August 23, 2020
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
It is good to be with you all again this morning, and to return with you to John’s Gospel.
We continue in John chapter fourteen, and Jesus’s final discourse before his arrest.
A few weeks ago we looked at Jesus’s statements in these chapters on the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete. This Lord’s Day we will hear from verses fifteen through seventeen again, but then we will continue on through verse twenty-four.
With that in mind we come to John, chapter fourteen, verses fifteen through twenty-four.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
Jesus said to them:
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, as the psalmist says, we know that those who walk in the ways of your word are blessed –
those who keep your testimonies
and seek you with their whole heart.
Lord, make our ways steadfast
in keeping your statutes.
Keep us from dishonoring your name,
by fixing our eyes now on your word.
Teach us the way of righteousness,
so that we might praise you with upright hearts,
Grant this for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:1-2, 5-7]
THE NEGATIVE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Jesus’s words in this passage all seem to orbit around the themes of God’s presence with us, our love for God, and our obedience to Christ’s commands.
And while he spends most of his time – as we will – on the positive side of those themes and how they relate, he also, at the center of this passage, addresses what the negative side of that looks like. What the lack of those things looks like.
And the image he uses to do that is of orphans.
He does it in verse eighteen, when he tells the disciples: “I will not leave you as orphans.”
The word that is used here and translated as “orphans” can be used to describe disciples who are stripped of their master – but the dominant image it evokes, is that of children who have been bereft of parents – parents who would be with them, and who would direct them. [Carson, 501]
And those two aspects go together. The same parent who is present with their children – providing for them, caring for them, and loving them – is also the parent who is supposed to provide authoritative direction, instruction, and discipline for their child. Those two positive aspects are supposed to go together for children with parents. And, in the reverse, one who is an orphan in the fullest sense of the term lacks both of those things – both someone to love and care for and be present with them, and someone to authoritatively direct and instruct them.
And when it comes to spiritual orphans (what Jesus is speaking of here), each of those aspects reinforces the other, setting up a sort of negative downward spiral. Those without a spiritual Father who is present with them not only lack the presence and the care that their hearts need, but also the authoritative direction and instruction that their hearts need.
And that is the spiritual dynamic at work in “the world” as Jesus describes it here – in those who have rejected Jesus.
Those who reject Jesus as God the Son also reject Jesus’s Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit who is the bond of love between them. And those who reject the Triune God of heaven do not know God. They do not accept or experience his care or presence. And they do not receive his instruction or direction.
They choose to live as spiritual orphans.
THE POSITIVE UPWARD SPIRAL
But Jesus’s promise to his people – to those who follow him – is that he will not leave them as orphans. That’s what he says in verse eighteen. In contrast to the negative downward spiral of voluntary spiritual orphanhood, Jesus lays out a positive, upward spiral of sonship for those who trust in him.
Those who love him, he says in verse fifteen, will keep his commands. And to those who do love him and keep his commands, he will send the Holy Spirit, as he says in verses sixteen and seventeen. And not only that, but as he adds in verse twenty-three, it is not only the Holy Spirit who will dwell in and with those who love Jesus, but the Father and the Son as well. In other words, the fullness of the Trinity will dwell in and with those who trust in Christ. [Augustine, Tractate LXXXVI.4]
Now, of course, we need to recognize that what Jesus is describing here is not a series of transactions, but actually a self-reinforcing spiral in our relationship with God. [Carson, 499]
For even though Jesus begins in these verses with our love for him, this first statement on his disciples love for him has been preceded by a greater number statements John has already recorded about Jesus’s love for his disciples [Carson, 498] – a helpful structural reminder in John’s Gospel that Christ’s love for his people always precedes their love for him.
Along with that, while a superficial reading of Jesus’s words here can sound as if our faithfulness leads to our reception of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthians that no one can acknowledge Jesus as Lord – and therefore no one can rightly love him or obey him – unless the Holy Spirit is already at work in them [1 Cor. 12:3] [Augustine, Tractate LXXIV.1]
And so what is described here is not a step-by-step spiritual straight-line, but a set of relational interactions, each of which reinforces the other, and leads to a positive upward spiritual spiral towards God: As we experience God’s presence in us and with us – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – our love for him and obedience to him grows, reinforcing our knowledge and experience of his presence, which then further reinforces our love, and so on, leading us to grow closer and closer to him. [Augustine, Tractate LXXIV.2]
This is the positive pattern at the center of Jesus’s promise here: That the knowledge and experience of God’s presence in us and with us leads us to better love and obey him, which in turn increases our knowledge and experience of his presence, and so on.
That’s the pattern at the heart of our text.
And what I want us to consider together this morning that that pattern, as described here by Jesus, is a pattern that is historically anchored, that is a current spiritual reality for us, and that gives us an eternal trajectory.
So the pattern of the upward spiral of God’s presence and our spiritual growth is historically anchored, is a current spiritual reality, and gives us an eternal trajectory.
THE HISTORICAL ANCHOR
First, it is historically anchored.
Because one of the most obvious immediate fulfillments of these promises was historical.
In verses eighteen and nineteen Jesus says: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”
And the most immediate meaning of this promise for the disciples was Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. [Carson, 501-502]
Jesus went away from his disciples at his death. But then he returned, resurrected to new life – and his disciples saw him, spoke with him, and spent time with him. He came to them, though he did not reveal himself in the same way to those who had rejected him.
In a similar way, in verses sixteen and seventeen Jesus speaks of how the Holy Spirit is in them, but how he also “will give” the Spirit to them, which would seem to be a reference to the events of Pentecost, when Jesus poured out his Spirit on the Church to enable them to fulfill the mission he had given them.
He would do this for his disciples because they believed in and followed him. And his appearance to them and pouring out of the Spirit on them would reinforce their faith and enable them to love and obey him all the more in the commission he’d given them.
These are the historical events which anchor Jesus’s promises.
THE INDIVIDUAL SPIRITUAL REALITY
But while anchored in history, these truths are not locked up in history. Instead, they overflow from the past into the present.
We see that right here in this text because Jesus expands these promises beyond the disciples with him in the upper room, and applies them to all who will follow him. In verse twenty-one he promises to manifest himself to “whoever” loves him and keeps his commandments. In verse twenty-three he says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Jesus promises this upward spiritual spiral to all who trust in him.
It is a promise made to every Christian as an individual believer. It is also a promise made to the Church as a corporate body.
In terms of individuals, the Apostle Paul applies this connection between the presence of God and the call to keep his commandments in First Corinthians chapter six. There, Paul urges the Corinthians to flee from sexual immorality, and the motivation he gives them is that he says to them: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is within you?”
Think about that. Paul is telling them, when they are tempted to sin sexually – to disobey God’s commands for their bodies – to then remember that God himself is with them and in them. He is present in them when they commit sexual immorality. That knowledge, if they really believe it, if they really experience it, should stop the Corinthian Christians in their tracks. How can they willfully sin with God present there in them as they do? The knowledge of God’s presence in them and with them should help them to love God and obey his commandments, which in turn should increase their knowledge and experience of God’s presence in them.
And the same concept applies to other sins.
How can we use our mouths to sinfully attack others if we keep in mind that God himself is in us and with us as we do?
How can we use our eyes to greedily covet what God hasn’t given us, if we remember that God is with us in our minds as we do?
But this spiritual reality does not just serve as a warning – it should undermine the temptation itself.
If God himself is in us and with us, then why on earth are we looking for fulfillment and true intimacy through the fleeting pleasures of sexual immorality?
If God himself is in us and with us, then what could lead us to feel we need to attack others in sinful anger?
If we have God himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – present with us in our hearts and lives, then why would we look to money or fame or success for fulfillment, in a way that leads to covetousness or dishonesty?
Knowing and experiencing the presence of God, as individual believers, helps us to turn from such things, which in then increases our knowledge and experience of God’s presence with us and in us.
THE CORPORATE SPIRITUAL REALITY
And that’s true not only of our individual Christian lives, but also of our corporate spiritual life as the Church of God – both as a congregation and as the universal visible church. [Augustine, Tractate LXXVI.2]
Because God dwells not only in each believer, but in his Church as a visible community.
The Scriptures put this in a number of ways. They tell us that the Church is the Family of God the Father. They tell us that the Church is the Body of God the Son. They tell us that the Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. [Leithart, 11]
Each of those Biblical pictures holds before us the reality that the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwells in and with his Church.
And as we remember and experience that reality, we are enabled to better live it out by loving God and one another, leading us to experience and believe in his presence all the more.
But when we forget about his presence – when we act, as the Church, as if we are orphans – then we enter a negative spiritual cycle downward. And that is a pattern that the Church has succumbed to many times in its history.
I recently read the book Finding the Right Hills to Die On by Gavin Ortlund. It was recommended to me by Elder Mike Pfefferle. It’s a good book on different categories of theological disagreements, and I’d recommend it.
Ortlund shares one historical example of badly handled theological differences, which I thought was especially striking. While we don’t have official statistics, Ortlund points out the church historian Justo Gonzalez has concluded that from what we do know historically, it is probable that there were more Anabaptist martyrs in the sixteenth century than there were Christian martyrs in the entire first three centuries of the Church, prior to the conversion of Emperor Constantine. [Ortlund, 100]
Now stop and think about that for a minute. Let that sink in.
Paedobaptist Christians (Christians who believe in infant baptism) carried out a more deadly persecution of Anabaptist Christians in one century than the Pagan Roman Empire carried out against all Christians over multiple centuries in in the early church.
When we think of the early church, we have little trouble seeing how Nero and other pagan persecutors were instruments of Satan against Christ’s Church.
But it turns out that paedobaptist Christians were even more effective instruments in the hands of Satan than the Romans ever were.
And the paedobaptist Christian persecutors included Reformed Christians.
The first Anabaptist martyr was sentenced to execution by drowning by Reformed Christians, and was killed just a few hundred yards from the church of the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who had reportedly said “Let him who talks about going under [the water] go under” – a reference to how it seemed appropriate to him that those Christians who insisted on baptism by immersion should be executed by drowning. [Ortlund, 100]
Now, here’s what’s even more scary: Most of us here would say that strictly in terms of the theological debate, the paedobaptists were right and the Anabaptists were wrong.
Not only that, but one of the accusations that the paedobaptists brought to the anabaptists was that the anabaptists were causing divisions in the church. And on at least some level they were right – the Anabaptists were encouraging Christians to separate over this issue.
That means that in a theological dispute with other Christians we can be right theologically, we can be right in identifying the damage our opponents are causing in the Church, and we can still be acting as instruments of Satan more destructive to the Church than Emperor Nero himself was.
How can that be so?
Well, there are a number of reasons. But one is that we start acting like we are orphans. We start acting as if God the Father is not really present with his Church.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
I’ve seen this with my kids – maybe you’ve seen it with yours.
Sometimes – believe it or not – when my three daughters are playing together in the backyard or in one of their rooms, one of them will do something they shouldn’t do. And one of her sisters will notice it.
And that sister who saw the misdeed will then sometimes decide that she herself should administer justice to her sister, in one form or another. And more often than not, the justice that second sister administers to the first is far more unjust than whatever the first sister did wrong in the first place.
And when that happens, among other things, we need to remind our daughters, that none of them are the parents of the family – they have parents who handle such things.
Because the truth is, when our children take matters of justice between them into their own hands, they are acting as if they are orphans. They are acting as if they have no parents to exercise authority over them, and so they must take up the role of disciplinarian. They are acting as orphans. Which leads them to sin against one another.
And we can do the same thing in the Church. When we see a brother or sister doing something we disagree with – something we see as damaging or divisive – and we respond by sinfully attacking them, whether physically, or with our words, or in our hearts and minds – we are acting as if we are part of a family without a parent, or part of a body without a head, or part of a temple without a ruler. We are acting like orphans.
And so we doubt that God the Father will rule his family, that Christ will lead his Church, that the Spirit will run his Temple, and we act out against one another … which divides us further, and so makes us feel as if we are not really are part of the same family, the same body, the same building … which leads to justification for further sin against each other, further division, and further denial of who we are as co-members of the Church of God.
We see this in how we think of, how we speak of, and how we treat Christians whom we have real disagreements with.
If you’re a Reformed Christian, then how do you think and speak of Arminian Christians?
If you love formal liturgical worship, how do you think and speak of churches that worship in ways that are extremely informal?
If you love traditional hymns and the organ, how do you tend to think and speak of churches that have a praise team up front in their Sunday service?
If you think miraculous spiritual gifts ceased after the age of the Apostles, how do you tend to think and speak about Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians?
If you take a complementarian view of gender, then how do you tend to think and speak of Christians who have an egalitarian view of gender in the church and in the family?
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. These issues each matter. They are important. But none of them divide someone from the Body of Christ – the Family of God.
And yet, when you think of Christians who hold views different from yours on these issues, do you primarily think of them as your brothers and sisters in the family of God the Father? Or do you primarily think of them as opponents, as threats, as problems to be dealt with and defeated within the Church?
How we answer that question will help determine whether we follow our Lord’s command to love one another, or whether we become instruments in the hands of the Enemy to attack God’s people.
And we can bring this even closer to home right now.
Because we are dealing with some unique divisions among ourselves right now as a congregation, aren’t we? And it’s probably most felt over the question of how the church and how Christians should respond to the current epidemic.
Each of us needs to ask if we are treating those we disagree with as enemies or as brothers and sisters in the Family of God where God our Father is truly present.
And it’s not just one side of the debate that needs to think about that but all of us – the pastors, the elders, the deacons, the other leaders, every member. Me. You.
You need to think about it if you are struggling with anger towards the leaders who have implemented these precautions.
You also need to think about this if you are frustrated with the critics of these precautions, or if you’ve been upset with those who have been worshipping elsewhere because of our precautions.
Whichever side of this you have been on, the Reformed persecutors of the Anabaptists remind us that we can be right in our views, and we can be right in our assessment of damage the other side is doing, and we can still be an instrument of Satan that does terrible damage to the Church of God.
Instead, we each need to consider what it means that those Christians we are tempted to lash out at sinfully are our brothers and sisters in the Family of God the Father, are fellow members in the Body of Christ our Lord, and are fellow stones in the Temple of the Holy Spirit. And we are called to love one another.
One thing that means is that we interpret the words and actions of others as charitably as possible.
What does that mean for those of us who support the precautions we’ve taken in response to the current circumstances … or those who at least have decided not to object to them?
What it means is that when someone takes an opposing view and they voice their disagreement with the precautions we’ve taken, and raise their concerns about the precautions we’ve taken, then we interpret their concerns and disagreement with love, and in the best way possible.
We don’t assume they are being difficult, but that they are genuinely concerned that the Church of Christ do the right thing. And we value that concern, whether at the end of the day we agree with it or not.
It also means that if a brother or sister in Christ leaves our fellowship to worship elsewhere right now, then we don’t respond with anger or disparagement or dismissal or personal offense, but we seek to love them by interpreting their decision charitably, and entrusting God our Father to know each person’s heart – including our own. We don’t assume that they left for vindictive or divisive reasons, but we consider that maybe they found themselves in a place where – whether we fully understand it or not – they felt a sense of conviction about taking the precautions our church is taking, and after struggling with their consciences they decided that for now, maybe the least divisive thing for them to do would be to worship with another congregation.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want that. It saddens me deeply. And I would not push anyone to leave over this issue – that’s not what I’m saying at all.
What I’m saying is that if someone does make that decision, for those of us who remain, our calling is to remember that that person who may have left is still our brother or sister – we share a Heavenly Father, who is with us, and has not left us as orphans. And we are to love one another, not dismiss one another. We are to mourn practical divisions but remember that God is not divided. We are to hope and pray that they will return to our fellowship when they feel they can, and we are to welcome them back enthusiastically if they do, but we are also not to look down on them if they don’t.
Because God our Father knows their heart and he knows ours as well, if we fail to love his son or daughter. And because we are fellow members of the Family, the Body, and the Temple of the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to act like it.
THE ETERNAL TRAJECTORY
The positive spiral of the presence of God with us, we have said, is historically anchored, it is a current spiritual reality in our individual lives as believers and in our corporate life as the Church.
But it doesn’t stop there. This text does not just give us some historical truths and some contemporary encouragement and moral direction – as important as all that is. It gives us much more. It gives us an eternal trajectory. It points along a certain line to our eschatological destination, where we are heading as believers in Christ – as members of his Body.
Because what is the central promise of this text?
The central promise, as we have seen again and again, is that the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – will dwell with his people – will dwell with them and in them.
And that is not just our current hope. But it is the pinnacle of our eternal hope. [Carson, 504]
In Revelation twenty-one, the Apostle John is given a glimpse into the eternal blessing of all who trust in Christ, and what does he see?
He writes: “[Then] I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
At the center of our eternal hope is that God will dwell with us, and we will dwell with him. That is the greatest thing that heaven has to offer – that is the greatest reward of placing our trust and hope in Christ.
And what Jesus promises us in the present here in our passage from John fourteen this morning is a foretaste, an anticipation, a truth pointing forward to that final hope.
When we place our trust in Christ, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – dwells with us and in us. And that sets us on an upward spiral whose trajectory is the fullness of heaven itself, when God will fully dwell with us, and we will fully love him and one another.
Or to look at it from the other end, as we strive now – in the day-to-day trials and temptation we face – as we strive to love Christ and to obey his commands to us, we experience his presence with us and in us now, as a glimpse – as a small foretaste – of heaven itself.
That is what Jesus here promises us. A taste of heaven right here on earth.
And so, let us love our Lord. Let us obey his commands. Let us believe that he dwells with us and in us. Let us long to experience his presence now. And let us look forward to experiencing his presence in its fullness in the age to come, and for all of eternity.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Tractates LXXIV, LXXV, LXXVI. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, Volume 7.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Leithart, Peter J. The Theopolitan Vision. West Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2019.
Ortlund, Gavin. Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020.
Wright, N. T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
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