So, I am excited to be back for lots of reasons, but one of them is that we’re getting back into the gospel of John. And today’s text includes one of my very favorite verses in the Bible. So, today Jesus speaks of death, and how one can escape it. If you think about different religions all across the world, or really any worldview, the ultimate question they must answer is, “What does death mean? What happens when we die?”
We know that death is one of the greatest fears on earth. Everyone’s afraid of death, in some way. And if you think about why we’re so afraid of death as human beings, it’s for two reasons. Number 1: death is so certain. In other words, every single person dies, right? We cannot escape it. And the second reason we’re afraid of death, ironically, is because death is also uncertain. In other words, we don’t know when we will die. We really have little control as to when our own deaths will come. So, human beings are afraid of death. And that’s why every major worldview on the planet must wrestle with the question, “What is the meaning of death? Or, What happens when we die?”
And with so many different answers to these questions, we have to ask, “Who has the answer? Who should we believe? Who has the authority to answer these questions?” Right? Because there are some pretty bizarre answers to this question! I remember at TCU, I minored in religious studies, and one paper I was writing required me to attend a Church of Scientology in Dallas. I was there, attending this introductory session, for about 5 hours. It was interesting, to say the very least. But I remember at the very end of this long presentation, we watched a video of one of the leaders of the Church of Scientology. And even though this was now 12 years ago, I remember the last sentence of this video, that closed out the entire presentation. This is just seared into my memory. And I’m going to warn you, it’s kind of creepy: He said, “Now, you could leave here today and never think about Scientology again. You could also blow your brains out. But, if you commit today and follow the tenets of scientology, you will be blissfully happy for a trillion years.”
I told you it was a bit creepy, right? I remember thinking, “How do you know that? Where in the world are you getting this?! Books by L. Ron Hubbard, who also is well-known for his science fiction writing?” Then, I couldn’t help but think, “And what happens after the trillion years? Are you just on your own after that?”
Again, claims on the meaning of death, and what happens, must be backed up. There has to be some sort of authority or qualifications for someone making these kinds of claims. And Jesus, in John 8, makes a promise about death, and then gives us four of his qualifications for making that kind-of promise. And to say the least, he’s far more qualified than L. Ron Hubbard or anyone else in history, for that matter. Let’s read, together, John 8:48-59.
48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
My hope this morning is not only that we believe Jesus in making this promise, but also that we leave in awe of Jesus. These qualifications Jesus is going to give us should compel us not only toward belief, but also toward worship. I don’t know where you’re at this morning with being in awe of Jesus, but I genuinely hope and pray you’ll be captivated yet again by how glorious our Savior truly is.
So, let’s start with this promise that Jesus makes, and then we’ll get to the reasons we can believe Jesus in making this promise. His promise is found in verse 51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Now, I’m summarizing that promise for your notes like this:
Repent and Believe in Jesus, and you will never taste spiritual death.
Now, why am I saying “repent and believe in Jesus” when Jesus says, “if you keep my word, you will never taste death?” The short answer is that “repent and believe in Jesus” is his word! That’s his message! That’s the thrust of what he’s saying here. Keep my word, listen to what I’ve been saying: I’ve been saying you must believe in me. Remember back to verse 24, this same chapter, Jesus says, “Believe in me or die in your sins.” This has been the message, the “word” of Jesus, throughout the gospel of John. It also is the entire goal of the gospel of John. In chapter 20, verse 31, John writes, “This is written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So, that’s the promise Jesus is making. He’s answering the question of what happens at death, and how can we do anything about the effects of death? We turn from our sin, and turn to Jesus alone for salvation. And we will never taste spiritual death. Now, we know he’s speaking of spiritual death, here. All people will physically die, but those who believe in Jesus will not see spiritual death, which is the far greater concern! If physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, then spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God! Physical death may cause us fear, but far greater in importance and urgency is the issue of spiritual death, eternal separation from God! Jesus has dealt with this issue.
We just have to pause for a moment and ask, “Do we see how awesome this is, what Jesus is saying?” The greatest fear on earth we no longer have to fear! The greatest uncertainty for human beings, is no longer uncertain! We know how to escape spiritual death! We know that Jesus himself came to give us life! And he did that because you and I are born into separation from God. We are born into sin that makes us spiritually dead. We are dead. And then something happens! Jesus gives us life! Through faith in Christ, we will never be separated from God again! Ever! When we repent and believe in Jesus, we move from forever separated from God, to forever in his presence. PTL, right?! Praise the Lord! What he has done for us is staggering.
You can tell how serious and outlandish of a promise this is by how the Jews respond to him. Now, they’re already calling him names, basically, because of what he’s already said in chapter 8. It was three weeks ago, but we saw Jesus telling them that their Father, who they think is God the Father, is actually the Devil. He’s telling them that their physical lineage does not matter. He’s saying some pretty extreme and offensive things. And so, in verse 48, they call him a Samaritan, and even try and say he has a demon. Now, they don’t actually think he’s a Samaritan, or that he has a demon. They’re just angry, and resorting to calling him names. It’s the same when sometimes we get emotional, and just start spurting out insults. “Oh, well you’re an infant!” Or, “Well, I don’t like you!” That’s the equivalent here. “Well, you’re a Samaritan…and you have a demon!”
So they’re already insulting him because of what he’s said, but after he makes this promise, “Keep my word, and you will never taste death,” they go on with questioning him! They say, in verse 52: “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our Father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” Now, everything Jesus says in this passage really points to his answer for that question—Who do you make yourself out to be? So, with that question in mind, let’s look at four reasons to believe Jesus in making this promise. And we’ll focus a bit more time on the last one. How can we really know that Jesus knows what he’s talking about? Why should we believe what Jesus is saying? Reason Number One:
- Jesus does not seek man’s praise.
Look at verse 49. After the Jews call him a Samaritan and say he has a demon, Jesus responds, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.” I love how he answers so simply: “I do not have a demon…you are incorrect.” In the words of Donald Trump, “Wrong.” In fact, he says, the problem is not with me, but with you! I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Implication: you’re also dishonoring the Father that you so enthusiastically claim to serve!
And then he says, “Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge.” What’s he getting at here? He’s saying, I’m not here to impress you. I’m not trying to build a platform just so you all can like me and sing my praises! Instead, I’m honoring the Father, and guess what? He is the one who will lift me up! I’m not seeking to please you; I’m seeking to please my Father, because He is the judge! Why does this help undergird Jesus’ promise? Why does this help make it easier to believe what he’s saying?
Because he’s not just trying to sell us something! He’s not trying to hide his true agenda. He’s not just trying to be popular or famous. He’s simply seeking to honor His Father. He’s not making this promise just to get our attention and make us happy. He’s not doing it to impress us. How many times do we, as earthly fathers, make promises we don’t keep? Hopefully not often, but certainly it’s something that happens, right? We want to appease our wives or children for a time, and maybe we genuinely mean it when we say it, but then we don’t follow through. That’s not Jesus. He’s not seeking man’s praise. Number 2. Why should we believe Jesus in making this promise?
- Jesus does not need man’s praise.
Obviously, this is similar to reason number 1. He doesn’t seek it, but why? Well, because he doesn’t need it! This even further proves that Jesus has no mixed motivation, here. He’s not making this promise just to make us happy with him. He doesn’t need us to be happy with him! Why? Because all he cares about is that His Father is happy with him! Notice when they ask him, “Are you greater than Abraham?” He doesn’t even answer! Instead, he says in verse 54: “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” He goes on: “But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.”
In other words, I’m not here for you, primarily. I’m here for my Father! And I certainly don’t need your approval! This is a side-application, but it’s too important not to bring up. Jesus shows us a far better way to live here. In Christ, you and I have all the approval we could ever need. We are adopted children of God— loved by God despite our performances. That is the praise, the self-worth, the approval we truly need. But many of us struggle so deeply with thinking we need the approval of man. That’s why many of us are so obsessed with social media. We love the like. We want that like. I’m going to get it! It’s immediate approval from man.
There have actually been studies that show the amount of dopamine that is released when we achieve these small social successes. In other words, likes and comments on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, it’s an addiction—receiving immediate social approval. And oh, how we may despair when we don’t get that approval. We care so much what people think. Jesus cared what His Father thought. This is why we can believe him when he says, “keep my word, and you will never taste death…believe in me, and never die spiritually, though you die physically.” He’s not just saying that to get approval from us. He’s saying it because it’s the truth. Reason Number 3. Why should we believe Jesus in making this promise?
- Even Abraham looked forward to Jesus’ day.
They’ve already brought up Abraham, and how great he was. And now Jesus uses Abraham to continue the crescendo. He’s getting more and more and more explicit here, more and more and more extreme in what he’s claiming about himself. This has been happening all through chapter 8. And now he’s continuing the crescendo. In verse 56, he says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” Now, Jesus is not saying that Abraham actually saw his day, as in he had a vision of Jesus. I mean, I guess that’s possible, but it seems more likely that Jesus is saying that Abraham rejoiced in anticipation of the day when Jesus would come.
You see, the expectation of a Messiah to come, of someone who would crush the head of the serpent, Satan—that expectation began all the way back in Genesis 3:15. It was just after the fall, when Adam and Eve had sinned, and God was speaking directly to the serpent, who was Satan, and he said to him, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head [singular, “he,” one man to come will bruise your head, really the implication here is that he will crush your head], and you shall bruise his heel.” From that point forward the entire Old Testament traces the lineage of Eve’s offspring to come! This singular man to come, who would deliver the final blow to the Devil. This was the expectation!
And Abraham’s day was certainly no different. God promised Abraham, in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God promised Abraham that from his own offspring would come the one who would bless the entire world. So Abraham looked forward to God fulfilling that promise. And Jesus is now saying, I am the one to fulfill that promise.
The reason we can believe Jesus when he says we will never die, is because Jesus was God’s plan from the very beginning. Jesus was not just some speedbump in God’s plan, or one little part of God’s plan. Certainly Jesus was no parenthese in God’s long-term plan to bless the nations. Jesus WAS and IS God’s plan to bless the nations. As we sang earlier, 2 Corinthians 1:20- “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” If THE ONE who is the center of God’s redemptive plan tells us that to believe in him means we never die, we can rest assured that to believe in him means we will never die. Reason number 4, and this is my favorite. Why should we believe Jesus in making this promise? Number 4:
- Jesus is bound by nothing, not even time.
Now, I’m leaning this last reason toward my favorite angle of verse 58. Verse 58 is the end of the crescendo. This is the climax, the most outlandish, extreme, explicit claim to who Jesus is, so far. It’s no wonder that after he says this, they pick up stones to throw at him. He’s just told them that Abraham rejoiced in anticipating Jesus, and so the Jews respond to him in verse 57: “You are not yet 50 years old, and yet have you seen Abraham?” Verse 58, one of my favorite verses in all the Bible: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’”
This is by far the most explicit claim Jesus has made about himself up to this point in his earthly ministry. He’s doing a few things here. He is saying, yes, that he was there before Abraham was even born! 2,000 year ago. He’s certainly saying that. He’s also clearly using the name Yahweh uses for himself all the way back in Exodus 3:14. There God called himself “I am who I am,” and then he tells Moses to tell the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt that “I Am” is the one who has sent him. Jesus claiming that name for himself.
Also part of this is that Jesus is claiming eternal existence. C.K. Barrett paraphrases Jesus’ words like this: “Before Abraham came into being, I eternally was, as now I am, and ever continue to be.” There never was a time when I was not. I have always and eternally been in existence! The physical death that you and I and every human being are so afraid of—that death is an ending of sorts that implies that we also had a beginning! Well, guess what? Jesus didn’t have a beginning! Jesus exists eternally. He’s always existed.
Jesus Transcendent Over Time
Now, the last piece of this verse that must be understood is that Jesus is clearly saying, not only that he was there and that he’s existed eternally, but also that he is not bound by time. The language is very intentionally present tense. “Before Abraham was, I am.” As in, I’m there at that point in time, NOW! Kostenberger puts it like this: “Jesus does not simply say, ‘Before Abraham was, I was,’ which would simply mean that he is more than 2,000 years old. Rather, he uses the present tense ‘I am’ in speaking of existence more than 2,000 years earlier, thus claiming a kind of transcendence over time that could only be true of God.” So yes, he’s using the language Yahweh used of himself in the Old Testament, which is explicitly claiming to be God. But he’s also saying, “Before Abraham was, I am, as in I’m there now, in a sense.” I wasn’t just there 2,000 years ago. I’m there, 2,000 years ago, now!!
Jesus is not bound by time. I know this is something that is quite difficult for us to understand. I asked Jacob just last night, “Do you know what time is?” And he responded, “What does that even mean? Time for what?” It was funny hearing him say that, because that’s pretty much our answer even as adults! To think about what it is to exist outside of time: “What does that even mean?” There’s an exercise we do occasionally in Raintree 101: I want all of you to do what you would do if you existed outside of time. Are you ready? I’ll count to three, and you do what you would do if you were not bound by time…One, Two, Three: ?! We have no capacity for that, do we? No framework in which to understand fully what it is to be outside of time!
Part of that is because we’ve always been bound by time. We’ve always experienced this succession of moments that won’t stop. None of us are even able to slow time down, or speed it up. Maybe we can speed up our perception of time, by staying busy, or going to sleep. But we have no power to slow time down or speed time up, much less the power to stop time altogether, or work and act outside the bounds of time. I sure wish we did. I always thought that would be the best super-power, the ability to stop-time—much better than flying or teleporting or any other superhero power. Forget Batman and Spiderman.
Here’s the truth of it: Even though we cannot fathom what it means that God exists outside of time, we shouldn’t leave this subject frustrated. Instead, we should leave in awe. His ways are truly higher. His character is truly beyond our ability to fully comprehend. His power and glory are infinite! Listen, if you’re looking for qualifications. Can Jesus really say what he is saying? Can Jesus really guarantee that we will never taste spiritual death?! Can he? This is his highest qualification. If Jesus is not bound by time, nor anything else, what in the universe could stop him from fulfilling his promises?
How can we be sure that Jesus will keep this promise? We all know that it takes time to build trust, right? We don’t usually trust people immediately, especially with important things. That’s why I didn’t give baby Martin the keys to my pickup truck two weeks ago. I won’t even give him a toy small enough he can put in his mouth at this point, right? But even adults, it takes time to build trust. Listen, God has been making promises since the beginning of creation, and hear me: he hasn’t broken one yet! Jesus has the history of the universe as his background for trust. The history of the universe as proof of his integrity. Never has he ever broken trust.
When everything else in the world fails you, Jesus won’t. When everything else in the world fades, Jesus won’t. When everything else in the world changes, Jesus won’t. When all of us and everyone in the world runs out of time, Jesus doesn’t. When everything else dies, Jesus doesn’t, at least not permanently. He is the same yesterday, today and forever, and even time has no authority over him! He is the King of the Universe, and his promises will be fulfilled no matter what, because no one nor nothing has supremacy over him.
The Jews asked him, didn’t they? They asked this question, “Who do you make yourself out to be?” I’m God. More than ever before, this is exactly what he’s claiming. Listen, I know we’re afraid of death. We’re afraid because it’s certain that it will come at some point. We’re afraid because, in another sense, it’s uncertain: we don’t know exactly when or how it will come. But hear Jesus’ words. He’s not saying this just to make you happy even though it may not be true. He has no need to appease you with false promises. Throughout all the Bible, including Abraham, we see God’s people putting their trust in God, and he has yet to fail them. And, ultimately, Jesus is not bound by anything, not even time. You can trust his words! “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” He will never be separated from God again.
Have you listened to Jesus’ plea? Have you turned from your sin and believed upon Jesus, and what he has accomplished for us in his death and resurrection? And if you have, my question is this: have you become indifferent to the glory of Jesus? Are you in AWE of him?! Struck speechless?! Or have you become apathetic in your worship of him? Just ponder who Jesus is. To think that this God-man is so powerful and Kingly and glorious that not even time can limit him. He is the ultimate promise-keeper and the ultimate promise-fulfiller. All of God’s promises find their Yes in him. That means every promise God makes and every promise Jesus makes will be a “Yes.” Jesus will never break a promise, you can rest assured.