Do you have a favourite musical group? No doubt it has changed through the years. When I was a young teen, I liked Herman’s Hermits. Then I graduated into a number of Canadian Bands, BTO, Five Man Electrical Band, Trooper, April Wine.
When I went to Bible college, most of those groups were frowned upon so I gravitated to the Imperials.
In my late twenties and early thirties, I discovered the Highwaymen. That would be Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. We actually got to see them in concert while we were living in Australia.
The summer we launched Cornerstone; 1995, I found a new favourite group. It was a small-time pub band that played at Bedford Days that year. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Great Big Sea.
In 1997 the band had a hit with a song called, “How’d we get from Saying I Love You.”
The chorus goes,
It’s an awkward conversation in a most peculiar way…
How did we get from saying ‘I love you’
To ‘I’ll see you around someday’
How does a relationship move from one extreme to another? And we’ve all seen it or experienced it ourselves. Best of friends and then not even speaking. Sometimes it’s an event that happens, someone gets hurt or offended or sometimes it’s just time and distance.
And most of us have seen it in marriages. When two people move from being lovers to simply being roommates. They went from two becoming one and then went back to one becoming two again. They don’t hate each other, there’s no abuse, and they’ve simply decided the benefits of staying together outweigh the cost of divorce.
And unfortunately, we’ve all been witness to when someone moves from being a passionate follower of Jesus to a lukewarm believer or an agnostic or atheist.
There were a number of people I went to Bible college with who were passionately in love with Jesus, and yet somehow, they’ve gone from saying ‘I love you’ To ‘I’ll see you around someday’
And the common factor in each of those cases that I mentioned is that it usually takes time. It doesn’t just happen overnight.
In the scripture that we are looking at this morning we see that very thing happen, but in a very condensed period of time.
The reading ended with these words, John 8:58–59 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!” At that point they picked up stones to throw at him. . .
I’ve read that dozens of times and have referenced that text numerous times through the years, but this was the first time that I realized where the story actually began.
It begins in verse 31, with these words, John 8:31–32 Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
How do you go from, “Jesus said to the people who believed in him” to “At that point they (the people who believed in him) picked up stones to throw at him”?
We are starting a new series at Cornerstone entitled “I AM”, and we’ll be looking at the various times in the book of John that Jesus uses the phrase “I am” to describe himself and his characteristics.
Over the next eight weeks we’ll explore Jesus’ words when he made familiar statements like, I am the Light or the world, I am the good shepherd, and I am the gate.
But this morning, in this scripture, Jesus didn’t say “I am something”, he simply said “I am”. And that’s what got him in trouble, but more of that later.
So, what moved the crowd? What moved them from believing in Jesus, to wanting to stone Jesus? And is there something we can learn there? Something we can take away that will help our relationship with Him and perhaps help us to understand what happens in other’s relationship with Him?
So let’s go back to where the story begins, John 8:31–32 Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The crowd is defined as “people who believed in him.” But who defined them that way? I would suspect the crowd themselves would have said that they believed in Jesus. And it’s easy to believe in Jesus, at least in the abstract.
I would suspect that there are a lot of people in our community, and maybe even in our church who would have no problem saying that they believe in Jesus. The question would be: What Jesus do they believe in? And we are going to look at that a little deeper as we go along.
But it would appear, at this point anyway, that it was here that Jesus Challenged their View of Who they Were
There was something about Jesus that the crowd believed. If asked, they would have defined themselves as believers. But Jesus was asking that they move beyond just a simple belief and allow that belief to change and impact their lives.
The number of Canadians who identify as Christian is somewhere between 55 and 67 %. And there are two things I would suspect. The first is I would suspect that most of those people believe something about Jesus. If they didn’t, then they would have answered the survey differently.
The second thing I would suspect, and I might be a little judgmental here, is I would suspect that for many of those people, what they believe about Jesus has very little bearing or impact on how they live their lives.
And so to those who said they believed in him, Jesus said, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.”
You caught the qualifier, right? Jesus didn’t just tell those who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples.” What he said was, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.”
The converse of that has to be true as well. If you don’t remain faithful to my teachings, then you aren’t my disciples.
And for some people that seems to fly in the face of the concept of being saved by grace and not works that Paul spells out in Ephesians 2:8–9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
But through the gospels, Jesus equates following him with obeying him.
John 14:15 “If you love me, obey my commandments.” Then he puts some more teeth in it when he says in Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.”
So, it would appear that, while discipleship starts with belief that isn’t where it ends.
So what does it mean to be faithful to Jesus’ teaching? Well, Dr. Joseph Dongell is Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Seminary, and author of the Wesleyan Commentary on John and he writes, “The true disciple will hold firmly to Jesus’ word, because in those words he hears the voice of the Father.”
And so, can we really claim to be a Christ Follower if we don’t follow Christ? Just asking.
Kurt Vonnegut made an interesting observation in his book, A Man Without a Country, “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
And Vonnegut is probably right, many people who identify as Christians have a much firmer grasp on things like the Ten Commandments and “an eye for an eye” then they do the sermon on the mount.
Is it enough to say you believe in Jesus? Or is it even enough to identify as a Christian?
Hugo Chavez was the president of Venezuela, he was known for corruption and human rights abuses in his political life and his multiple affairs during both his marriages. And yet he said, “I love Jesus Christ. I am a Christian… I cry when I see injustice, children dying of hunger”
And not only are there people who simply ignore what it means to be a Christian, there are those who would cherry pick from Jesus’ teachings. They want the Jesus who hugged children and spoke about loving your neighbours, although they aren’t too keen on the part about loving their enemies.
They aren’t comfortable being the follower of someone who said, Matthew 15:19–20 “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” Or following someone who claimed to be the exclusive way to God as Jesus did in John 14:6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
The grace that Jesus came to offer may have been free, but it certainly wasn’t cheap.
Jeus spelled it out in Luke 9:23–25 Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?
And that’s not easy to accept, but as Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
Let’s continue with the story, John 8:34–36 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.
So not only did Jesus challenge how they viewed themselves, He Challenged their View of His Purpose
Israel had been waiting for a Messiah, and many saw Jesus as the one. But they were looking for someone who would deliver them from the Romans. A Messiah who would restore Israel to her former greatness.
As a matter of fact, during a recent archeological dig, this artifact from Jesus’ time was discovered. (Picture of MIGA hat)
Earlier in the story, we read, John 6:14–15 When the people saw him (Jesus) do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.
Have you ever thought about the thousands who followed him during his ministry, those he fed and those he healed, who were conspicuous in their absence when he was arrested?
Was that because they had decided that he wasn’t the messiah that they were looking for? That what they thought he had come to do, and what he said he had come to do were two different things?
When they thought of being set free, there were thinking of being set free from the Romans, not being set free from their sin. When they thought of a saviour, they thought of a political saviour not a spiritual saviour.
And if those people were at his trial, I’m pretty sure they would have been disappointed with what he said in regard to his kingdom.
John 18:36–37 Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate said, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
And yet Jesus defined his purpose in Luke 19:10 For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”
But before that becomes relevant for you, you have to acknowledge that you are lost. And so perhaps we need to be like the preacher Charles Spurgeon, who said “’You are no saint,’ says the devil. Well, if I am not, I am a sinner, and Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Sink or swim, I go to Him; other hope, I have none.”
But, neither of those things were what caused the crowd to pick up stones. Let’s keep going in the story. John 8:56–58 Your father Abraham rejoiced as he looked forward to my coming. He saw it and was glad.” The people said, “You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!”
What ultimately caused their anger was when Jesus Challenged their View of His Person
Some saw Jesus as a messiah; others saw him as a prophet or a teacher. But here it becomes apparent that Jesus saw himself as much more than that.
For many of us Jesus’ statement was just poor or clunky grammar when he said, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!” and most of us don’t even read it the way it was written, instead we do autocorrect in our heads. We hear Jesus saying, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I was!”
Because that makes sense. He is describing a past event. But what is actually said was “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!” It wasn’t an mistake and it wasn’t simply awkward grammar, with the improper use of the present tense, it is theological statement. And while we may not see it that way, those who heard it certainly did.
And to understand was Jesus was saying and claiming we have to go back to the Old Testament, to the story of Moses.
You might remember the story of Moses from the book of Exodus, or from the Movie the Ten Commandments, or from the Disney Animated feature, the Prince of Egypt. If you’ve missed all three of those here’s the condensed version. The Joseph’s family had ended up in Egypt during a famine in their own country, four hundred years later their population has exploded.
The Pharaoh, fearing a rebellion had them enslaved and at one point ordered all the male newborns to be killed. A woman named Jochebed took her son down to the Nile river where she placed him in a basket and it was there that he was discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who named him Moses, took him home and raised him in the palace.
Years later, it would appear that Moses had discovered his heritage and one day while he was out for a walk, he saw an Egyptian master beating a Hebrew slave. So, Moses killed the Egyptian, buried his body and fearing he would be caught and charged with murder he fled into the wilderness, to a land called Midian.
That’s where he met the lady that he would marry and went to work tending sheep for his father-in-law.
One night while tending his flock of sheep, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, telling him he was to return to Egypt to deliver the Hebrew people from the slavery of Egypt.
You still with me?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a lot of burning bushes speak to me, and apparently neither had Moses because he had a question.
Let’s pick up the story in Exodus 3:13 But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”
That was a great question and it’s the answer to that question that ties this story into our story from John’s gospel. The answer that Moses received explains why the crowd went from believing in Jesus to wanting to stone him. You ready?
Exodus 3:14–15 God replied to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you. This is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.
Did you catch that, “God replied to Moses, ‘“I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.”
The reason that the people were that upset wasn’t because Jesus claimed to have existed before Abraham, it was because he claimed to be I AM. He claimed to be God, and for the Jews that was blaspheme, and the punishment for blaspheme was to be stoned.
And this wasn’t the only place in the gospels that Jesus made a similar claim and there was a similar response. John 10:30–33 The Father and I are one.” Once again the people picked up stones to kill him. Jesus said, “At my Father’s direction I have done many good works. For which one are you going to stone me?” They replied, “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy! You, a mere man, claim to be God.”
And today, there are those who are quite happy to believe in a Jesus who is a good man, or a prophet, or a great spiritual leader, but they can’t believe in a Jesus who is God. And that is not an option that the Bible leaves us with.
The Gospel of John begins with these words, John 1:1 In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And Paul writes to the early church in Philippians 2:5–7 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. . .
Author, J. Oswald Sanders writes “If Jesus is not God, then there is no Christianity, and we who worship Him are nothing more than idolaters. Conversely, if He is God, those who say He was merely a good man, or even the best of men, are blasphemers. More serious still, if He is not God, then He is a blasphemer in the fullest sense of the word. If He is not God, He is not even good.”
And in the Daily Study Bible William Barclay writes, “In Jesus we see, not simply a man who came and lived and died; we see the timeless God, who was the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, who was before time and who will be after time, who always is. In Jesus the eternal God showed himself to men.”
And today, I leave you with the most important question that you will ever ponder. It is the same question that Jesus asked his apostles and it’s the question that he used to define who they were, “Who do you say that I am?”