Saturday, March 28, 2009

John Prepares the Way for the Lord (Jn. 1:24-28)

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong on 1 March 2009 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: John 1:24-28

Pharisees sent people to talk to John because John drew a lot of crowd, so they were curious whether he was the Messiah. When asked if he was the Messiah, Elijah or the prophets, he said no to each of them. These 3 persons were the most important figures in the Old Testament. Unlike political campaigns, John would not use deception to draw the crowd. He would only tell the truth.

Asked who he was, he replied, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’’’ The desert is the remote place, away from the noise of the world. But today we like to hear the popular voices.

John was a witness of the truth. His purpose is only to glorify God. His calling was to make straight the crooked path and prepare the way for the Lord. To prepare the coming of the Lord, he preached repentance. But many people try to steal God’s glory for themselves. When we take away our arrogance, the Lord will come. Sinners must repent so that they will be forgiven and cleansed. Only those who have clean heart can see the Lord.

John the Baptist confessed he was not Messiah or Elijah, or the prophets. But the Pharisees were not satisfied with his answer. “Since you are not Messiah, Elijah nor the prophets, why are you baptizing?” When we interrogate someone, we have first assumed that we are right. When we try to persuade someone, we must have thought that we know more than others. The Scriptures did not say that only Messiah and Elijah and the prophets could baptize. In fact, the Scripture never talked about Messiah, Elijah or the prophets baptizing. There is no basis to question John the Baptist for baptizing. But strangely John the Baptist did not defend himself. We can judge the spirituality of a person by what he said. When our mouth speaks, we are introducing ourselves. We often make mistakes, but we think we know the truth and often criticize and judge others.

John the Baptist knew that he was obeying God’s command, not pleasing men. We will always make a lot of mistakes when we try to please others, do things for selfish motives or seek our own glory. John did everything for God and had no regret.

He replied that he baptized with water but He who came after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees felt that their position was threatened so they summoned men to question him. When we see the emergence of someone better than us, we feel threatened and find excuses to stop the other person from succeeding, hence become unable to appreciate the good in the other person. We hate the presence of threat, which gives us very uncomfortable feeling. When Christians start church, often times it is opposed by other Christians who feel threatened. This is how decadent we are.

Pharisees were afraid that the synagogues would become empty as people went to the desert to hear message that would prepare them for the coming of the Lord. They wanted to protect their past glory. Why are we happy when people treat us well? Why are we furious when people oppose us? That shows how self-centered we are, how we do not live by the truth. If we do not deny ourselves, we cannot follow Jesus Christ.

However, not only John the Baptist did not defend himself, he introduced the coming of the One greater than him. He was not interested in his own glory. Calmly he answered that there would be One coming after him.

When Christ came, there were only two choices for the Jews: to maintain tradition and destroy Christ, or let Christ take over and reform their tradition. When John the Baptist preached, immediately there was a conflict of culture. From the very beginning, the religious leaders already felt the threat. This is the tragedy of history. God was about to abandon the Jewish culture, and from that time onward the Scriptures (NT) are no longer written in Hebrews. From Jewish tradition’s point of view, this is unacceptable and could not be from God. The Jews saw themselves as God’s chosen people and Hebrews was their language. They kept maintaining their tradition. In their arrogance, they opposed the will of God. Because they receive the law, they think they are the most righteous, forgetting that God sees self-righteousness as the greatest sin. A truly spiritual person would not think himself spiritual.
When God gave the law to Israel, it is to let them understand how holy and righteous He is, so that they could know how unrighteous they were. Before God’s goodness, we should recognize our evil. The purpose of the Law is to help us understand sin. But not only did the Jews not recognize their sin, they think themselves better than others because they had the law. The law was given to reveal their yet they became proud instead. The prophets were sent to warn them and they persecuted and killed the prophets.

It is almost as if they are proud of having taken X-ray which show how cancerous they are. This is the fatal flaw of the Jews. John the Baptist called them the brood of vipers and asked how they could escape from the wrath to come. He warned them not to rely on the fact that they were descendants of Abraham, for God could raise descendants of Abraham from the stone, that if they did not repent they would never enter the kingdom of God. They must show fruits of repentance.

But these people did not come to John the Baptist to repent, they came to interrogate him. John the Baptist said there would be one greater than Him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Before John the Baptist, King David is the greatest prophet. Christ is the Son of God, the Holy One of God, the Anointed King, who would suffer and be pierced, and none of his bones would be broken. He would be resurrected and sit at the right hand of God. All these, Abraham, Moses and Joshua did not know. But David did. David is not a perfect person and he committed many grave sins in his life. But he is called the man after God’s heart. He was the one who truly understood the will of God pertaining Christ. In the Old Testament, we know much about Christ through David. John the Baptist is the second person who understood Christology very well. The difference is that David only prophesied Christ but John the Baptist witnessed Christ. David saw the coming Christ from afar.

Within a very short period of time, John the Baptist preached Christ very clearly. He declared Christ was from heaven and the Kingdom of God is near. When he saw Jesus walking towards him, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” When Adam sinned, God killed an animal to cloth him. When Israelites left Egypt, there was passover. In the wilderness, they sacrificed the lamb for the forgiveness of sin. With one sentence, John the Baptist summarized it all. Jesus Christ was the Messiah prophesied, the Lamb of God slain for the sin of the world. John is the prophet who used the least amount of time to preach the most concise content.

Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel took decades to preach. Similarly, Paul, Peter and James also preached for many years. But John the Baptist preached only a while and was beheaded after 1.5 year. He was very unique. Within shortest time, with the least words, he summarized Christology very concisely.

The Jews had wrong concepts of Messiah, so when Christ appeared, they could not recognize him. He had no political power, no soldiers, no academic qualifications. In their understanding of Christology, they could not accept him as the Messiah. But John the Baptist recognized Christ. There are people with a lot of comprehensive understanding of academics, but cannot escape from academics arena and seldom influence the culture of the world. But many people without academic background influence the world.

Baptism symbolizes repentance. It means to be cleansed. John said he baptized with water but Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit. His name is John the Baptist and it was his responsibility to baptize. But Jesus is the true Baptizer. The water symbolizes cleansing because water can only cleanse the outward body. The spirit cleanses the heart.

Does that mean that after we are baptized in water when we believe, we need to receive another baptism? John Wesley called this baptism the second blessing. By the 20th century, this thought had developed into a wrong concept. It became the Holy Spirit baptizing us, characterized by four special marks: healing, exorcism, tongues and miracles. The concept continued to evolve, and by 20th century there are new manifestations such as falling on the ground, shaking, and laughing which is also called the holy laughter. At the extremes, they made the sound of animals. All these are linked with the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

But according to the Scriptures, to be baptized with the Holy Spirit has no direct relation with all these signs. Firstly, it is Jesus who baptizes, not the Holy Spirit. Christ baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Bible never said Holy Spirit baptizes. Secondly, after a person has been cleansed with the Holy Spirit, he became a saint, he is sanctified. Charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit is the baptizer. The concept of holiness and baptism are therefore confused. Baptism of the Holy Spirit is only mentioned 7 times and it does not mean all these signs. It means holy living. (To be continued in April 09)

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Only Begotten Son of God (Jn. 1:18)

This is my personal summary of the preaching of Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong on 15 February 2009 in Newton Life. It was preached in Chinese with English translation.

Passage: John 1:18

Theology can be divided into two parts: dogmatics and apologetics. Dogmatics is about doctrines, about the orthodox faith to believe in, aimed to teach believers. Apologetics is about the defence of the faith before those who do not believe. Though we know what we believe, we face challenges in the world that does not believe. We do not force others to believe, but with the spirit of apologetic we defend our belief and express our faith.

Apologetics itself is also divided into two categories: general and Christian apologetics. General apologetics is about defending the existence of God. Christian apologetics, why Christ is God. This responsibility is a common area of defence by most religions. But when we refer to God as the Triune God, and we speak of God the Son, of the Holy Spirit, we are no longer in the realm of general apologetics. We are entering Christian apologetics. The Apostle John speaks of both God and Christ (general and Christian apologetics).

The Bible say God cannot be seen. At the same time the Bible also declares God is Spirit. He is not in the material realm. The God who created the material world cannot be material Himself. The Creator is not part of creation. It is absolute necessity that there is a qualitative difference between the Creator and creation. The God that cannot be seen is truly God. The Bible say nobody has ever seen God because God is invisible.

When God create the material visible to the eyes, He also creates the invisible air. Some people say because God cannot be seen, He is not real. But this is a foolish thing to say. In the world, the visible and invisible share the same sphere. God also put within us invisible things within the visible. We have visible body, but invisible soul, visible motion but invisible emotion. We can see phenomena but cannot see essence.

Just because we cannot see God, does not mean He does not exist. Many people believe in the things they cannot see. God’s existence is not the result of proof. But His existence is the very reason why we want to believe or deny it. Because God exists, He gives us the freedom to respond Him. Atheists hope God does not exist. Attempt to disprove God’s existence itself defeats its purpose because it does not make sense to bother so much about something inexistent. A Russian writer at the end of 19th century expressed that if there were no God, he could do anything. If there is no God, nobody would restrain human freedom. Men do not want to be held into account. We want freedom but not responsibility. We want to sin but do not want to face judgement. We want religion but not God. Men want to preach God in any way they want, resulting in not much difference between atheists and religion. As Christ quoted Isaiah, “these people honor Me with their lips but their hearts are far away.”

In atheism, men declare independence from God and want to destroy the interpersonal relationship between Creator God and created man, that link of accountability. But whether we believe God or not does not determine whether He exists or not. No one has ever seen God. But it does not mean He does not exist. It is also not a reason not to believe Him. Just because we cannot see God, does not mean He cannot see us. It does not mean we can sin any way we want.

But why does the Old Testament record about people who see God while the Apostle John said nobody can see God? How do we reconcile this? Is it true that in the Old Testament some people have seen God? Or is it true that nobody has seen God face to face? Whom was Adam walking with in the garden then? Whom did Moses meet face to face with? Whom did Abraham pray to? Whom did Isaiah see in his vision in the throne of heaven? The Old Testament recorded that Isaiah was in great fear because he had seen God. Faced with the holiness of God he immediately saw his sin and shame, and God sent an angel to cleanse his lips. What is the meaning of this recording? It seems inconsistent. Did these people really see God? If they did not see God, Apostle John is right in his declaration that nobody has seen God. But if they see God, then is Apostle John mistaken?

But we can see the general principle in the Bible in verse 18 itself. It says that nobody has ever seen God, except the Only Begotten Son of God, who has made Him known. In the Old Testament, all the encounters are with God the Son, not God the Father. In this way we see the consistency. But could really it be that God the Son was witnessed before? In John 8, Christ spoke to the Jews that their father Abraham rejoiced to see His days. As the Jews objected that Jesus was not even 50 years old and could not have seen Abraham, Jesus declared, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Hence, Jesus Christ Himself acknowledged His pre-existence. So in the Old Testament, people have seen Christ. He is the eternal Son of God, who made God known to the people in the Old Testament. God has revealed Himself in the flesh in the Old Testament. This is the physical manifestation of God in human form.

The God that Adam saw in the garden, the God that Moses met, and the God that spoke to Abraham was Christ before incarnation. Abraham met three messengers from God. Two of them were angels who later on went to rescue Lot. The One that remained was Jehovah. But Jehovah is in heaven, how could He be on earth and visible? The visible Jehovah was Jesus Christ before incarnation. Abraham spoke to Him in the posture of worship as he interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah. Prayer is the privilege God gives to men, while responding to prayer is God’s sovereignty.

After Abraham’s intercession, Jehovah left. In the next chapter, Jehovah rained sulphur from Jehovah in heaven. This kind of sentence that uses Jehovah twice in a statement is very rare and only appears 3 times in the Bible. The Jews are very careful in using the name of Jehovah because the third commandment forbid taking the name of God in vain. Often times they use Adonai rather than Jehovah.

The second time appears in Psalm 110, “The Lord spoke to my Lord.” Here God the Father was speaking to God the Son. The third time is in Hebrew 1, “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness, therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” There is the God that loves righteousness, and the other God that loves Him.

In Psalm 2, there is a declaration, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten you. Ask of Me and I will give the nations as your inheritance. You will rule them with an iron scepter.” And further in the chapter verse 12, “Kiss the son, lest He be angry.” So the Father has appointed the Son as the King of the whole world. Indeed the Son of God will rule. God the Father cannot be seen, but God the Son will represent Him.

When John 1:18 declares nobody has ever seen God, it is general apologetics. Then when it goes on to say, “except the Only Begotten Son of God who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known,” this is Christian apologetics. Those who have seen God in the Old Testament have seen God manifested in human form. The Christ in the New Testemant has been in seen in the Old Testament. Thus the consistency of the Scripture is maintained.

What does it mean by “the only Begotten Son of God”? Who is Christ? He is the Son, the second Person of Trinity. In Greek grammar, “the” is a necessary term to use if it refers to a Person. So Christ said to baptize believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Yet though there are three Persons, the “name” is used, not the “names”. Hence it is singular Name, representing 3 plural Persons. This is the theology of Trinity.

But the Apostle John went further. In the New Testament records, Nathanael, Peter and Paul recognized Jesus as the Son of God as well. But John recognized Him, not only as the Son of God, but the Only Begotten Son of God. With this John is able to meet the Gnostic challenge.

What sort of Son? The Begotten Son. What does it mean? It means Jesus is Divine. He inherits the life of God. The kind of life the Father has, the Son also has. For all of us, our lives came from God, received through our parents. We do not create our own lives. But the Father is the self-existent God. Within Himself is Life. He gives this same life to His Son. The divinity of God is self-existing, self-sufficient, self-immortal. The life of the Father is the same as the life of the Son. Why the term begotten? This is to segregate the Son from the rest of creation. Everything else is created, but Christ is begotten. It means He cannot be mixed with the rest of the world. The world was made through Him. The problem with Gnostic is to consider the Word of God as one among creation, to consider Jesus as the created God. With Jehovah witnesses, Jesus was as the first creation. But John made it clear He is the Only Begotten Son.

The third word, as the “Only”. It means He is unreplacable and uncomparable. He is the Only One. He is not created. He is different from all other beings. What about the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is not created too. So isn’t the Son like the Holy Spirit? Should not they be twins? But the Holy Spirit is not begotten. The Holy Spirit is divine, but not begotten. Jesus is the only begotten son of God. There is no other Begotten Son.

So the Son is not created, is begotten by God, and hence is divine. The Holy Spirit is not created, is not begotten, but is also divine. Then how is the Holy Spirit divine if He is not begotten? The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Then what is the relationship with the Son? For more than 1000 years, the Church had been in dispute on this issue. In 1033, Western Roman and Eastern Roman empire split over this issue on where the Holy Spirit came from. Both sides agreed Holy Spirit is a Person, is divine, is not created, is not begotten. And both sides agreed that the Spirit proceeds from God and is obedient to God. The difference is that the Western church believed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both God the Father AND God the Son. The Eastern Orthodox does not agree with the last part, “and the Son”, holding that the Spirit is only sent by the Father. Over this issue, the Church was split into two.

Reformed tradition agree with the Roman Catholic view that the Holy Spirit is sent by God the Father and God the Son. Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of the Son enables us to call Abba Father. Hence He proceeds from the Father and the Son.