March 9, 2014

Keep Jesus' Word & Never See Death

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to John Topic: Resurrection Passage: John 8:48–59

Sermon from John 8:48-59 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, March 9, 2014

Spoken So That Jesus’ Enemies Might Have Life

My wife, Rachel, came home from the women’s book study on Thursday evening; and we were sitting on the couch, talking about how the evening went and what the Lord had been teaching her. And one of the things she shared was that Jesus’ response to the people around him helps her respond rightly to our children when they don’t always want to obey her words or follow her instructions or listen to her voice. Jesus never stopped loving people when they didn’t listen or obey his voice, rather he continued speaking words of life to the people and loved them unto death. And because Jesus had done that for her eternal good, she was now able to do the same for our children—patiently bearing with them, offering words of life, and serving their eternal good in Christ. I was really encouraged by her words as a husband and as a dad; and, let’s face it, I got a free intro for my sermon out of the whole thing, because, despite the unbelief in the hearts of his own people, despite the horrific slander coming out of their mouths against him—“You half-breed, demon-possessed man!” (8:48, 52)—despite that they’re scheming to murder him (8:40, 59), Jesus continues offering them words of life: “Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (8:51).

Jesus speaks, so that his enemies might have life. Some of you might be an enemy of Jesus this morning—you’d rather not be here with his people; you’d rather be doing something else than hearing his word; he’s never made any sense to you anyway; you don’t know why he’s such a big deal to people. You might be his enemy this morning, but that doesn’t keep him from offering you life in these words, true freedom from the death that plagues you as we speak, the death you cannot escape without knowing him. You might already know Jesus this morning; you’re not his enemy, but have come to know him as your elder brother and friend, who laid down his life for you. These words are spoken for you, too—to give you life as well and keep you holding on to Jesus in the face of one our greatest enemies, namely death.

The truth is that all of us need deliverance from death. The Bible says that death is a “covering that is cast over all peoples; [it’s] the veil that is spread over all nations” (Isa 25:7). It also tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Death plagues us all, because we’re all such sinners. And it’s not just physical death that threatens us, but spiritual death as well. The soul of man, once created to thrive on life with God, lies dead in rebellion without God—unless it is made alive in Christ (Eph 2:1-4). And even then, those of us who are Christians have to admit that the thought of death isn’t always a pleasant one—it still hurts us and challenges us; it calls our bluff; it makes us face where our treasures really lie. That makes Jesus’ words really important to listen to this morning—for all of us, not just some of us. “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

Four Questions to Answer

If this is God’s answer to how we might escape not just physical death, but spiritual death above all, it would do us well to understand what Jesus means. The way I had to go about understanding his words was to answer a few questions; and I want to walk you through those same questions this morning. There are four questions I want us to answer, and all of them are absolutely crucial if you never want to see death.

1. What is Jesus’ word?

The first question is this: “What is Jesus’ word?” In verse 51, Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” This is now the fourth time Jesus mentions his “word” in chapter 8. The first was in verse 31, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples;” then again in verse 37, “you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you;” again in verse 43, “[You do not understand what I say]…because you cannot bear to hear my word;” and now we run into it again in verse 51, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” So, we’ve already seen that this is a word, a message, that must be welcomed by Jesus’ true followers and it must be heard with faith such that it takes up residence inside us. But what is this word, exactly? Since we’ve been here before, let me summarize.

When you look throughout the Gospel of John—whether you look at what Jesus speaks to his opponents (5:24; 7:36, 40; 8:37, 51, 53) or speaks to the Gentiles (4:41) or speaks to his disciples (14:23-24; 17:6), or at what John himself identifies as Jesus’ “word” explicitly (2:22; 6:60; 10:19)—Jesus’ word refers to what he reveals about himself and his mission as well as to how his person and mission must affect our lives if we are to be saved. Jesus’ “word” is a collective reference (cf. 12:48; 14:23-24) to all the utterances he makes about his person and his mission as well as their authoritative implications for our lives. God the Father has sent us a message through his Son (cf. Heb 1:1-2). He not only sent him as his message—Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14)—but he also gave him a message to deliver to us (3:33-34; 8:28, 38). His message discloses his person—he tells us who he is as the only Son sent from the Father—and his message clarifies his mission—he tells us what on earth he’s doing: that he came to die for sinners and rise again to glory. And that message has authoritative implications for our lives. We submit to them or we perish. That’s what Jesus says in 12:48: “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day [when we stand before the judgment seat of God].”

So that’s our answer to question one: Jesus’ word is basically the message God gave him to speak to us about who he is and why he came and how his person and his mission must affect our lives if we are to be saved.

2. What does it mean to keep Jesus’ word?

Second question: “What does it mean to keep Jesus’ word?” Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” So even here we see that Jesus’ word requires a response—and there are only two responses. You’re either not keeping his word already, or you’ve learned by grace to keep it. To this point in John’s Gospel we’ve seen again and again that without God’s intervention, we’re a people lost in the darkness, going about our evil deeds with no desire to follow anybody’s word but our own and that of the devil (3:19-21; 8:38, 44). There aren’t any fence-riders when it comes to keeping Jesus’ word: we’re either not keeping his word already, or by grace we’ve learned to keep it. But what does it mean to keep his word?

It must be similar to abiding in Jesus’ word—which is the language he used back in verse 31. The two ideas of abiding and keeping can’t contradict one another; we must say they’re complementary: “keeping” fleshes out what Jesus meant by “abiding.” And there are a couple of other places in Jesus’ teaching where it becomes very clear what Jesus means by “keeping” his word. Look with me at 14:15. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Now jump down to verse 21: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” Now verse 23: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word [same as his commandments], and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” One more verse, John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” There we even get an example in Jesus’ life of what it looks like to keep his word: it looks a lot like Jesus’ life.

So from those four verses, we can see what Jesus means by keeping his word. Keeping Jesus’ word grows from a heart in love with Jesus himself—“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (14:15). Keeping Jesus’ word means more than simply knowing his words, but actually doing them and obeying them—“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (14:21). And then lastly, keeping his word means we come to love the goals of his word, namely, abiding in Jesus’ love, his love for the Father and his love for his neighbors—“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10).

So keeping Jesus’ word means that out of a love for Jesus, I submit to what he says about himself and his mission in order that I might abide in the love of God. When he says, “You must be born again,” we say “Make it so, Lord Jesus” (John 3:7). When he says, “Repent!” we say “Show me how and lead me away from everything that’s hindering me from having you” (Matt 4:17). When he says, “Come to me and drink,” we say “Fill up my empty cup” (John 7:37-39). When he says, “Listen to me,” we say “Give us ears to hear” (Luke 8:8). When he says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” we say “Let there be no limits to what you claim on my life” (Matt 16:24-25). When he says, “Do not be afraid,” we say “Help my faith; teach me how to trust” (John 6:20).

So to keep Jesus’ word basically means we obey everything he says and everything his person and work imply for our growth in Jesus’ love, because we love Jesus himself. Let me mention just one clarification before moving to our third question: God’s grace enables imperfect people to keep his word. We know the disciples messed up (13:38); they were confused at times (4:33; 13:8; 14:9) and at other times way too self-confident (13:39). And yet Jesus says this in his prayer in John 17:6, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” So, if you’re here today and haven’t kept Jesus’ word perfectly as you should, don’t leave thinking there’s no hope for you. There’s so much hope for you, because the grace of God extends to the ungodly and enables them to keep Jesus’ word in ways that will suit them for heaven. Don’t leave today paralyzed by your failure to keep Jesus’ word. Confess it to God, look to his grace, and pursue keeping Jesus’ word. You’ll never keep Jesus’ word if all you’re looking at is your inability to do so. But you will keep Jesus’ word if, having admitted your inability to do so, you look to God’s grace to help you (cf. 17:11).

3. Why must we keep Jesus’ word to have life?

Now question three: “Why must we keep Jesus’ word to have life?” What is so great about Jesus in particular, that we must keep his word to have life instead of somebody else’s word—say like the Pope or Joseph Smith or Muhammad? These Jews want this answer. From their perspective, Jesus is nothing but a demon-possessed, religious heretic, pretending to be a Jew that honors God. They even say in verse 52, “Now we know you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” They want answers: Abraham and the prophets had received God’s revelation. They, too, encountered God and spoke God’s word to God’s people; and yet if they died, then what makes Jesus any greater than them—even to say that keeping his own words will safeguard people from death?

The Jews have missed the point, of course. They’re thinking merely along lines of Abraham’s and the prophet’s bodily death—and we’ll see in a minute what they’re missing—but their objections give opportunity once again for Jesus to proclaim who he is and why they should listen to him, why they should keep his word.

Jesus honors God fully

They should keep Jesus’ word first off because Jesus honors God fully, something they’re not doing themselves by rejecting God’s own Son. Verse 49 says, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father.” Jesus then says in verse 55 that he knows God truly unlike any of the Jews he’s speaking with: “You have not known him,” he says, “I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you.” Isn’t that remark rather biting? “If I were to say that I do not know [God], I would be a liar like you [who claim to know God, but really don’t]” is what he’s saying. “But,” he goes on to say, “I do know him and I keep his word.”

The constant testimony throughout John’s Gospel is that Jesus knows God like nobody else knows God. Because he has dwelt with God for all eternity, relating to God as his Father in perfect Trinitarian love and harmony, he knows God perfectly and knows his will infinitely and never does anything outside the will of his Father ever. Even every word that comes out of Jesus’ mouth honors God to the extent that 3:34 says, “Jesus utters the words of God.” Every time his vocal chords move, it is immediate revelation from the Father—and no prophet in Israel could ever lay claim to that. He always honors his Father with what he says and with what he does. In fact, Jesus’ point in verse 50 is that his ultimate concern is not what these Jews make of him, but what his Father thinks of him and how his Father will judge on the last day: “I don’t seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge.” We should keep Jesus’ word because Jesus alone honors God fully.

Jesus is the goal of all God's purposes

Something else, Jesus is the goal of all God’s purposes in creation and redemption. From the beginning of creation in Genesis 1 to the end of history in the New Heaven and New Earth, Jesus has been and will always be at the center of God’s purposes. Nothing came into existence apart from Jesus—we learn that from John 1:1-3. Everything in the grand sweep of God’s saving purposes also converges on him—we know that from the way John forges link after link with Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament promises, sacrifices, ceremonies, institutions, images, feasts, leaders, special days, kingdom plans (cf. 5:46). And everything will eventually be summed up in Christ when he utters his voice and all who are in their tombs will “come out, those who’ve done good to the resurrection of life, and those who’ve done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). Jesus’ day was planned from the beginning; and we even get a glimpse of that in what he says of Abraham in verse 56.

Even Abraham knew of Jesus’ day: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The centuries-old promise first given to Abraham to bless a multitude of peoples and nations through his unique Son find its center point in Jesus (Gen 12:1-3). Partial though his knowledge was, Abraham saw Jesus’ day by faith, and it made him glad. The glimpses of glory that Abraham saw had now spanned the course of history and found their focal point in a Jew named Jesus. He is the sun in the solar system of redemptive history, the axis on which everything about God’s plans spins. If you had a connect-the-dots coloring page, and each dot represented a part of God’s plan to save the world, were you to connect every one of them, you’d be left with a rich portrait of Christ in all his radiant glory. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that if God chose to write a story and did so entirely around his Son instead of us, then who are we to question it and who are we to ignore it. That’s a supremacy known only to Jesus.

The Father has determined to glorify Jesus

Another reason why we should keep Jesus’ word in particular: the Father has determined to glorify his Son. Jesus isn’t seeking to get glory from people (cf. 5:41); the only glory he cares about is that which comes from his Father. Verse 54, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” In John’s Gospel, the Father’s glorification of Jesus has two aspects: displaying that Jesus is truly glorious through his miracles and most supremely in his sufferings on the cross (11:4; 12:23; 17:4); and also clothing Jesus with the splendor he had with his Father in glory before coming to earth (12:16; 17:5). We see both of those peppered throughout John’s Gospel; and in fact, both of them come together in Jesus’ high priestly prayer in 17:1-5: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son [that is, in his sufferings]…[and then verse 5] Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed.” Let me just say that if the God of the universe is committed to glorifying you like this—displaying your infinite worth through the works he gives you to do and then clothing you with the infinite splendor you deserve and actually possessed from all eternity—then I’d say you’d be a pretty important person to listen to. I would even say, as John has said elsewhere in his Gospel, that such a unique person would have to be God himself (1:1, 18).

Jesus is God, the great I AM

In fact, Jesus doesn’t even shy away from making that claim in verse 58. The Jews get fed up with his claim that Abraham anticipated his day; and so they ask, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” And without missing a beat Jesus answers, “Before Abraham was, I am”—the same phrase that’s applied to Yahweh, the God of Israel, throughout the Old Testament. For example, Exodus 3:14, “God said to Moses [at the burning bush], “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 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.” 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.” We keep Jesus’ word, because Jesus is the great I AM—he is God incarnate (cf. 1:1, 14; 8:24, 28). Can we say any more than that?

Jesus defeats death in the cross and resurrection for all his followers

Amazingly, yes we can! We can say more about why we must keep Jesus’ word in particular, because the one Son who always honors God fully with his life, the one Son on whom all God’s redeeming purposes rest, the one Son whom the Father has determined to glorify, the one Son who bore the name I AM from all eternity with his Father—well before Abraham was wearing diapers—this Son is going to the cross to meet death head on for sinners, take that veil that’s cast over all peoples, put it on, suffer for the sins that brought it about to begin with, enter the grave, and then rip the veil to shreds when he walks out of the tomb three days later with his indestructible life (John 8:21-24; Heb 2:14-15; 7:16). No son of Adam in the history of the universe has been able to defeat death, save one, Jesus Christ our Lord (cf. Rom 5:12-21). He has no record of sin that could cause him to die or that could keep him dead, because he always honors God fully and he is himself God sent from above. The death he suffered wasn’t for his sins but for our sins (1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:21). That’s why he died, and how he delivers us from death because of sin. And he rose again to ensure that every person united to him will know the same victory over sin and death that he knows. That’s why it’s so crucial to keep Jesus’ word in particular, because Jesus’ word unites you to Jesus, who defeats death for all his followers.

There's a song we'll sing in a few minutes, and part of it goes like so:

Behold Him there the risen Lamb
My perfect spotless, righteousness
The great unchangeable I AM
The King of glory and of grace
One with Himself I cannot die.

It's through our union with Jesus, the great I AM, that we escape death and all its threats; and keeping Jesus' word in particular is so crucial because keeping Jesus' word unites us to Jesus himself, who defeats death for all his people (cf. John 8:21-24; Rom 5:12-6:14).

So, why must we keep Jesus’ word in particular? Because he honors God fully, he’s the goal of all God’s purposes, the Father is committed to glorifying him, he is the great I AM, and he’s the only one who defeats death for his followers.

4. What does Jesus mean by the promise ‘he will never see death’?

But there’s one more question I want us to answer, namely, “What does Jesus mean by the promise, ‘he will never see death’? He doesn’t give this promise to everybody; it only belongs to those who keep his word. But even for those who keep his word—like many of us—it can still be a rather puzzling promise, since we know so many Christians who have died. We’ve been in their hospital rooms while they’re keeping Jesus’ word to their final breath. We’ve experienced the loss and turmoil when death takes our loved ones away. We’ve visited the graves of our believing family members and friends, who were sold out for Christ. We read of Christians still being martyred for their faith. So what do you mean, Jesus, when you say that the one who keeps your word will never see death?

One of the things we have to remember is that this account of Jesus comes to us in the context of John’s Gospel; and thus we should expect that whatever Jesus is saying likely develops some of the themes John has already mentioned in his Gospel. There’s a particular message about Jesus he wants conveyed; and sure enough throughout John’s Gospel, there are the two contrasting themes of life and death—and more specifically eternal life and eternal death. For example, John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life [which is another way of saying “he shall see eternal death,” and here’s what eternal death entails], but the wrath of God remains on him.” So, if you don’t have eternal life, then all you’re left with is eternal death, spelled out here in terms of the wrath of God already remaining on you for your sins. But if you have eternal life by virtue of your union with Christ, it means the wrath of God no longer remains on you for your sins and that you actually have something positive that’s filling you with life—not physical life, but spiritual life.

Keep that in mind as we look at another helpful text, John 5:24-25. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life [same theme]. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” So not coming into judgment and having eternal life is equivalent to passing from death to life. Coming into judgment is death; eternal life is life. Eternal life is the opposite of sitting and waiting for God’s condemnation; it means there’s no more haunting judgment to worry about for your sins, but only new life to enjoy. It’s not a life we must wait to experience sometime in the future; it’s a life liberated from God’s wrath and given to enjoy now. Verse 25, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead [that’s the spiritually dead under God’s wrath] will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Very similar to what we see in 3:36.

So what do you think Jesus is talking about in 8:51? He’s talking about never seeing—never experiencing—eternal death. To be clear, his work in the cross and resurrection also deal with physical life—that’s why Jesus rose bodily from the dead—but that’s not the primary focus here. The primary focus here is that Jesus promises spiritual life to all who keep his word. Later on, Jesus will actually bring together both the physical life he offers at the resurrection with the spiritual life he gives now in one bold statement about himself. He tells Martha in 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die [physically speaking], yet shall he live [meaning at the resurrection on the last day], and everyone who lives [spiritually speaking, now, in the present] and believes in me shall never die.”

Very insightful for understanding 8:51. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” So yes, our bodies die and lay in the grave until resurrection day. But Jesus also says “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” So no, even if death takes our bodies to the grave, it cannot ultimately snuff out the life of a believer, ever. And you know why? In his death on the cross, Jesus absorbed God’s wrath for those who trust him (3:14-16). The eternal death we deserved for our sins, he suffered it in our place. And then in his resurrection life, he sends the Spirit, who becomes in us a spring welling up to eternal life (4:14). And you know how Jesus sums up that eternal life in 17:3? He sums it up like this: “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” He prayed that for all his disciples before he bore God’s wrath in their place, so that they might truly live with God—that they might gain the Spirit who mediates the life of God to man. When Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death,” he means that death can never rob us of our fellowship with God. Death might take our bodies to the grave temporarily—to sleep there for a little while—but death cannot break our fellowship with God when we’re united to Christ.

So when Jesus promises that the one who keeps his word ‘will never see death,’ what he means is not that the physical body will never die, but that the soul of the believer will never have to experience the death of separation from God. As one writer put it, Christians possess “a life which physical death cannot extinguish” (Beasley-Murray, John, 137). If you’re a believer today, death is behind you really. Even when your body gets old and gives out on you in the end, you will not be handed over to death; you will only be granted more life with God in glory.

Therefore Trust Jesus, Encourage One Another, and Love Sacrificially

That’s really good news for those who keep Jesus’ word. But I must be faithful to God’s word and add that if you refuse to keep Jesus’ word, this promise doesn’t belong to you. If you don’t keep Jesus’ word, you will not be handed over to life. You will only be handed over to the consequences of the spiritual death that already plagues you. Only separation from God and eternal punishment wait for those who reject Jesus’ word. But these things were written that you might believe now, before you die physically. They were written that even today you might enjoy fellowship with God and freedom from his wrath through a union with Jesus. Don’t take his words for granted. The most devastating part of this passage is that the Jews want to stone the Son of God who offered them life. If you want to escape death and know God, trust that Jesus speaks the truth and obey him. Don’t listen to your flesh that tells you there’s things in this world that can satisfy you more than God. I will readily admit that what’s in this world can give you some measure of satisfaction. But none of it will give you the life you were created to enjoy or remove the threat of death. Jesus does both. Come to him.

And if you already keep Jesus’ word—if God has given you a heart that loves Jesus and longs to see him honored through your life—remember that you need not ever fear death. When you see people dying and death closing in on you, the devil will hit you with all kinds of temptations to hinder you from keeping Jesus’ word. But Jesus’ promise—take it from the mouth of God—ensures that death has no claim on you. Even when it takes your body to the grave, it has no ultimate claim on you—it doesn’t even have an ultimate claim on your body, since Jesus promises to put death under his feet as his last enemy and raise your body from the grave on the last day. But you should also be reminded here that the fellowship with God you now experience through Christ can never be taken away. The death of your body will only mean the fellowship gets even sweeter.

And if that’s the case, we have words to encourage each other with as death comes upon us, as cancer has its way with our body, as thoughts trouble us over what will happen when we die. If we’re in Christ, death never wins. And we can spend our days preparing each other to meet death with faith. Keeping Jesus’ word isn’t vain in this life; its reward of fellowship with God is incalculable. If every provision has been made for you to have God—even at the cost of his own Son—and death can’t take that away, then what is man whose breath is in his nostrils (cf. Isa 2:22), what is this world have that’s better than having God? Why do we need to fear man or the circumstances around us? Why do we need to fear the loss of anything in this world if we have God and death can’t take him away from us? We have words of life to speak to each other.

Moreover, we also have words with which to strengthen one another in the laying down of our lives to see Jesus’ name spread among the Muslim and Hindu peoples of the world, many of whom don’t want you to come. We have a promise in verse 51 that you ought to lock away tightly in your “chest pocket” when the days of persecution come. Are you aware that Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the world, and that parts of the world that once knew Christian revival are now experiencing persecution for preaching Christ at the hands of a Muslim-controlled government? I wonder if a similar day is coming for us? Even if not soon, I am certain we have people in those parts of the world now and more going to them soon. So I bring that up not to frighten you, but to put some skin on Jesus’ words when that day approaches you, and people want to take your life or lock you up for keeping Jesus’ word. Keep his word, and there isn’t a torture chamber or jail cell or wicked leader who has any power over you. You have passed from death to life, Christian, and God will be with you in life, with you in death, and with you after death. Nobody can take that away from you thanks to Jesus Christ! That means we’re totally free to love without fear and to lay our lives down for the glory of Christ’s name. We are totally free to stand before our enemies and extend the life of Christ to them, patiently bearing with them, and laying down our lives for their eternal good.

other sermons in this series