Finding God’s perfect plan: a report of Jonathan’s sermon this morning

What is truth

Report of Jonathan’s sermon on John 18:28-40

Jonathan said that, when he first looked at this passage – part of our continuing series reflections on holy week – he wasn’t clear what lessons could be drawn from it, other than the familiar, but important, lesson that we should have more backbone than Pilate, and resist being swayed by the crowd.

But as he mulled the passage over during the next few days, he had a very strong sense the God was prompting him to emphasise three particular points which came to his mind with a sense of givenness.

If he is right, then we need to pay particularly close attention to his words, and I think I detected in the service this morning a hint of that stillness which signifies that God is speaking, and people are hearing.

The three points were these: The priests’ hypocrisy; Jesus Christ’s perfect integrity; and God’s sovereign grace.  Jonathan talked us through each of these in turn.

The priests’ hypocrisy

Jonathan pointed out the irony of v28: the Jewish leaders wanted to keep themselves ceremonially pure so that the could partake of the Passover. Therefore they didn’t enter Pilate’s palace – to do so, according to tradition based more on rabbinic teaching than the Old Testament – would be to defile themselves.

But they did not see the massive incongruity of observing this detail, and imagining that they were thereby preserving their purity, while at the same time hounding an innocent man, the very Son of God, to death. Obsessed with outward cleanliness, they did not consider that there was already more corruption in their hearts than they would ever pick up by visiting the palace.

Jonathan quoted John Calvin on this point: ‘They are complete hypocrites that they expect to please God, provided that they do not contract defilement by touching some unclean thing, whilst they disregard true purity.’

They were so caught up in tradition, that they couldn’t see the truth of God right in front of their eyes. And there’s nothing particularly Jewish about this. We too can be oblivious to the Christ who stands before us. St Paul wrote ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:4)

The evil one, Jonathan said, can use any manner of temptations to obscure from people’s eyes to who Jesus is.  And people who come to church can have their eyes obscured in this way just as effectively as those who don’t. In our case, we can be blinded by our religiosity – we can assume that going to church and going through the motions of faith are winning points in some heavenly ledger. This was exactly the case with the Jewish leaders – religiosity affected their perception of what God was truly like.

Jonathan cited other examples – from the experience of Charles and John Wesley.  Charles had been engaged in religious activity, but he wrote, ‘long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.’  He had thought that all his religious activity was good – but in fact he was in darkness. It was the same with his brother John, who went to America to convert the native Americans, but then realised ‘oh, who shall convert me?’  Neither Charles nor John could see the glory and priority of Christ.  But then, both Charles and John had similar experiences of what the former described thus:  ‘thine eye diffused a quickening ray. I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.’

We can be so caught up in religion, that we forget, or never grasp in the first place, who Jesus is. We can treat Jesus like our golf, or our football, or our Highlife membership, and in doing so are no better than the Jewish leaders dragging Jesus to Pilate.

Said Jonathan ‘We need to get down on our knees and pray that God would diffuse quickening rays and open eyes to see the glory of Christ and his call and that chains might fall off, that hearts might go free, that men and women might rise, go forth and follow Christ.’

It’s easy to point the finger at hypocrisy in others – but each of us must beware of hypocrisy in our own life and faith.

The integrity of Jesus Christ

Jesus’ life is a definition of integrity. He did what he said he would do, and did not deviate from that path. Unlike what we see in the lives of the Jewish leaders, there is beauty and integrity in all Jesus does.

Quoting Isaiah, Jesus said in Nazareth

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
(Luke 4:18-19)

And these things were exactly what Jesus did.  He acted with perfect integrity.

‘Why does that matter?’ Jonathan asked.  Because we can trust him with our lives. Jesus is unchanging. The same yesterday, today, forever. Jesus has done what he said he would do. Jesus will do what he has promised to do.

Jesus is utterly reliable.

The sovereignty and providence of God’s grace

God, Jonathan assured us, is absolutely sovereign over salvation.

He began with the bad news.  Apart from Jesus Christ, we stand accused and condemned before God’s justice, deserving of death and of hell. That’s what it means to be ‘in sin.’

We tend to belittle sin. ‘I’m quite a good person, really.’ But God will never make light of sin, or belittle it.

‘Apart from Christ, you are dead in your sins,’ Jonathan said, adding ‘I would be irresponsible and doing a disservice to my calling and to you, if I failed to tell you that it was so.’

But there is good news, he said. God, in his sovereign grace has made a way back for us.

The story of Jesus’ life, and of holy week is never the story of someone caught up in a web of circumstances.  Jesus was not a man hounded to death against his will. In today’s passage, and in John 19:1-16 Pilate looks for ways to set Jesus free – for example, by suggesting the people might wish him to make Jesus the prisoner traditionally freed at Passover. But the crowd ask for Barabbas instead (v39-40)  It would have been easy for Jesus to plead his innocence before Pilate and win his release. But Jesus didn’t. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. God was sovereign in Jesus’ trial, and crucifixion, and his final breath.

And Jesus knew  the plan of salvation. Only through his condemnation and death on a cross – as planned by the Father from before the beginning of time  – can humanity be redeemed.  Jesus was fully aware of this – he predicted that he would be ‘lifted up’ (John 12:32-33)  He knew that only through being handed over to the Romans would he be crucified. And knowing all this, Jesus did not let the reins fall from his hands. Jesus saw it through until ‘it is finished.’

What’s finished? Jesus’ life? His pain on the cross? No – it’s the sovereign plan of God which was finished, completed. Jesus has stood in our place, to satisfy God’s anger against sin and to pay our debt. The Innocent condemned so that the Guilty may be pronounced innocent in Christ, wrapped in his righteousness alone. As Calvin put it, ‘by the condemnation of Christ, our condemnation is blotted out.’

Jesus, in sovereign grace, knew that this was what was happening. Jesus knew what he was doing, and he was doing it for you.

And in conclusion Jonathan quoted an old hymn, words of identification with Christ, words of freedom

Wounded for me, wounded for me
There on the cross he was wounded for me
Gone my transgressions and now I am free
All because Jesus was wounded for me.

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