RPM, Volume 15, Number 18, April 28 to May 4, 2013

Acknowledging Jesus Christ

1 John 4:1-6

(Series on 1 John: No. 13)

By Robert Rayburn

Text Comments:

In these verses John finishes his second cycle of comment on the three great 'tests of life': he has already for the second time considered the test of obedience and the test of love; and now he comes again to the third test, the test of fidelity to Jesus Christ.

V. 1: John seems to be saying that behind every human teacher is a spirit, and behind each spirit either God or the Devil. Testing the teaching of religious teachers will reveal what spiritual world they represent.

V. 4: overcome them: i.e. overcome these false teachers by refusing to accept their heresies and by forcing them to withdraw from you (cf. 2:19) 'The one who is in you' = 'The Spirit of Truth' in v. 6.

This past week I read a George MacDonald novel, published originally in 1876, entitled Thomas Wingfold, Curate. It is a lovely and moving story, told in typical MacDonald style, of a young Anglican minister in an English country village parish. Like many Anglican ministers of his day, Thomas Wingfold entered the ministry because it was an honorable profession, because it would provide him with a decent living, and because his family and friends had thought it a good choice. He had no theological convictions about it, was under no divine constraint. Indeed, he hardly thought about religious questions at all. He merely read the Sunday morning services of the Book of Common Prayer and attended to the other duties of a parish minister. His sermons he borrowed without acknowledgement from others with no thought to the ethics of this, aware that it was the standard practice among many curates of his day.

But one fateful day, Wingfold fell into conversation with a young lawyer, a man of the world, a sophisticated, modern young man who was proud of how little he believed of the doctrine of the church of which his own father had also been a minister. The conversation went this way:

"Now, I am going to be honest with you," replied Bascombe abruptly, taking the cigar from his mouth. He stopped and turned toward his companion. "I like you," Bascombe went on, "for you seem reasonable. And besides, a man ought to speak out what he thinks. So here goes! Tell me honestly, do you really believe one word of all that?" And as he spoke he pointed in the direction of the great tower.

The curate was taken by surprise and made no answer. It was as if he had received a sudden blow in the face. Recovering himself presently, however, he sought room to pass the question without direct encounter.

"How did the thing come to be there?" Wingfold countered pointing to the church tower. "By faith, no doubt," answered Bascombe, laughing, "--but not your faith. No, nor the faith of any of the last few generations."

"How can you say there is no faith in these recent generations? There are more churches built now, ten times over, than in any former period of our history," protested Thomas.

"Churches, yes," replied Bascombe. "But faith--I'm not so sure. Just because there's a church standing somewhere doesn't necessarily mean there's faith inside its walls. And what sort of churches are they you refer to? All imitations. You are indebted to your forefathers for your would-be belief, as well as for whatever may be genuine in your churches. You hardly know what your belief is. Take my aunt--as good a specimen as I know of what you call a Christian! Yet she thinks and speaks no differently than those you would refer to as heathens."

"....In truth," he continued, "I do not believe that even you believe more than an atom here and there of what you profess. I am confident you have a great deal more good sense than to believe it."

"....But, come now--did you not come to the church and become a clergy man merely as a profession, as a means to earn your bread?"

Wingfold did not answer. This was precisely the reason he had signed the articles and sought holy orders. He had never entertained a single question as to the truth or reality in either act.

That conversation was an epoch in the life of Thomas Wingfold, and from that moment the young curate's life was dominated by this single question: was Christianity the truth or not, was Jesus Christ the Son of God and Savior of the world or not? With the help of a few of his parishioners, who knew what their minister did not, he began to make his way slowly and haltingly to the truth. And his sermons, as a result, became more honest, and more ardent and serious, and more biblical and more Christian, to the disgust of many of his hearers, to the amusement of some others, and to the liberation and salvation of still others.

Until, at the end of the story, Wingfold is the very antithesis of what he once was--the indifferent, inoffensive, and irrelevant minister filling his post and receiving his pay--. No, now mastered by the truth of Jesus Christ, as he had discovered it for himself, he spoke to his congregation this way:

"You have borne with me in my trials, and I thank you. One word more to those who call themselves Christians among you but who, as I so recently did myself, present such a withered idea of Christianity that they cause the truth to hang its head rather than ride forth on a white horse to conquer the world for Jesus. You dull the luster of the truth in the eyes of men. You do not represent that which it is, but yet you call yourselves by its name. You are not the salt of the earth, but a salt that has lost its savor. I say these things not to judge you, for I was one of you such a short time ago. But I say to you simply, it is time to awake! Until you repent and believe afresh; believe in a nobler Christ, namely the Christ of history and the Christ of the Bible rather than the vague form which false interpretations of men have substituted for him--until you believe in him rightly you will continue to be the main reason why faith is so scanty on the earth. And whether you do in some sense believe or not, one fact remains--while you are not a Christian who obeys the word of the master, doing the things he says rather than merely listening to them, talking about then, and holding certain opinions about them, then you will be one of those to whom he will say, "I never knew you; go forth into the outer darkness.'

"But what unspeakable joy and contentment awaits you when you, like St. Paul, can be crucified with Christ, to live no more from your own self but to be thereafter possessed with the same faith toward the Father in which Jesus lived and did the will of the Father. Truly our destiny is a glorious one--because we have a God supremely grand, all-perfect. Unity with him alone can be the absolute bliss for which we were created. Therefore, I say to you, as I say to myself: awaken your spirits, and give your hearts and souls to him! For this you were created by him, and to this we are called--every one."

Now MacDonald's story precisely fits the burden of the six verses from 1 John 4 which we have read this morning. The question they pose to us is the same question the young lawyer posed to Thomas Wingfold: do you really believe this? In particular: do you believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh and is from God? It is the critical question. There are others, to be sure; but this question is the fundamental question; all others come after it and depend entirely upon the answer you give to this one. Do you believe what we confess over and over again about Jesus Christ?

Well, first we should remind ourselves what it is we do confess. John puts it this way: we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God. And by that he says, explicitly, that he means two things; or, perhaps better, we can put that fact in two ways.

I. First, Jesus Christ is the pre-existent eternal God.

He puts this point in a striking way in v. 2. He says that we must believe, if we are genuine Christians, that 'Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.' Do you see what John has done in so speaking? He has unmistakably stated that the Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, did not begin his existence in his mother's womb and in the manger in Bethlehem. No, Jesus Christ came in the flesh from God.

Now, the fact is, and no Bible writer doubts this, the man Jesus Christ, did begin to exist when he was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary and when he was born in Bethlehem. There never was a Jesus of Nazareth until that historical moment. But, the one who came to be born to Mary as a man, existed already with God and as God. What is so striking about John's way of speaking is that he gives the human name of the Son of God--Jesus Christ--to the eternal second person of the triune God; who had no human nature or human name until he came to be born of Mary. The two natures--the eternal divine nature and the human nature which the Son of God put on or added to himself when he came to be born a man--so belong to the one person, that now he can be referred to by his human name, and now by his divine name. Thomas can stand before the man Jesus Christ and call him 'My Lord and my God' and Jude can say that Jesus the Son of Mary delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt, some fourteen hundred years before the first Christmas.

This is one of the most striking ways in which Holy Scripture teaches us that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal second person of the triune God, who always has been, who made the world, and who made himself known to his people from the very beginning of human history. It gives his human name Jesus Christ to the Son of God in retrospect, with reference to time and to events before the birth of Jesus to Mary. Jesus Christ came from heaven; Jesus Christ came to be born of a woman, born under the law.

You did not come to be born. You were born; you did not exist before you were conceived and born. But Jesus Christ did; not, of course, in his human nature, but in his nature and person as the eternal Son of God and now that he is also a man, his eternal person can be referred to just as well by his human name as by his divine name.

This is the first way John states the most fundamental doctrine of our faith as Christians.

II. The second way John makes the point is to speak of Jesus Christ coming in the flesh.

There was a time when the one we call Jesus Christ existed without a human nature, without the genuine flesh and blood life of mankind. But now he has come in the flesh; the eternal Son of God has taken to himself a true body and a rational soul; he has become a real man in addition to God. The Latin words for 'in the flesh' are 'in caro' and from them we get the theological word 'incarnation', which means the 'becoming man of the Son of God' or the in fleshment of the Son of God. He always was as God, but he began to be also a man only when he came, that is when he was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary and was born of her.

Whether you put it the first way--that Jesus Christ in his divine nature and person had lived eternally as the Son of God before he ever came into the world as a man; or the second way--that the Son of God has become incarnate, has added to himself a human nature which he did not have before--you are saying the same thing: that Jesus of Nazareth is both the eternally existent second person of the triune God and a real, genuine, and true man, like you and like me, except that he is without sin.

Whether Jesus himself says, as he does in John 8:58: 'before Abraham was born, I am!' or he says, as he does in John 6:33: 'for the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world' in either case he is saying what John says of him here: that Jesus Christ is both God and man, that the one person can be referred to either by his divine or his human name; that Jesus Christ, who lived eternally as the Son of God became a man by the incarnation in the womb of the virgin Mary.

It is no wonder, I suppose, that so many find the Gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for it presents us unquestionably with claims which defy our understanding. A claim more astonishing than anything you will read in fiction. We do not know how a divine person can also become a man and yet remain a single person. We do not know how Jesus Christ can be true God and true man at one and the same time. But this is unquestionably what the Scripture insists is true and what it requires us to believe.

But it is also very true to say that this is really the only major difficulty that anyone should have with the Christian faith. For you see, if you accept this; that the baby in Bethlehem was also the eternal Son of God who made the heavens and the earth, all the other questions answer themselves.

People ask: how can the death of a Jew on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago have any bearing on my life today? How is it that this one and no other is the Savior of the world and that everyone is absolutely obliged to believe in Him to be saved? Or how can it possibly be true that a man killed in the thorough way in which Roman soldiers executed their prisoners, could have risen from the dead? Or what of this notion of the virgin birth, or the claims the Bible makes about the miracles, which Jesus supposedly performed. Surely no sophisticated 20th century mind, educated in the ways of science and nature, can swallow all of that!

But, you see, once admit the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is the eternal God, God the Son; and all of those questions lose their force altogether. If as the Scripture teaches us, Almighty God has become man for our salvation, some remarkable beginning, such as the virgin birth, is only to be expected. Of course he would and could work wonders: the creator of all things can do what he will! And, of course, his life and his death must be fundamentally decisive for the destiny of all mankind; how could it be otherwise if the living God, the creator of all men, should undertake such a stupendous task as to become a man--without the loss of his deity--a man for men, to live and to die in their place, to suffer for their sins. Surely, if this is true it is impossible that there could be some other way of salvation! And the resurrection? Grant the incarnation and the resurrection is no longer a problem at all; indeed, it is far more difficult to believe that the God man should die, than that he should rise again. Of course death could not defeat the God the Son!

The bottom, the foundation, the bedrock of Christianity and of any Christian faith, then, is not the cross--utterly crucial as that is; not the empty tomb, fabulously important as that is; but it is, rather, the fact of the incarnation; that the person who died on that cross and who came out of that tomb alive was God made man; the eternal God incarnate! Accept this: really accept it; really believe it; really come to acknowledge Jesus Christ this way, and everything else comes with it: faith, hope, peace, and love. Deny this; or remain indifferent to the incarnation, and nothing else you do or think can matter at all. This is the key that opens every door.

Now, says John, do you really believe it? Really believe it? Sometimes I think that I must not believe it; little difference as it sometimes seems to make in the way I live, with what faith, with what wonder, with what excitement, with what hope, with what sense of obligation I live. But then the mists part, the light of the glory of Christ, the incarnate Word, comes blindingly into my heart and I know for a certainty that the incarnation is not only fact; but it is the only absolutely important and luminous fact in all the world and in all of my life or any person's life. That this is the fact by which all other facts must be weighed; the truth by which any life will at last be measured; which if it is truth received and taken to heart must be life forevermore; but, conversely, if it is truth ignored or rejected or despised, must rather be condemnation and death.

How the incarnation must affect, galvanize, inspire, hearten, constrain, motivate, direct, and rule us. For we say that Jesus Christ the man is also the Almighty Jehovah; He lived, died, and rose again for us; he ascended to the Right Hand, he is coming a second time as he came the first.

This incarnate Son of God said that if we would pray, HE would draw near to hear us; HE said that he would be with us always; HE said that those who acknowledged Him, he would acknowledge to his Father in Heaven; HE said that if we would abide in him and walk with him he would abide in us and walk with us; HE said that if we would forgive one another the sins we have committed against each other, he would forgive our sins; HE said that if we would believe in him and trust in him he would give us eternal life.

And He said to those who do not yet know Him: 'Come to me, you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.' He can and he will do all of this and much more, because he is God the Son, now made man for us.

Here is John's point: no one should have to ask us if we believe that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. That fact is so immense in its significance, so wonderful in its consequences, so breathtaking in its meaning that the fact that we know it and believe it and have built our lives upon it should be writ large over every day of our lives, over the words we speak, the deeds we perform, over the entire fabric of our existence.

Because they really believed in the incarnation, these Christians to whom John was writing drove out those who had come with a different message. If we really believe it too we will not only tolerate no softness, no waffling, no hedging on this most fundamental of all Christian affirmations, but we will also live lives which very clearly take the form and shape they do because lying beneath them, as bedrock, is the majestic fact that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.

Do you believe it? It is, of course, the truth. And we have nothing but sorrow in our hearts for those in our day who invest such effort and ingenuity in the hope that somehow they can fashion a Christianity without the incarnation. But what remains is always the Christianity of Thomas Wingfold--a colorless moralism with no power to change lives and certainly no power to lift them up to the City of God. But when this fact is grasped...that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh...what a revolution it brings!

I do not know if George MacDonald knew of William Haslam when he wrote his novel Thomas Wingfold, Curate. The dates are such that he may well have known about him; may well, even, have had William Haslam in his mind as he sketched out his character Thomas Wingfold; for Haslam in the real world, was exactly what Wingfold was in MacDonald's fiction. William Haslam, a young English gentleman, university educated, needed, it was thought by his doctor, the bracing air of Cornwall's north coast to complete his recovery from a period of ill health. Needing an income, he applied for an opening as parish curate in a small Cornish village.

He was largely a failure as a pastor. He read the daily and Sabbath services and administered the sacraments according to the established forms, but he had nothing else to offer his parishioners. And a number of them, of a more spiritual mind, took exception to the fact that--like MacDonald's character Wingfold--so many of his sermons were not his own; were simply edited versions of the sermons of John Henry Newman, the high church Anglican later to become Roman Catholic Cardinal.

Some three years later he was given another parish not far away. And it was there that William Haslam's name would go down in Christian history. Visiting another minister and speaking with him of the gospel and the ministry, Haslam--like MacDonald's hero Thomas Wingfold--began to be acutely disturbed by the realization that, though a minister, he did not have the living faith in Christ that others seemed to have. A few days later, on October 19, 1851, Haslam was in his own pulpit explaining to a full church the text: 'What think ye of the Christ?' and pointing out that the Pharisees had been condemned because they had failed to believe that Christ had come from heaven to save them from their sins. As he preached, he realized for the first time that he did not really believe it either. But as he continued with his sermon, he saw the truth more and more clearly. He tells the story in his autobiography:

'I do not remember all that I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul...Whether it was something in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up, and putting up his arms, shouted out as only a Cornishman can, "the parson's converted! The parson's converted! Hallelujah!" and in another moment his voice was lost in the shouts and praises of three or four hundred of the congregation.' And so William Haslam has gone down in church history as the minister converted by his own sermon.

But see, brothers and sisters, and see too, you who do not yet believe, you who have not yet reckoned with the fact of the incarnation--that fact above all other facts--that in real life, as much as in George MacDonald's fiction, when the truth that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh dawns upon a man or a woman, it changes him, it transforms her, and will continue to do so until we are made like him because we see him as he is.

Embrace this truth, stand on it, live by it, conform your existence to it: Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh.

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