August 12, 2018
In the beginning of the movie Animal House, the camera pans across the campus and we see carved into the base of the school founder's statue the words “Knowledge is good.” That quote is such a silly cliché that it tips off the audience not to take any of what they are about to see seriously—that this movie is going to be a satire about foolish college students behaving badly. It’s a very funny movie that makes us laugh at ourselves for sometimes being silly, sophomoric, and irresponsible.
The Gospel of John is about as different from Animal House as you can get. John’s Gospel begins with the sobering words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Where the director of Animal House prepares his audience for a farce, John from the first sentence of his gospel prepares his audience to meet God. The central theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus Christ has made God known in a way that no one else has or possibly could (John 1.18). Jesus did not just teach about God, but God revealed himself definitively in Jesus of Nazareth such that it may be said that if you don’t know the man Jesus Christ, you don’t know God; or, to put it another way, you don’t know God until you know Jesus Christ, the only man who was, is, and forever will be fully God (John 10.30).
In the third chapter of his Gospel, John introduces us to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night saying to him, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God” (John 3.2). By calling him “rabbi," Nicodemus meant to pay Jesus a compliment. But Jesus did not take it as a compliment. A rabbi is a teacher. Jesus was much more than that. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a teacher. One of the great joys of life is learning from a good teacher. A good teacher is able to touch her students on a spiritual level and get them to be as excited about her field of study as she is. You don’t become a good teacher just by having expertise in a certain field. You’ve got to love the study, and you’ve got to love your students and want them to love it as much as you do. It’s that love of learning and the ability to impart it to others that enables a good teacher to make a great difference in a person’s life.
Jesus was a great teacher. We first meet him at age twelve in the Temple teaching the rabbis and impressing them with his love for the word of God and with knowledge of scripture way beyond his years. And then we meet him again in the gospels as a mature man employing parables to teach his disciples about prayer and the faith. We hear him in the Sermon on the Mount inspiring his disciples to hope and trust in God’s mercy, to love one another, be servants of each other, be charitable to all, be kind and generous, be compassionate and forgiving of every wrong. He teaches us today, as he taught his disciples, to be prayerful, stay sober, respect marriage, control our sexual desires, honor our parents especially in their old age, and obey the Ten Commandments. Jesus taught people by word and example to imitate God and be merciful, be holy, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he said (Mt.5.48). If that isn’t good teaching, teaching people to be good, then I don’t know what good teaching is. So, we can’t be too hard on Nicodemus. Jesus was teaching people to obey God’s commandments and inspiring them with his passionate love for God’s word. He was in that sense a very good rabbi indeed.
But what sets Jesus apart and makes him unique is that He was doing much more than teaching people about the Kingdom of Heaven. His larger mission was to open the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven and lead us in. “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me,” he said. “ And this is the will of him who sent me…that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6.38-40). A man who says that cannot be a good teacher. He can only be one of two things. He is either a narcissist with delusions of grandeur, a man out of his mind. Or he is who he claims to be. If he isn’t who he claims to be than he is a bad man, teaching a false doctrine and, therefore, anything but a good teacher. But if he came down from heaven to be the one from whom we sinners may receive eternal life, the one who will judge us in the end, then he is far more than just a good teacher. He is the redeemer of our souls, a man among men but a man with no equal. If he was who he claimed to be then he was not only a messenger of God, he was the message. If he was who he said he was, then he not only had an expertise in scripture, he was the one who caused the scriptures to be written and of whom the scriptures speak. If he was who he said he was, he was the Word of God.
So you can’t blame people for wondering about him. They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, I have come down from heaven?” It’s a natural question to ask of a man who lived at home with his mother until age thirty. How could this nobody from Nazareth possibly be from heaven? He must be out of his mind, right? And yet, when we see Jesus interact with all sorts of people and hear him speak, he doesn’t seem to be insane. He seems to be perfectly sane. So, what’s going on with Jesus? Who was he really?
Well, he told us who he was when he said, “it is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God’.” “And they shall all be taught by God” is a prophecy from Isaiah 54.13, a prophecy that Jesus fulfilled. If there’s any doubt that he fulfilled it, the passion, death and resurrection of Christ is more than enough to take that doubt away. For what did he teach the Jews? He taught them that they didn’t understand their own scriptures, because they did not understand that the Savior would come to them and be rejected and suffer at their hands, be killed by them and then rise again on the third day. Jesus alone understood that. He proved his divinity by being the only rabbi in the entire history of Israel who understood how salvation would come to Israel and to the world and then accomplishing it. And by fulfilling every detail of the prophecies, even rising from the dead on the third day, he left no doubt in the minds of those who knew him that in Jesus, all Israel had been taught by God.
Jesus called his message the gospel or good news. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk.1.15), he boldly said. In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that “at long last the promises of God announced by the prophets of Israel to forgive our sins and welcome us back into the kingdom of God from which we were exiled because of Adam’s sin is over. The Savior is among us, as he promised he would be, and our redemption is near.” In Jesus Christ, God fulfilled his promise and kept his word. He promised that one day they will all be taught by God and they will all know me (Jer. 31.31-34), and in Jesus Christ that is what he did. God came among us as one of us and by so doing fulfilled the scriptures that promised eternal redemption to all who believe in him and are baptized in his name. That is the gospel.
You would think that the whole world would rejoice in this since what Christ accomplished on the cross, the expiation of our sins, benefits us all (1 John 2.1-2). Nevertheless, the gospel of God (Romans 1.1-5) is rejected by Jews who think Jesus was an unorthodox rabbi and a false prophet; it’s rejected by Moslems who claim he never died on the cross or rose from the dead; it’s rejected by liberals who worship reason while denying the supernatural and rejecting even the possibility of divine revelation; it’s rejected by Hindus and Buddhists who worship many pagan gods and no gods; and it’s rejected by communists who believe that humankind will create its own salvation when the dictatorship of the proletariat is established on earth. I suppose there are as many reasons people reject the gospel as there are people who reject it.
But one reason stands out to me. It’s hard to believe that God, if God exists, would come down from heaven. If you were in heaven would you come down here? We love life and are grateful for what we have in this world but if heaven, where love is perfected and suffering unknown, is half of what they say it is, I wouldn’t want to come back. It’s hard to believe that someone would come down from heaven if he didn’t have to. And God being God didn’t have to. But Jesus revealed to us, and this is his greatest teaching, that God is three eternal co-equal persons sharing one divine nature in perfect love. God is love (1 John 4.8). And the nature of perfect of love is that love does what it doesn’t have to do. Love is heroic and love is selfless. What our Lord did, he did for us from love. Heroically and selflessly, in the words of an ancient Christian hymn, “He, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.5-8). The gospel of God coming down from heaven to suffer and die for us so that we might receive his Spirit and live eternally with him is a love story, the greatest of all love stories; the greatest because Christ’s love for us is the greatest of all loves. When someone loves you, you have to make a choice. You can either receive that love and return it or say no and walk away. Faith is a heart that’s open to receiving the love that Jesus Christ offers us, love poured out on the cross for you and for me, for all sinners everywhere.
We have all been taught by God. The question now is: who will listen? Will America quit self-destructing, in an orgy of drugs, promiscuity and violence, and listen? Will the world ensnared in a thousand false faiths listen and receive his teaching? And what about you, will you listen? I hope so because his teaching is the greatest truth, the greatest love and the greatest promise ever made. And everything, really everything depends on whether you believe him. “This is the will of my Father,” Jesus said, “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6.40).