The Gloomy Alternative John 3:31-36


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John 3:31-36

Text Comment

Like vv. 16-21, these verses appear to be John’s own summary, his reflection on the significance of Jesus in light of the testimony of John the Baptist that he just quoted. We will also see that, as a summary, these last verses of the chapter bring together themes from throughout chapter three. In other words, they are a summation that ends this entire section of the Gospel.

v.31     One of the earlier themes is recalled in the term “from above” which as we saw is the same word translated “again” in the phrase “born again” in 3:3. The new birth “from above” comes from the One who comes “from above.”

The word “earth” is not the word “world” as in 3:16. It does not suggest the sinfulness of mankind but only its limitation, its finiteness. Even John the Baptist belongs to the earth in this sense. He must decrease and Christ must increase (as he said in v. 30) because he belongs to the earth. He cannot reveal the secrets of heaven, he does not have the power to renew human hearts, he cannot baptize with the Spirit and with fire. Only the one from above can do this. Only the Lord Jesus comes from above, from heaven, his origin is not here on this earth, and, for that reason, he is above all.

v.32     “No one accepts Jesus’ testimony” about what he has seen and heard in heaven. Here John repeats what Jesus himself already said in 3:11. But, no matter the human response, what Jesus says is not a guess, an hypothesis. He is speaking of what he knows and because he himself comes from heaven he knows the truth!

v.34     The statement that no one accepted Jesus’ testimony, of course, was a generalization. There were some who did. And those who did did so because they recognized that God himself spoke through Jesus his son, so that what Jesus said, God said. Now Jesus wasn’t the only one God had sent to speak for him. The prophets of the OT, of course, also fulfilled that role. But they had the Spirit in measure. To his Son God gave the Spirit without measure. For that reason, to know the Son was to know the Father, as the Lord will say later in the Gospel (14:9). “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah couldn’t say that! Remember, John the Baptist has already said (1:32-33) that he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus.

v.35     The statement about the Lord Jesus being given the Spirit without measure is now amplified still further. There is such a bond between the Father and the Son that the Father has placed everything in the hands of his Son. The mutual love of the Father and the Son is a key theme in the Gospel of John. Everything flows from this. Our salvation comes from the Trinitarian life of God!

v.36     All the above about Jesus being true, there remains this single alternative: life through faith in Christ or looming judgment for those who will not believe. Here John summarizes and restates once more a thought found earlier, in this case in vv. 18-20.

As one commentator puts it, “God’s wrath is not some impersonal principle of retribution, but the personal response of a holy God who comes to his own world, sadly fallen into rebellion, and finds few who want anything to do with him.” [Carson, 214]

God’s wrath is already on the impenitent, as the believer, already in this world, has eternal life. The future destinies of mankind are already anticipated and experienced to some degree in this world. Eternal life and eternal doom, of course, also await in the next world, as John makes clear later, as in 5:28-29.

I felt that I could not go on from chapter 3 without giving some attention to John’s introduction of the reality of God’s wrath. It is the thought he finishes this section with, and most emphatically: “God’s wrath remains on him.” Those are the last words of the section both in John’s Greek and in the English translation. The condemnation and judgment of those who refuse to believe in Jesus was mentioned before, in vv. 16-19, so clearly John is summing up, and, just as clearly, by mentioning this terrible fact at the very last, John has reminded his readers that this great account of Jesus Christ as the Savior has the divine wrath as the backdrop. It is the prospect of God’s wrath against unbelieving sinners against which John pictures the coming into the world of the Son of God. Men need to be saved! From what? They need to be saved from the divine condemnation that their sins deserve. They need to be saved from God’s wrath, the settled and active opposition of God’s holy nature to everything that is sinful. Unless there is a real peril to be saved from, salvation has no meaning. It is this fact that has led one scholar to say that “verse 36 is as basic as the famous 3:16.” [Filson in Morris, Com, 250n] What is the point of saying that those who believe in Jesus shall not perish, unless it is true that those who do not believe will perish and will not inherit eternal life?

The Lord, of course, gets very much more emphatic and more specific in his teaching of the reality of divine wrath elsewhere in the Gospel of John and in the other Gospels. We will attend to that teaching in due time. But, here, at the outset, we find the reality of divine wrath, the prospect of the judgment and condemnation of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ, as the presupposition of the gospel message. Men and women everywhere are going to fall under the divine wrath against sin and sinners unless they believe in Jesus Christ who alone can deliver them from that holy wrath which their sins deserve.

Now, our contemporary culture and the Christian church in it get almost nothing of this message, this warning, which is given so repeatedly and emphatically in the Bible – and not here in John 3 and not in the Gospels only, but in literally hundreds of texts throughout the Bible. The effort has been made, of course, by folk who find the doctrine of divine wrath uncongenial, somehow to remove it from Holy Scripture, but it cannot be done. It appears too often, is taught in too many ways, is assumed in too many other ways. Divine wrath against sinners is in the Bible to stay. We may refuse to believe it, but we cannot honestly deny its place in the teaching of the Bible or in the teaching of our Savior himself. The late Professor John Gerstner mentioned in a lecture that a friend of his had done a master’s thesis on this subject – more statistical than theological – and concluded that for every reference to God’s mercy and grace in the Bible there were three references to God’s wrath. That is no proof that wrath is more important than mercy, but it may well be proof that we have much more difficulty accepting the reality of divine wrath than that of divine mercy. That would not be hard to believe, would it?

That seems to be the lesson of the present situation. The Bible’s solemn warning that without a genuine faith in Christ producing real repentance men and women must perish has largely disappeared from Christian preaching. And I am not speaking only of the preaching of those multitudes of so-called Christian preachers who do not preach the wrath of God because they do not believe it. I am speaking also of the preaching of ministers and churches who still ostensibly believe the truth about men perishing and about the wrath of God remaining on human beings.

A prominent evangelical preacher told Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline” several years ago that he did not preach divine wrath because he felt that, if anyone heard that message and did not believe and turn to God as a result, he or she might be damaged by the negative feeling such a message would engender, and he, for one, did not want to be the cause of damaging another human being.

More often it is a case of the dulling effect of the social pressure of our secularist culture and the deepening alienation from a biblical worldview that even Christians feel under the influence of a culture as hostile to that worldview as ours is.

At the core of the historic Christian faith is the proposition that one must believe in Jesus Christ or suffer punishment in the world to come. But now, says James Davison Hunter, the University of Virginia sociologist who has written several books on contemporary evangelicalism, “many evangelicals have a difficult time conceiving of people, especially [people they think of as] virtuous unbelievers going to hell. In one of his studies, for example, Hunter asked evangelical students if they thought Gandhi was in hell. ‘They recognized that by their own theology Gandhi should be in hell, but the idea made them extremely nervous,’ says Hunter. ‘They recognized that to say that a good man like Gandhi is in hell is to say that friends of theirs who are not born again will also go to hell, and socially that is a difficult position to maintain.’” [Newsweek, March 27, 1989]

And so with preachers who are, as well, men of their age who, likewise, are subject to the influences of contemporary opinion and prejudice. Divine wrath, the prospect of the sinner’s doom, the stern warnings addressed throughout the Bible to the impenitent and unbelieving – even, perhaps especially, to the impenitent who happen to meet and satisfy the moral standards imposed by our culture – it all seems increasingly alien, out of date, unconvincing, and terribly provocative and offensive to modern sensibilities.

And so months pass and then years with no mention of the stern warnings that our Savior preached and all his prophets and apostles before and after him. And the longer the silence extends the more difficult it becomes to break it. Churches, even evangelical churches, are now full of folk completely unused to this message, who have not heard it and were brought into the church without it. It is safe to say that, even if a minister in sincerity felt that this message needed to be reinserted into his preaching, he could be forgiven for fearing that, in his church at any rate, to begin to preach it would be a sure way of emptying the pews. It is not what people expect to hear; it is not what they want to hear; and it is definitely not what they are used to hearing.

Some preachers used to argue that the preaching of divine judgment and wrath had been compromised by the over-enthusiastic, almost lascivious preaching of and preoccupation with fire and brimstone. It was overdone and badly done in years past, they thought, and the result was that the true message of divine wrath had been discredited.

But, whether or not that was true in an earlier day, it most certainly is not today. No minister can excuse himself from preaching the divine wrath because so many other preachers are overdoing it and giving that doctrine a bad name. We are a very long way from anything remotely resembling an excessive preoccupation with divine judgment.

So we can well stand to hear and to repeat to others our Lord’s warning, delivered in another place in the Gospels: “unless you repent, you will all perish.” There “perish” is the same verb as appears in John 3:16: “shall not perish….” This morning, it is my task to repeat to you the Lord’s warning and to remind you of the looming prospect of the wrath of God. To repeat this truth and to bring it home to the conscience is one of the sacred duties of the ministry. To fail to give this warning, the Bible says, leaves blood on a minister’s hands. It was the worst crime of the faithless prophets and preachers that they proclaimed peace with God when they should have cried out a warning. But it is not easy to bring this truth home to the conscience in our sentimental day and time when the entire notion of divine wrath seems so unbelievable to so many people.

There is so much to be said here. There is so much that needs to be said. Ideally, one must go back to the beginning and start all over again. The doctrine of divine wrath is connected to everything else in the Bible. And there is so much that Christians must learn and remember about the wrath of God. It is by no means a simple teaching. There is great sophistication in the Bible’s presentation of the judgments of the Lord. There is balance and there is perfect justice, a balance and a justice that have often been forgotten in the church’s past preaching of the wrath of God. There are the many stripes and the few stripes, as our Savior himself taught. But, this morning, I thought I should say simply this: that we are among the very last people in the history of mankind who should stumble over this doctrine – painful and heavy and difficult as it is. It is not hard to understand why people don’t believe it. Of course, it is a very unwelcome thing to believe. It is fearful and painful to believe in divine wrath. But that is just my point this morning. There is much in reality that is painful and difficult and unwelcome.

In Luke 12:54 – 13:8, the Lord braced his congregation with the charge that they were culpably oblivious to the signs of the times. They could be such acute observers of life in so many ways, but they refused to apply those same powers to the great issues of human destiny, even though indications of that destiny were all about them all the time. And so it is the case with us today. We can read the inside of the atom, but we cannot read the looming portents of the divine wrath. The signs of the times are easily read, at least by honest hearts, but people are resolutely refusing to read them.

Men have only to open their eyes and think. The Bible’s doctrine of God’s wrath is not something that must be believed against the evidence of one’s eyes. Its signs and marks are everywhere to be seen. Our world, you see, rings with premonitions of judgment. The pattern of human experience confirms the reality of retribution and of accountability before God. This pattern is woven inextricably into the fabric of human life and we see it and recognize it and pay deference to it all the time.

You eat too much and you pay for it with indigestion or extra weight, even if eating is a great pleasure to you and restraining yourself very difficult and painful. You engage in promiscuous sex and you contract a venereal disease or AIDS or conceive a child. You are an indifferent, harsh, or lazy parent and your children grow up to disappoint you. You are a lazy or irresponsible worker and you are fired. You speak ill-advisedly and suffer recrimination.

If the truth be told, every day we do things or refrain from doing things for fear of the retribution we expect. Men who might otherwise indulge themselves, refrain from a sexual adventure for fear of disease or arrest. We curtail our speed on the highway for fear of a ticket. We study for an exam for fear of a lower grade. We quit smoking for fear of lung cancer; we report our income and pay the taxes due for fear of an audit.

And so much is the principle of judgment built into us and into our view of life that we practice this judgment all the time ourselves. We mete out our own little judgments, execute our own small punishments – and we feel ourselves just and right in doing so. We say such things as, “Well, he had it coming…” or “I could have told you it would come to this…” or “He has no one to blame but himself.” And how often do we pass silent judgments against others in our hearts! Condemn them! Let our wrath go out against them!

The world in which we live is a world in which one has to pay for sins, in which retribution follows wrong choices. Now, it is true that some, by good fortune or their own cunning, seem to escape at least many of the penalties we might have supposed they would have to suffer. A few years ago I illustrated this fact by pointing out that after all his sexual sin, Hugh Hefner was now, in his retirement, happily married and the father of two healthy children. But, now, he is divorced and he makes a better illustration of retribution than of escaping it. But the Bible is candid enough about the fact that people do not always get what they deserve in this world. Nevertheless, the world and everyone’s life in the world is chock full of judgment and retribution.

Judgment is all around us. Most Americans still believe in God. What is more, they still believe in judgment – in a thousand ways every day they believe in judgment. Why, then, do they believe than God alone will not practice judgment in the world he has made, that God alone will allow serious crimes to go unpunished, that God alone will, at the last, be indifferent to the lives that people have lived. Why do they expect judgment of everyone else but not from God? Indeed, where does the entire notion of judgment, of moral balances, of retribution come from if not from God? The world recoils from John Rocker, the baseball pitcher, for his hateful and self-incriminating speech. He must pay. But what of the universe of selfish, hateful, cruel, indifferent, proud, dishonest words that we have spoken since first we began to speak? Is there to be no payment for them in God’s world, holy as God is? And can we tolerate a world in which evil is not finally punished and requited: where, at the last, it makes no difference whether one was Adolph Hitler or Mother Theresa?

Perhaps most Americans wouldn’t scruple to admit the force of those questions except for John’s term and the Bible’s term “wrath.” It is one thing if God reserves a slap on the hand for those who do not accept the testimony of his Son. It is another thing altogether if the Almighty reserves wrath for them. And we know with what terrifying and dismal and ominous images the Bible and our Savior in particular are always describing this wrath and its consequences for the unbelieving and the impenitent.

But, here too, the Lord makes the same point. He tells those who came to talk to him on one occasion, “Look at your newspaper.” They wanted to know about the Galileans that Pilate had executed or those eighteen who had died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – were they worse sinners than others who died in a good old age in their beds? And the Lord’s response was precisely not what they were expecting: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” How can you be so blind to the intimations of your own judgment that are all around you all the time? You can debate at length the justice of someone else’s death and utterly fail to consider the ominous portent of that death for yourself.

This is God’s world. Almost all Americans still believe that. And what do we find in God’s world. We find death, doom, the interruption of life, the divine summons to leave the world, and misery, despair, and terror on every side.

Those hundreds of thousands at the Battle of the Somme, who died suddenly and terribly, who were pulverized into the mud, never to be recognized again, were they more sinful than the rest of men. I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.

Those millions who died in Stalin’s Russia, the victim’s of his totalitarian program and his cruel indifference to humanity or the millions more who suffered the same fate in Mao’s China: were they more sinful? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.

Well, what of the many millions of Jews who died such indescribably cruel deaths at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis? No, but unless you repent, you too will perish.

Well, what of the thousands who died in an instant at Hiroshima? The millions who were massacred in Cambodia? The thousands upon thousands who have died in the great earthquakes, famines, floods, and storms, of the “century of tears” that ended just a few months ago? What of the thousands massacred in Rwanda a few years back? What of the hundreds of thousands who have succumbed to AIDS? What of the eighty some who died in the Alaska Airlines crash just a few weeks ago? And what of that man, ten days ago, wholly unconcerned, who approached the western end of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and in an instant — too little time to think, to realize — was crushed to death in that fiery accident? No, not more guilty. And unless you repent, you too will perish! And, still more, for our own day and our own modern minds. What of those countless multitudes who live their lives in loneliness, alienated from the world in which they exist, but, so they think, scarcely live? And what of those unnumbered multitudes who fail to experience so much of the happiness and fulfillment of human life, who never achieve their potential and know it full well? In other words, what of all the wailing and the gnashing of teeth we already hear in this world? What of them? No! No! We cannot say, we do not know that they were greater sinners than others. In many cases we know for a certainty that they were not. Many noble Christians died in such terrible ways. It is not who died that is the point! It is the very existence of the death and the terror itself that poses the question! The great question posed by such tragedy, such terror, such despair, and so much evil coming down on the heads of so many human beings, is not whether any individual sufferer deserved that fate. The question raised by all such events as these is another question altogether: how will I fare in the judgment that is coming?

Our world, our Savior said, is brim full of premonitions of the wrath of God, pictures of it, anticipations of it. Why in the world would we suppose that with so much death and destruction and terror in this world, God’s world, there should be none in the world to come? We are quite happy to think that the good, the happy, and the beautiful that we experience in this world are anticipations of the world to come. Why are we unwilling to face the fact that, if that is so, must not the terrible be an anticipation as well?

Hear me, now. I am not saying that the suffering in this world, instances of sudden and catastrophic death, are themselves proof of the existence of hell and the judgment of God. We have God’s infallible word for that! What I am saying is that in a world such as ours, only an inveterate and determined avoider of the obvious could so easily assume, as multitudes do in our time, that the future poses no real threat, no peril, no reason for grave concern; that a man or woman is justified in remaining indifferent to the question.

This is the argument that the Dutch theologian, Klaas Schilder, made so powerfully in his book, Wat is de Hel? All of the arguments that we typically hear against the prospect of the divine wrath utterly fall before the facts of our own world. We hear men say that God would not do such a thing as punish men and women in the world to come; or that it would be unjust or unworthy of God. But, said Schilder, hell is already with us in God’s world. We don’t simply have to believe in hell. We can see it, hear it, feel it, and smell it every day! There is already so much in this life which never reaches its goal; so much misery, disappointment, so much of the worm that never dies and the fire that never goes out; so much darkness and so much loss. This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote:

“There is no doctrine which I would more remove from Christianity than [hell] if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and has the support of reason.”

There is it, “the support of reason.” Who can deny the existence of divine wrath and the prospect of judgment, when we pass judgments all the time and cannot live without judgment; when the world we live in rings with judgment; and when doom is all around us all the time?

We have heard many in our day say that the holocaust, the murder of so many millions of Jews in concentration camps proves that there is no God. But surely, it proves no such thing. If it proves anything at all, it proves that there is a hell and that multitudes of human beings are going there. Hell is with us in this world, that is what it proves! We are the last people who should doubt the existence of divine wrath, having seen so much of it, having seen so many pictures of it, having seen so many images of it with our own eyes.

You remember that summation of John the Baptist’s preaching that we get in the other Gospels. “One is coming after me,” he said in his fiery way, “who is more powerful than I. I baptize with water, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And, then, in the very next breath, we read this about John’s preaching. “…with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” [Luke 3:18] “Burning up the chaff…” is part of the good news. There can be no good news, if there is not first bad news. And no one will care about the good news if he does not fear the bad. There is wrath, holy, just, perfectly proportioned and measured wrath for all who are not found in Jesus Christ.

And the world in which we live is evidence enough that we need Jesus Christ to save us from the wrath to come. Let us all be solemnized at the prospect of God’s judgment and the punishment of those who have not got forgiveness through Jesus Christ. And, if there are here this morning, some whom God has granted still more time before the unfruitful tree is cut down, do not delay. Repent of your sins, turn from them to Christ and live and live forever! Lest you spend your future miserably wondering how someone as sharp-sighted as yourself could have so completely missed so many signs, so many warnings!

“If it were not so,” our Savior said, “I would have told you!”