Since coming to Bethlehem in July, 1980, I have averaged about one funeral per month. One of the things I regret about this experience is that all of you can't share it with me. I know that some of you would not live the way you do if once a month you had to spend three or four hours writing a funeral meditation about the meaning of death, and if you had to think and pray about what you would say to the family, and if you had to stand beside the open hole and the mound of dirt and try to make the decisive farewell significant for the bereaved. I regret that I am the one who does all this once a month, not because it is a hard job and I want someone else to do it, but because it is a gift to me and I would that all of you could share it.
The Gift of Facing Death
There are two reasons why the ministry of funerals is a gift. One reason is that it keeps my mind and heart awake to the reality and certainty of my death and my wife's death and my sons' death and the death of all of you. It is easy to forget about our dying. Except for those in terrible suffering, death is not usually what we want to happen. It terminates some things we enjoy very much; it severs us from people we love. And for many it is an awful door leading they know not where. Perhaps to judgment and eternal hell, perhaps to utter nothingness. For many it is a great and terrifying unknown. And since our minds cannot endure such constant threat, we very naturally forget. Or, more fundamentally, we really avoid the thought of death by filling our minds with other things.
When the Bible says in Hebrews 2:15 that "through fear of death men are subject to slavery all their life," it doesn't mean, of course, that human psychological experience is one of constant fear. It means, rather, that, since death is fearful, and since we impulsively flee fear, man is enslaved to perpetual flight apart from Christ. He may know periods of peace and happiness when for a season he has put the haunting thought of death off his trail. But he will awake and remember that he is a fugitive and must keep running. There is no true freedom where happiness depends on denying the inevitable; there is only slavery disguised in a thousand forms of fun and busyness. And therefore I count the ministry of funerals a gift because it keeps my heart and mind awake to the reality of death and protects me from the enslavements of being a fugitive.
The other reason why the monthly ministry of funerals is a gift to me is that it keeps my mind and heart awake to the promises of God that go beyond death. If I were to never think of my death, then I would not think of the promise of resurrection and eternal life. You can't think of the word "forever" without thinking of your death (at least the possibility of your death); and yet the benefits that God promises are terribly deflated if they don't carry us to eternity. "If we have hoped in Christ only for this life, we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Funerals are a gift because they cause me again and again to set my gaze "not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18). And the more I set the eyes of my heart on the invisible gift of eternal life the more precious Jesus becomes, who alone can give it to me.
Since it is impossible for each of you to share in this ministry of funerals with me, I'll try to pass along some of the benefits by directing your attention to the words of Jesus. Once when the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to seize Jesus, they returned empty handed saying, "No man ever spoke like this man" (John 7:46). He taught them "as one who had authority and not as their scribes"(Matthew 7:29). Even his enemies asked, "Where did he get this wisdom?" (Matthew 13:54). And once, after many of his disciples had turned away from following him, "Jesus asked the twelve apostles, 'Will you too go away?' And Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life"' (John 6:67, 68). And Jesus himself said, "The words I speak to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63). He said that the one who hears his words and does them is like a man who built his house on the rock. When the flood of death and judgment comes, it will not be washed away, but will stand forever. My desire is that everybody in this room will inherit eternal life and not enter into condemnation (John 5:29). Therefore, let's listen together to Jesus.
The Unbelief of the Crowds in Jesus' Day
Turn with me to John 10:22–30. It was winter in Jerusalem; to be specific, it was the last week of December during the Feast of Dedication. This feast was a celebration of the rededication of the temple about 164 BC after it had been desecrated for several years by Antiochus Epiphanes. The feast was a joyous event. Jesus was walking through one of the covered court areas called Solomon's porch when the Jews surrounded him, no doubt in the excited spirit of the festival, and said, "How long are you going to hold us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly" (verse 24). Of course, you don't just walk up to everybody and ask them to say if they are the Messiah. Evidently this crowd knows something unusual about this man. The Messiah was the long-awaited king who would come and reign over Israel, smash their enemies with a rod of iron, and establish an eternal kingdom of peace and righteousness. He would finish the work begun by Judas Maccabeus at the original Feast of Dedication: rout the Romans and free the land of foreign domination.
Jesus answers the crowd in verse 25: "I did tell you, and you don't believe. The works which I do in my Father's name, these bear witness concerning me, but you don't believe." They had said, "Tell us plainly." This word "plainly" is the same one we saw two weeks ago in John 7:4 when Jesus' brothers urged him to show himself to the world. "No one does anything in secret when he seeks to be known plainly," they said. They wanted a more open and forthright and public statement of Jesus' Messiahship. But Jesus complies in 10:26 only partly, just as he complied only partly in chapter 7. He says, "I did tell you." He does not say, "I did tell you plainly or openly." For, in fact, up to this point in the gospel of John, Jesus had only made one explicit claim to be the Messiah, and that was all alone with the Samaritan woman at the well (4:26). Therefore, what Jesus means when he says to the crowd, "I did tell you," is explained in the next sentence: "The works I do in my Father's name, these bear witness to my Messiahship." By and large Jesus did not make outright, explicit, public claims to be the Messiah. But everything he said and did witnessed to that fact for those who were willing to accept it.
But these crowds were not willing. Two times Jesus says it. Verse 25, "You do not believe." Verse 26: "You do not believe." Jesus met with widespread unbelief in his own day just like he does today. And the reason was the same then as it is today: not primarily a lack of clear and worthy testimony ("I have told you . . . the works bear witness . . . of me"), but rather a deeply rooted spiritual unwillingness to love what Jesus loves. Do you remember John 5:44 where Jesus says, "How can you believe when you seek glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" The chief hindrance to faith is not that Jesus' claims are obscure or insufficient, but that people "love the glory of men rather than the glory of God" (John 12:43). It is not primarily a problem of knowledge but a problem of pride. Like Jesus, Paul too traces unbelief back through ignorance to the heart which is hardened against the glory of God in Christ. He says in Ephesians 4:18, "They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart." There is a kind of deadness to spiritual things which grips the heart of unbelievers. The affections of some are so completely enslaved to the things of this world that Jesus says they will not repent, even if one should rise from the dead (Luke 16:31), for it is not a problem of knowledge, but of what they love.
Being and Believing
This means that in order to believe on Christ, something very deep and life-shaking must happen in your heart. Something like a resurrection or re-creation has to take place. Something has to emerge which wasn't there before. Otherwise you will never feel the least inclination to believe on Jesus, no matter how high the evidence of his truth mounts. All of this is implied in verse 26: "You do not believe because you are not of my sheep." Listen very carefully to what the Lord says. He does not say, "You are not my sheep because you do not believe." It's the other way around: "You do not believe because you are not of my sheep." Something must happen to you before you believe which gives you the willingness to follow the Shepherd.
From the standpoint of eternity there are really only two kinds of people: the sheep of Jesus, and those who are not his sheep. And, though it is true that his sheep always come to believe on him, it is not adequate to define the sheep simply as those who believe. For Jesus clearly taught that one must be his sheep in order to believe. Being his sheep is why one does believe. Therefore, there is more to being a sheep than the human act of believing.
People are sheep because God acts. God chooses them and works in them the transformation of heart which inclines them to love what Jesus loves. He takes out their heart of stone and puts in a soft heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19); he breaks their pride and gives them a lowly and contrite openness to God-exalting, human-abasing truth. It is no accident that they are called sheep: they are not wise in themselves; they need a shepherd to save them and guide them. When that transformation happens, then they will believe. Then Jesus will appear for what he really is, precious as their all-sufficient hope.
Why should I say to a congregation that has many unbelievers in it that you will not believe unless you belong to Christ's sheep? I know full well, to my grief, that some may walk out and say in a flippant manner, "Well, I guess God hasn't made me a sheep yet, because I'm not going to follow Jesus." I'm convinced that a person who says that would have used any doctrine to excuse his hard and unrepentant heart. The reason I teach this is because Jesus did. He said to a crowd of unbelievers, "You do not believe because you are not of my sheep." It was to unbelievers that Jesus taught the glorious truth of prevenient grace—grace from God coming before faith and working to bring us to faith. Evidently this doctrine is not to be preserved just for the saints that we might give all glory to God for our conversion. But it is also useful for unbelievers, because no doctrine is better suited to show the utter helplessness and lostness of man apart from Christ. It should be a frightening thing to hear that the reason you do not believe on Christ is because you are not of his sheep. You are utterly helpless to believe until God causes you to be born anew. And this very word may be the instrument of God to awaken your dead heart. Pray earnestly that you not be abandoned to your hardness of heart outside the fold.
You will be able to know if God is at work in you now by how you respond to what Jesus says next in verse 27: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." There are two outstanding evidences that you belong to the sheep of Christ: "My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me." Do not look inside yourself and ask: "Am I a sheep? Am I a sheep?" Turn your eyes and your ears to Jesus, and when he speaks, if you are drawn to listen and to follow, you are a sheep! This is the evidence that you are born of God: that you listen eagerly to his words and follow. Jesus said in John 8:47, "He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God" (cf. 18:37). Only those who are born of God hear his words and believe and follow. Do not look for signs of ecstasy or for outward changes of circumstance. Look to Jesus, and if you are drawn to listen and obey, you are born of God and a sheep of Christ.
Jesus Knows His Own
And now begin the alluring promises of our text, and they are awesome. God give us all ears to hear! "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them" (v. 27). Jesus knows those who are his. What is this knowledge? John 10:3 is a close parallel to verse 27. It says, "The sheep hear his voice, he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out." So when it says, "Jesus knows them" (v. 27), it means at least that he knows them by name; that is, he knows them individually and intimately. They are not anonymous, lost in the flock. Verse 14 provides another insight: "I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father."
There is a real similarity between the way Jesus knows his Father in heaven and the way he knows his sheep. Jesus sees himself in the Father, and he sees himself in his disciples. To some degree Jesus recognizes his own character in his disciples. He sees his own brand mark on the sheep. He is like a husband waiting for his wife at the airport, watching as each person disembarks from the plane. When she appears, he knows her, he recognizes her features, he delights in her, she is the only one he embraces. The apostle Paul puts it like this: "The firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, 'The Lord knows those who are his'" (2 Timothy 2:19; cf. Galatians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 8:3; Psalm 1:6; 37:18; Exodus 33:12, 17; Amos 3:2). It is hard to overemphasize what a tremendous privilege it is to be known personally, intimately, lovingly by the Son of God. It is a precious gift to all his sheep, and it contains within it the promise of eternal life.
Jesus Gives Eternal Life
Verses 28–30 read: "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one." For those who hear the voice of Jesus and follow him, the grand reward is that the intimacy of his personal care and protection will never, never, never end. It is not for this life only that we have hoped in him, for to all those who follow him he gives eternal life. The life of joy (15:11; 16:24; 17:13) and peace (14:27; 16:33) and purposefulness (17:18; 20:21) which we have begun with him in this age will be perfected forever and ever and ever.
If the thought of unending life for trillions and trillions of years is oppressive to you because of the threat of boredom, remember this: though it is not fully comprehensible to us, an infinite God is infinitely inexhaustible in the treasures of power and wisdom and love and beauty which we can spend an eternity discovering and enjoying and applying to daily life in the new earth. We will never sit down like Alexander the Great and weep that there are no more worlds to conquer. Our joyous quest to attain the heights of God's wisdom and love will never be ended. When, after a million years, we pull ourselves with unspeakable exhilaration over the massive peak of some glorious divine truth, we will be utterly astonished to find ourselves not at the top, but merely in the foothills, and before us, as far as the eye can see, mountains and valleys and forests and height and light that we could have never imagined. There will be no boredom in the age to come. O, to be there and not in hell!
When Jesus says, "I give them eternal life, and they shall not perish" (v. 28), he means very bluntly that there are two eternal destinies. The one is eternal life, which comes to those who hear his voice and follow him. The other is eternal punishment, which comes to those who refuse his voice and go their own way. He said in Matthew 25:31–32, 46,
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before him. And he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
When the terrible truth of hell glows clear in your imagination, then becomes precious the final promise: "No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who gave them to me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand." Those who hear the voice of Jesus and follow him are gripped by the hand of the Son and the hand of the Father, which are one mighty, divine hand, for Jesus and the Father are one, and that hand is the strongest force in the universe.
I close now with a scene from your life. It is the hour of your dying. You are in the hospital. It is the middle of the night. Your best-beloved has fallen asleep from exhaustion on the chair beside your bed. Long ago you had heard the voice of the Lord and you obeyed and followed him in faith. But now a storm begins to rage as Satan throws all his final force against your faith. You feel the reality of eternity like you have never felt it before. The wind of doubt and the waves of fear lash your soul. And then, by the grace of God, there comes a scene, and it is your scene. You are in a boat in a storm. And Jesus is approaching you on the water. And on his face there is no fear. With his hair and his cloak flying in the wind, he stops a short way off and stands with his strong hands relaxed at his side in sovereign peace. And from the boat, with one last, heart-rending glance at your beloved asleep in the chair, you say, "Christ, bid me come!" And he says, "Come." And you begin to walk on the water.
But then in the final instant you are utterly overwhelmed with what is happening. "I am dying! I am dying! This water is so deep, it is dark, it is cold and filled with hideous creatures!" For fear you begin to sink. But the promise of Jesus never fails. And with a mighty hand he seizes your arm and pulls you to himself. The storm ceases, and there is a great, beautiful calm upon the sea, and it is over. And you know, like you never imagined you could know, that Jesus is precious because he has given you eternal life.