Sovereignty, Substitution, and Solidarity

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association | Charlotte

Thank you so much Cliff. Cliff and Billy, and then Cliff and Anne have reached out to Noël and I with your Christmas cards. It’s amazing that a Christmas card can maintain a relationship for half a century because we haven’t seen each other that much. When that would come once a year, it sustained it so that here we are hugging each other though we hardly ever see each other. It’s really remarkable. So don’t minimize what yearly contacts can do. Thank you for reaching out to us in that way, Cliff.

I love Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I could tell you a lot of stories growing up in Greenville, South Carolina and my dad and some of the prices he paid to like Billy Graham. I grew up with Billy as one of my heroes, so to be here is really quite an honor to me. I’m sorry you left Minneapolis. I stayed and you left, but it’s good to be with you.

I want to take a few minutes and try to encourage your faith with three truths from the Gospel of John. This is a distillation of yesterday’s sermon, so I’ve changed the point names and shuffled them all around and distilled it from 50 minutes down to 18. If you have a Bible and you want to look at John 11, that’s where we’re going to go. I’m going to hang what I say on three words: sovereignty, substitution, and solidarity. It’s the sovereignty of God, the substitution of Christ, and the solidarity of the church. I’m going to get those three truths from John 11:51–52.

For the Sake of the Elect

I can’t help but mention something from my devotions this morning reading in 2 Timothy 2:9–10 where Paul says:

The word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

He says, “I do everything for the sake of the elect that they may obtain salvation.” That’s amazing. The elect need means to get them home. They will get home and they will get home by means. “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they may obtain salvation.” So I assume I’m addressing a room full of elect people. That may not be the case, but I’m assuming by and large it is. I’m here to help you make it. I could preach a sermon on that text, but that was just God saying this morning, “Go do that for those people. Minister to them because I will use this word for their survival.” Somebody out there needs to just survive and make it home.

The situation in John 11 is that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. A bunch of people believed others went and told the Pharisees, then the Pharisees gathered the council. This is dangerous. John 11:48 says:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.

So this is dangerous. The people are starting to follow Jesus. They are thinking, “They’re calling him the king. If the Romans get word that they’re about to have an uprising and make him king, they’re coming to Jerusalem and killing us all and taking the temple,” which of course happened in 70 AD. But they didn’t want it to happen. So Caiaphas has a solution and the solution is found in John 11:50, which says:

Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.

So Caiaphas’s solution is to kill him. When you come to the end of the chapter the warrant for his arrest has been issued. And it says there, “If anybody should know where he is, they should tell the leaders and then they will arrest him and thus they will protect their nation from being destroyed by the Romans, because this instigator of all this messianic frenzy will be off the scene.” That’s the solution to their survival, namely get rid of Jesus. “It is better,” he says, “that one should die for the nation than that the nation should perish, be destroyed.”

The Sovereignty of God

Now the most important words in this text are John’s response to that in John 11:51–52, and they are absolutely amazing and full of truth and teaching for us. So let me read John’s words. John says about Caiaphas, “He did not say this of his own accord.” Now that’s amazing when you think about what he said. He continues:

[Caiaphas] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

My first truth is going to have to do with the sovereignty of God. Caiaphas did not say that of his own accord. Well, who’s accord was it then? God’s accord. He did not say that of his own accord. He prophesied, which means God put this in his mind. These words, “It is better that one die for the nation,” came out of his mouth because God caused them to come out of his mouth. Caiaphas had words and had a meaning, namely, “Kill him so the Romans won’t kill us.” And God spoke these words and he had a meaning and it wasn’t Caiaphas meaning.

But here’s the surprising thing with regard to the sovereignty of God. These words were Jesus’s death warrant. He died because of these words. Caiaphas wanted Jesus dead and out of the way and God wanted Jesus dead and risen and reigning. So God is using inspiring awakening, putting words into the mind and the mouth of Caiaphas. He did not speak this of his own accord. God moved him to speak this and it got Jesus killed. That’s really important for your life. The death of Jesus was not a tragic set of events that God turned for good; it was a loving set of events that God planned for good. In other words, he’s right there from the beginning putting the warrant for Jesus’ death in the mouth of Caiaphas. At one level this is human evil, plotting to kill the one man in the universe who should not be killed. Everybody else should be. And God is in it, over it, on it, under it, governing it to get his glorious saving purposes for the world done.

The Apparent Hopelessness of Our Suffering

Now what about you? From outside of your life or from outside Caiaphas life, this looks like human injustice running rampant over the rights of a human being, Jesus Christ, and taking him out. That’s what it looks like and that’s what it was. But it wasn’t that from the inside. From God’s perspective, something utterly different was happening. He was bringing his Son to the cross for me and you, which will be our second point in just a moment. But don’t miss the sovereignty of God here.

Right now in your life, you are looking at circumstances, and some of them look utterly hopeless. Some kid is walking away from Jesus. Some marriage is about to explode. Maybe you’ve been given nine months to live and as far as you can see on the outside, there’s not going to be a happy ending to this unbelief or this marriage crisis. This is just one big mess and it can’t be fixed. That’s what it looked like in this text. And John says, “He didn’t speak this of his own accord. God is all over this. And he is managing it, governing it, planning it for the sake of the nation and the world.”

I preached this twice yesterday morning and prayed with people for 45 minutes afterwards. One of those was a woman who 10 years ago in my church wanted so badly to leave her husband. He was not doing anything he was supposed to do. He traveled around the world, doing who knows what on the side. She wanted out of this thing so badly, and I’d prayed with her week after week on Sunday morning and she knew where I stood on divorce. I said, “I’m not going to support you in divorce. We’re going to stand together and make it.”

She came up to me yesterday and said, no exaggeration, with tears coming down her face she said, “Thank you for teaching me the sovereignty of God because my parents can’t live on the farm anymore, and my dear husband has just finished our basement so that my parents can live with us. If I had left him, I wouldn’t know what to do with my parents and I couldn’t watch him love them this way.” She couldn’t see anything 10 years ago. She couldn’t see anything but that this was a train wreck waiting to happen and there was no future for her.

Then another woman came up, and she took me by the collar. She has very short hair because she was bald six months ago. And she said, “Thank you for the sermon. Would you please do my funeral?” I hadn’t seen her for about five weeks. She said, “They’ve given me two months to nine months to live.” And I said, “I’ll do your funeral.” She had a radiant smile. She said, “Just pray for us that God will help us through.” I love the sovereignty of God with all my heart. And for 31 years I have offered it to my people as the rock to stand on. I love to watch people embrace it in the middle of their impossible circumstances.

The Substitution of Christ

The second point is the substitution of Christ. This is really simple. In Caiaphas’s mind, he thinks, “We kill Jesus so that Romans won’t kill us.” That’s substitution. In God’s mind, he thinks, “I kill Jesus so I don’t have to kill you.” And the reason I’m willing to use that really terrible language — “I kill Jesus” — is because in Isaiah 53:4 it says:

Yet we esteemed him stricken,
     smitten by God, and afflicted.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
     we have turned — every one — to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
     the iniquity of us all.

And what did these iniquities do? They crushed him. According to Isaiah 53:10, it was the will of the Lord to crush him. Why?

God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh . . . (Romans 8:3–4).

Whose sin? Jesus didn’t have any. It was mine. Whose flesh? I wasn’t on the cross. It was Jesus. That’s called substitution. Billy Graham has preached this for how many decades? How many millions of people have heard this glorious truth? Christ died for sinners. So if you’re a late night struggler or an early morning struggler. I happen to be an early morning struggler. I feel triumphant at midnight and hopeless at 6:00 a.m. I have to get saved every morning all over again, it seems like. That’s not what I believe. It just feels that way.

I just want to tell you, take that word substitution and throw it back in Satan’s face every morning, every night when the accusations come down on you, you’re not going to make it. You weren’t good enough. You’re not a real Christian. He didn’t die for people who are good enough, Mr. Satan, be out of here.

The Solidarity of the Church

The sovereignty of God was turning all the events of Caiaphas and Pilate and the soldiers and the shouting crowds so that the Son might substitute himself for me in you. And finally, the word solidarity is from John 11:51–52, which says:

That Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

The children of God are scattered abroad. Those are the elect. The children of God from the Gentiles are scattered among the nations. John wrote the book of Revelation. This verse is being unpacked in Revelation 5:9–10. It’s one of my favorite missionary verses. It says:

You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
     from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom . . .

It’s not a bunch of kingdoms. That’s why I’m using the word solidarity. It’s a kingdom, just like this text says that he’s gathering the children of God into one (John 11:52).

Here’s the concluding point. Racial and ethnic diversity globally in the church of Jesus Christ is not a social issue, it’s a blood issue. It says, “You were slain and by your blood” — to use the words of Revelation — “you have ransomed people from all these tribes and peoples and languages and races.” To use the words of John 11:52, one will die and he will triumphantly gather the scattered from all of those peoples and there will be one people. The sovereignty of God brings about the substitution of Christ, which produces the globally diverse solidarity of the church of Jesus Christ. And you have such an important role in bringing that about.