God directed you to this sermon, I believe, so that you would know, first, that you don’t have to die, and, second, so that you would know that Jesus, who makes this promise to you, is God — the God of Israel, the God of all. And, third, you are here because God wants you to see the implication for your life of knowing you will not die.
Out of Tragedy, Greatness
There is another great reality in John 8:48–59 — namely, the opposition Jesus gets from the Jews.
The purpose of showing the opposition in this text is not because it’s pleasant to watch. It is tragic to watch. These are his own people calling him demonized. The reason for describing the opposition is that it’s the opposition that brings out the greatness — the mystery — of who Jesus is. They demand it. Look at the end of verse 53: “Who do you make yourself out to be?” And it’s the final answer to that question that brings this story to a fierce conclusion, because they take up stones — their form of capital punishment for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16) — and Jesus hid himself, because his time was not yet come, and stoning was not the way he must die.
Deity and Deathlessness
So let’s take two of the great realities in this text — the deity of Jesus and the deathlessness of his followers — and open them up with the help of the opposition that they receive in this text. And let’s discover the astonishing implication of our deathlessness for our lives.
The text starts with opposition because the conflict in the first part of the chapter has already been intense. It ends in verse 47 with Jesus’s words: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” So they have already shown themselves deaf to the meaning of Jesus’s words. His words only offend them.
Vicious Opposition to Jesus
So our text begins with their indictment of Jesus. Verse 48: “The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’” The Jews despised the Samaritans and half-breeds who had intermarried with Gentiles six centuries earlier and now followed their own version of Old Testament religion. Calling Jesus a Samaritan was a kind of racial slur with the innuendo that his real father was unknown. And to make the insult clear, they said he had a demon. So this is vicious opposition. It is amazing that Jesus continues to talk to them.
He answers them in verses 49–50, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.” Jesus says, in effect, I don’t need to defend myself, because God the Father seeks my glory. In other words, if you dishonor me, instead of glorifying me, you set yourself against God. If you oppose me, you oppose the one who is committed to honor me.
Warning: Final Judgment
And then he says, You don’t want to do that because God is the one who judges (verse 50 at the end). In other words, ultimate things are at stake in the way we respond to Jesus. Almighty God defends his glory. And when it comes to final judgment, the criterion is going to be the glory of Jesus — what did we do with Jesus, the glory of Jesus? And if we turned away from him, or turned against him, God will be our judge. So verse 49 and 50 are a warning.
Coming for Salvation, Not for Judgment
But all through this whole book the message has been: The Son of God did not come for judgment but for salvation. He did not come to condemn, but to save. John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
So Jesus finishes his response to their indictments like this (verse 51): “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” In other words, you have gotten to the point where you are blaspheming me, calling me a half-breed and demonized. And you are in great danger of God’s judgment, but I hold out to you once more the gift of salvation. If you will keep my word, you will never see death.
This Remarkable Promise: Never See Death
Now that is a remarkable promise. It’s amazing because he doesn’t say, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never die.” He says, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” What does that mean? In verse 52, his adversaries repeat what he said with unbelief and change the word “see” to “taste”: “You say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’’’ And Jesus doesn’t correct them.
So Jesus is saying, If you keep my word — if you believe what I say about myself, and my Father, and our great work of salvation — you won’t see death. You won’t taste death. This Gospel ends with Jesus being killed and rising again. And the death of Jesus is explained as the substitution for sinners like these adversaries — like us. “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15; 11:52; 1:29). So keeping the word of Jesus is to receive the words he speaks about himself and his Father and their work of salvation through his death and resurrection. Keep those words, believe them, cherish them, abide in them, live on them, be transformed by them. And you will never see death.
Death and Harmon Killebrew
Never see death. Death is all around us. Yesterday Harmon Killebrew wrote a blog announcing that esophageal cancer has beat him. He is entering hospice care at 74 to prepare to die. There is a statue of a golden glove outside gate 34 at the new Target Field across town. It is exactly 520 feet from home plate — because that is the longest homerun ever hit by any Twins player — and Harmon Killebrew hit it.
It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end. With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.
Harmon Killebrew is going to die. And so are you. And so am I. Death is the great leveler. It doesn’t matter how glorious your career was. You die.
Never Seeing Death?
Or do you? Verse 51: “Truly, truly, [not falsely, falsely!] I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” He will never taste death. One of the most powerful moments in my seminary days was at the funeral of James Morgan, my 36-year-old systematic theology teacher. Lewis Smedes was preaching the sermon, and at one point he lifted up his majestic voice and cried, “James Morgan is not dead!” My spine tingled, with the heralding of glorious truth.
So if James Morgan was not dead at his funeral, and a few months earlier he was not dead as he taught my theology class, what happened in between? Did he die? Let’s let Jesus answer from John 11:25–26. He says to Martha at Lazarus’ grave: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Though he die, he never dies.
Yes, We Die — And, No, We Don’t
Yes, we die: “Though he die, yet shall he live.” No, we don’t die: “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Lazarus’ body lay dead in the grave. But Lazarus was not dead. His body was dead. But he was not dead. He had not died.
Even more important is the way Jesus says it in John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Believers on Jesus have passed already from death to life. They have now already an eternal life. Eternal life cannot — cannot by definition — end. Believers do not see death. Do not taste death.
Our Bodies Die, But We Do Not
Our bodies die. They lie — looking like they are sleeping, which is why the New Testament sometimes calls death falling asleep — they lie in the grave until the last trumpet. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). But when our bodies die, we do not die. We have passed from death to life. Eternal life. Unbroken, unending life.
What that means is this: When we were born again, we received the gift of life. Spiritual life (John 3:6–8). When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive (Ephesians 2:4–5). This new life is eternal life. In this new spiritual life, we are able to fellowship with God, know God, experience God, speak with God, hear from God through his word, sense the love of God shed abroad in our hearts (Romans 5:5). This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Unending Life of New Birth
This fellowship that we enjoy with God cannot be ended. It cannot be broken. It is eternal. When our bodies die, we do not experience any break in our fellowship with God through Christ. Our fellowship, in fact, in that instant is perfected (Hebrews 12:23). The life we have with Christ in God today, because of the new birth, will never end. We will not see the end of it. And we will not taste the end of it. Because there is no end of it.
We will come back in a moment and talk about some implications of this for how we live. But let’s take a look just briefly at the majesty of the person who has spoken these words to us and who has made this eternal life possible.
Mocked for This Promise
His adversaries mock him because of this promise (are you?). Verses 52–53:
Now we know that 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?
The answer to this question comes in two stages, both of them are breathtaking, and will eventually get Jesus killed for blasphemy. You need to realize that as you hear this, you face the same choice they did — either he is a blasphemer or he is God.
An Answer in Two Stages
Stage one is verses 54–56:
Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
He what? Abraham saw my day. He saw the time when I was alive and reigning. It was my day. The day of my rule and glory. He saw it. He rejoiced. Commentators go all over the map trying to decide what vision or promise or event this refers to in Abraham’s life. We don’t know. And Jesus didn’t pause to explain, because these adversaries didn’t care either. They saw the implication and pressed in on it. Which leads to stage two in the answer to their question: Who do you make yourself out to be?
Stage two is verses 57–59:
So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet 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 picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”
There it is — the clearest, most forthright claim in this Gospel that Jesus is Yahweh, the God of Israel, the great “I am” of Exodus 3:14 and the prophets. If he only wanted to claim pre-existence, he could have said, “Before Abraham was, I was.” But he means to say more than mere pre-existence. He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”‘“
The implications of this are staggering for your life and for this world and for eternity. We will never exhaust the implications and the relevance this truth for all eternity. But the one focus of its relevance in this passage for us in this message is: Because Jesus is God, his work on the cross and his word of promise will be totally successful. So that when he says, “You will never see death,” you will never see death. God has spoken. And his word never fails. Yahweh promises, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10) — that is what it means to be God. He speaks and it is. And Jesus is God.
So when he promises in verse 51, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death,” that person will never see death!
One Massive Application
Let’s end with one huge implication for our lives now. Hebrews 2:14–15 describes the effect of Jesus’s death in our place. Listen how he puts it:
Since therefore the children [that’s us] share in flesh and blood [since we are human], he himself likewise partook of the same things [he became human], so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
The writer to the Hebrews says that the whole human race is “subject to lifelong slavery through the fear of death.” In 1973, Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book called The Denial of Death. His thesis agreed with Hebrews:
The main thesis of this book is that the fear of death haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man. (xvii)
Fear of Death Is a Slave Master
Becker had no answer for the massive human denial of death. The answer of Jesus is that he was the great I AM from all eternity, and that he became a mortal man so that he could die for sin and destroy in death the one who has the power of death, and rise again triumphant over sin and death. And in this way free us from the life-long bondage of the fear of death.
Hebrews and Becker both say that the fear of death produces a pervasive, lifelong bondage — even when we don’t realize it, fear is haunting our choices, making us cautious, wary, restrained, confined, narrow, tight, robbing us of risk and adventure and dreams for the sake of Christ and his kingdom and the cause of love in the world. Without our even knowing it, fear of death is a slave master binding us with invisible ropes, confining us to small, safe, innocuous, self-centered ways of life.
Jesus Sets Us Free
Becker has no solution for this bondage, but Jesus does. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Or as he says in John 8:32, “You will know the truth [about death], and the truth will set you free.” The world desperately needs the courage and the Christ of fearless Christians who know they will never taste death. Be one.