Helpful unto Real Holiness

A sermon preached by one of my pastors, Ryan Fullerton, on 1 Corinthians 3.1-4 last Sunday was helpful for me unto real holiness.  And, he is authentically holy personally.  When a holy man preaches on holiness from God’s Word, we ought to listen.  Go here.

A Sermonette on Psalm 15

Psalm 15 is meant to pique the attention of our hearts.  Questions about eternal destination and answers that detail “who” will be where God is are of paramount importance.  They beckon us, “Awaken, all that matters is here answered by God Himself.”  Psalm 15 is a psalm of inquisition and introspection.  It is a Q and A between God and His people.  The picture is one of the people of Israel following their King, David, into the dwelling place of God, to the tent that David had temporarily pitched upon God’s holy hill.  And, as they are on their way to this communion with God, they are reminded of “who” will live in His holy and satisfying presence.  Thus, the King who leads them cries out to God, “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”

I do not think that there is any more important question in all the world.  David’s question is not about “when” we might enter God’s presence, though this is the unfortunate preoccupation of some Christians today.  Instead, it is a question about “who” might enter God’s presence right now and forevermore.  Thus, it is introspective in nature.  It deals not only in what we must do but who we must be if we would dwell on God’s holy hill.  And, you do want to dwell here, brothers.  While sojourning in God’s tent reminds us of the tent of meeting in the wilderness wanderings, and thus God as the all-satisfying God, God’s holy hill is identified in Ps 2.6 as “Zion, my holy hill,” and thus God as the incomparably Holy One.  Of God’s holy hill the composer of Psalm 132 writes, “the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place:  ‘This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.  I will abundantly bless her provisions; I will satisfy her poor with bread.  Her priests I will clothe with salvation, and her saints will shout for joy.’”  So, again I say, “you do want to dwell here, brothers.”  God dwells here!, living forever to bless, to satisfy, to clothe His priests with salvation and to so overflow our beings that our only response is shouting for joy.

{Thus, we feel with David when he says, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps 42.1-2).  The primary point of application here, brothers, is this: is this passion to be with God where He is descriptive of you?  If we would desire it for our families and future congregations, we must first taste of it ourselves.  Now, the question before us is essentially this: “Who may dwell in the presence of God, having communion with God, and never be moved from that place?” as David says at the end of our Psalm.}

The answer that is taken up in verse 2 is somewhat surprising.  I would summarize it as “Those who love their neighbor!” and I would add, “because they fear the Lord.”  (Read).  We need to notice what he doesn’t say.  David doesn’t answer in good OT fashion, “Those who turn from wickedness to the Lord.”  Nor does he answer as we might in good NT terms, “Those who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.”  These answers are implied here like roots beneath the soil that no one can see, but what is explicit concerns the fruit of that tree which is “planted by streams of water” (Ps 1.3).  His answer concerns the evidences of a new inward condition, the fruit of love.

Now, we need to be able to distinguish the fruit of biblical love from secular love.  Honestly, on the surface this can be hard to do.  That is why it is important that we understand David’s answer to be “Those who love their neighbor because they fear the Lord.”  When we speak of the fear of the Lord we mean that deep Godward affection of the heart that is an expression of knowing the superabundance of grace that has delivered us from wrath.  And, this affection begins to govern our practice.  So, biblical love is not without a fountain.  It is the spring that arises out of the depths of God’s love for us and our love for God, which means that biblical love is supernatural in nature.  It is derived from a robust communion with God.  It is the soul and marrow of faith in God.  It has as its aim the joy of another in God.  It is not armchair love, or love at a distance, or periodical in nature, but sacrificial, daily, grace-besotted, and God-entranced from beginning to end.  It is a love that follows Jesus outside the camp, where we are scorned and our love is said to be criminal and accursed in the eyes of the world.

And, I think that David’s answer gives us enough to understand both of these things, — that the one who will dwell with God forever is the one who loves his neighbor because he fears the Lord.  So, let’s observe the practice of the persons who will never be moved.

There are essentially ten practices, a decalogue of “doings.”  And, they move in threes with the exception of that all important seventh practice which involves the fear of the Lord, which is why I have said that it is the ground of the fruit of love that we see.  So, let’s do a brief scan of these eternally significant “doings.”

Again, the question is asked of the Lord, “Who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” and never be moved?

And David responds, “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart.”  If we would be so qualified, we must deal in blamelessness, righteousness and truth.

When David writes, “He who walks blamelessly.”  We are to be concerned with keeping a pure conscience before the world.  It is to be our habit to be without blame before our wives, before our children, before God’s people, and before an onlooking world.  If we would walk blamelessly, we must, as the Psalmist later says, “ponder the way that is blameless” (Ps 101.2).  So there is labor here for us, a pondering the paths of innocence and a resolve to walk upon it.  And if we do this, brothers, David reminds us in Ps 37.18 that we will enter glory.  Thus to be glory bound is to be bound to blamelessness, and as David adds, “doing what is right.”

Doing what is right by God, we will be reviled by the world.  Noah was a righteous man, and blameless in his generation.  And what was his legacy but that he preached that counter-cultural message of impending judgment and of God’s salvation steadfastly for 100 years though he and that message were reviled by the world as weak and foolish.  So, the one who would dwell with God forever is concerned only with doing what is right in the sight of God, and that will be enough for us.

But this one also “speaks truth in his heart.”  If all of the issues of life spring forth from the heart, is there anything more important than pouring the truth of God into it?  I have said it already but it is worth saying again, — David is not describing vain religiosity.  He is describing the person whose religion is one of the heart.  We are to speak truth in our hearts, he says.  We are to be preachers of truth, and to whom but ourselves.  It is not here “speak truth to others,” but “speak truth in your own heart.”  Your heart is to be a vessel that you flood with truth.  It is to be like Solomon’s temple, flooded with the glory cloud of God.  So we need to apply afresh Paul’s admonitions then, to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” and to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.”  {And to those of you who would aspire to preach, — If we will not preach the truth to ourselves, and dwell upon it in our own hearts, we will doubtless falter to preach aright in service of God’s church, and perhaps, not at all to an ever hostile world.  “A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us” (John Owen).}

Now, having given three virtues to be applied, David now offers us three vices to be avoided, — “who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend.”   And, these we can take more speedily, for they are the mirror negatives of what David has already said.  If a man speaks truth in his heart, he will not slander with his tongue.  If you do what is right, you will not do evil to your neighbor.  If you walk blamelessly, you will not take up a reproach against your friend.  Indeed, if your heart is filled with truth, then the tongue, rather than slandering will be filled with those “gracious words” that “are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov 16.24).  If your way is aligned with God’s righteous way, then instead of evil against, you will take the posture of love for your neighbor.  You will not ask, “Who is my neighbor,” but you will be a neighbor at personal cost to yourself.  And, if you would walk blamelessly, then rather than taking up a reproach against your friend, you will lay down your lives for them even as Christ did for us.

Now, when we come to the seventh practice, we come to the fear of the Lord.  You’ll notice that you are to despise the vile person but to honor the one who fears the Lord, and this in your eyes.  But the physical eye has no capacity for despising or honoring.  Thus, David speaks of the eyes of the heart.  In the heart, this one fears the Lord.  That is why he despises the vile in heart but honors others who fear the Lord.  Your heart is to be repulsed at the sin of the vile, partially perhaps because you see your former self.  But you are to honor those who in the fear of the  Lord honor God with a life pleasing to Him.  It is this affection that pervades and governs all the other actions.  Would you practice blamelessness, righteousness and truth?  Fear the Lord.  Would you be free from slander, evil, and reproach?  Fear the Lord.  Would you discern the company you keep and have an appropriate response and relationship to others?  Fear the Lord.  I fear that we tend to honor the vile, most likely indirectly through media, and despise those who strive after holiness because they chafe against our relative sloth in the matter.  If we would be the “who” that dwells with God forever, we need to flip this script.

Now, flowing from this fear of the Lord are our last three practices of supernatural love.  The one who swears to his own hurt and does not change, in 15.4, is the man who says, “Yes and Amen” to Jesus’ sermon that our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.”  You remain steadfast in sacrifice, your word is your bond, especially as it has the joy or prosperity of another in view.  The last two practices in verse 5 deal with what you do with your possessions, whether they have a hold of your heart or not.  By the first, “who does not put out his money at interest,” we are told to freely give to the needy without expecting anything in return because, as Jesus said, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk 14.14).  And by the second, “and does not take a bribe against the innocent,” we are to understand upon what conditions we will not take money or a bribe, specifically, to promote injustice which evidences no fear of God.  Judas was a man with all of the external benefits that a person could have in this life.  He was a disciple of the Lord.  And yet, he betrayed the innocent Son of God for 30 pieces of silver.  Evil of all evils, that covetousness that suppresses justice, that moral compass that calls evil “good” and good “evil.”  Who invites blindness of the eyes?  But the one who takes a bribe gouges out the eyes of his heart.  If you see the cause of the innocent or a matter of justice — abortion, orphan care, the widow in need — you must swiftly attend to it and resist every blindfold that puts its hand out to you.  It may not be a human being offering you money to shut your eyes to the innocent.  Often, it is more subtle, coming from the world itself, “If you will ignore what is going on at that abortion clinic, if you will put off helping the widow get her medications, if you will remain at an arm’s length from the broken, then I will offer you fun, media, entertainment, comfort, and freedom to do those things that you really want to do.”  And, so as Isaiah says, your “root” becomes “as rottenness” and you “blossom” goes “up like dust” (Isa 5.23-24).  If you would dwell with God, brothers, you must grow in the integrity of heart that embraces steadfast sacrifice, a free hand, and the cause of the innocent.

Now, I do not want to leave us tempted towards self-righteousness, legalism, Pharisaism, and vain religiosity, which we might be when we read, ‘he who does these things shall never be moved.’  That would be counter-intuitive to David’s language.  I don’t want us to hear only, “So I’ve just got to do these things.”  We do have to do them.  But these are not our trust.  So, as we come to a close I want to dig up those roots that I mentioned earlier that support this fruit.  There are two, our depravity and Christ’s absolute sufficiency.

Depravity, — plainly, Ps 14 is about the universal depravity of man.  So, when we read it and then come to Ps 15 and read,  “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” we expect to hear “Nobody!  Nobody can dwell with God!”  But that is not what David says!  There are those who will never be moved from God’s presence!  So, we need to explain this.  Christ, — When we come to Psalm 15.1, we are supposed to have the prior knowledge of Psalm 2.6-7.  What does it say?  “As for me, I have set my King,” where? “on Zion, my holy hill.”  So, when we hear the question of 15.1, we have an immediate answer, — “God’s King, God’s Son, — He is established there,” and the King is a representative of all who take refuge in Him.  And not only that, but according to Ps 16, this King of Zion will get there by dying for us, and as He is the Holy One, He has been raised from the dead incorruptible and ascended to that mountain of God.  And from there He has poured out the Spirit of holiness so that we can do these things, the righteous requirements of the law, by which we shall never be moved from God’s presence.  Dear brothers, I hope that you know, right now we too are led by our King, Jesus, to God’s holy hill.  We also have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.  And as we are on our way to that City and do come across those words, “Who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” we need not fret but answer, “Christ, Christ Jesus is seated there, and by His sure mercies, I, even me, am and will be with God and never, ever, ever be moved from Him.”

John Owen, How He Pursued Holiness

I know that this is a long quote, and quotes within a quote, but seriously, it will be good for your soul to read of it carefully, particularly drinking in Owen’s measured remarks.  May God gift the church and the world with a generation of Christians and servants of the Lord who do so pursue communion with God, and personal and universal holiness as did John Owen.

How Did He Pursue Holiness?

Owen humbled himself under the mighty hand of God.

Though he was one of the most influential and well-known men of his day his view of his own place in God’s economy was sober and humble. Two days before he died he wrote in a letter to Charles Fleetwood, “I am leaving the ship of the Church in a storm, but while the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable” (see note 47).

Packer says that “Owen, [though] a proud man by nature, had been brought low in and by his conversion, and thereafter he kept himself low by recurring contemplation of his inbred sinfulness” (see note 48). What Owen wrote illustrates this:

To keep our souls in a constant state of mourning and self-abasement is the most necessary part of our wisdom … and it is so far from having any inconsistency with those consolations and joys, which the gospel tenders unto us in believer, as that it is the only way to let them into the soul in a due manner (see note 49).

With regard to his immense learning and the tremendous insight he had into the things of God he seems to have a humbler attitude toward his achievements because he had climbed high enough to see over the first ridge of revelation into the endless mysteries of God.

I make no pretence of searching into the bottom or depths of any part of this “great mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh.” They are altogether unsearchable, unto the [limit] of the most enlightened minds, in this life. What we shall farther comprehend of them in the other world, God only knows (see note 50).

This humility opened Owen’s soul to the greatest visions of Christ in the Scriptures. And he believed with all his heart the truth of 2 Corinthians 3:18 that by contemplating the glory of Christ “we may be gradually transformed into the same glory” (see note 51). And that is nothing other than holiness.

Owen grew in knowledge of God by obeying what he knew already.

In other words Owen recognized that holiness was not merely the goal of all true learning; it is also the means of more true learning. This elevated holiness even higher in his life: it was the aim of his life and, in large measure, the means of getting there.

The true notion of holy evangelical truths will not live, at least not flourish, where they are divided from a holy conversation (=life). As we learn all to practice [!!!], so we learn much by practice … and herein alone can we come unto the assurance, that what we know and learn is indeed the truth [cf. John 7:17] … And hereby will they be led continually into farther degrees of knowledge. For the mind of man is capable of receiving continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge … if … they are improved unto their proper end in obedience unto God. but without this the mind will be quickly stuffed with notions so that no streams can descend into it from the fountain of truth (see note 52).

Thus Owen kept the streams of the fountain of truth open by making personal obedience the effect of all that he learned, and the means of more.

Owen passionately pursued a personal communion with God.

It is incredible that Owen was able to keep writing edifying and weighty books and pamphlets under the pressures of his life. The key was his personal communion with God. Andrew Thomson, one of his biographers wrote,

It is interesting to find the ample evidence which [his work on Mortification] affords, that amid the din of theological controversy, the engrossing and perplexing activities of a high public station, and the chilling damps of a university, he was yet living near God, and like Jacob amid the stones of the wilderness, maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible (see note 53).

Packer says that the Puritans differ from evangelicals today because with them,

” … communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparativelysmall thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God” (see note 54).

But God was seeing to it that Owen and the suffering Puritans of his day lived closer to God and sought after communion with God more earnestly than we. Writing a letter during an illness in 1674 he said to a friend, “Christ is our best friend, and ere long will be our only friend. I pray God will all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him” (see note 55). God was using illness and all the other pressures of Owen’s life to drive him into communion with God and not away form it.

But Owen was also very intentional about his communion with God. He said, “Friendship is most maintained and kept up by visits; and these, the more free and less occasioned by urgent business (see note 56) …” In other words, in the midst of all his academic and political and ecclesiastical labors he made many visits to his Friend, Jesus Christ.

And when he went he did not just go with petitions for things or even for deliverance in his many hardships. He went to see his glorious friend and to contemplate his greatness. The last book he wrote—he was finishing it as he died—is called Meditations on the Glory of Christ. That says a great deal about the focus and outcome of Owen’s life. In it he said,

The revelation … of Christ … deserves the severest of our thoughts, the best of our meditations and our utmost diligence in them … What better preparation can there be for [our future enjoyment of the glory of Christ] than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel (see note 57).

The contemplation Owen has in mind is made up of at least two things: on the one hand there is what he called his “severest thoughts” and “best meditations” or in another place “assiduous meditations,” and on the other had relentless prayer. The two are illustrated in his work on Hebrews.

One of his greatest achievements was his seven volume commentary on Hebrews. When he finished it near the end of his life he said, “Now my work is done: it is time for me to die” (see note 58). How did he do it? We get a glimpse from the preface:

I must now say, that, after all my searching and reading, prayer and assiduous meditation have been my only resort, and by far the most useful means of light and assistance. By these have my thoughts been freed from many an entanglement (see note 59).

His aim in all he did was to grasp the mind of Christ and reflect it in his behavior. This means that the quest for holiness was always bound up with a quest for true knowledge of God. That’s why prayer and study and meditation always went together.

I suppose … this may be fixed on as a common principle of Christianity; namely, that constant and fervent prayer for the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, is such an indispensable means for … attaining the knowledge of the mind of God in the Scripture, as that without it all others will not [avail] (see note 60).

Owen gives us a glimpse into the struggle that we all have in this regard lest anyone think he was above the battle. He wrote to John Eliot in New England,

I do acknowledge unto you that I have a dry and barren spirit, and I do heartily beg your prayers that the Holy One would, notwithstanding all my sinful provocations, water me from above. (see note 61).

In other words the prayers of others were essential not just his own.

The chief source of all that Owen preached and wrote was this “assiduous meditation” onScripture and prayer. Which leads us to the fourth way that Owen achieved such holiness in his immensely busy and productive life.

Owen was authentic in commending in public only what he had experienced in private.

One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is a terrible hardening of the spiritual life.

Words came easy for Owen, but he set himself against this terrible disease of unauthenticity and secured his growth in holiness. He began with the premise: “Our happiness consisteth not in the knowing the things of the gospel, but in the doing of them” (see note 61). Doing, not just knowing, was the goal of all his studies.

As a means to this authentic doing he labored to experience every truth he preached. He said,

I hold myself bound in conscience and in honor, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, ‘I have believed, and therefore I have spoken’ (see note 62).

So for example his Exposition of Psalm 130 (320 pages on eight verses) is the laying open not only of the Psalm but of his own heart. Andrew Thomson says,

When Owen … laid open the book of God, he laid open at the same time the book of his own heart and of his own history, and produced a book which … is rich in golden thoughts, and instinct with the living experience of ‘one who spake what he knew, and testified what he had seen’ (see note 63).

The same biographer said of Owen’s On The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (1681) that he “first preached [it] to his own heart, and then to a private congregation; and which reveals to us the almost untouched and untrodden eminences on which Owen walked in the last years of his pilgrimage” (see note 64).

This was the conviction that controlled Owen:

A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may bd poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us (see note 65).

It was this conviction that sustained Owen in his immensely busy public life of controversy and conflict. Whenever he undertook to defend a truth, he sought first of all to take that truth deeply into his heart and gain a real spiritual experience of it so that there would be no artificiality in the debate and no mere posturing or gamesmanship. He was made steady in the battle because he had come to experience the truth at the personal level of the fruits of holiness and knew that God was in it. Here is the way he put it in the Preface to The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated (1655):

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us,—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men (see note 66).

That, I think, was the key to Owen’s life and ministry, so renown for holiness —”when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.”

The last thing Owen was doing at the end of his life came was communing with Christ in a work that was later published as Meditations on the Glory of Christ. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “O, brother Payne, the long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world” (see note 67).

But Owen saw more glory than most of us see, and that is why he was known for his holiness, because Paul taught us plainly and Owen believed, “We all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next.”

-John Piper, The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness – Reflections on the Life and Thought of John Owen.

The Excellencies of Christ and Him Crucified, A Sermon on John 19.1-37

I am in earnest this morning to speak with you about what the apostle Peter calls “the excellencies of Christ,” and what Paul calls “the wisdom and power of God.”  John teaches us that it is the divine display of His glory and love.  Indeed, the cross of Christ is that which the prophets of old labored to see, and that into which angels long to look.  It is the talk of heaven itself in our Lord’s transfiguration conversation with Moses and Elijah.  So, there is no other topic that I am more eager to discuss with you, nor any subject greater in heaven or on earth than that of Christ and Him crucified.

So, if you would turn in your Bibles to the 19th chapter of John’s Gospel.

This morning I want to spend our time in the first two general scenes of John 19 under these headings — first (1), John 19.1-16a, the rebellion of every man against the King of Glory; and second (2), John 19.16b-37, the excellencies of our Savior.

Now, “the rebellion of every man against the King of Glory” —

The crucifixion of our Savior was the climactic sin of an historical group of people.  As we have seen in our text, Jesus is mocked and tortured and killed by Roman soldiers, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and the Jews.  And, each set of rebels do have their own specific sins which we ought not to miss.

In John 19.1-3, we observe the Roman soldiers mocking and beating the Savior.  And, there is more than meets the eye at first glance, — it is not only mocking and beating, but also a sinful propensity towards anger and insult.  You might remember that Jesus teaches us in Mt 5, beginning in 5.21, that anger is the seedbed for violence and murder.  He says, “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt 5.22).  And, what do we see of these soldiers but an anger that results in violence, insults, mocking, and ultimately the murder of the King of glory.  They, then, are liable to judgment and to the hell of fire on account of their mistreatment of our excellent Savior.

Indeed, (1) the One whom the soldiers mock [in their spiritual blindness] as the King of the Jews is in fact the King of Glory, and the King of kings.  And, (2) the One whom they strike with their hands and [as Mt and Mk tell us] with a reed is the One of whom Isaiah writes, “a bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42.3).

Now, beginning in 19.4, the soldiers drop out and the tension between Pilate and the Jews over the case of Jesus takes center stage.  Having been scourged for the first of two times, Pilate brings Jesus before the crowd dressed in mock clothing as a joke of a divine king.  Even at the sight of our bloodied Savior, the Jews, instead of pity, cried out all the more, “Crucify him, crucify him!” to which Pilate retorts, “You take him and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.”  This is the second time in the text that John reminds us that Jesus was guiltless, and it is the first of two rising issues — (1) Is Jesus guilty? and (2) Who exactly is Jesus?  The first, “Is Jesus guilty?” was can answer immediately, and the second will be answered throughout the rest of our time together.  “Is Jesus guilty?”  John insists through Pilate that Jesus was in fact an innocent man — “not guilty.”  And, John shows through the incessant hatred of the Jews that their accusation that “he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” is sinfully motivated, and only true if Jesus is not who He says that He is (19.7).  But, of course, John has labored through the entirety of this gospel, and God through him, for an appeal to us — “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20.31).  Jesus is the innocent Son of God, which means that His crucifixion was the height of humanity’s sin.  It also means that Jesus was verified as a perfect substitute for guilty peoples like you and me.

Now, I do want us to breathe in the sins of Pilate and the Jews in the trial of Jesus, {because if we listen closely enough, I do think we observe ourselves in the matter of our Savior’s crucifixion.}  First (1) Pilate, — Pilate is spiritually blind, a man who goes against the truth that he has heard from Jesus and so proves himself to be enslaved to sin.  Near the end of Jn 18.37, Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice,” to which Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?”  And, in Jn 19.8-16, Pilate is given a legacy of superstition, pride {God’s sovereign government in the death of Christ}, rivalry, mockery, injustice, and ultimately, unbelief.  He is a man of enslaved conscience — who, knowing the truth, denies it for the sake of his own political station, and as the man who, by an authority given Him by God, approves the sentence of condemnation upon the sinless Son of God.  We see this mainly in 19.8-11, where upon hearing that Jesus may be divine Pilate superstitiously fears, it appears, that the gods might curse him because he has scourged a son of the gods.  So Pilate asks Jesus of His origins, “Where are you from?”  Jesus gives him no answer {incidentally, this is quite amazing, — a guilty man would wail at the prospect of crucifixion, and how much more an innocent man, but our Lord proves Himself to be the Lamb of God who is straightened and sovereignly destined to take away the sin of the world when He, although innocent, is nevertheless “like a sheep” who “before its shearers is silent.”  Now, we need to mark what is said next.  At Jesus’ silence, Pilate pridefully presses his authority over Jesus to release him or to crucify him, and at this, our Lord does speak, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.  Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”  What does our King say?  Pilate’s authority in the matter of the death of Christ is a derived authority.  God, and for that matter, Jesus is totally in control of these ceremonies.  Now, it is an unfortunate display of the sinfulness of sin that Pilate would still use that authority to crucify Jesus.  On the other hand, we ought to be immensely grateful to God that He is the sovereign governor of all things, because He then is able to take the greatest of evils, namely, the crucifixion of God the Son, and mean it, and plan it, and bring it about for our good, namely, our salvation.

But second (2), we need to observe the Jews, — their cries of crucifixion are the greatest indictment against not only Israel, but the whole world, because of all the peoples of the world, they should have loved the One that they hated even to the point of their own blasphemy and disownment of God.  It is an argument from greatest to least.  If they rejected the Messiah who had come into the world, what of the rest of the world?  Accordingly, we observe in the Jews the same spiritual hard-heartedness of their ancestors which we read of in the Old Testament.  Even as they always, with the exception of a remnant of grace, rejected their God through heinous and unbelievable sins, even desiring a human king like the rest of the nations, so here they reject their God through their hatred of the Messiah.  We observe them as lacking a moral compass, motivated by a mob, perceived — even by the unbelieving Pilate — as jealous and envious of Jesus, hypocritical in their religiosity, and desiring self-rule, to break the bonds of God’s sweet reign for their love of the bonds of sin.    Indeed, their sin makes them senseless and blasphemous even to the point of saying as their fathers of old did to the prophet Samuel, “Appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations,” to which God replied to Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8.5, 7).  And in like manner this group of Jews, in the presence of their King, the King of kings, cried out as we see in 19.15, “We have no king but Caesar.”  And this makes them also deserving of death on a cross like that one of which they beg for Jesus.

Now, what John does in 19.16a is bring these three strands, the sinful soldiers, the iniquitous Pilate, and the rebellious Jews together to show that all of them are in agreement over the death of the King of glory.  Here, sinful humanity is viewed in its most concentrated form.  According to their own horrific desires, they have forged an alliance and demonstrated their allegiance with sin, satan, death and hell, to be rid of God.  There is no doubt, historically then, that there are two groups and one individual immediately responsible for the crucifixion of the Savior — (1) the Roman soldiers; (2) the Roman governor, Pilate; and (3) the Jewish leaders.

But, I say that this is also the rebellion of every man.  I do not intend to deny the historicity or the responsibility of these Roman soldiers, or Pilate, or the Jews present in the death of Christ.  I only intend to include us in that rebellion.  I hope that all of you will agree that Christ was not only crucified on account of the sins of a few men isolated in history, but that our rebellion against God is also included.  In their rebellion, we see our own.  Their agreement in 19.16 is ours also.  Jew and Gentile are represented here, and “Jew and Gentile” is frequently a biblical moniker for everyone in the whole world at any given time.  Therefore, the rebellion that we read of in this first scene is not only the historical rebellion of a few isolated people, but we observe our own sin in the matter of our Lord’s death.

We ought not allow the providence of our God which was pleased to appoint our existence some 2000 years after the event of the cross disassociate us from our responsibility for that event.  Had we been born a sinner, as we all were, but in Rome around 10 AD, a pagan Gentile enrolled in the Roman legion, this Jesus is to us a weak, pitiable joke.  We, then, are the ones twisting the 6-12 inch thorns of the date palm into a crown and pressing it into the head of this silly Jew.  We, then, are the ones mocking the Lord and striking him in the face with our fists.  Or perhaps, we had been born of greater nobility, that we should enter the political arena and were to judge this unremarkable king of a servant nation — then, we are the ones of weak conscience who, knowing His innocence, give Him over to be crucified in order to save our own skin.  Or just maybe, we had the privilege of being a pure breed from the nation of Israel, a Jew of Jews.  We knew God’s will, had God’s law, and had seen God’s might; by birth the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and the hope of the Messiah are ours!  We, then, are the ones who with unbelieving shrieks cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” We, then, are the ones who re-appropriate the age old sin of our forefathers, saying, “We have no king — not even God? No! Not even God — but Caesar!”  And, whether we are the soldiers or Pilate or the Jews we all have come under that ancient Word in Psalm 2 — “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”  And, if we need to hear anything else, let us hear the words of John’s prologue, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” (Jn 1.10-11).  Indeed, as we have already sung, “Behold the Man upon the cross, my guilt upon His shoulders.  Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice, call out among the scoffers.  It was my sin that held Him there, until it was accomplished.” {Consider putting before Psalm 2.}

Now, this is essential to see as we approach the cross because, as C. J. Mahaney has said in his sermon on Mark 15, we cannot read these words and be unaffected by them because our sin also is responsible for the death of Christ.  Our sins this day, our disservice to our wives, our misuse of precious time, our ungratefulness at meals, our prayerlessness, our inward and secret sins, — these played their part in our Savior’s hanging from a Roman tree!

But, I want to say to you that knowing this is for our good.  For if we do not feel the horror of our sin in the matter, we will doubtless know and feel the exhilaration of our Savior’s excellencies.  We need to stay close to our Savior’s words, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  We need to have our hearts strangely warmed again, like John Wesley, who, when he was finally converted, exclaimed, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  We must want to feel as Luther felt when he said, “I feel as though Christ died for me only yesterday.”

And so, I would urge you with the words of Samuel Rutherford to the excellencies of our Savior, “O! men’s souls have no wings, and therefore night and day they keep their nest and are not acquaint with Christ.  What (then) can I say of Him?  Let us go and see.”

Now, you’ll notice in 19.16b-18 several implicit allusions that John uses to help us see, though time does not permit us to fully address our excellent Savior as the New Covenant sin offering taken outside of the camp, or the new Tent of Meeting between God and sinners which Moses used to situate outside the camp.  These John alludes to in 19.17 when he writes that our Savior “went out bearing his own cross.”  Nor shall I but mention in passing that John portrays Jesus here as the One prophesied in Genesis 3.15 who would crush the head of the serpent when he writes that our Savior was crucified at the place “called the place of a skull.”  And, as He is here numbered with the transgressors in 19.18, so our excellent Savior is identified as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 who makes intercession for the transgressors, even us.

But to our second scene, and the more explicit excellencies of our Savior.  There are six, and while each merits its own sermon, we shall address them more devotionally — Christ is for us,

First (1), Jn 19.19-22, OUR REIGNING SAVIOR — (Read text) upon the cross our King reigns, and His gospel goes out to all the nations.  F. F. Bruce did well write, “The Crucified One is the true king, the kingliest king of all; because it is he who is stretched on the cross, he turns an obscene instrument of torture into a throne of glory and ‘reigns from the tree.’”  The cross, according to Jn 12.23, was our Savior’s appointed hour of glory.  Nailed there, He is ironically displayed, as the King of the Jews, and His reign is multilingually proclaimed by the placard above Him.  There, Pilate unknowingly aids the redemptive purpose of God by proclaiming to the known world — “Your God reigns” from the tree.  It is true what Augustine once stated, “The cross was,” for our King, “a pulpit, in which Christ preached his love to the world.”

Yet our Savior’s most excellent reign is a paradoxical reign.  Crucified in weakness, He yet reigns in glory.  And I cannot resist an important tangent, — if our Savior’s reign and our God’s kingdom is paradoxical to the world, so our lives as citizens of that kingdom will be also.  The one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.  The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  The one who saves his life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for the sake of Christ will find it.  We are not to be power-grabbing, but cross-bearing.  We do not see the cross as folly or a stumbling block, but as the wisdom and power of God.  A husband no longer oppresses his wife into submission, but dies for her joy.  A woman no longer uses her physical beauty in order to manipulate a man’s soul, but she puts on the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.  We are no longer prejudicial or partial according to ethnicity or age, nor social or economic or political status, but we strive for communities that represent the one new humanity in Christ where cultural diversity is celebrated in and by gospel induced and world transforming unity.  I tell you, if you do not like the idea of a black man or an Arab or a former prostitute or a former homosexual worshiping the Lamb who was slain for them alongside of you in heaven, then I doubt whether heaven is the place for you, and I wonder whether you have properly considered your own sin, I wonder whether you have known the grace and power of Christ’s cross, and I wonder whether God is most assuredly in your heart and life.  Christ’s reign is a subversive reign — He has subverted all of the sinful power structures of this world.  But I say, lest I leave you anxious, that Christ’s reign is a saving and sweet reign.  He is most assuredly gracious.  “(Christ’s) regal rod,” said Thomas Watson, “has honey at the end of it.”  His reign only ever tends towards your eternal good and everlasting joy.

Second (2), Jn 19.23-24, (He was for us) OUR SUFFERING SAVIOR —  (Read text) The simplest intention of John is to say, “I saw the meticulous providence of God in the ancient Scriptures fulfilled before my own contemporary eyes in the death of my Savior.  Rough, pagan, juvenile soldiers who know nothing of Psalm 22.18, willingly and responsibly carrying out the prophetic Word of God written some one thousand years prior by the righteous sufferer, King David.”  If this minutest detail was fulfilled from the Messianic Psalm, what of its plainer parts?  Therefore, I know that this One upon the cross, is the fulfillment of the Righteous Sufferer.  Now, as Psalm 22 goes, the Righteous Sufferer invites the multitudes to rejoice in God’s redeeming work, “that He has done it.”  Now, Peter applies it to us when he writes of the outcome of His suffering, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3.18).

Third (3), Jn 19.25-27, OUR COMPASSIONATE SAVIOR — (Read text) While the soldiers revel in the benefit of our Savior’s clothes, the disciples, indeed we, revel in His deep care for us.  What is in the heart of our Savior as He experiences the pains of God’s justice but unfathomable compassion for His mother, and I would suggest to you, of all His disciples.  For, here, she is amongst a small group of other disciples, and He addresses her as a disciple, calling her “Woman.”  This is not a word of condescension, but of astonishing love, if — as we believe — there is no greater relationship in all the world than that between God and His adopted children, and we with one another as our Lord had prayed in John 17.  Therefore, Jesus speaks two things to His mother — first (1), of His God-pleasing, parent-honoring care for her; and second (2), that her blessedness, even as our own, is not by physical relationship to Him but rather by faith in her Savior.  Here, as our Savior departs this world, He establishes a new family of faith.  Brothers and sisters, it is a glorious thing to call my wife “my wife,” but it is altogether superior to call her my sister in the Lord.  And, we must remember what our Lord said when He stretched out His hand towards His disciples in Mt 12.46-50, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  The point is this, brothers and sisters, that you, as the disciples of our Lord, were no further from His heart on the cross than His own mother according to the flesh.  Our Savior does here reveal His great care for us which does now continue by His heavenly intercession.

Fourth (4), Jn 19.28-30, OUR PERFECT SAVIOR — (Read text) that which is truly mission impossible with man is redemption accomplished by Christ.  Brothers, if ever there was a world in a word, it is in this word, “it.”  And, if ever there was a universe in a phrase, it is in this phrase, “It is finished.”  John Flavel is more articulate, “It is but one word in the original; but in that one word is contained the sum of all joy; the very spirits of all divine consolation.  The ancient Greeks reckoned it their excellency to speak much in a little: ‘to give a sea of matter in a drop of language.’  What they only sought, is here found.”  It is most true what he then says, that “a far greater truth is contained herein, even the . . . completing of the whole design and project of our redemption.”  Here, our Savior is actively bringing a perfect redemption to pass.  In that phrase, “I thirst,”  the fulfillment of all “the Scripture” is here converged in the death of Jesus.  And, is it not because He drank the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs for us that He now says, “I thirst”?  Every last ounce of our sin, every last drop of our hell was freely and fully paid for by our dying Savior.  Everything in God’s eternal saving counsel that must be completed prior to His willful death, resurrection and ascension was then completed.  Not the least item prevented our Savior from forfeiting His life in order to take it up again.  And, the procurement of everything necessary for our salvation, then — grace, repentance, faith, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification, and a billion other exquisite providences — were here purchased completely.   Satan’s reign — it is ended; sin’s captivity — it is finished; death’s hold — it is defeated; hell’s mouth — it is closed, for Christ’s redemptive work is finished!  This, and much more, our Savior did for “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7.9).  {It is no wonder, then, what John Calvin wrote, how that “Outside Christ there is nothing worth knowing, and all who by faith perceive what he is like have grasped the whole immensity of heavenly benefits.”}  Oh, it will take eternity to fathom the infinite recesses of this triumphant word — “It is finished!”  {I tell you, if you should perish, it will not be because of any insufficiency in the perfect substitutionary atonement of Christ, but if you do perish, it will be of your own doing, because you would not turn from your love of sin and find the salvation so wonderfully proclaimed to you in this most excellent Savior!  Do come!  Do come this day to Christ and you will be most excellently saved!}

Fifth (5), Jn 19.36, OUR SACRIFICIAL SAVIOR — (Read text) that Christ’s bones were not broken fulfill both Exodus 12.46 and Psalm 34.20.  From these two OT verses we might understand David, the suffering King for whom God providentially cares, as a projection of the Passover Lamb who averts judgment by absorbing judgment.  In other words, even the OT progressively reveals the Lamb to be the Davidic King.  Is it any wonder then that when John the Baptist sees Jesus, he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  If you are believing upon Christ and Him crucified this day, His death is life for you, His blood an incorruptible haven for you from the curses, plagues and judgment of God against your sin — Christ has borne it for you completely!  There is, therefore, now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus!

Sixth (6), Jn 19.37, OUR CLEANSING SAVIOR — (Read text) finally, John understands the piercing of our Lord’s side to be a fulfillment of Zechariah 12.10, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn,” and then, in Zechariah 13.1, the prophet adds, “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”  It is interesting that John does not quote Zechariah 13.7 which speaks of the striking of God’s shepherd, but rather Zechariah 12.10 which speaks of the piercing of the One who is roughly no less than Yahweh Himself; and, here, it is well to be reminded of John’s prologue, that while our Lord was a man, yet the One who made atonement for us is none other than the Word, God who tabernacled amongst us.  Even as the water and blood that flow from His pierced side surely teach us of our Lord’s humanity, John’s quote of Zechariah 12.10 teaches us equally of our Lord’s divinity.  This is none other than Yahweh the Son crucified for you, brothers!  And, the prophet says, God opened up a fountain in this day — our Savior is a Cleansing Fountain Who has and will wash us clean from sin and uncleanness.

William Cowper did well capture this when he bid us sing, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.  The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day; and there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.  Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power, Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.  E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply; redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.”  Let us wash ourselves in His love, let us drink to infinite joy of this forever fountain!

Oh, brothers, what a wonder!  What an excellent Savior!

To these things I would only seek to add two reflections that I hope will encourage you in our Savior’s excellencies, — “Rest completely and labor indefatigably.”  Brothers and sisters, there is sweet comfort and peace for you in our excellent Savior, — spend your lives resting in Christ and Him crucified.  Hear with the ears of your hearts the words of our Savior, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11.28), even “rest for your souls,” He does say in Mt 11.29.  Are you hard pressed by sin?  Our reigning Savior has broken sin’s power for you so that you may walk in holiness.  Do you feel yourself at a distance from God?  The Savior who suffered for you has reconciled you to God upon that cross and so whispers to you daily, “Peace, peace, blessed everlasting peace!”  Are you a lonely soul?  Our compassionate Savior has created a new heavenly family for you to love and to be loved.  Would you seek to toil away for salvation?  Our perfect Savior says, “It is finished!”  Are you tantalized by fear of hell?  Well, perhaps some of us should be, but not if you have believed upon Christ as John would persuade you, — by faith in our sacrificial Savior your lot is heaven, your portion is God forevermore.  And what of your striving after joy?  I tell you, our cleansing Savior is an eternal fountain of joy, satisfaction that never wains in the least.  So I say again, rest completely.

And, labor indefatigably (without tiring).  Out of this rest is born the happy necessity laid upon us all to proclaim nothing but these excellencies of Christ and Him crucified.  {So take up the Book and read, John says.  Four words, four words!, he gives us, — “There they crucified Him!”  Why only four words about the crucifixion of our excellent Savior?  So that he could fill it out with the rest of the Scriptures, — from Genesis, from Exodus and Leviticus, from the Psalter, from Isaiah and Zechariah, yes, from the Law, from the Psalms, from the Prophets.  His excellencies are drawn from the Scriptures, brothers and sisters.  I have long thought that the reason that we have so little proclamation of His excellencies is because we know so little of them.  If we would proclaim His excellencies, we must be well acquainted with them.  So be steady in the Scriptures, and be stayed at the cross where our God is most wonderfully displayed in the glories of our Savior.  In this, labor indefatigably, even as unto our most excellent Savior.


Getting published is not as important as writing.

– John Piper in his biographical talk on David Brainerd.  The context is Brainerd’s personal devotion to theological writings, none of which were published or preserved.  And, how he would arise early in the morning, candle in hand, no computer, no electricity, no pencil, no paper, coughing up blood, etc.  Piper writes,

He was constantly writing and thinking about theological things. That’s why we have the Diaries and Journal! But there was more. We read frequently things like, “Was most of the day employed in writing on a divine subject. Was frequent in prayer.” (p. 240) “I spent most of the time in writing on a sweet divine subject.” (p. 284) “Was engaged in writing again almost the whole day.” (p. 287) “Rose early and wrote by candlelight some considerable time; spent most of the day in writing.” (p. 344) “Towards night, enjoyed some of the clearest thoughts on a divine subject … that ever I remember to have had upon any subject whatsoever; and spent two or three hours in writing them.” (p. 359).

He added, “this is what we don’t have anymore.”

May God resurrect a battalion of David Brainerd’s in our day.