Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Qualifies Jesus to Be Our Mediator?

(Text of a sermon preached at Meadowood Retirement Community, January 11, 2015)
When the apostle Paul writes to his protégé Timothy that he is to pray for all people, he bases his request on two facts. The first is that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and the second is that “there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Notice that he doesn’t say anything there about Jesus’ divinity. It is Jesus’ humanity that qualifies him to mediate between God and humanity.
When I read the confessions and catechisms, specifically the Westminster and Belgic Confessions and the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms, as well as the dissertations I edit for seminary students, I run into the idea that Jesus must be God because only God could mediate between God and humanity. The prooftext for that is Psalm 49:7, “Truly no man can ransom another” (Ps 49:7). Yet in Paul’s letter, we see that it is the man Christ Jesus who is our mediator.
How can this be? What is it that qualifies the man Christ Jesus to be our mediator? I would like to argue that it is his obedience to God, not his innate nature, that makes him our mediator. We see this most clearly in John 5:19-30, where Jesus defends himself against the charge of considering himself equal with God.
Before looking at this passage in detail, let’s think first about how it fits into the Gospel of John as a whole. John begins his gospel by equating Jesus with the logos (word or message) of God and thus with God himself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. … In him was life” (1:1, 4a). These words are taken from the preamble or prologue or introduction, which is the part of any document that states in general terms what the document is about. The purpose of the rest of the document is to define the terms in the prologue and back up the claims made in it.
Compare it with the preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” That’s the preamble. It’s not in the preamble that we look for the definition of justice, domestic tranquility, defense, welfare, and liberty; you don’t make up your own definitions of justice and welfare and liberty and then impose them on the body of the Constitution. Instead, you’re supposed to keep those terms in mind and infer their meaning from what you read in the body of the Constitution.
For example, the body of the Constitution says, “The Congress shall have Power … To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, [etc.]” Whether I think justice includes allowing Congress to coin money or not—and I don’t—the Constitution defines justice as having Congress coin money. I can’t take my definition of justice and write off that part of the Constitution no matter how reasonable I think I’m being.
In the same way, we can’t take our own ideas of what it means for the Word to be God and impose them on the first verse of John’s Gospel. We need to see how John defines the idea in the body of the Gospel.
Here’s more from the preamble to John’s gospel: “The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life. … Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. … No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.”
Here John announces announces that he is going to show that the Word of God, who is himself God, “became flesh and took up residence among us.” For our purposes today, he also announces that he’s going to show what it means for Jesus to be fully God and to be the one in whom is life.
Now we come to our passage. Jesus has just healed a man on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders are angry at him and accuse him of breaking the Law of Moses.
Now because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began persecuting him. So he told them, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.” For this reason the Jewish leaders were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God. (John 5:16-18)
Again, John is using this episode in Jesus’ life to tell us what he means when he says, “The Word was with God and the Word was God … In him was life.”
God had already covered the Jews’ objection in part. John’s birth, if you remember, was accompanied by the miracle of his father being rendered dumb (Luke 1:5-23; 57-64). Jesus’ birth had been accompanied by the appearance of the angels and the wise men (Luke 2).
When John the Baptizer was baptizing people in the Jordan, he had been telling them that someone would come who had existed before John was born. When Jesus appeared, John said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me’” (1:29-30). Anyone who bothered to ask would have known that Jesus was six months younger than John. So when Jesus said later on, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he was simply confirming what John had said before Jesus’ public ministry had begun.
Also, when John baptized Jesus, the Spirit came on him like a dove. John’s Gospel doesn’t record this, but a voice also came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). Jesus wasn’t telling them anything new here when he called God his Father and himself God’s Son. I can only conclude that the Jews were willing to throw all that out the window because he was not conforming to their interpretation of the Law of Moses.
Note as we go along that he doesn’t talk about his pedigree. In John 8:58 he says, “Before Abraham came into existence, I am!” Even there he doesn’t give a detailed explanation of his relationship to the Father before Abraham was born. Here he does give a detailed description of who he is, but he concentrates on his character.
19 So Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.
Notice what he says here. The Son cannot do anything apart from what he sees the Father doing. He does not say that he doesn’t have the authority; he literally says he does not have the power. We’ll see in v. 26 that he gets the power to do what he does and the authority to do what he does at the same time because the Father grants it to him.
Now this “cannot” is probably the “cannot” we used to be able to tell the police in this country. Even if you were facing a hundred policemen armed to the teeth and you were unarmed, you could say, “You cannot come into my house without a warrant,” and they would know better than to enter your house unless they had a warrant. In the same way, Jesus is saying he will not go beyond the authority he has received from the Father.
He goes even further to say that he in fact not does only what he sees the Father doing, he does whatever he sees the Father doing. He does all and only what he sees the Father doing.
In sum, whatever his nature is—whatever he was before the incarnation, whatever it means for him to be the Word of God who was with God and was himself God—he calls himself God’s Son here because he obeys God’s will perfectly.
20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does, and will show him greater deeds than these, so that you will be amazed.
The Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does: Jesus not only does everything he sees the Father doing, he does everything the Father does because the Father shows him everything. That is why the Father will show greater things (than the healing on the Sabbath) to the Son, the Son will do those greater things, and the hearers will be amazed.
21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.
The most important thing the Father does is to raise the dead and give life. Remember when Naaman came to King Joram of Israel because he wanted to be healed of leprosy, Joram said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?” The power of life and death is God’s most important attribute. Here Jesus claims that the Father has given the Son the power and authority to give life.
22 Furthermore, the Father does not judge anyone, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father.
In addition to the power of life and death, the Father has given the Son the power and authority to judge. Jesus is claiming that the same God who said “I am the Lord! That is my name! I will not share my glory with anyone else” (Isa 42:8) wants to share that glory with him. He’s saying that God cannot be content until Jesus receives the same honor as the Father receives.
The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
To honor the Son is to honor the Father; to not honor the Son is to not honor the Father.
24 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.
Jesus will not judge those who hear (obey) him. This is because the Father has delegated judgment to the Son.
To honor the Son sent by the Father and to honor the Father who sent the Son are the same thing.
The issue of eternal life is all about honoring God and Jesus.
Those who honor God will pass from earthly life to eternal life without having to go through judgment.
25 I tell you the solemn truth, a time is coming – and is now here – when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, thus he has granted the Son to have life in himself, 27 and he has granted the Son authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.
The one who calls people from death to life is Jesus, not the Father. Death to life is a metaphor for life in sin to repentance.
Most versions translate the phrase as “those who hear will live,” but I wonder if the New Living Translation has it right when they translate it as “listen”: “Those who listen will live.” The most important commandment in the Law of Moses is, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. Love the Lord your God.” Hearing here not only means allowing the sound waves to vibrate our eardrums. It means more than making the effort to understand the words. It means to obey, to have Jesus’ commands and obey them (John 14:21).
28 “Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and will come out – the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation.
This restates v. 25 in stronger terms. Some people take this to mean that the death of v. 25 is physical death: as specified by physical graves here. The just and the unjust will be in their graves, Jesus will call them, and they will rise, some to life, some to condemnation. They would note that when Stephen was stoned to death, the Bible says he “fell asleep,” not that he went directly to heaven. He could have said that: Stephen had said, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), and it would have been appropriate for the writer to say that when Stephen died he went up to heaven. But he doesn’t say that, so when Stephen “fell asleep” he was conscious of being killed, and the next thing he will be conscious of is when Jesus will call him out of the grave at the end of time.
Yet the writer of Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke. There when Jesus forgives the repentant thief on the cross he says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” The only inference I can draw from that is that when we die we somehow enter the presence of the Lord. Luke’s Gospel also records the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which definitely teaches that we have a conscious existence between death and the final resurrection.
If we are to assume, then, that we do have conscious existence after death, then Jesus is indicating how bad sin is using stronger language than he used in the previous verse. He’s saying that our present life is like a grave, and he wants us to listen for the voice of the Son of God and to listen to the voice of the Son of God. “Those who have done good”—which in this case involves honoring the Son as well as the Father—“will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment” (NLT).
30 I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me.
Here Jesus closes his case by saying again that he cannot do anything on his own. He does what is right because he wants to do what pleases the Father who sent him.
So what?
Let’s remember where we started, with 1 Tim 2:
First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people. … For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human. … So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute.
God has called us to be mediators between him and the world.
How can we be those mediators? What qualified Jesus to be the mediator he was? Yes, he was the Word of God who had been granted the authority to give life, but when he was asked about his authority, he spoke not of his pedigree but of his perfect obedience.
In the same way, we have a wonderful pedigree. We have been redeemed from our slavery to sin by the precious blood of Jesus. But if we are to be the intercessors for the world that God wants us to be—or if we want to succeed at any of the tasks God has assigned us—we need to strive to obey God in all things, especially in those things that only God sees.
Just as only Jesus could purchase our salvation, only Jesus can enable us to complete the work God has assigned from us. He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He knows what it is to be human, so he can sympathize with us.
“Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help” (Heb 4:16).

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