Preached April 10, 2011
St. John 8:46–59a
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We stand now at the end of our journey to Jerusalem; the city is near at hand. What remains now is the final sacrificial action that is about to unfold before us. In the usual practice of the Church, the event would be commemorated on a Sunday, and then the doctrinal consequences would be elaborated on the following Sunday. However because of the packed sequence of events from Palm Sunday to Easter, the Church has chosen to elaborate the doctrinal significance on this Sunday, before the events. Thus today, Passion Sunday, provides the doctrinal background for the events that are about to unfold during the next two weeks. It is therefore a Sunday of great importance for our understanding and appreciation of the entire Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter sequence.
Every sacrifice offered for sin has a double intent. On the one hand, it is intended to convey a sense of pardon for sins committed. At the same time, however, it is also intended to make men aware of their sins, to convey a definite sense of guilt lest they make light of their sins. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross most certain contains both of these aspects. The fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is our hope that dies for us upon the Cross throughly convicts us of our sin, so that there is no chance that we may take it lightly.
You will recall that, once a year, the Jewish High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for himself and for all the people. This was something he was only able to do once each year. In the Epistle lesson, St. Paul compares that with the work of our High Priest, Jesus Christ. Hebrews 9:11a But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, … The blessings that the Jews continue to wait for are already come to the Christians, because Jesus has come as the High Priest who brings those long awaited things. The long awaited Jewish future is the present reality for Christians, simply because we have the Messiah that the Jews have refused to see. What a difference this makes, right down to our present day!
On the Jewish Day of Atonement, the High Priest passed from the Tabernacle (the Holy Place) into the Holy of Holies, the presence chamber of God. This was where the annual atonement for the people was made. As St. Paul observes regarding Jesus Christ, our High Priest, Hebrews 9:11b-12 … by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. Jesus has passed through the Tabernacle of His own body on the Cross, by His own blood He has entered into Heaven to intercede for us, and from that position at the right hand of God He obtains our eternal redemption. How vastly more powerful this is than the actions of the Jewish High Priest who goes once a year into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people, while our High Priest, Jesus Christ goes directly to the right hand of God! There is simply no comparison.
The work of the Jewish High Priest is of limited effect and must be repeated annually. You will recall that even in our day, the Jews still observe, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even though the Jerusalem Temple is long gone, the point being that their annual act of atonement comes with an expiration date. In contrast, the work of Jesus Christ has no expiration date at all. It was done once for all time. There is no need for the sacrifice of Christ to ever be repeated. What Christ has done is sufficient to remove the sins of the whole world for all time, neither requiring nor allowing any repetition.
Think for a moment about the nature of the sacrifice involved. The Jewish priest sacrificed various animals on the altar, cattle, oxen, sometimes even birds. In all cases, the victims of the Jewish sacrifice were a lower life form than that of the priest making the sacrifice. Now contrast this with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even neglecting for the moment that He is the Son of God. This was the sacrifice of a human life, something ever so much more than an animal sacrifice. If an animal sacrifice could atone for human sins, how much more could the willing sacrifice of a human life be expected to raise us up from dead works, and how vastly more so remembering that this was in fact the Son of God?
The Day of Atonement was a central element of the Jewish Covenant, the basis for the renewal of their annual covenant of grace as God’s Chosen People. Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross brought us a better covenant and the promise of our inheritance in His kingdom by His grace. That covenant was established by the death of Christ, and we are brought into that covenant through baptism, so that we speak of being “baptized into His death.” Baptism is the only entrance into the covenant established by Jesus in His death, the covenant that was Christ’s atonement “made once for all.”
It has become something of a fad in recent times to ask the question, “Did Jesus sin?” With an opening question like that, people can then proceed to write all manner of nonsense and find a willing readership. It is, however, an important question and has a very clear answer. Think about what we read throughout the New Testament. On numerous occasions, Jesus challenged various individuals and groups regarding their sins, and many tried to entrap Him as well. None ever managed to convict Jesus of sin, although He showed many people to be caught in various sorts of sins. Jesus was keenly aware of the fact that He alone was without sin. He frequently condemned sin in other people, but he never spoke of sin in Himself, simply because He knew that there was none. When He taught us to pray, He taught us to ask for forgiveness of our sins, but He never joined in such prayer Himself.
Sin is not just an act or a word, but rather it reflects our attitude towards both God and man. Sin dishonors God and places self first. Only Jesus could say, John 8:49b … but I honour my Father, …and John 8:50a And I seek not mine own glory: This was because Jesus lived a perfect life based on the perfect motive, something we find ourselves unable to do.
What have men actually seen in Jesus? What has He shown Himself to all men to be? During His earthly ministry, Jesus freely healed the sick and lame up and down the length of the land, while teaching the people along the way and working His miracles. In His miracles, they saw Him do many marvelous things such as feeding great masses of people starting with almost nothing, they saw Him cure people who were not even present where He was in the case of the Centurion’s servant and the daughter of the Syro-Phonetian woman. Most miraculous of all, they saw several people raised from the dead, people who had been in the tomb for several days in at least one case. All of these show that He is a source of life that can conquer death, a gift of God to Him and Him alone. This set Him apart from all of the previous prophets and great leaders of Israel in the past. He said He was the Messiah, and there was every reason to believe Him.
On this last point, His claim to be the Messiah, we need to go further. John 8:54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God: There could hardly be any clearer way for Christ to claim to be the Son of God. He says that He is honored by God the Father, the one that the Jews claim to worship as their God. To the unbelieving Jews, this is necessarily blasphemy. To us, who understand Jesus as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, this fits perfectly well, but what a shock this would be to those hearing it for the first time! He is the Son from Eternity, the Son by inheritance, being one with the Father. His Sonship is thus completely different from our derived sonship that only comes about through adoption by grace in baptism. Thus He speaks in John 20:17b … my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
John 8:55 Yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you: but I know him, and keep his saying. The verb, to know, can be really loaded with meaning as it is in this case. Sometimes we use the word in the simple meaning, such as, “I know how to get to the store,” referring to simple knowledge. But there is also a much deeper meaning for the verb to know, meaning to have knowledge at the most intimate detailed level. That is the sense in which Jesus uses the word here when He says, but I know him. Jesus and the Father are one, so when Jesus says that He knows the Father, He is saying that He is truly united to the Father. He goes on to say that He keeps the Father’s commands, the Father’s saying.
Jesus next comment totally confuses the Jews, John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Abraham is described as the friend of God, and we may understand that he was given some vision of the Christ that had existed from before creation. We have to remember that Jesus Christ exists outside of time, just as God the Father who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, one who has neither past, present, nor future.
Our Great High Priest and Sacred Victim must therefore be
∙ holy, harmless, undefiled
∙ completely without sin
∙ established in His unique Sonship with the Father
As we consider the awesome events unfolding before us in the next two weeks, we may want to reflect on the following Collect. This was proposed for a revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1688 for use on this day, but the entire revision was rejected and thus this Collect was never included.
O Almighty God, Who hast sent Thy Son Jesus Christ to be an High Priest of good things to come, and by His own Blood to enter in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us; mercifully look upon Thy people, that by the same Blood of our Saviour, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot unto Thee, our consciences may be purged from dead works, to serve Thee the living God, that we may receive the promise of eternal inheritance, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.