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John 8:48-59

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v.48     This has been preceded, of course, by a long conversation between Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership.  When their arguments failed to dislodge him, as so often in human affairs, they turn to personal abuse, the trusty argumentum ad hominem.  And you couldn’t get any lower than to accuse a Jew of being a Samaritan and of being demon-possessed.

v.50     In other words, what others think about him is immaterial.  So long as the Father approves, for the Father is the judge of men and their lives.

v.55     They are liars in that they claim to know God when they do not.

v.56     As so often in the Bible, the saints of the ancient epoch are represented as having a true understanding of the way of salvation and a genuinely Christian faith in the coming Messiah.  As the Puritan John Owen once put it, the believers before the incarnation had  faith in Christ “about to be revealed and about to die” while we have faith in him “having been revealed and having died.”  Note the “your” father and the “my” day.  The Jews were being unfaithful to their own great ancestor.

v.57     The Jews probably weren’t that thick.  They understood what Jesus was claiming, but chose to interpret his words crassly, as if he was claiming to be a chronological contemporary of Abraham.  Ridiculing a claim in order to dismiss it is much easier than providing a reasoned response.

By the way, there is much speculation as to why they said “50” years of age, when the Lord was about 30 at the time.  Alexander Whyte suggested that this is a window through which to look at our Savior and to see how heavily the years bore down on him. He was carrying such burdens, the Man of Sorrows, that he looked nearer fifty than the thirty he was.  No one can say for sure.

v.58     The “I am” is clearly a claim to divine stature, as the Jews understood, hence their taking up stones to stone him.

v.59     John does not explain just how the Lord hid himself or to what extent this was a supernaturally aided disappearance.  In any case, they could not touch him because “his hour had not yet come.”  Augustine comments on this verse:  “As man Jesus flees from the stones, but woe to those from whose heart of stone God flees!”  [In Johan. Tract. xliii.18]

Now we have in the conversation reported in these verses an emphatic reiteration of a theme that we have already encountered in John.  We are learning that it is very characteristic of John to repeat his major points in a variety of different contexts.  No doubt, the Lord’s ministry was very repetitive as all good instruction must be.  The main points are hammered at over and again and looked at from a variety of different viewpoints until they can be grasped with a true understanding.

Here the Lord Jesus talks about the reason he came into the world, viz. that he might give life to men and says that the way men come to obtain this life is by believing in him.  Here he puts it in the negative: they shall not see death.  We have heard that before, of course.  In 5:24, for example, we heard the Lord say, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”  That is, in other words, what the Lord teaches here:  that men and women who believe in him obtain eternal life immediately, while they are still in this world.  We heard the same thing in John 3:16 and in 6:40 and 47 among other texts.

Life and Death, that is what Jesus is all about.  To bring life to the dying was his errand in the world.

As I was sitting in the Vancouver International Airport the other day, waiting for my wife and mother to pass through Customs, I picked up a weekly newspaper and found an interesting article on death and dying in British Columbia.  The author, one Paul Willcocks, was primarily interested in the mythology of death in our culture.  The figures he gave were interesting and, I imagine, would be the same for any similar sized population in North America.

“On an average day in British Columbia, 75 of us die.  We crash our cars into bridge abutments, our hearts stop, cancer chokes our lungs, we slip on a wet step.  Every week, 525 die; every year, 27, 241.  While you are reading this [article] two people will stop breathing and their bodies will begin to grow cold.  They’ll probably be old, and they’ll probably die in an institution, surrounded by strangers and machines.”

Now Willcocks wanted to point out how, in our culture, death is shrouded in myths, myths that by and large help us to cope with death and its reality and make us feel better about it.  For example, he points out that we worry much more about unlikely forms of death than we do about the ones that are more common.  388 people were killed in car accidents in BC in 1997, the most recent year for which statistics were available, but 480 died by suicide.  When our friends end up working alone at night in a convenience store, we tell them to be careful and worry about armed robbers.  We don’t tell them to watch how they walk.  But while 81 people were murdered in BC in 1997, 364 died in accidental falls.  Your life is much more likely to be ended by a child’s toy left carelessly on the stairs or a misstep at work than by an armed robber.  [“Myths of Death Hide the Reality of Mortality:  In Sensationalizing Certain Kinds of Deaths, We Ignore the True and Deadly Monsters Crossing our Paths,” The Georgia Straight (Oct. 12-19, 2000) 17]

We revel in thrilling deaths, whether in the movies or the news, but reality is more prosaic.  Recent studies have reported that, by the age of 20, North Americans will have seen some 20,000 deaths in the movies and on television.  But those are “fantasized deaths,” frequent, over in a flash, almost always violent, and typically striking only the deserving.  Of course, in real life, it isn’t so.  Mostly people die because they are old and their bodies stop working.  Of the 525 people who died in an average week in BC in 1997, 402 were over 65 and 223 of those were over 80.  From 65 to 80 it’s the cancers that get you; if you make it to 80, it’s your heart.  Most of these people die, out of sight and in institutions, and Willcocks doesn’t deny that this is on purpose:  “we’ve hidden away much of death so we can forget it.”  Of course, he could have also said that the realities of modern medicine have made institutionalized death inevitable even for many people who would prefer to have their loved ones at home and would love for the opportunity to care for them at home, whatever the physical and emotional cost.

There is something psychologically satisfying, Willcocks says, in mourning the death of someone who has died tragically, like the tens of thousands who stood out in the cold English rain after Princess Diana died.  It is not unlike “the thrill you get from leaning over the rail at Niagara Falls and watching the water rush hypnotically over the rocks.”

He quotes a University of Victoria scholar as saying that “Violent death…provides distance.  It helps us view life’s ending in a way that is removed from our own existence, as a freakish happening that strikes mysteriously and rarely.”  We also like deaths that provide us an opportunity to do something, or, as Shakespeare might have put it, to take arms against the sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

But here too we are subject to the myths that surround death and keep it at bay.  More British Columbians will die of alcohol or drug abuse or from suicide than from drunk driving or AIDs or any number of other causes of death for which we hold a telethon or march in a parade.  Willcocks points out that “making AIDS the right kind of death helped it become a major social cause, even though the virus killed only 111 people in BC, while flu and pneumonia killed more than 10 times that many.” [19]

Willcocks cites a UCal Berkeley professor on this subject of how we look at death, why we fear certain forms of it and ignore others:  “If we want to know why we are fearful about what, and whether we should be, this is equivalent to asking the cultural question: how should we live?”  Ah, there is the issue, how we look at death has everything to do with our view of the meaning of life, and if we have no real answer for death, then we have no real understanding of life and must, therefore, keep death at arm’s length, shroud it in myths lest it cloud over our lives and ruin what pleasure we can find in an existence that is, as Augustine put it, a race to the grave.

And, then Willcocks concludes:

“It’s another week in British Columbia.  Another 525 of us will die.  Cancer will get 142, heart disease 133.  Nine people will die of accidental poisoning, eight will die in car wrecks and eight from drugs, and seven will slip and fall and never get up.  One or two will be murdered.  And nine people, like my brother, will kill themselves.  Most of the dead will be older, with 136 over 85 and 267 between 65 and 84.  Four will be babies, dead before their first birthday, and two will be children or young people.”

Now, you paid close attention to all of that, didn’t you?  When I speak about sex I can be sure to have your attention and when I speak about death in this way, I know I will have your attention.  In ways we scarcely realize or could explain or define, we are, as the Bible says, kept in bondage to the fear of death all our lives.  Even we Christians, who have every confidence in Christ’s victory over death for us, are still fascinated by it and still afraid of it, aren’t we?  Given its extraordinary importance, it is extraordinary how little we think about it in our own case and how quickly we brush thoughts of it aside when they force their way into our attention.

And, now comes Jesus Christ saying that if we believe in him, we will never see death.  “Nonsense,” said the Jews in reply.  Even the very best men in the world, Abraham, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the other prophets of God, they all died.  Everyone will die.  But that is what the Lord Jesus said, “he would not see death.”  And he says the same thing a number of times in this Gospel, most famously, at the occasion of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, “He who believes in me will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

What does the Lord mean?  Surely he doesn’t mean that Christians will not die in the sense of death as Willcocks discussed it in the article.  Christians too get cancer or heart disease, suffer strokes, are killed in car accidents and falls, are murdered, even commit suicide.  The Jews were right about that.  Abraham died and was buried and so it was with everyone of the great prophets, apart from Elijah.  Jesus did not deny that of course.  He knew and often spoke about physical death.  He knew that men and women would die and be buried and that their bodies would decompose in the ground.

Archbishop William Temple suggested that what the Lord meant, however, did apply to the physical death of human beings.  He wrote:

“So here, the Lord does not promise that anyone who keeps his word shall avoid the physical incident called death; but that if his mind is turned towards that word [of the Lord] it will not pay any attention to death; death will be to it irrelevant.  It may truly be said that such a man will not ‘experience’ death, because, though it will happen to him, it will matter to him no more than the fall of a leaf from a tree under which he might be reading a book.  It happens to him, but he does not in any full sense see or notice it.”  [Readings, 147]

We think of the poets who, thinking of the Lord Christ’s promise of eternal life, have taught us to see death as little more than “one short dark passage to eternal light.”

George Herbert puts it this way:

Death! Thou wast once an uncouth, a hideous thing;

But since my Saviour’s death

Has put some blood into thy face,

Thou has grown, sure, a thing to be desired

And full of grace.

Or this from Victor Hugo:

Let us learn like a bird for a moment to take

Sweet rest on a branch that is ready to break;

She feels the branch tremble, yet gaily she sings,

What is it to her?  She has wings, she has wings!

Or, still better, the Apostle Paul:

“To live is Christ, to die is gain.  I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”

All of that is very true, of course, objectively true, and it has been subjectively true in the case of many saints who have died in the full flood of Christian faith and have known with the happiest certainty, as they were dying, that the moment they left life in this world would be the same moment they entered into the joy of the Lord, the heavenly Jerusalem, the fellowship of the spirits of just men made perfect, and the paradise of God.

But, I don’t think that this is what the Lord means when he speaks of those who trust in him never dying.  He means much more than that Christians – with their hope of life everlasting – will find death so easy to bear that it will be as if they weren’t dying at all.  He is speaking absolutely, and he means that they will not die.

But, how can he mean such a thing, the reality of death being what it is?   Well, the answer to that question lies in the Bible’s definition of life and death.  From the very beginning, to the end of the Bible, life and death do not primarily refer to existence or non-existence in this world.  The Bible uses the terms to refer to that, of course.  Often in the Bible the words life and death are used just as they are used by all men today.  One is born, one lives, and one dies and is no more in this world.

But, in Holy Scripture, that is a secondary use of this terminology, not its primary and original use.  You remember what God said to Adam, when he warned him not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:  “In the day you eat that fruit, you will surely die!”  But Adam did eat that fruit, and he did not cease to live, to continue to exist in this world.  Indeed, he lived hundreds of years thereafter.  No, as the great Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, put it, “Life never signifies in the Scripture simply existence, and death never simply destruction or annihilation.”  [Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, iv, 791]  Rather, life and death, in their first and foremost meanings, refer to conditions or states of existence.

This is how Paul can write to the Christians in Ephesus and refer to that time before they believed in Christ as a time when they were dead in their transgressions and sins.  Christ made them alive when they were dead.  They were existing, they were living human life, but they were, in the most fundamental and important sense, dead.  Paul can say of people who live for pleasure that they are dead even while they live.  [1 Tim. 5:6]

Physical death is a punishment for sin.  The Bible says that a hundred times.  Through the sin of one man death entered the world.  But it is only part of the punishment.  The larger punishment is that death that human beings already suffer while existing in this world and carry with them into the world to come, that place of judgment which the Bible so ominously refers to as the second death.  Compared to this spiritual death, this condition of human existence estranged from God, under the bondage of sin, the flesh, and the devil, carrying within the seeds of eternal death, the act of dying in this world is of no great moment.  Many die who are already dead much more seriously and permanently than any physical death will make them and, on the contrary, many die who, by faith in Christ, are already everlastingly alive and will be still more wonderfully alive on the other side of death.  It is this death and this life that the Lord Jesus here is speaking of.

No, says Klaas Schilder, another Dutchman.  “To be dead in the Bible is something wholly different from not existing; to be dead is nothing other than inner disintegration, inner separation, brokenness, to which the contrary is genuine wholeness of life.”  [Wat is de Hel? 36]

That is what is so terrible about the second death!  What is the second death but always to be dying but never to be gone, to be always dying and never to be able to die, to end one’s existence.  The body lives not, not in the true sense of life, but it continues to exist.  That is true death.  And, its opposite, true life, is understood similarly:  the wholeness of life, life lived according to its true purpose, life full of the goodness, richness, integrity, satisfaction, joy that comes from peace with God, fellowship with God, and hearts full to the brim with the love of God.

What Christ is saying here is that by faith in him, by holding fast to him in his word and his promises, trusting ourselves to those promises he has made and to his death and resurrection by which he made certain the fulfillment of those promises, we gain life, true life, life, as Paul would later put it, worthy to be called life.  It is this life, what he will call in chapter 10:  “life to the full” or, as the KJV has it, “the abundant life.” And that life will be ours already in this world – in principle and in the first measure of experience – and will continue to be ours in much more perfect form in the world to come, after we die, and, at last, in its ultimate and consummate form at the end of days when Christ comes again and the day of resurrection dawns and those who love him will receive their complete and now perfect selves, body and soul, from him to live with him for ever.

Every human being, made in the image of the living and eternal God, wants this true life.  Human beings crave life.  And when they use that word, they do not mean simply existence, a beating heart and working lungs.  Oh no.  They know full well how it is possible to exist, but not to be alive!  This is the reason for the interest in euthanasia.  People know the difference between existence and life!  They mean life such as they know they were meant to live:  life with high purpose, life with joy and peace and pleasure, life that is dominated by love, life in which all our powers find the most satisfying and fulfilling employment.  It is men and women’s mad dash to get that life in any and every place but from the hand of the only one who can give it to them that is the melancholy and brutal story of human existence in this world.

Surely Tennyson was right:

Whatever crazy sorrow saith,

No life that breathes with human breath

Hath ever truly longed for death;

‘Tis life, not death for which we pant,

More life, and fuller, that I want.

What a potent word “life” is!  And so what a remarkable promise it is that the Lord makes to us.  “If you keep my word, you will not see death!”  Is that not what everyone wants most of all: to escape the horrible specter of death.

Well, death comes because of sin and it can only be removed if sin is removed and no one can remove our sin and its guilt except the Son of God.  There is the great truth of this world and of human life in this world.  And there is the basis of the gospel, the good news, surely the best news there is in all the world:  that you can live, live forever and truly live!  It is not merely a dream.  It is real.  Christ has made it real and gives that life to anyone who comes to him.

And, for us who have that life already coursing in our souls:  remember, always remember, every glorious, wonderful, satisfying moment of LIFE here in this world, every manifestation of that eternal life that is already yours here – every moment spent in fellowship with Christ by the Spirit, every delicious experience of the love of others, every satisfaction in the doing of good, every sweet pang of thankfulness and gratitude for utterly undeserved kindness – I , say, everything that is truly life here, life worthy to be called life, is but the foretaste of what is to come.

O think!

To step on shore, And that shore heaven!

To take hold of a hand, and that, God’s hand!

To breathe a new air, and feel it celestial air.

To feel invigorated, and know it immorality!

O think!

To pass from the storm and the tempest

To one unbroken calm!

To wake up, and find it – GLORY!

No wonder the Lord said that those who trust in him would never see death!