Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (St. John 8.46-59 niv)
What’s the worst name you’ve ever been called? The second-worst name I’ve ever been called was “chicken-faced monkey.” That one took me off guard. Just about the worst name you can call a pastor is “false teacher.” Of course, any pastor who takes his duty seriously, and who strives to be faithful to the Word of God, sooner or later will be called that, and I have been too. Maybe you’ve been called pushy or arrogant, timid or weak-minded. There are plenty of names people throw at each other, and it’s no surprise that Jesus was called names too. In our gospel for today, we hear Him called a Samaritan and demon-possessed. “Demon-possessed” is a pretty straightforward name. We heard about that one a few weeks ago, where Jesus was accused of being in league with Satan, driving out demons by the power of Beelzebub. In its own way, being called a Samaritan is just as bad.
Recall that the Samaritans were a nation comprised of people who had left their countrymen the Jews, and intermarried with the Canaanite people around them. They still retained some vestiges of Jewish worship and identity, but as the real “chosen people” the Jews were often irritated at the Samaritans’ claims to be just as much God’s people as they were. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other, very often. Thus when the Jews call Jesus a Samaritan, they’re insinuating that He is not part of God’s chosen people according to the flesh, the nation of the Jews – and that His Mother, the Virgin Mary, was a loose and immoral woman. That would make Jesus Himself the product of a sinful, illegitimate relationship. What a horrible thing to say about Jesus’ Mother, and about our Lord Himself!
Yet it’s not what other people said about Jesus that’s important. It’s what Jesus says about Himself: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death.” In the original Greek it’s much stronger. In this verse Jesus is saying, “If anyone keeps My word, he will never, ever, ever see death – forever!” That’s a pretty huge promise to make! It would be sheer lunacy for anyone to claim this, if they were not Jesus Christ. He proved that His Word is true, and to be believed without doubt or question, when He rose from the dead. His victory over death proves that what He says about death is the truth, and that His Word delivers from death.
People come up with all sorts of their own ways and methods to cheat death, or at least to push it off. “Let’s ban guns!” some crow. “No, we need more guns!” others shout. “Let’s get additives out of our food supply!” “No, we need to eat these special foods, or do these exercises! Avoid this, get more of that!” The recommendations are endless, and if you pay attention long enough, contradictory. And none of them work. None of them truly deliver from death, or cure death. Only Jesus, the sinless Son of God, and His Word that He gives us, truly saves you from death! Nothing else comes close – nothing else works!
Of course, in all fairness, the question can be asked: Why think about death at all? Why not simply push off the thought of death, and just focus on living life to the fullest? Enjoy all life has to offer, and not think about death? Someone asked me that question the other day, and I’ve thought about it every day since then. It’s a good question. What’s the point of focusing on death, anyway? Life is so vibrant and interesting. There’s so much to learn and do and experience – so much that God has put in creation, so much that’s worth seeking out and finding and savoring in life. Why even think of death?
That’s what the devil wants you to do. He wants you to drink deeply from life in this world. Go, have fun, enjoy! Seek out even more pleasures, even more new experiences! Find new ways to enjoy and amuse yourself! Explore, do, taste it all! And then when it comes time to die, you very well may be assaulted by doubts, wavering, and wondering: Is my faith in God misplaced? Was I right to trust Him for all these years? Did Jesus really do enough to save me? What really happens to me when I die – and after? In those last few moments, or hours, or days, the devil works his hardest on the child of God. Those are the critical times, because if he can get someone to stumble or to turn away, then perhaps he can snatch up their soul. Dying is hard work, and the devil knows – better than we do! – that “there is One who seeks and judges” (v.50). Christian, look to the fate of your soul! Do not blithely sail on, heedless of your last hour! Think about what the outcome of your way of life will be, and if you need to, change course! Repent! Jesus’ words still apply and are still true today.
When I think of Jesus’ words here, that “whoever keeps My words will never see death,” I think of two men. One is Stephen Hawking. You might recognize him from his many guest appearances on shows like Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, or Futurama. He was a brilliant physicist and mathematician, one of the finest minds of his generation – some might say ever. He made many valuable discoveries that advanced our knowledge of the universe God created. And he wrote books and made scientific discoveries while confined to a wheelchair for the majority of his life. Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in his early twenties. Doctors gave him only two or three years to live. Yet he lived for over fifty more years. He was also an atheist. Hawking stated publicly in interviews his views that death was no more and no less than powering down a computer – a moment of blackness, and then you cease to exist. That’s it. Sad to say, Stephen Hawking also had a weakness in the area of the Sixth Commandment. Sins of the flesh were something he found congenial and enjoyable, and he had a demonstrable weakness for them. So here you have someone who conscious that every day he received was a gift – from Whom, or to what purpose, he perhaps preferred not to examine too closely. His job was to study the cosmos in all their grandeur, the heavens that “proclaim the glory of God” (Ps 19). Yet he wanted to believe that God did not exist, that time and space were infinite, that matter and energy are all there is. It would be pretty convenient for one’s flesh if there were no God, wouldn’t it? Tragically, he has found the truth of Jesus’ words for himself: “if a man keeps My words, he will never see death.”
The other man I think of is my grandfather, Gilbert Laabs. He was a dairy farmer, one of those who never said a lot but you knew where he stood on things, and what he believed. About ten years ago, my grandmother went to town to get her hair done. My grandfather must have felt unwell briefly, because when my grandmother came home he was sitting on the couch with the phone in his hand. The Lord had called him home to heaven. You see, Jesus’ words here can also mean that the one who trusts in Him will not see death coming – that death will run up behind them and snatch them up, carry them off before they realize it, so to speak. When that happens, it’s a blessing of God. To be spared the agony of death is a special gift of God. But even when death is seen coming a long way off, as with cancer or other sickness, or some sort of accident, the child of God can still draw strength and courage from Jesus’ words. Those words deliver from death and guarantee us eternal life.
It’s a good thing that Jesus’ words deliver from death, because we’re surrounded by it every day. I’m sorry if you would prefer not to think about it, but it doesn’t change the reality of the fact. Do you know how many babies are murdered every hour? 157. In the time it takes us to have this worship service, 157 babies will have been killed. More babies are murdered in America every day than the grand total of casualties from the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. If you’re in the womb, every day in America is worse than 9/11. Then, if you’re fortunate enough to be born, you grow to school age and one of your classmates brings a gun to school and shoots everyone. Or you’re at the mall, or out in public somewhere, and a Muslim terrorist attacks you. You could look both ways once before crossing County 4 or Highway 58 when you should have looked twice, and – POW! Car accident. Or you could choke to death on a chocolate donut in your kitchen! The point is, life is short and uncertain. So Jesus’ promise of life through His Word had better be true, because we need it!
Jesus can promise this because He says, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” This means that He’s not just a man. He’s also true God – the God before whom Moses took off his sandals and fell on his face in abject fear; who split the Red Sea to bring His people out, but drowned Pharaoh and all his army; the God who brought His people Israel out of Egypt with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm – that God. His power is limitless, and His strength is only matched by His justice. He is the Holy One of Israel.
At the same time, He is true man. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels He helps, but Abraham’s descendants” (Heb. 2:14-16). You are free! Free of the chains of death! Your slavery is ended! One day, death will call for you, and you will have to answer. But it won’t be the end, because Jesus has defeated death for you! He went through death all on His own and rose from the dead to give us eternal life. He tore death apart from the inside on that first Easter morning. Now we can face our own deaths, calm and confident in Jesus’ victory. Death itself is not the end, for our Lord promises us it is so – and He backed it up by rising from the dead.
Do you see how vital knowing and believing Jesus’ words is? Keep them in your heart; treasure them, believe them, treat them as they really are – the words of God to you and for you. Keep it in your mouth; speak it to others, share it, tell others who fear death and need courage and hope. Keep it in your life; conform all your actions, your words, and your thoughts to it. Let it be not only something you profess with your lips but is absent from your life. Strive to mold everything you are and do to it. Plant it deep in the hearts of your children and grandchildren, because they will need it too. Jesus’ promises are true for them, no less than for you. Then, when you are gone and in your dust, and they themselves are grey and old – when it comes time for them to fight their own battle with death – they won’t be fighting alone. Jesus, the risen Lord, the Victor over death, will be right there beside them, keeping His promises to them too. To Him be all praise and honor and glory, both now and forevermore, Amen.