If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John, chapter 1, verses 1-4.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the Eternal Life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us; our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
John opens his letter saying that “Jesus was from the beginning.” That’s a strange sentence. But it’s something John fixates on in nearly everything he writes, whether it’s the Gospel of John, or these letters, or the Book of Revelation. Revelation is basically “protest literature,” like the Letter From A Birmingham Jail, or something, but it’s all built on the idea that “Jesus existed before all of this stuff,” kind of like Paul says in Colossians, that “everything is created through Jesus, and for Jesus,” John says that “Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world” in Revelation 13:8.
And if you were a Jewish Christian, like John, you’d immediately recognize that Revelation is talking about the “Passover Lamb.” Like in the book of Exodus, when God was springing the Jews out of slavery under Egypt, God sent a series of “plagues.”
Each of the plagues serve two purposes: The less important purpose was that each plague targeted a different cornerstone in the “Egyptian economy” – so the Nile filled with blood, and it’s hard to get by without that; flies swarmed throughout the countrysides, which ruined most of their crops, and so on.
But even more importantly, scholars in the field of “comparative religion” have shown that each of the plagues that God enacts on Egypt roughly corresponds with one of the pagan gods that the Egyptians worshipped. And so a message comes through, if you are an Egyptian living during the time of “The Exodus,” that it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re the “Global Superpower” right now, you can only be “The Baddest Kid On The Playground” for so long, because the God of Israel is coming to liberate your slaves, and your gods can’t help you.
And so the final plague that God enacts on Egypt is to put to death the firstborn children in every household throughout the entire land. That’s horrifying. The nausea that you felt when I said that was the correct response. That’s the idea.
It wasn’t “fixed.” You weren’t doomed to lose your firstborn just by virtue of being an Egyptian. You don’t really get this from movies like “The Prince of Egypt,” but not one Egyptian needed to die in the process of freeing the slaves from their clutches.
God said, “I will spare anyone who covers their door post with the blood of a lamb on the night of the plague” – he would “pass over” their household – so Moses goes to Pharaoh and he warns him, and God gives Pharaoh one final chance to free the Israelites from slavery, and Pharaoh declines.
And so the Israelites spread the word about what’s happening, and the Book of Exodus doesn’t really go into details here, but reading through the history you get the sense they must have gone “street preaching” or something, because a bunch of their Egyptian Neighbors have caught on – after nine plagues – and said, “There is a God in Israel, and I want that God to be my God.” So the Israelites and the Egyptians who listened to them cover their doorposts in “lamb’s blood,” and when midnight strikes, every firstborn in Egypt dies.
But for the Israelites, and for the Egyptians who believed, not one child was harmed. In “Southern-Baptist-speak,” they were “saved by the blood of the lamb.” That’s what religious Jews celebrate every Passover. It’s what we celebrate every Easter. And it’s what John frames his gospel around.
Because according to John, “Jesus is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” Jesus is like the “Passover Lamb.” What God is doing in Passover points to what God is doing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So Jesus, obviously, wasn’t sacrificed for our sins before the world was created, but the way that John puts it, the decision was made: Jesus decided, before he “created the world for himself,” that he would come to Earth as a human, live a life that fulfilled all of his own requirements for us, and then allow us to murder him for our own sins. So Jesus becomes our Passover Lamb.
Because, on our own, we are like Egypt, because we work hard to keep the brokenness of this world on “life support.” If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we spend an astonishing degree of time and energy making sure that the world stays horrifying, right? And as with Egypt, a just God will see to it that we Get What’s Coming To Us. But Jesus is like the Passover Lamb, and when his blood covers us, we become like “the Israelites who were spared,” we become like “the Egyptians who believed them.”
So Jesus’s plan, from the creation of the world, was to rescue us from our sin by sacrificing himself for us: He is “The Lamb Slain Before The Foundation Of The World.”
And few weeks back I had a conversation with some Jehovah’s Witnesses who were evangelizing in downtown Wake Forest, and our hang up ultimately came down to exactly this. Because in some sense, they have very good theology: They make a big deal about Jesus as our sacrifice; they place a lot of stock on the fact that Jesus was a perfect human being who was able to take our sin onto himself because he didn’t have any sin of his own – and that’s right, but it isn’t right enough.
Because it’s absolutely true that Jesus is a “perfect human being.” It’s absolutely true that he’s able to take our sin on to himself because he has no sin of his own. But he is also God himself: Everything was created through Jesus, by Jesus, and for Jesus.
In verse three of John’s gospel, he says that “Not one thing that has been made was made apart from Jesus.” Jesus wasn’t a “creation,” he is “the creator.” So God couldn’t have just grabbed any “perfect man” or “perfect woman” off the streets and said “I’m going to punish you for the sins of humanity.”
When people say that God is unjust because of the Cross, they’re usually thinking about something like that: When people say that the death and resurrection of Jesus is “divine child abuse” – maybe you’ve heard that one – they’re usually thinking of something along those lines.
But Jesus wasn’t just an exceptionally good man that God plucked out of his living room and then punished for our sins. That would be horrifying. That’s the sort of thing that the Egyptian gods would do. That’s an awful lot like that short book The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where there’s a thriving city of people but their “thriving city” depends on there being one child, selected at random, who is tortured underground. This is not like that.
This is God himself. This is the God that we sinned against. Jesus is the God that we betrayed in the garden. He is the God whose face we bloody every time we sin against somebody else. Jesus is the person that you have personally wronged every time you’ve broken God’s commands, or broken somebody’s trust. Jesus is who you sinned against. So he’s the only one who can die in your place.
This is a stupid analogy, but I’m running with it anyway: The cross is not like catching your firstborn son breaking all your China plates and then punishing your secondborn son instead. It’s like catching your firstborn son breaking all your China plates and punishing yourself.
Throughout John’s life, he had a sworn enemy – which is funny, because John’s not really the kind of guy that you’d expect to have a “sworn enemy.” Every time his name comes up throughout the gospels or Acts, you get the sense that he was the “Fred Rogers” of the group, and what we know from the rest of history pretty much confirms that.
But there was a guy named Cerinthus who managed to find his way into his “crosshairs.” Cerinthus was a heretic from the first century who traveled around the empire knocking over most everything John and the other Apostles would build up.
Cerinthus and his cronies would set up camp in a village that had been evangelized and pretend to be associates of the Apostles. So they would tell new converts that they had a “unique revelation” that the apostles “hadn’t known about yet” when they first evangelized them, then they would spend a few weeks “hammering it into their heads.”
And so Cerinthus and his entourage would teach that “When Jesus came to Earth, he wasn’t actually a human”; that he didn’t really “put on human flesh and blood and bone,” subject himself to “disease and fatigue”; he didn’t actually “live in someone’s womb for nine months” and then go through the process of being born; that he didn’t really have to learn how to ride a bike, or build a table, or tend to the family farm.
According to Cerinthus, all of that would have been “beneath” the God of the universe. So he taught that Jesus was kind of like a “projection” of “God’s personality,” thrown up on a “projector screen” here on Earth. So according to Cerinthus, when villagers would encounter Jesus, they weren’t talking to a flesh-and-blood human being, they were talking to a “spirit,” like a “ghost,” or a “disembodied soul.”
Because Cerinthus and his people didn’t think that anyone with “human flesh,” and “human feelings,” and “human thoughts” could be perfect. Cerinthus believed that human persons were “damaged goods” that ought to be returned rather than repaired.
But John says that he “Saw Jesus, and he heard him, and touched him with his hands.” And that’s important, because you can’t touch a “ghost.” If Jesus couldn’t have flesh and blood and bone, John and the Apostles couldn’t “touch him with their hands.”
Jesus walked the Earth. He wasn’t a “magic spirit being.” He became a human like you and me. So when he obeyed God’s commands, he did it as a human like you or me.
It wasn’t like a video game; he didn’t do it on “cheat mode.” He obeyed by deciding to obey instead of sinning. He obeyed by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and submitting to the commands that God had given through Moses and the prophets. So when he was crucified, sinless, it wasn’t a “cop out.” He didn’t save our souls “on a technicality.” The fact that he was God himself didn’t “cancel out” his humanity.
He played the same game we play, he lived the same life we live, on the same terms that we live in, with the same limitations that we face. But Christ was obedient where we were rebellious.
So when we crucified him, he wasn’t punished for his own sins – because he didn’t have any sin to be punished – he was punished for ours. All of my sin, for all of my life, was nailed to the cross with Jesus. And when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, we were raised up with him – and all of his obedience, over all of his life, was given to us. So as far as the scales are concerned, it’s as though you and I have always obeyed just like Jesus obeyed.
And that’s possible because Jesus came to Earth as a human. And we know that because John saw him and heard him and touched him with his hands.
John says, “We testify and declare to you the “Eternal life” that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” And that’s interesting, because a lot of us grew up memorizing John 3:16, which says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have ‘Eternal Life’.”
And when you isolate the verse off from everything else, and when you’re 6 years old, you get the sense that the verse is saying that “If you believe in God, instead of dying, you’ll not die, and you’ll keep not dying forever.”
I remember being six and hearing a rumor that “If you asked Jesus into your heart, God wouldn’t light you on fire for all of eternity.” We’d just learned “John 3:16” in our Children’s Sunday School Class, and the message was spreading quickly. And I didn’t really understand what the kid meant when he said “Ask Jesus Into Your Heart” – because what would you think that meant if you were six? – but I was excited about the prospect of Not Getting Lit On Fire, so I told my parents that I wanted to “Ask Jesus In My Heart.”
We talked to the pastor, he asked some probing questions that I apparently stumbled my way through answering correctly, and then he said it was time to get “baptized.” I didn’t really know what it meant to get baptized, but I knew that water was the opposite of fire, so it seemed like the obvious measure to take in my quest to not get lit on fire for all of eternity.
Because it’s easy to get that idea about “Eternal Life” when you bracket off verses like John 3:16 from the rest of the Bible. As though “Eternal Life” amounts to Not Getting Lit On Fire For Eternity, And Not Much Else. But reading through 1st John you get a very different idea: John writes that the “Eternal Life” was “with the Father” and then he “came to Earth,” and “we saw him,” and “we heard him,” and “we touched him with our hands.” “Eternal Life” is a person.
“Eternal Life” is Jesus Christ, and because God “loved the world,” he “sent his only son” so that “everyone who believes” in Jesus “won’t perish,” but instead they get Jesus.
You’ve heard this enough times already, but you’re going to hear it again constantly: The thing you get when you’re “reconciled to God” is you get God. The thing you get when God “sends his only son to keep you from perishing” is you get Jesus. When you get “Eternal Life” you’re getting God himself. You’re getting a person. You are getting What We Lost In The Garden. And what we lost in the garden was God.
Cerinthus didn’t care about that. Being reconciled to God wasn’t even on his radar. For the heretics that John was facing off against salvation meant not burning. It meant “overcoming your body.” It meant “enjoying a pleasant afterlife.” It didn’t have a blasted thing to do with being reconciled to God. And if you don’t want to be reconciled to God, you won’t be.
That was really the thing that kept me converting for 17 years: Once I was no longer terribly concerned that I was going to get “lit on fire,” I had no reason to go “groveling” before that “Invisible Man In The Sky” that my grandparents talked about. I didn’t want to be reconciled to God, because that also meant obeying him. The problem with “believing in God” is that when you “believe in God,” it means that God isn’t you, and that your plans and hopes and dreams might have to change “according to his will.” And I did not want that.
What I wanted was to not get lit on fire. That was the extent of my interest in “God’s godness.” Because if being “reconciled to God” also means “submitting ourselves to him,” most folks have no particular interest in being reconciled. Encountering Jesus will either “Harden your heart,” like the Pharisees or the Rich Young Ruler, or it’ll “break open” the wall you’ve built around your heart, like it did with Zacchaeus, or the Woman at the Well.
When the Woman at the Well encountered Jesus, she went and told everybody in her village; she brought them back to meet Jesus and encounter him for themselves. Witnessing Jesus caused her to become a “witness” to other people. When Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, he witnessed to everyone he’d ever wronged by “righting the wrongs” he’d done to them: He was a tax collector who stole money from the poor, so he righted the wrongs that he had committed against them by paying back four times what he had taken from them.
And this wasn’t just “guilt doing its work,” although I’m sure he felt plenty guilty for the things he’d done; this was what we call repentance. This is the way the Holy Spirit begins to mold your behavior when you’ve encountered the “Eternal Life” that is in Jesus Christ and responded in faith.
And for the same reason, John and the other disciples now “bear witness” to the things that they “saw and heard and touched with their hands” during Jesus’s ministry. The people who encountered Jesus became witnesses, and, as a result, the gospel spread rapidly into every corner of Galilee, and then into every corner of Palestine, and then into every corner of the Roman Empire, and beyond.
To this day it’s one of the great “anomalies of history,” sociologists and historians are still writing lengthy books and getting grants to research all the particular reasons why Christianity spread throughout the empire and pretty much swallowed up the culture.
And the common denominator seems to be that the earliest Christians were disciples who made disciples who made disciples. It’s exactly that simple.
Like John says in verse 4, they would bear witness to the “Eternal Life” that is in Jesus Christ “so that their joy could be complete.” Over time, as the Holy Spirit works on your soul, different things begin to make you “joyful.”
God doesn’t just begin to take away your selfishness, or your cruelty, or your greed, he shapes you into someone whose joy can only be “complete” through obedience. So your joy can only be complete by “following God’s good commands,” by fellowshipping with God’s people, by immersing yourself in God’s word.
And eventually your joy can only be complete by sharing the good news of Gods great kindness to us through Jesus Christ with other people. And when a whole group of people have that posture, what happens is that the world starts to tip and then turn right-side-up.
If you want a bird’s-eye view of how this plays out, read through the book of Acts. Because what we see in the book of Acts is that believers would congregate and leverage their resources to canvas the whole city, regularly – even obnoxiously – adopting their nearby regions as a “mission field” of their own.
Because for every Paul, there were thousands of Priscas and Aquilas – folks who stayed home, and turned home into a place where God’s people were multiplying daily. We hear a lot about the “traveling missionaries” from the first century (like Paul) because they wrote most of the New Testament as aids for their traveling ministries. But the actual life-blood of the earliest Church was the normal folks with nine-to-fives and a relentless commitment to evangelizing their own city while Paul and his associates traveled the world.
As you read through the book of Acts and you read about what John and Paul and Peter and others have gone before us in doing, you see that the folks who turn the world right-side-up with the gospel are usually not the “Billy Grahams,” they are the “Bill Jeffersons,” who run a shop downtown and make $44,000 a year, and have no leadership position in their Church, and pay their taxes, and babysit their grandchildren, and regularly invite their neighbors and co-workers to their house, and regularly talk to them about the gospel, and regularly volunteer themselves to help in their time of need, and regularly force themselves into situations in which they “become witnesses to the Eternal Life that is in Jesus Christ” in their own home and their own neighborhood and their own city and their own community. What Louisburg, North Carolina needs from us is for us to be that.
I’ll be at the front, as we sing. If you are not friends with the Jesus that John is talking about, here, Come talk to me while we’re singing. I’d like to be the person who walks you through the process of turning yourself over to Jesus to be forgiven for your sins and adopted into God’s family.