Tuesday, September 23, 2014

So Close and Yet So Far

Life of Christ 124

        It is now December. Jesus will die the following April. During the Feast of Tabernacles in October in Jerusalem the contention was so sharp between Jesus and Israel's religious leadership that three separate attempts were made on His life. Now, after a two month sojourn evangelizing through Judea will He find the same deadly antagonism in Jerusalem in December that He found in October? Today's story (John 10.22-39) shows us that the answer is yes.
          'And it was at Jerusalem in the feast of the dedication, and it was winter' (John 10.22). Two hundred years before Christ Syria controlled Palestine. A Syrian general, Antioches Epiphanes, attacked Jerusalem, slaughtering thousands. He would go on to attack the entire Jewish approach to life, and to desecrate Ezra's Temple in spectacularly awful ways. He raised an altar to Zeus in the courtyard, and then sacrificed pigs on it. He forced Jews to eat pork, outlawed observance of the Sabbath, outlawed circumcision, and many other aspects of Judaism.
          Like so many other rules throughout history, he badly underestimated the loyalty the Jews had to their religion. This loyalty, aggravated by the brutality of Antioches Epiphanes, produced the very revolt he was trying, via his intimidation, to stop. The succeeding rebellion brought the greatest victory for a Jewish army since the time of Josiah four centuries earlier.
          After that victory, the Jewish leaders, knows as the Maccabees, cleansed and formally rededicated the Temple complex. This occasion was remembered with an annual observance every December called the Feast of Dedication. Its memorial continues today. You and I know it as Hanukkah.
          Jesus, walking through the Temple during Hanukkah, is confronted by Jews who demand to know, plainly, without any symbolic language, if Jesus really does claim to be the Messiah (John 10.23-24). What a frustrating question this must have been to Him! He has already told them this again and again, and He has proven His claim, via specific prophecy, via a sinless life, via years of good works, and via dozens of public miracles. Yet, in spite of this veritable mountain of evidence, they still refuse to believe on Him (John 10.25).
          The truth is the Jewish problem was not that they were not sure about His claims, nor was it that He had not proven His claims. The Jewish problem was rebellion; they just refused to believe. In the struggle for the soul of Israel's religion they had chosen the wrong shepherd (the Pharisees) over the right shepherd (Jesus). Thus, they were not His sheep, and thus they did not have eternal life (John 10.26-28).
          Then, as His custom was, He initiates the next step in the conversation, and takes it right to the heart of the matter. The Jews needed to believe He was Who He said He was, and so He plainly tells them again, not just that He was the Messiah, but that He was God. 'I and my Father are one' (John 10.30).

          To the Jews of Jesus' day this was blasphemy. Theirs was the world's first monotheistic religion, and that concept was at the core of who they were. When Jesus claimed to be God they thought it violated their precious monotheistic beliefs. Of course, they were wrong, and drastically so, for though there is only one God He exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
          The concept of the Trinity is not just a New Testament teaching advanced by Christ. It was first found in the Old Testament, the Jewish Torah. For instance, the very first name for God in Genesis 1 is Elohim, which is defined as a plural, yet still singular God. In that same chapter God repeatedly refers to Himself in the plural, 'Let us make man in our image.' Then there are the direct prophecies in Isaiah which refer to the promised messiah as God, and the direct prophecies in Psalms which do likewise.
          The Jews, however, refused to see this, no matter how many prophecies Jesus fulfilled, no matter how many miracles He performed, and no matter how many people He helped. There are some who scoff at this, and attempt to say that Jesus never claimed to be divine, and that this was foisted upon Him posthumously by overly zealous disciples. Such an attack could not be further from the truth. The Jews of Jesus' own day clearly understood that He claimed to be God. This is plainly seen in their response. 'Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him' (John 10.31). 'The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God' (John 10.33).
          The deity of Christ was the single biggest stumbling block for the Jews, even more so than His claim to be the Messiah, and until they come to recognize the validity of that claim they will remain outside of His flock. I realize the Jews are still God's chosen people, but they corporately chose to reject Him 2000 years ago, and individually, most of them still choose to reject Him today. Thus, they have no eternal life, but are instead headed for the torments of hell.
          The Jewish people are so close, and yet so far. They believe the Old Testament is God's Word. They believe in only one God, Jehovah. They believe in strict obedience to Him. They believe in the veracity and inerrancy of the prophets. They give themselves so much to God that their religious observance became what it means to be a Jew. To be Jewish is to be religious in a way that is not true about any other ethnicity. But even though they pursue God with everything they have they still completely miss the truth. 'Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge' (Romans 10.1-2).
          Beloved, we cannot measure either people or institutions by their good works, their moral message, or their pursuit of God. The Mormon religion famously upholds conservative family values (which is highly ironic, given their history), and promotes moral political candidates, but we cannot thus judge them to be correct. Mother Teresa nobly gave her life to help the dirt poor slum dwellers of Calcutta but at the same time vociferously denied the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. We must measure them, not by how close they are to us, or by how similar our belief systems are, but by this: what do they believe about Jesus Christ?

          'For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for every one that believeth' (Romans 10.3-4). 'That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved' (Romans 10.9).
          How close are you?
  'Well, I believe in God.'
          'I have read the Bible.'
          'I try to live right.'
          'I am a moral person.'
          But what do you believe about Jesus Christ? Do you believe He was Who He claimed to be? Have you placed your complete faith in Him, and Him alone, not yourself, as your sole hope for eternal life? If you have then you are in good hands (John 10.29). If you have not, I do not care how close you are in other respects, you will miss out on eternal life and burn in hell forever.
          'Wow. That's harsh.' Actually, no it is not. It is the kindest thing in the world to tell you. What a tragedy to be so close, and yet so far. Give in. Yield. Submit. Humble yourself. Come to Christ.

          'Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved' (Acts 4.12).  

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