Christmas and the Cause of Truth
Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
The purpose of all that is written in the Gospel of John is to bring people to trust Christ as God's Son and thus give them eternal life. Therefore, since my text this morning is taken from John's gospel, my goal, too, is that those here who do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God might be drawn to Jesus by the power of God the Father working through his Word, and that everyone might leave this place today loving the truth of Christ more deeply and more assured of eternal life.
Be Careful How You Listen
And let me preface what I have to say with a warning so as to awaken you to the seriousness of listening to the Word of God. When Jesus spoke and no one believed, John explains their unbelief like this (John 12:38–40):
It was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Therefore, they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart and turn for me to heal them."
That is from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10. There is another passage in Isaiah that helps explain how God blinds the eyes and hardens the heart. It is Isaiah 64:7, where the prophet laments, "There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou has hid thy face from us, and has delivered us into the hand of our iniquities." Therefore, the way God blinds and hardens is not by coming into a person's life and making it evil, but by withdrawing from the person's life and leaving him in his own sin. Only when we see this will we give God all the glory not only for providing a way of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, but also for effectually applying that salvation to our lives by drawing us to Christ in faith. "No one can come to me," Jesus said, "unless the Father who sent me draws him . . . No one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father" (John 6:44, 65).
So the warning is this: Believers, give God all the credit for drawing you into the kingdom of Christ, and let the truth of Christ stir you up to greater reliance on him; do not boast over the lost sheep as if you did not have to be carried into the fold yourself. Unbelievers, give heed to the Word of God and pray that God might open your eyes and soften your heart, lest you be found blind and hardened and without hope. Pray, I say, and listen, because God has spoken these things that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name.
The text that laid hold on me several weeks ago for this last Sunday of Advent is John 18:37. Here, several hours before his death, Jesus makes a statement about his birth which I want us to ponder as we enter the last four days of Advent. The situation is that Jesus and Pontius Pilate are together in the Roman praetorium, and Pilate is trying to get Jesus to say something that will show him worthy of crucifixion. Verse 33: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus' answer to this question is what hooked me on this text, but I think I will talk about it at the end of the message instead of now. It makes a good conclusion.
Jesus says in verse 36,
"My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world." Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice."
This is a great Christmas text even though it comes from the end of Jesus' life on earth, not the beginning. The uniqueness of his birth is implied; the purpose of his birth is given; and the pre-condition of approving that purpose is mentioned. The uniqueness of his birth is that he did not originate at his birth. He existed before he was born in a manger: "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world." The purpose of his birth was to bear witness to the truth: "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world: to bear witness to the truth." And the precondition of approving that purpose, that is, the thing that enables a person to agree that Jesus testifies to the truth is that the person is "of the truth." "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Let's look at each of these more closely now, so that in seeing Christ and his purpose more clearly, we might approve of Christ's words with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.
The Uniqueness of Christ's Birth
First then, the uniqueness of his birth. "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world." The personhood, the character, the personality of Jesus of Nazareth existed before the man Jesus of Nazareth was born. There is a great mystery here. Sometimes in quiet pensive moments, I look at my three sons and I observe their uniqueness and their personalities, and then I think of the four years Noël and I were married before we had children. And it hits me: there was a time when these three persons never existed. Nine years ago there was no reality to which the names Karsten, Benjamin, and Abraham Piper could correspond. To be sure, the material substance of which their bodies are made already existed in other forms. But the personhood, the souls that will go right on existing when their bodies decompose in the grave—these were not. But now they are and will be forever and ever. So all I know to conclude is that God created the personhood, the souls of these three boys, out of nothing, just like he created the souls of Adam and Eve. This is a great mystery.
But this is not what happened at Jesus' birth. The theological word to describe this mystery is not creation, but incarnation. The person, not the body, but the essential personhood of Jesus existed before he was born as a man. His birth was not a coming into being of a new person, but a coming into the world of an infinitely old person. Micah 5:2 puts it like this, 700 years before Jesus was born:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
The origin of the Messiah who appears in Bethlehem is from eternity. Therefore, the mystery of the birth of Jesus is not merely that he was born of a virgin. That miracle was intended by God to witness to an even greater one—namely, that the child born at Christmas was a person who existed "from of old, from ancient days." He was not merely born, as John 18:37 says; he came into the world. Listen to how Jesus puts it in John 8:56–59. He says to the Jews:
"Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad." The Jews then said to him, "You are not fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." So they took up stones to throw at him.
What Christ was before Abraham, indeed before all creation, John and Paul and the writer to the Hebrews make clear for us. John says in chapter 1, verse 1: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (And don't let any Jehovah's Witness convince you that the proper translation is "the Word was a God." The argument that they use is not grammatically compelling, and it flies in the face of the rest of John's witness; for example, Thomas' confession, "My Lord and my God." Almost all scholars of antiquity, even those who think he was wrong, agree that John meant to say that the pre-existent Christ was God.) Verse 2: "He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him. And without him was not anything made that was made." Christ himself was not a creature, but was involved in creating all that was created. Verse 14: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." Christ existed before Abraham, indeed, before all creation because he was himself one with the creator God.
The apostle Paul teaches the same general truth in Philippians 2:5–8:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Before he was born in the likeness of men, he had the form of God, he was equal with God. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, whose name we don't know, began his letter with the same truth in different words. He said,
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.
Eternally Begotten, Not Created
These passages have helped me to draw a sketch in my mind of how the Son and the Father are one and yet different within the Trinity. I can conceive, though it stretches me to the limit, of a Being who never had a beginning, but has a particular character. And further yet, I can imagine that this God has always been conscious of himself. That is, he has always had his own image before him to contemplate and enjoy because of his greatness and his moral beauty. And could it not be that this image, this form, is so clear and so real in God that it, too, is God, the image of God, the form of God, the Son of God? The advantage of such a picture is that it helps us see that the Son, who is the very image and glory of God, is indeed begotten by the Father and yet is not created. There never was a time when God the Father did not have this perfect, real, and living image of himself. They are co-eternal. The Son is eternally begotten, not created.
I won't push the picture any further now. Perhaps we have already crossed over the biblical bounds of speculation. But I feel so strongly that among those of us who have grown up in church and who can recite the great doctrines of our faith in our sleep and who yawn through the Apostles' Creed—that among us something must be done to help us once more feel the awe, the fear, the astonishment, the wonder of the Son of God, begotten by the Father from all eternity, reflecting all the glory of God, being the very image of his person, through whom all things were created, upholding the universe by the word of his power. You can read every fairy tale that was ever written, every mystery thriller, every ghost story, and you will never find anything so shocking, so strange, so weird and spellbinding as the story of the incarnation of the Son of God.
God, how dead we are! How callous and unfeeling to your glory and your story! How often have I had to repent and say, "God, I am sorry that the stories men have made up stir my emotions, my awe and wonder and admiration and joy, more than your own true story." The space thrillers of our day, like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, can do this great good for us: they can humble us and bring us to repentance, by showing us that we really are capable of some of the wonder and awe and amazement that we so seldom feel when we contemplate the eternal God and the cosmic Christ and a real living contact between them and us in Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus said, "For this I have come into the world," he said something as crazy and weird and strange and eerie as any statement in science fiction that you have ever read.
O, how I pray for a breaking forth of the Spirit of God upon me and upon you; for the Holy Ghost to break into my experience in a frightening way, to wake me up to the unimaginable reality of God. One of these days lightning is going to fill the sky from the rising of the sun to its setting, and there is going to appear in the clouds one like a son of man with his mighty angels in flaming fire. And we will see him as clearly as we see the IDS building. And whether from terror or sheer excitement, we will tremble and we will wonder how, how we ever lived so long with such a domesticated, harmless Christ. These things are spoken this morning that you might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came into the world. Really believe.
The Purpose of Christ's Birth
The second phrase of our text in John 18:37 gives the purpose of Christ's birth: "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." The connection between this and what we have said till now is that the Christ who came into the world to bear witness to the truth is God, and no one can more reliably present the truth than God. For God is the author of all truth and wills to make it known reliably.
If there were two deities—two gods—equally powerful and opposed to each other in conflict for the rule of the world, neither of these deities could be counted on to reveal truth. If their goals were to rule the world and they were threatened by each other, we might well expect that they would use deceit to gain an advantage. And so truth would not be a priority. Not so with the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the one and only God, and there is none besides him. He is threatened by no one. Even Satan, his archenemy, is completely subordinate with his bounds fixed. Therefore, God has no fault, no weakness, no finitude that he ever needs to hide by deceit. God is so sovereign, so perfect and glorious that the truth will always redound to his honor. Therefore, God is committed to revealing the truth reliably because he wills to be known and glorified for who he really is.
And how better to reveal the truth about God that we might glorify and love him, than to send the Son, the very image and reflection of God, into the world? One time Thomas said to Jesus,
"Lord, we don't know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known me you would have known my Father; henceforth you know him and have seen him." And Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father."
Jesus is the truth because he is the image of the true God. He is the way to the Father because as 1 John 2:23 says, "No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also." You can't have the Father if you reject the Son. If our heart does not go out in love to Jesus, then we cannot say that we know God. And that would mean that there is no life within us. Because Jesus says in John 17:3, "This is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent."
So there are two wonderful things implied in the statement, "I have come into the world to bear witness to the truth." One is that in revealing God, the origin of all truth, Jesus glorified his Father. This is exactly what he says in his prayer in John 17:4, "I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work thou gavest me to do." The work God gave him to do was to testify to the truth, and in doing that God was shown to be very glorious; sovereign in his freedom, marvelous in his power, and beautiful in his moral perfections, especially his mercy to us sinners.
The other wonderful thing implied in Christ's coming to testify to the truth is eternal life. If, as Jesus said in John 17:3, "This is eternal life, to know thee, the only true God," then the purpose of Jesus to bear witness to the truth of God must mean that his purpose is to give eternal life. Which is what John 3:17 says: "God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."
So, the purpose of Christ's coming into the world is to testify to the truth of God, so that man might glorify God for who he is and might thereby come to have eternal life.
Those "Of the Truth" Believe
But not everyone hears the testimony of Christ to God. Not everyone believes. Which brings us to the third part of our text: "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." He does not mean that only a certain group of people come within the sound of his voice. He means, among those who are within the sound of his voice, only some hear his words as true. Only some believe and give glory to God and gain eternal life. And this group he describes as those who are "of the truth." What does this mean?
You recall the question Pilate asked Jesus in John 18:33, which I said I would come back to? "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you say this of your own accord or did others say this to you about me?" This is a remarkable answer. What matters first in the interchange with Pilate is not that his question be answered but that the root of his question be exposed. Pilate, does your question about who I am come from a true hunger in your own heart? Is there a real soul thirst in you that you are seeking to genuinely satisfy? Are you longing for the truth and yearning in yourself to find it? Or are you like so many others: mouthing the words that others have put into your head? Are you just a second-hander, who only knows to ask the questions others have taught you? Do you care in yourself whether I am King? Or are you just echoing like a hollow cave somebody else's script? Are you an actor, or are you "of the truth"?
I think to be "of the truth" means to love the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 12), to hunger for it and rejoice in it (1 Corinthians 13:6), and to be humbly surrendered to following it no matter where it leads. Jesus said in John 7:17, "If any man's will is to do God's will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God." The will of God is simply an expression of what is true. Therefore, Jesus is saying: "If your will is humble enough to follow truth, you will hear and know the words of truth.
And who are these people who are open and humble enough to hear and love the words of Christ? They are his sheep. Jesus says in John 10:26, 27, "You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me." To be "of the truth" means to belong to Christ's sheep. Or to put it still another way, Jesus says in John 8:47, "He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God." So to be "of the truth" means to have God at work within us enabling us to renounce our own private, proud will and to love and come to the truth. No one comes to me, to the truth, unless it is granted to him by the Father (John 6:65).
So, the sum of the matter is this: Jesus Christ existed before he was born—indeed, from all eternity, as the perfect reflection of God's glory and exact image of his nature. Therefore, he was perfectly suited to come into the world and bear witness to the truth that we might know God, glorify him through faith, and gain eternal life. But even though he came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), nevertheless,
this is the judgment, that light has come into the world and men loved darkness (and falsehood) rather than light (and truth) because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true (he who is "of the truth") comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought by God. (John 3:19–21)
O, that everyone here would prove to be "of the truth" by coming to the light this Christmas.