Seminarian W. Jeff Jenkins
People of St. Mark, loved by God; it was February the 8th. A pastor was leading his congregation in a midnight worship service. Now, this was the largest church in a very large city. The pastor was recognized around the world as a leader in the Christian faith, a very vocal supporter of conservative, orthodox Christian teaching. He had made a lot of enemies because of his teachings; very powerful enemies. So it came as no surprise to him when, in the middle of the worship service, one of his associates whispered something in his ear. There were government troops outside; not just a few; over five thousand heavily armed soldiers in full combat gear. He knew they were there to arrest him. But he also knew that they would not think twice about harming his parishioners.
The other pastors were urging him to run. They wanted to protect the life of their spiritual leader. But he was thinking only about the safety of his people. So he calmly instructed the liturgist to read from the Psalms as the congregation spoke responsively. He then reassured the congregation of God’s mercy and grace as they began to leave. The troops were now streaming into the sanctuary, but the pastor wouldn’t leave until he knew that everyone was out safely. And then, like a scene out of the Book of Acts, as the soldiers surrounded the chancel, the other pastors miraculously led their leader safely out of the building.
This wasn’t communist China. This wasn’t Nazi Germany. This wasn’t the Napoleonic wars, or even 16th century Saxony. The pastor was a man named Athanasius; yes, that Athanasius, the guy that the super-long Creed is named after. The year was 356 A.D. and the city was Alexandria, Egypt. Athanasius was the Bishop. The reason for the soldiers? Well, the Roman Emperor had commanded the churches to teach that Jesus Christ was a created being just like you and me. Athanasius refused.
He would spend the next six years of his life in hiding; moving from one place to another; staying just one step ahead of the Roman authorities. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. He was exiled five separate times during his life. You see, Athanasius got it. He understood the importance of Jesus actually being God; He always had been God; and always would be God. This man, this pastor, was willing to risk his life to fearlessly declare to the world of his day that Jesus is God. So, what do you think? Do you think there might come a day when you and I will have to risk our lives to confess Christ?
In our Gospel reading for today, we see that Jesus, Himself, was also willing to risk His life to declare His true identity! Let’s set the stage. Jesus was in Jerusalem. He was teaching in the temple. The Pharisees, looking for a chance to arrest Him, were trying to trick Jesus into incriminating Himself. And on this day, they kept coming back to Jesus’ parents. Twice they had questioned who Jesus’ real father was. They were basically calling Him “illegitimate.” They themselves, on the other hand, were quite proud to say that they were “legitimate” descendants of Abraham. But Jesus told them that if Abraham really was their father, they would act like Abraham had acted. But their actions told a very different story. They were acting like their father the devil. That’s why they didn’t believe Him, because they were not God’s children. Our text picks up right here in the middle of this war of words.
The Jews’ answer to those sharp words from Jesus went something like this, “Well whaduya know, it sounds like we were right all along; you’re not only a Samaritan, but you’ve got a demon, too.” Now to us, this might sound a bit like a childish schoolyard argument, right? Unfortunately, it was far more serious. Remember, Jesus was standing in the middle of the Temple, the center of religious power in Judea. And most of His interrogators were in positions of authority. They were baiting Him; waiting for Him to say just the wrong thing in just the right place; a place with plenty of witnesses.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever been in a situation at work, where a co-worker was asking a “loaded’ question because they knew that you were a believer; maybe a question about a current, sensitive cultural topic? They weren’t really interested in your thoughts. They just wanted leverage on you with the boss; wanted to discredit you. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, just wait, it will. And you might ought to be thinking right now, about how you‘re going to answer.
So what about Jesus? Would today be the day that they catch Him? Well you just might think “yes” after hearing Jesus’ answer. Listen to what He said, He said, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.” Does it sound to you like Jesus was trying to “play it safe”? Does it sound to you like He was trying to avoid conflict? Take a closer look. The first thing that we see here is a matter-of-fact statement; “Nope, no demons here.” But did you notice what He doesn’t say? Notice that Jesus doesn’t respond to their racial slur, “Samaritan.” The Jews had used this label on purpose. Were they saying that Jesus’ father was a Samaritan? Did they think that He would defend the Samaritan people? Maybe He liked them better than the Jews? Regardless, Jesus ignored it; just didn’t respond.
Let’s look at what He did say. Jesus turns the conversation straight back to His parentage. “I honor my Father….” That’s good fourth commandment stuff, right? But why? Why does He go there? Why would Jesus go right back to where they wanted Him to go? If He openly claimed to be God, the Pharisees would accuse Him of breaking the first and second commandments; crimes punishable by death. Why did Jesus willingly risk His life to declare His true identity?
What about us, today, here in Edmond, Oklahoma, 2016. It’s safe to say that you and I have probably never had to put our lives on the line by saying that, “Jesus is the one true God.” In fact, when was the last time you really felt like you needed to tell someone that Jesus is your Lord, your God? Look at our society today. How does it view Christianity? Friendly? Not friendly? <Pause> It’s not only ‘not friendly;’ it’s downright hostile. Does our culture intimidate you? Do you second guess whether you should share your faith in the public schools? In your office? In the coffee shop?
So, why did Jesus do exactly what they wanted Him to do? Well, here’s why. Look at what He says in verse 51; “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” There’s the promise, right there. He was offering it to them just like He offers it to you and me today. He tells them, and us, if you believe in the Son of God, you will never see death. You might be asking, “Jeff, what does it really mean when He says ‘if anyone keeps my words’?” Let me try to paraphrase it. He’s saying, “If you believe that I am who I say that I am, then you will never see death.” Let me say that again, “If you believe that I am who I say that I am, then you will never see death.”
Now this key, here; stay with me. Jesus was not risking His life just to boost His own ego. He wasn’t doing it just to prove the Pharisees wrong. And He wasn’t doing it to please the Father. He risked His life to fearlessly declare that He is God because it is that important to us! Our lives depend on it! He was doing it for you and for me.
In verses 52 and 53, Jesus and the Pharisees continued their conversation about His identity. So they asked Him, “Just exactly who do you think you are?” And once again, Jesus fearlessly declared His true identity. Take a look in verse 54. Jesus declares; “It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” That’s pretty straight forward there. What else were the Jews waiting for? Right there Jesus said, “You guys want to know who my father is? Well, I’ll tell you. This ‘One’ that you all call God; He’s my father. And He’s the One who glorifies me.” I don’t know about you, but I find it a bit amazing that they didn’t yell “Blasphemy!” right then and there.
But Jesus goes on. In verse 56, He declares; “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” This one really threw the Pharisees for a loop. Jesus is referring first to Abraham receiving the Promise of a son. And then secondly, seeing that Promise fulfilled in the birth of Isaac, through whom Jesus would eventually come. But the Jews took Jesus’ words literally. It didn’t take them long to do the math either: Hmmm, let’s see. Jesus, you’re not even 50 years old and Abraham lived 2,000 years ago. So tell us, just exactly when did you see Abraham? If Jesus answered their question straight up, He would be risking His life.
His response? “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” As Christians, we’ve heard these words so many times that they probably don’t even register with us. I assure you that it did register with the Pharisees! Jesus didn’t say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” He didn’t say, “I existed before Abraham.” He said, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” Let’s break that down. The first phrase tells us that Abraham’s existence had a beginning; a beginning in time, just like every other creature that God has ever created. The last phrase tells us that Jesus simply exists; no beginning, no end; just “I am.” He was saying that His birth as a human being was not the beginning of His existence as a person. He had always existed.
Well, only one being can make that claim and that’s God! But there’s even more to those two little words. We all remember the story of Moses and the burning bush, right? Moses asked God’s name. And He told him, “I am that I am. Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you.” That’s the name that Jesus just used to describe Himself! Let that soak in for a minute. “I am that I am. And before Abraham was, I AM.” That’s basically how Jesus answered them. Is it any wonder that they immediately tried to stone Him to death?
That was a fearless declaration of His identity. Let me ask you, though; why did Jesus risk His life to make sure that the Jews knew who He really was? Why did the Apostle John want us to know for sure who Jesus really was? And why did Athanasius risk his life over and over again to make sure that the Church continued to teach the true identity of Jesus? Athanasius fought against a false teaching that said that “Jesus was a created being, created before time began.” These false teachers said that there was a time outside of time when Jesus did not exist. After all, they argued, the Creed does say ‘He was Begotten of His Father before all worlds’ right?” Why did Athanasius so fearlessly declare that Jesus was, and always had been true God?
What about you, and me, here today? What kinds of things do we hear from our culture about this man Jesus? “Oh, he was a great teacher.” Or “Jesus showed us how to live a moral life.” Even the Muslims say that Jesus was a prophet of God! But there are other parts of our culture that want nothing to do with Jesus. They say that he was a pure fiction, a myth. What do you think? Should any of this stuff matter to us today at all? I mean, as long as I believe that Jesus died for my sins; isn’t that enough? Why is it that important we say He is true God? If the Father created Jesus before the world began, how would that affect our faith?
Some of you might be thinking, “Uhhh, Jeff, you lost me way back there with that ‘time outside of time’ stuff. That’s just too complicated for me.” Okay. Fair enough. There’s a reason why the seminary program is four years long. Some of this stuff can be complicated. But it can also be very straight forward too. So let me give this a try here. We’ll see how well I can explain it. After that, if you still don’t get it, I’ll go back to school for three more years. And if you do understand, well, I’ll still go back to school for three more years.
Here’s the bottom line for us today. If Jesus was a created being (even if He was created before all of creation), then that means that Jesus can change. Now if our faith rests on something that can change, how confident can our faith be? Let me say it another way. “If Jesus Christ is changeable, then our salvation is based on something that’s changeable.” I can’t claim that last phrase. That was Athanasius, yes, the guy that lived in Egypt 1,700 years ago! He knew how important this is to our faith; so did the Apostle John; so did St. Paul; and so did Jesus! They all fearlessly declared that Jesus was, indeed, true God; always has been and always will be.
You see, if Jesus was not God, nothing that He ever did matters to us; not the miracles, not His crucifixion, not His death, not even His resurrection! The only reason ANY of this matters is BECAUSE He really is God. That is why He can forgive our sins! And on this fact our salvation rests secure. “We will never see death.” And being confident in God’s promise, we too can fearlessly declare, to everyone we know, that Jesus is God. After all, their lives may depend on it.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.