A few years ago a Chinese student did our Christianity Explored course. She'd had no previous contact with Christianity or the Bible. And now she was reading through Mark's Gospel – about Jesus' claims to be the Son of God, and our rightful King; and about his miracles to back up that claim (the healings, the calming of the storm, the feeding of the 5,000 and so on).
And then she got to the crucifixion – Jesus dying on the cross. And she was completely shocked. She said she was upset all week. Because she hadn't seen it coming, and it made no sense at all: 'If Jesus was the Son of God, why would he end up on the cross?' she asked.
I guess most of us are so familiar with the cross, it doesn't shock us any more. Whereas coming to it fresh, it shocked her completely. But that was nothing compared to the shock which Jesus' first disciples went through when the crucifixion actually happened. And on Sunday evenings we're looking at a part of John's Gospel which records the conversation Jesus had with his disciples on the Thursday night before he died, to prepare them for the crucifixion and beyond.
To which you might be thinking, 'So how's this going to be relevant? After all, I'm not one of Jesus' first disciples about to live through his crucifixion.' But what Jesus was really doing in this part of John's Gospel was preparing his disciples to live in a world that had crucified him – in other words, a world that rejects him and doesn't want to know him and hates the idea of him being King of our lives. And since that's the world we live in, this is definitely going to be relevant. And Jesus was also preparing his disciples to live in relationship with him after his crucifixion, resurrection and return to heaven – when he'd no longer be physically with them, visible and audible; and when they'd have to relate to him by remembering and holding on to what he'd said and done when he was here on earth, rather than by getting new revelations by an inner voice or writing in the sky or whatever. And since that's the kind of relationship we have to have with Jesus, again, this is definitely going to be relevant.
So would you turn in the Bible to John chapter 14. This records what happened the Thursday night before Good Friday when Jesus died. Judas Iscariot had already gone to betray Jesus. And this is the conversation Jesus had with the remaining eleven apostles.
And Jesus himself knew exactly what was about to happen – that he was about to be betrayed, tried, condemned and crucified. And he knew that was all part of his Father's saving plan – that his death would be the way for us to be forgiven; and that he would then rise from the dead to show that he was God's Son and could now give us life back in relationship with God. And, as we saw earlier in John 14, he'd just taught his apostles that. Look back to John 14, verse 6, where Jesus said:
"I am the way and the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me."
In other words, 'My death and resurrection will be the way you can be forgiven back into life with God.'
But at this point, on that Thursday night before Good Friday, they didn't understand any of that – and, actually, they couldn't, until after it had all happened. So to the apostles, the next 48 hours were going to look and feel like total defeat for Jesus. It was going to look and feel like they'd been completely wrong about Jesus, and that the world which crucified him had been right. It was going to look and feel like Jesus wasn't in control after all, but that human power and evil had got the upper hand.
So Jesus was preparing them for the crucifixion – and then to live in a world that had crucified him. And the first thing tonight's passage give us is:
1. A Challenge for Disciples in a World that has Crucified Jesus (v15)
Look down to John chapter 14, verse 15, where Jesus says to his apostles:
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments."
So the 'if' raises a question – namely, 'Do you love me? Will you love me?' So this is a challenge – to love Jesus in a world that rejects him. Because 12 hours from this conversation, Jesus was going to be on the cross, looking laughable and weak and discredited and wrong. Whereas the world, in the form of the leaders and the crowd they had whipped up against Jesus, was going to be looking strong and confident and convincing and right. So it was going to be very tempting for his disciples – like it is for us – to side with the world, to give their allegiance to the world.
But Jesus' challenge is: 'Will you love me? Or will you love the world – for the security of being in the majority, and for the acceptance which comes from conforming to what everyone else believes and says and does?' Just look at verse 15 again. Jesus says,
"If you love me, you will keep my commandments."
In fact, he says the same thing four times here:
Look on to verse 21:
"Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me."
And then verse 23:
"Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word"
And then verse 24 (the opposite):
"Whoever does not love me does not keep my words."
So 'my commandments', 'my words' and 'my word' basically mean the same thing: he's not talking about lots of little moral lessons that he has given them. He's speaking of his fundamental claim about himself – to be the Son of God – and his fundamental command – to believe in him for forgiveness, and to obey him as Lord of our lives.
And he says, 'If you love me, you will keep that word.' And the word 'keep' can have two senses – and Jesus probably meant both. He meant 'keep' as in hold on to his word – even though the world disbelieves it, laughs at it, and encourages us to drop it and walk away from Jesus and 'all that nonsense'. And he also meant 'keep' as in obey it – in other words obey him – even though that means living in totally the opposite direction from the world around us.
So that's Jesus' challenge: 'Will you love me in a world that rejects me?'
The second thing this passage gives us is:
2. Help for Disciples in a World that has Crucified Jesus (v16-20)
Look on to verse 16, where Jesus says to his apostles:
"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth"
So up to this point, Jesus the Son of God has been physically present as a man, with his apostles. But he's about to die on the cross, rise from the dead, appear to them over a period of time to show he's alive, and then return to heaven. And having been their physically present helper, now that he's physically going away he says he's going to give them 'another helper' – in the form of his Spirit. Or you could say: the help of his physical presence is going to be replaced by the help of his spiritual presence.
And the no.1 way that his Spirit will help them is in helping them see the full truth about him. Just turn over the page to John chapter 16 and verse 12, where Jesus says more about how the Spirit will help them.
John 16, verse 12. Jesus says:
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now."
Remember, the 'you' there is the apostles – not us. It's the night before the cross. And there is much more they need to understand about Jesus – but they can't 'bear' it. In other words, they can't understand it – at this point. So, at this point they didn't realise Jesus was the Son of God, they didn't realise he had to die for our sins – they didn't yet have Christian faith. And the truth is: they couldn't understand who Jesus was and what he'd come to do until after the cross and resurrection. So then looking on to chapter 16, verse 13, Jesus says, that after the cross and resurrection,
"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth"
Which means he'll help them to see the full truth about Jesus. So now turn back to chapter 14. That explains why, back in chapter 14, verse 17, Jesus calls him 'the Spirit of truth'. I guess the first thing we might call him is 'the Holy Spirit' – because we're 'trained' to do that by saying the Creed and because we tend to think his no.1 job is to make us more holy in character. But the first thing Jesus calls him is 'the Spirit of truth' – because his no.1 job is to work in your mind so that you see or realise who Jesus really is and what he came to do.
And again, Jesus draws a complete contrast here between the world – in other words, everyone who's still rejecting him – and his disciples. Look at verse 17: he talks about the Spirit of truth
"… whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him."
But on the other hand he says:
"You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you."
So what he's saying is that the world – in other words, everyone who's still rejecting him – cannot by nature receive what the Spirit wants to help us see. So, the Spirit wants to help us see that Jesus is the Son of God and our rightful Lord. But by nature we don't want to see that – because we know that seeing that, admitting that, would mean letting Jesus be Lord, with all the changes he would call for. And again, the Spirit wants to help us see that the cross was to save us from the condemnation our sins deserve. But by nature we don't want to see that – because we know that seeing that would mean admitting we're not OK as we are, and that we need forgiveness, which would mean becoming indebted to Jesus for what he's done – which is not what we want by nature.
So the world – or to put it another way, our natural mindset – is completely closed to the gospel. That's why you've seen it just bounce off people you've tried to share it with. That's why it may have bounced off you for years (and may still be doing so). But Jesus says here that his apostles will experience the help of his Spirit, so they do come to understand who he is and what he came to do.
And if you understand tonight that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died to forgive you back into relationship with him and his Father, that's only because in his kindness, by his Spirit, he's overcome your closed-mindedness and resistance to him – and helped you to see.
On the other hand, maybe you're still just looking into all this. Or maybe you're still just thinking through for yourself the Christian upbringing you've had – at home, and maybe through the childrens' and youth groups here. And maybe you don't yet see it – it hasn't 'clicked' yet for you. In which case, ask God by his Spirit to help you see it. Tell him you'd like to believe, and ask his help to get you to that point. And pray that regularly – because that's a prayer he loves to answer.
So, Jesus says his Spirit will replace him as another helper. But before that Jesus has got to die and rise again. So look on to verse 18 where Jesus explains what's about to happen. He tells the apostles on that Thursday night:
"I will not leave you as orphans"
So an 'orphan' is someone whose parents are dead and gone, and so is left on their own. And Jesus knew that by the end of the next day – Good Friday – his disciples would feel like orphans, because they would think (wrongly) that Jesus was dead and gone. But read on in verse 18:
"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you."
Now people argue about whether that means 'I will come to you in my resurrection appearances' or 'I will come to you by my Spirit after I've returned to heaven.' I think it must include both – but first of all in the order of events, it must mean, 'I will come to you in my resurrection appearances' – because look on to verse 19:
"Yet a little while and the world will see me no more [because my body will be taken down from the cross and put it in a tomb and the world will think, 'That's the last we've seen of him.'], but you will see me."
In other words, 'You will see me bodily risen from the dead." Which they did – and you can read all about that in John 20 and 21. And, read on in verse 19, Jesus says they'll then begin to understand that:
"Because I live, you also will live."
In other words, they'll begin to understand that because he has come out from death alive, they can now live free from fear of the condemnation we deserve at death.
The story is told of an American Indian village in days gone by, which was terrorised by a bear killing their animals and even some of their people. And they knew where it came from – they'd tracked it to its cave. The question was whether anyone could deal with it. And finally one of their young braves went to kill it in its cave. So he disappeared into the cave. And some of the other braves waited outside. And they knew that if he didn't reappear, it would mean that he was dead and the bear was still a threat to them all. Whereas if he did reappear, it would mean the bear was dead and that they could now live with no threat hanging over them.
And that's a picture of Jesus' death and resurrection. Because when he died on the cross, it's as if went into the cave of death, to face and deal with the condemnation our sins deserve. And his reappearing from the 'cave' of death – his resurrection – means that he's done that successfully. It means that the condemnation we deserve at death has been taken away, so that we can now live in relationship with God, with no threat of condemnation hanging over us. We still have to pass through physical death. But if we're trusting in Jesus, that's nothing to fear – because there's no condemnation waiting for us (that fell on Jesus on the cross); instead, there's welcome. That's what Jesus means when he says:
"Because I live, you also will live."
And, read on to verse 20. Jesus also says:
"In that day [in other words, the day you see me bodily risen from the dead] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you."
So Jesus knew that his crucifixion would make it look like he wasn't the Son of God after all – like that Chinese student I began with asked, 'If Jesus was the Son of God, why would he end up on the cross?' But Jesus also knew that when they saw him bodily risen from the dead, they would finally realise, as he puts it, that 'I am in my Father' – in other words, that he's united with God the Father, that he's part of the Godhead (which is why although as man he could die for us, as God, death couldn't end his life). And, end of verse 20, Jesus knew they would also realise, as he puts it, that 'you (are) in me and I in you' – in other words, they'd realise that believers in Jesus are united to Jesus in a profound way, where he is present with us by his Spirit, here and now, and where in principle we're already present with him in heaven, and will be in practice the moment we die.
So that's the help for disciples in a world that's crucified Jesus. It's the help of his Spirit – enabling us to understand his death and resurrection, and to experience the forgiven relationship with him that it brings us into.
And the third thing this passage gives us is:
3. An Incentive for Disciples in a World that has Crucified Jesus (vv21-24)
Look on to verse 21:
"Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me."
So Jesus comes back to that challenge to love him. And here's his incentive to do so:
"And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."
Now that's not teaching that we earn God's love – in the sense of his acceptance – by loving him. When the Bible talks about God loving us in the sense of accepting us, it says he does so by forgiving us through the cross. So his acceptance-love is not conditional on our love for him.
But the Bible also talks of God loving us in another sense – not in the sense of accepting us through the cross, but in the sense of loving our attempts to love and obey him, of taking pleasure in our response to him. And that side of God's love is conditional on our love for him. Because if we are just careless and sinful, he can't feel love towards us in the sense of taking pleasure in our response to him – even if he does still accept us through the cross. It's something like a father and his children: even at the end of a day when (untypically) my children have been a pain, and I'm glad to see the back of them in bed, if you were to ask me, 'Do you love them?' I would say, 'Yes'. And that's because they're my children and there's a fundamental love that's not conditional on how they behave. But on a day when they've been really thoughtful, or helpful or obedient, I love them additionally for that – I love them in the sense of taking pleasure in them and in their response to me. And that additional pleasure-love – whatever you want to call it – is conditional on how they behave.
And this is saying: it's like that with God the Father and the Lord Jesus. Their acceptance-love isn't conditional on how we behave. But just fixing on that can be very self-focussed, can't it – 'I'm accepted – and that's the main thing.' But actually, the main thing in relationships is to focus on the other person and to ask, 'How can I please them?' And if you're not doing that with God – even if you profess to be accepted by him – then Jesus is questioning here whether your relationship with him is real at all.
So Jesus says, verse 21:
"he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him"
So that's the incentive: we can actually bring our Father in heaven and the Lord Jesus pleasure by the way that –albeit imperfectly – we try to love and obey them. One of our lovely seniors in her late eighties said to me, 'One time I pray every day is just before I go to bed. And I say to the Lord, 'Lord, have I pleased you today?' And I wait to see if anything comes to mind where I haven't.' I wonder how much we think like that?
It's a real incentive to think that our attempts to love and obey God give him reason to feel that pleasure-love towards us. But the incentive is also that we'll come to know him better. Look at verse 21 again to see that. Jesus says,
"And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."
And by 'manifest' himself, he means he'll reveal himself, so that we know him better and our relationship with him becomes more real to us. And he's saying that doesn't come just through Bible study and being preached to – any more than a deepening marriage relationship comes through just reading books or hearing talks on marriage. It comes as we try to respond to what we know of God in the Bible.
So for example I had a friend at university, called Paul. And after a year or more of coming to church he said, 'I think it's true – but I'm not sure. So (he said) I'm going to try an experiment: I'm going to live for a month as if it was true – trying to believe in Jesus, trying to do what the Bible says he wants me to, trying to pray the things he told us to pray.' And after that month I remember him saying, 'I didn't even need a month. I now know it's true – Jesus has become real in my experience: from answers to prayer, from the way he's changed me, from the way the world just makes sense looked at from the Bible's point of view (and so on).'
And that was verse 21 in action: Jesus manifests himself to those who are trying – or prepared to begin to try – to love and obey him. Whereas, by contrast, every Christian here will know that when we get careless about trying to love and obey God, when we compromise or get into a pattern of habitual sin, our relationship with him seems less real, more distant, more doubtable. Which isn't what he wants for us – which is why he gives us this incentive to disciples in a world that's crucified him.
But as soon as Jesus has said that he manifests himself to those who are trying to love and obey him, it prompts one of the apostles to ask him a question: Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?"
So his assumption was that the 'Messiah' or 'Christ' (same thing) promised in the Old Testament would come and make himself very obviously known, in a display of power and glory that people couldn't miss. So Judas is asking Jesus, 'Aren't you going to manifest yourself like that? Why don't you manifest yourself to the world?'
Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me."
Now saying 'we will come and make our home with him' is just another way of saying 'we will manifest ourselves to him' – it's saying 'we will come spiritually into the house of his life and make ourselves real to him in his experience.' So Jesus is saying, 'I'm not going to manifest myself to the world in an unmissable, 'power and glory' way. I'm going to manifest myself to people one by one as they respond to me as they hear the gospel about me.'
The point is: if Jesus did appear now in an unmissable 'power and glory' way (as he will when he comes again to wrap up history), it wouldn't change anyone's mind. It wouldn't compel faith in him. It would just fix each of us irreversibly where we stand with him right now – as either believers in him, or not. So if you're not yet a believer in him, you need not the unmissable 'power and glory' moment of him revealing himself; you need the opportunity to respond to him as you hear about him in the gospel.
So that's the incentive to disciples in a world that's crucified him. Then the last thing this passage givs us is:
4. A Reassurance for Disciples in a World that has Crucified Jesus (v25-31)
Look on to verse 25:
"These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you."
Now remember: these words were spoken to those original apostles with Jesus on that Thursday night – not to us. Of course they have a message for us, but we need to remember that they were not originally spoken to us and so they don't apply directly to us. After all, they contain a promise that the Holy Spirit will bring to the hearers' remembrance 'all that I [Jesus] have spoken to you.' But Jesus has never spoken to us (directly, in the flesh). So this is a promise that the Holy Spirit would help the apostles – those original eye- and ear-witnesses who uniquely saw and heard Jesus – to remember what they'd witnessed and to understand it rightly ('he will teach you all things' means something like John 16.13 – "he will teach you the full truth about me, as you remember what I said and did, and as you reflect on it all after my death and resurrection").
And the result of the promises in John 15.25-26 and 16.12-15 is the apostle's message that we have in the New Testament. The New Testament is where we find Jesus' teaching (and works) accurately remembered and rightly interpreted. Now there are Bible scholars who aren't committed Christians who have made out the case for the reliability of the New Testament (arguing that the information ultimately comes from eye-witnesses, that the date of writing is relatively soon after the events, that the transmission of the writing as manuscripts have been copied is accurate, etc). But as a Christian one can additionally say, 'I believe this promise of Jesus was also fulfilled in the process of the writing of the New Testament: that the Holy Spirit did lead the apostles to remember, to understand and to interpret Jesus correctly.'
And that's a reassurance for disciples in a world that has crucified Jesus. Because the world continues to reject Jesus by rejecting the claims of the New Testament: the world argues that the New Testament misrepresented Jesus, or even invented Jesus. But this is a reassurance that the apostles didn't invent Jesus – they were there with him; and that they didn't misrepresent him – they represented him as he wanted them to.
Then here is Jesus' final reassurance in this passage:
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I will come to you.' If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world [in other words, Satan, the devil] is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here."
To know that the world has crucified Jesus is a very disturbing thing. So it's no wonder that he says in verse 27:
"Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."
As I said at the start, in the next 48 hours, the apostles would think that Jesus had lost control, that the world had won and that they were now at the mercy of the world. But Jesus says: 'No, you can have peace because at no point will I have lost control.' And in verse 29 he says (to paraphrase): 'I've told you what's going to happen, so that when it does [however painful and perplexing the next 48 hours may be] you'll realise I was in control all along. Because I will rise from the dead and show that nothing and no-one has defeated me or got the better of me.'
And in verses 30-31, Jesus goes on to say:
"And as for the thought that the world or Satan has won, and that I've lost, that too is untrue. Satan will influence and use human agents to put me to death – like the Jewish leadership and Pontius Pilate. But Satan will not ultimately be the cause of my death. No, I will go the cross because I do as my Father commands. I am choosing to lay down my life for you –and I will take it up again in resurrection. So rest assured: I am in control throughout."
And that reassurance is still true: Jesus is still in control throughout everything that happens in this world and in our lives. Whether you're talking about the 48 hours which lay ahead of those original apostles, or whether you're talking about any period of your life past or future, Jesus is in control of everything – even when the 'everything' includes things as awful as the cross.
So the four things this passage of the Bible gives us are:
1. A challenge for disciples in a world that has crucified Jesus – will we love him, or side with the world?
2. Help for disciples in a world that has crucified Jesus – his Spirit, to help us understand his death and resurrection, and to relate to him through them.
3. An incentive for disciples in a world that has crucified Jesus – the thought that our (albeit imperfect) attempts to love and obey him give him reason to take 'pleasure-love' in us.
4. A reassurance for disciples in a world that has crucified Jesus – the reassurance that our faith rests on facts, rightly remembered and rightly interpreted; and the reassurance that the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is in control – even of moments like the cross.
And if you want a guide to the whole of John 13-17, I highly recommend the book Jesus And His Friends, by Don Carson, which you can find in the Resources Area at the back.