the second misunderstanding occurs in verse 25, with the question, “Who are you?” And in response to both questions, we find clarity about what Jesus has done for us and about who Jesus truly is.
1. Jesus Is Our Only Escape from Dying in Our Sins
The first clarification teaches us that Jesus is our only escape from dying in our sins. He says to them in verse 21, “I’m going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” The Jews then misunderstand him and say, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” Notice how the Jews totally overlook what he said about them dying in their sin; they only concern themselves with figuring out how Jesus could go somewhere they can’t. “We can go everywhere he can on earth, so maybe he’s talking about suicide. We wouldn’t follow him there.” It wouldn’t occur to them that they’ve got any big problem dying in their sins. They think they’re okay. So Jesus then clarifies; here’s what I’m talking about: “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”
Jesus’ words tell us there’s something fundamentally different between Jesus and the Jews, so much so that it hinders them from going wherever it is Jesus intends to go. Now, we know where Jesus is going not only based on what we observed in 7:33-34; but also based on the way Jesus repeatedly refers to his sent-ness by the Father. So, for example, he tells the Jews in verse 14, “I know where I come from and where I am going,” and then tells them in verse 16 and 18 that his Father sent him. So, he’s given the Jews a point of reference: he comes from the Father who sent him; and plans to go away to him. Moreover, as the rest of John’s Gospel plays out, we find this in 13:3—this is just before Jesus gets up to wash the disciples feet: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God [same verb], rose from supper.”
So, Jesus plans to return to his Father in heaven, but he says the Jews cannot follow him there. There is something fundamentally different about them that makes them unable to follow him back to the Father. That fundamental difference revolves not around outside circumstances hindering them, but around the fact that they will die in their sin. Since Jesus uses the plural “sins” in verse 24—“you would die in your sins”—I think he’s referring here, in verse 21, to the particular sin of unbelief that Jesus is their Redeemer, their Messiah, their Christ. Their sin of unbelief is linked to them seeking a messiah other than Jesus once he’s gone away to his Father. “I am going away [to the Father], and you will seek me [i.e., your messiah, who I came to be but who you refuse to have as your messiah], and you will die in your sin [your sin of unbelief].” In other words, if you seek your messiah on earth after I’m already with my Father in heaven, you’re going to be looking for the wrong man; and you will die in your sin.
But hear me now: that doesn’t mean only the sin of unbelief keeps people out of heaven, because that’s not all Jesus says. What keeps people from going to the Father with Jesus is not merely the one sin of unbelief, but that we are by nature sinners—our sins keep us out of heaven. Not believing in Jesus will keep you from having a relationship with God, but that’s because not believing in Jesus leaves you separated from the one Redeemer who takes away your sins, plural(!)—unbelief being just another sin in the mix. The fundamental hindrance to fellowship with God is that we are by nature dead in our sins (Eph 2:1). Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t share our sin-nature. He’s not “from below,” like verse 23 says, he is “from above.” He’s not “of the world” like we are. That world we talked about last week as darkened by sin, death, and the devil—has no claim on Jesus like it does on us. We’re part of the rebellion down to the very core of our being. And Jesus is saying that to die this way—to die still in your sins—prevents our coming to God.
“Dying in Your Sins” Means Dying Guilty, Under God’s Wrath, Without Escape
What does it mean to die in your sins? We already know it means that we cannot come where Jesus says he will be in our passage—namely, with the Father in heaven. To die in your sins means you will never have access to God. Some of you may be okay with that—you don’t like God all that much now. I used to be there, especially when I started learning how much of my life God wanted. I liked God as long as he prospered my agenda and made me popular and got me all the money. But the more I learned of what God wanted of me, the more I wanted him out of my life. So, some of you may be there, happy to die in your sins, especially if it means no more of God. But let me inform you further of what the Bible says that “dying in your sins” entails. When we look at other places in the Bible that relate to this idea of “dying in your sins,” we find that means the following about our separation from God. Dying in your sins, and not being able to come to God, does not mean that you will never see God again after you die or never have to deal with God again or never have to think about God again.
Rather, dying in your sins means that for an eternity, you will look upon God’s majesty and excellence and power but not with any enjoyment. You will stand before his majesty terrified, because you are guilty of despising him. “Dying in your sins [or your iniquities]” is an Old Testament expression that means you suffer death because you are guilty of rebelling against God (Num 16:26; Ezek 3:18; 18:18, 24, 16). To die in your sins means the guilt for your sins still remains every day; it can never be removed because you’re always still in your sins before God. The verdict of “guilty” will aggravate you forever. More than that, you will never cease sinning against God because you will always hate his holy gaze upon your guilty soul. When God’s plan is all said and done at the close of the age, you will not be welcome into his Holy City; Rev 22:11 says you will remain outside, still doing evil, still being filthy, and mounting up more and more guilt for it all with your conscience always bearing witness against you.
“Dying in your sins” also means that since you are guilty before God, you will never relate to him as your gracious Friend, but only as your wrathful Judge. John 3:36 gives us further insight to what Jesus means here by dying in your sins. Jesus is certainly saying that they will physically die while remaining in their sins; but John 3:36 clarifies what “remaining in your sins” entails upon death. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” That’s a positive parallel to 8:24: “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” Belief in 3:36 ensures eternal life; unbelief in 8:24 ensures death in your sins. “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.” So, not seeing life is equivalent to the wrath of God remaining on you. Applied to “dying in your sins,” that means an eternity of torment under God’s wrath. To die in your sins means, not that you escape God, but that you must deal with God every day for eternity beneath his horrific, just punishment for your sins. What makes hell so horrible is the sheer majesty and power of God’s justice and wrath.
“Dying in your sins” also means that once you die in your sins, you will never have an escape. You will permanently remain in that condition, always in your unbelief. Jesus’ warning in these words give this away rather clearly: “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” There’s no chance for this belief after you’ve already died in your sins.
As Our True Passover Lamb, Jesus Delivers Us from Sin and Death
All of you are still physically alive, just as were these Jews to whom Jesus is talking. He has told them the way of escape from dying in their sins, and that escape remains unchanged for us. The way to escape “dying in your sins” is believing that Jesus is who he says he is while you’re still alive. Faith in Jesus Christ is the escape and the day to believe what he says is today. If you die in your sins, that’s where you remain. But if you believe that Jesus is who he says he is, what is it that happens? You will live! Even if you die physically, believing in Jesus means that you will not die “in your sins,” which means you won’t be guilty before God, and you won’t suffer under God’s wrath, and you will be able to come where Jesus comes to the Father, and he will be your gracious Friend! How can that be so?
Well, John has already told us how that can be so: Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). I don’t think it’s an accident that the last place John mentions the particular word “sin” (in Greek, a`marti,a) in relation to the work of Jesus is when he reveals Jesus as God’s true and ultimate Passover Lamb (see 1:29). What John continues in chapter 8 is the Passover theme he began in chapter 1, only here we get a fuller picture of what it means for Jesus to be our Passover Lamb. The way he delivers us from the threat of death is that he takes away our sins, so that we do not die in them but in him. The Passover lamb in the exodus delivered the firstborn in Israel from the plague of death. If you had the slaughtered lamb’s blood painted on your doorpost, the plague of death would “pass-over” your house—your firstborn would be spared, you would escape God’s judgment. John is taking God’s story to its next level, so to speak, and saying that in a far greater way than you observed in the exodus, Jesus delivers us from the threat of death because Jesus is the supreme Passover Lamb who can actually takes away our sins. Death threatens us all because we take our sins and our guilt with us to the grave: “The sting of death is sin,” Paul says in 1 Cor 15:56.
Death is a terrible threat when you look at it in light of Jesus’ words in John 8; but not if you believe. If you believe that Jesus is who he says he is, you will not die in your sins. You will die covered by the blood of the Passover Lamb, Jesus, who alone is able to take away all of your sin. What makes his going away to the Father so unique is that he returns to his Father through the cross, where he was slaughtered to deliver us from sin and eternal death because of sin. These Jews can only die in their sins; it’s their sins which displease the Father. And they are just like any one of us. For us to die without Christ is for us to die in our sins. But Jesus cannot die in his sins, because Jesus doesn’t have any sins. There’s nothing about Jesus that displeases the Father—read verse 29. So when Jesus dies, he does not die for his own sins, but for our sins, for the sins of everyone who believes in him. He is the unblemished Lamb, slaughtered to take away your sins and rescue you from eternal death.
Some of you might be wondering, “Whatever happened to Jesus saying he was the Light of the World back in verse 12? What do his words here—in verses 21-24, which you’re saying pick up on the Passover Lamb theme of chapter 1—have anything to do with his words in verse 12, ‘I am the light of the world’?” The answer is that this is how Jesus shines. He shines in our darkness by going to the cross as a Lamb and spilling his blood that would result in our deliverance from the threat of eternal death—of dying “in [the darkness of] our sins.”
His sacrifice took away our sins, so that we no longer have to fear death, because its awful stinger has been severed for everyone who believes in Jesus. That means our trust cannot be in our money to buy us enough security on earth; regardless of how long you protect your body or your home or how much you spend prepping for an economic crisis in this life, your sins will haunt you for eternity if you do not have Jesus and take him at his word. In fact, where does your trust really lie if your whole life is consumed with these investments—if people know more about your guns and your prepping and your investment strategies than they do about the one who delivers them from an eternity of fury? It means our trust cannot ultimately rest in our physical exercise and diet. Is it good to give attention to exercise and diet? Absolutely, and in fact some of you must exercise and diet for your immune system to remain strong. But on the Last Day, you will not be judged by your body-fat percentage, but by whether your sin-account says zero plus all of Christ’s righteousness! It means our trust cannot ultimately rest in our good deeds and prayers and Scripture memory and skill in heart care—all of which are totally necessary pieces of our Christian life, of walking in the Spirit. But these things are at their best only when they’re highlighting my desperate need for life and driving me to find it in Jesus. He alone can keep us from dying in our sins.
You might even consider this as another test to discern whether your trust is in someone else or something else to give you true life. Do you avoid suffering and persecution that might arise from your faithfulness to the gospel? You maneuver around people at work and dodge people’s significant questions and ignore the Holy Spirit’s promptings to speak the truth, just to preserve your life or your reputation or your comfort. That may reveal you’re trusting something to deliver you from the threat of death other than Jesus, who’s already defeated it once and for all on your behalf. Yes, it makes complete sense why we would fear death, especially if you’re still in your sins. But if Jesus’ words are true, and his work on the cross is sufficient to take away all that would make death so miserable—namely our sins and the punishment for them—then there’s no reason to fear it any longer. If you believe that Jesus is your only escape from dying in your sins, then you can only die in the Lord—hidden in his care, covered by his blood, rescued from his wrath forever. Because of Jesus, death becomes your ticket to glory, not a looming threat to rob you of joy in this life or to control your actions toward others or to enslave you to fears of what others may think of you or do to you.
Believing Jesus’ words and following him delivers us from dying in our sins. Our trust can be in nothing else. Jesus has told us our desperate plight before God and that he is our only escape. Point each other to Christ, because he alone delivers you from death to God’s judgment on sin. When you see each other trusting in something other than Christ for life, something other than Christ for escape from judgment, speak into that and direct each other once again to the only One who gives life, Jesus. So the first thing we learn through Jesus’ clarification is that he is our only escape from dying in our sins.
2. Jesus’ Unity with the Father Leads Him to the Cross
This is the second thing we learn through Jesus’ clarification: Jesus’ unity with the Father leads him to the cross. One of the things I repeated in our first point was that in order to escape dying in your sins, you had to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. In our second point, we see precisely who he is—he is the one sent from the Father and who is one with the Father. In verse 25, the Jews ask their second question. They say, “Who are you?” So Jesus takes them back to square one, and says this in verse 26, “I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.”
Jesus’ Unity with His Father Revealed
So, who Jesus is doesn’t rest ultimately on what they think of him, it doesn’t even depend on them believing in him. He could talk all day about their unbelief, make all sorts of judgments about them, but he chooses instead to cut right to the chase. Jesus’ identity is bound up with what his Father says about him. John clarifies that for us in verse 27—“They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father”—and Jesus clarifies his own words in verse 28—“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” So, Jesus’ identity—who he is truly—is bound up with what his Father says about him. And the point is even sharper, Jesus only speaks what he hears the Father speak or teach about him. Jesus is so united with his Father that his testimony is God’s testimony—and nothing less. That’s one way he’s in unity with the Father.
We see other ways he’s united to his Father in theses verses. For example, Jesus does nothing on his own authority. Verse 28 says, “I do nothing on my own authority,” meaning that he is always in complete, glad submission to his Father, and never does one inkling of rebellion arise against his Father’s will. Also, the Father who sent Jesus is with Jesus. Verse 29 says, “he who sent me is with me.” The Father is with Jesus in the same sense that the “Word” was “with God” in John 1:1 or is “at the Father’s side” in John 1:18. The intimate fellowship and communion the Father has had with his Son for eternity didn’t end when his Son took on flesh, became human. Verse 29 adds, “He has not left me alone.” And why is that? Verse 29 again, “for [or because] I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” So Jesus’ unity with the Father extends to what he knows, what he hears, what he learns, what he speaks, what he does, as well as to how the Father and Son relate to one another infinitely in all of them.
More than that, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” for the eighth time in John. That’s a title from the vision of Daniel 7:13, where we see the divine son-of-man figure coming with the clouds of heaven and approaching the Ancient of Days in the courtroom of heaven. And then Daniel 7:14 says that “to [this son of man] was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” So if Jesus is the Son of Man, he certainly has God’s approval. Even more on his unity with the Father, in verse 24 and verse 28 our English translations add the pronoun “he” to Jesus words “I am.” When Jesus says “unless you believe that I am he,” the “he” is not present in the Greek. It can be translated simply, “unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” Same thing in verse 28, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [rather than ‘I am he’].” He’ll say this one other time in chapter 8, in verse 58, and there it’s quite clear what he implies, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
When you look for the same phrase in the Old Testament, what you find are numerous passages applied only to Yahweh, the God of Israel—such as Deuteronomy 32:39, “I am: there is no god besides me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand;” or Isaiah 43:10-11, “I am…before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior;” or Isaiah 43:25, “I am, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” And now Jesus—who only speaks what the Father speaks, who only says of himself what the Father says, who can only forever please God with his words—says we must believe that he is I AM lest we die in our sins.
I read Zephaniah 2:15 this morning; and there God promises to destroy the city of Nineveh for saying of themselves “I AM.” So, according to the Old Testament, this is at the height of blasphemy for people to say this of themselves. And for Jesus, it would be at the height of blasphemy for him to say this of himself, unless he is truly God, truly the great I AM. And we know that Jesus’ is not a blasphemer because God put his seal of approval on him when he raised him from the dead (see Acts 2:36). So, if we are to believe in Jesus truly and escape dying in our sins, then we must believe he is in fact God. That’s how united he is with his Father—he is distinct in person as Son, yet one in Divinity with his Father.
But where is such unity with the Father leading him? It’s leading him straight to the cross. Verse 28, “when you [you Jews] have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am.” His unity with the Father is taking him to the cross; his unity with the Father is leading him to give himself into the hands of his enemies. The way he returns to the Father is through the cross his Father designed. And when Jesus is lifted up, “then,” he says, “you will know that I am.” Now, he’s not saying that every single Jew he’s speaking with will inevitably know him once he’s been crucified—it’s not that upon killing him the lights turn on in Israel. We know that from places like the Book of Acts and Rom 9-11. Some believe, but not all. What Jesus is saying is this: “you will know me truly as God and Redeemer and thus your Messiah insofar as you see my glory through the cross. Until then, you won’t truly know me or the Father.” The cross reveals who Jesus is in unity with his Father.
The Only True God Is the God of the Cross
Thus, we cannot know God truly unless we relate to him and look to him through the cross of his Son. The only God there is to know is the one who sent his Son to die—all other gods are false gods. If your view of God is absent of the cross—if your god has no mercy in his heart toward the ungodly; if the humbling of God sounds repulsive to you; if your god refuses to provide a way of escape from his judgment; if his transcendence keeps him from revealing himself to you—then you do not know the true God. The true God is the God of the cross. The God who reveals himself in the Bible is the God who reveals himself through the lifting up of his Son on the cross. And when we peer into what took place there, in the death of God’s Son, and embrace that death for our life, then we know the great I AM rightly—then we know God truly, then we see our Redeemer for who he really is, God in the flesh “lifted up” for my salvation.
I won’t get into it as much here as I will later in chapter 12, but this same verb that John uses—“lifted up”—is peppered throughout the Prophet Isaiah; and nearly every one of them are associated with God or his temple being “lifted up” or “exalted” in the last days above all. It was God’s way of saying that he alone would win, that he alone would rule, that his mountain alone would shine, that his glory alone would be above all other nations and peoples, that he alone would be worshiped in the end. And then amazingly, in Isa 52:13, God applies the same language to the Suffering Servant: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” John borrows the same language from Isaiah to say that in the “lifting up” of Jesus, God himself is exalted in the Servant’s sufferings. His glory is revealed so fully in Jesus, that Jesus is worthy of worship, worthy of exaltation. That’s how much we should see God revealed in Christ.
We know who God is and what God is like when we look at Jesus going to the cross. Might that be of great help in the midst of our struggle against sin? You want to know how God feels about our fist-pounding anger, you want to know what he thinks of our greed and hunger for revenge, you want to know what he thinks about our self-righteous gloating over enemies on Facebook, you want to know is feelings over our careless attitudes and words? Look at the cross—the infinitely beautiful Son of God slaughtered in our place. We see God’s holiness at the cross revealed when he poured out his infinite wrath on Jesus for our sins. Knowing God through the cross will put a sour taste in your mouth for sin. At the same time in the fight against sin—do you want to see the extravagance of his love for you, you want to know the depth of his care for you, you want to understand the boundless mercies in his heart toward you, you want to experience the power of his might working on behalf of sinners, you want to see him flex his arm and rend the heavens to claim victory over your enemies? Look at the cross! Your feet will dance away from your sins when you behold the glory of the great I AM, who came in the person of Jesus. Jesus is not a mere stepping stone to get to the Father. He’s the One we continue looking to in order to know the Father.
When we look at him, we can truly say: this is who God is, this is what he’s like. He’s not so transcendent that you cannot relate to him or access him when you’re feeling lonely at work or at home with the kids or maybe even in your marriage or in your state of confusion. When we look at Christ, we see that God came down, God drew near—so near to you that he not only knew your every sin that you’d ever commit, but he personally took them on himself and bore the punishment, so that you might have access to his Father. In unity with the Father, he got on the cross to reveal the Father’s love for us—that it is vast beyond all measure. Knowing God truly means knowing him through his Son who was lifted up to die. So, if we’re going to know more of God, then let us preach to each other the person of Jesus and the glories of the cross. If we’re going to experience more of God at home and in the workplace and with our spouses and in our care groups, let us not shrink from pointing each other to God’s Son. And if we’re going to help others in our neighborhoods to know God, to see that Jesus is the great I AM, then let us open our mouths about his cross.
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