Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
We pick up reading today in the middle of an animated conversation Jesus is having with some of the religious leaders of his day. He is speaking plainly to them about who he is and about what he came to do. He’s speaking truth to them, hard truth. And this is the warning he gives them. “If you continue to reject what I am telling you, the consequences will be for you disastrous.”
Let’s listen in.
21Again Jesus said to them, ‘I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’
22Then the Jews said, ‘Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?’
23He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. 24I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.’
25They said to him, ‘Who are you?’
Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all? 26I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’
27They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. 28So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. 29And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ 30As he was saying these things, many believed in him. (John 8:21-30, NRSV)
Here we have another example from the Gospels where Jesus makes clear that we have two options before us. In verses 23-24 he summarizes the choice: “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” Jesus is telling us again that He is the Messiah. He is the Lord. “I told you,” he goes on, “that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”
Jesus is blunt. If these people refuse to trust him, refuse to believe and place their faith in him, they will end up dead in their sins. They will miss out on eternal life with God. Spiritual annihilation is the destiny of those who ultimately reject Christ as Lord and Savior. We may not want him to say it, but this is what Jesus says.
Is it fair to say that Jesus is a bit like your crazy Uncle Frank? Everybody has an Uncle Frank in their family, right? You love him because he’s family. And, at times, he can be wonderfully charming and engaging, the life of the party. But then other times he goes around saying things you just wish that he just shouldn’t say. You know those thoughts that cross your mind but which most of us know better than to let come out of our mouths? Uncle Frank lets them waltz right on out.
Honestly, he’s an embarrassment at times. When Uncle Frank is visiting you avoid inviting others over. You try not to be seen in public with him too often. And when he does get loose, you always find yourself coming along after him trying to repair the damage. “I apologize for my uncle. He didn’t really mean it like that. Don’t take it personally. He’s just having a bad day. Don’t hold it against him. He’s really my uncle twice removed, you know. Did I ever tell you that I was adopted?”
Anybody here have a crazy Uncle Frank in your family? Perhaps some of you are Uncle Frank and you just don’t know it.
Does it ever seem to you like our church family has a crazy uncle and his name is Jesus? As the church, our great calling in life is to introduce people we know to Jesus. But it’s unnerving business because we never know which Jesus is going to show up. Will it be the Jesus who tells our friends about shepherds rescuing lost sheep, and lavish feasts where even the riff raff get to sit at the head table, and flowing rivers of living water which quench our thirst for eternity? Will it be that Jesus? Or, will it be the Jesus who tells our friends that unless they trust in him as Lord and Savior they will die in their sins and be lost forever?
You start reading through Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and, more often than not, he’s speaking hard words of warning and judgment against those who refuse to trust him and acknowledge him as Lord. Understand, the passage we just read is not an exception to the rule. Jesus says these sorts of things all the time.
Because of that, there has long been a great tendency in the church to try and censor Jesus. We want others to hear Jesus talk about love, and grace, and life, and acceptance. We don’t want them, however, to hear him talk about sin, or judgment, or condemnation, or death. Why does he keep insisting on talking about these things in public?
In the first verse of this passage Jesus says to these people, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin.” Later on he goes even further, “Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn.”
Ouch. There goes crazy Uncle Frank again. This is not the message we want to pass on to people. How loving is it to go around telling others that unless they believe a certain way and follow a certain path they will be condemned? “That’s not really what Jesus meant to say,” we assure people. Jesus came to teach us about a God of love and acceptance and grace. And since love and judgment can’t possibly go together, and we know that God is all about love, all that stuff about judgment can’t be right. Yes, we know what Jesus said. But that’s not what Jesus meant. At least, that’s not what he means anymore.
You see the problem, don’t you? Do I really want to be in the position of suggesting that I know what God is like better than Jesus knows what God is like? Yes, scripture is clear. There is no doubt. Our God is a God of the deepest, purest, most enduring love we will ever know. Does that mean, however, that our God cannot possibly also be a God of righteous, holy, consuming judgment? Are the two qualities of love and judgment so mutually exclusive that they can’t possibly both fit within the nature of God? Or, could it be possible that love and judgment can exist at the same time?
A couple of Fridays ago I took our van in to be serviced. I wanted to get the oil changed and the regularly scheduled maintenance done because later that day I was leaving for a weekend trip to the mountains. Mid-morning my mechanic calls to tell me that the van is ready to be picked up but that there’s one problem I need to know about. “Jeff,” he says, “I hate to tell you this but your car was out of alignment and your tires, all four of them, are shot.” Then he goes on to tell me, “If this were my van, the only place I would drive it today is straight to the tire store. It’s lucky you made it to the shop. You need to get these tires replaced immediately.”
Now, is that the news I wanted to hear? Of course not. I had to spend hundreds of dollars that day which I was not expecting to spend and which I would have much rather spent on something other than tires. It was not the news I wanted to hear. But it was news that I needed to hear. I mean, who knows what would have happened had I loaded up my family in that van for a several hundred mile trek into the Sierras.
In the end, I am grateful that my mechanic didn’t discover my bad tires and then think to himself, “You know, I really don’t want to tell Jeff about this. He’s going to be upset if I do. He might be upset with me. Who am I to criticize his car? This is not what he wants to hear. Plus, I want him to feel like my shop is a safe place where he and his car can come and feel loved and accepted just as they are.” I’m so glad that’s not how my mechanic thinks. I take my cars to Paul – that’s the name of my mechanic – because he tells me the truth, even when it’s not the truth I want to hear.
Now, I’m not sure that Paul loves me. He’s my mechanic and we’ve never really talked openly about our feelings for each others. I do think, however, that he has my best interests in mind, at least as a customer. That means he’s not afraid to give me the full story. Sometimes he tells me news I want to hear. Other times he tells me news I don’t want to hear. He tells me the truth. That’s why he’s my mechanic.
The Gospel is full of good news. Stunningly good news. The incomprehensibly high God of Creation loves us unconditionally. And though we are trapped in our sin, addicted to our rebellious and self-centered ways, God loves us still. So much so that God, in the person of Jesus Christ his Son, left the glory of heaven to come to earth to walk through the joys and sorrows of this world with us and to ultimately suffer and die for us. He suffered brutally, and then he died. But then he rose from the dead. And in doing so, Christ extended God’s grace to us all. Complete forgiveness. Eternal life. A relationship with the Living God. And we don’t have to earn it. It’s a gift. All we need to do is believe and trust our lives to Christ.
This is the good news of the Gospel. But it comes to us hand in hand with a stern warning. Salvation is freely given to us, but only if we receive it in faith. There is place set for us at the table in God’s Kingdom, but we don’t get to sit down to the feast unless we follow Jesus, as our Lord and Savior, into the banquet hall. And if we refuse to do so, if we spend our whole lives stubbornly refusing to do so, then we will die in our sins. Having refused God’s grace in Christ, we will be left with to face God’s holy judgment apart from Christ. Then, the Jesus we rejected in this life will be the Jesus who rejects us in the next.
Over and over again in his teaching Jesus refused to give us only half the Gospel. He gives us the truth, the whole truth. Unflinchingly, He told us that the house built on the sand will end up in ruins. The wide, easy road always leads to destruction. The guests who ignore the repeated invitations to the wedding feast will be left out in the cold when the party starts. The older brother who ultimately rejects his father because he wishes his dad would give him his share, that brother never comes to realize that all his father possesses belonged to him in the first place.
I know we struggle with this. How can God be a God of love and grace but also a God of justice, and condemnation and wrath? How can God be both? It’s difficult to see, but we have to think carefully.
Writer Becky Pippert, in her book, Hope Has Its Reasons, puts it this way:
Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might towards strangers? Far from it…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference…God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.
God’s love and grace always go hand in hand with God’s judgment and wrath. In fact, when Jesus speaks words of condemnation, as he does in this passage, he does so out of love. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus held undying love for those religious leaders he condemned that day. I know this because when these very people eventually had him nailed to the cross, he used his dying breath to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It was because Jesus loved them as he did that he did not hesitate to speak the hard word to them in hopes that it might sway them from their destructive path.
Consider yourself richly blessed if you have even one person in your life who loves you enough to speak the hard word to you when it needs to be spoken. I’m not talking about the person who points out what’s wrong with you out of spite, or because in some twisted way they feel better about themselves when they bring you down. I’m talking about the friend who sees you on a destructive path in life and loves you so much that they are willing to risk offending you, even risk the friendship itself, to speak the truth to you in hopes that while the opportunity still exists you will listen and turn things around before it’s too late.
You would be blessed to have even one friend like that. You are blessed. Christ is such a friend. He loves you that much. He loves the people you know that much. And if he were here face to face with us today, I believe he would say to us that there are people we know, people we love, who are even now on a destructive path leading away from him which, unless something changes, will lead them ultimately to their death, their physical and spiritual death. Who knows, Jesus might tell some of us that we are on that path. And if we were, wouldn’t we want Jesus to tell us? Wouldn’t we want somebody to tell us!
I am deeply concerned that there is a great effort underway in the wider church today to silence the true, hard things Jesus is saying to us out of love. All of us relish the idea of a God of love who supports us no matter how we live and I fear we are letting the culture influence us as we become, many of us, more and more uncomfortable with the idea of a God who condemns those who ultimately reject his love.
I get this. I see this tendency in myself. I love to teach people about the unconditional love and grace that Christ offers to everyone. I’m not always so eager, however, to point out to people the fact that those who refuse to place their faith in Christ are choosing for themselves a destiny apart from this love and grace.
Why is that? Why are we so hesitant to talk about these things which Jesus talked about so freely and so often? We like to say that it’s out of our concern for others that we avoid talk about God’s judgment and condemnation. I don’t want to offend people. I don’t want to upset people. I don’t want to turn people off. But is it really other people that we’re concerned about? I don’t know that it is. I think it’s possible that we’re more concerned about ourselves. Because speaking the hard truth is uncomfortable and we don’t want to feel uncomfortable. Hard truth can offend; we don’t want to be thought of as offensive. Hard truth is unpopular; we want to be popular.
I pray that we in the church would never convince ourselves that we are telling the world what it wants to hear because we love the world like Jesus loves the world. Jesus loves the world more than we ever will, and he doesn’t tell the world only what it wants to hear. He doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. He tells us all what we need to hear, what we desperately need to hear.
We must do the same. When those we know and love are headed down a road that leads away from Christ, we must not shy away from speaking the truth.
Graciously, of course. It doesn’t help anybody if we stand on the corner with our megaphones and scream at people. In God’s timing, of course. We can’t force God’s message on anybody who is not first open to listening. In humility, of course. The sin of others is no greater than our sin. We are merely beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. And we should always act before we speak, of course. As somebody once said, we have to earn the right to be heard. People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
If you’ve got a crazy Uncle Frank in your family, perhaps there are times when you really do need to encourage him to keep some of his thoughts to himself. People in my family probably need to encourage me to keep more of my thoughts to myself.
Jesus, however, is not our crazy uncle. He is our Lord. He is our Savior. He is loving; he is also just. His ways and His thoughts are infinitely higher than our ways and our thoughts. His love for the world far exceeds our own love for the world. Who are we to censor what he says? Who are we to tone down his message? Jesus knows the truth. He is the truth. And because he loves us so much, he’s not afraid to give it to us straight.
The good news of the Gospel includes the warning that those who reject it will ultimately die in their sins. As a church, we are called to humbly, but boldly, proclaim this whole Gospel, warning and all. As we do, some people will be offended and walk away. They walked away from Jesus himself, remember? But others will listen. Others, by the grace of God, will be cut to the heart. And just as they did in Jesus’ day, some will listen to the Gospel and they will believe and be saved.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read John 8:21-30. There is a lot here. What stands out most for you?
Jesus says to these people, and perhaps to us, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” What does this mean?
At the end of this passage (verse 30) we’re told that “many people believed in Jesus.” What was it that he said that convinced them in the end?
Are there ever times when Jesus says things you wish he wouldn’t say? Are there parts of the Bible you wish weren’t in there? How do you handle it?
How is it possible for God to love us and to judge us at the same time?
Jeff said that we don’t do anybody any favors when we censor Jesus’ message by avoiding talk of God’s judgment, condemnation and wrath. What do you think?
Do you think we as a church are willing to speak hard truth to people if it means that in the end they might walk away from the church?
Read Isaiah 55:6-9. What do these verses add to this conversation?
Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:
Monday: Isaiah 55:1-13 – God’s high ways
Tuesday: I Corinthians 1:18-31 – Foolishness of God
Wednesday: Matthew 22:1-14 – The wedding banquet
Thursday: John 3:16-21 – Belief or condemnation
Friday: Romans 3:21-31 – Righteousness through faith
Saturday: In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 8:31-36.
 Emphases mine.
 An illustration told by John Ortberg reminded me of this story. I also borrowed some of his phrasing. Who is this Man? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), p. 123.
 Matthew 7:21-23.
 Matthew 7:24-27.
 Matthew 7:13-14.
 Matthew 22:1-14.
 Luke 15:11-32.
 As quoted by Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 73.
 Luke 23:34.
 You know, we love to quote Jesus’ words in John 3:16. And we should. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We’re not quite as eager, however, to read the next verses where we crazy Uncle Jesus say, “Those who believe in the Son of God are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18, NRSV)
 Isaiah 55:8-9.