The Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 13, 2016

“The Price, the Promise, the Persecution”

Hebrews 9:15 & John 8:51



And for this reason He is the Mediator of the New Testament, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first testament, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. Hebrews 9:15

Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death." John 8:51 


Jesus promises us eternal life.  “If anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.”  That’s a promise.  He can make the promise because he paid the price.  Some agree that he paid the price, but then they put conditions on his promise.  They turn the New Testament into a legal deal where God does his part and we must do our part.  Others agree that he gives an unconditional promise, but then they deny that he paid the price.  The promise becomes just religious talk and not the actual giving of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  You need both the payment and the promise.


Our Epistle Lesson for today teaches us about the payment.  Our Gospel Lesson teaches us about the promise.  The Epistle to the Hebrews explains how it is that Jesus Christ fulfilled the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament by entering into the Most Holy Place by his own blood.  The most holy place was where the high priest would go to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat.  Blood was shed as an offering to God.  The animal sacrifice required under the Mosaic Law taught God’s people that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.  But the blood of animals could not take away sin.  As we sing:


Not all the blood of beasts

On Jewish altars slain

Could give the guilty conscience peace

Or wash away the stain.


The animal sacrifices could only typify the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood on the cross.  His sacrifice is what causes God to forgive us.  It has brought about eternal redemption.  We are set free forever by means of Christ’s payment of his life on the cross.  He is the Mediator of the New Testament.  He appeals to God for us by appealing to his death in our place for the forgiveness of our sins.  God cannot deny his Son that for which he asks because the Son has pleased the Father as the Father said in the voice that came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  It was his Son in whom he was well pleased who offered his life to the throne of God’s justice.  His death is the death of death because his death is the washing away of our sins.  It is the redemption of our bodies and souls.  It is the redemption, the payment that sets us free forever.


The Epistle Lesson teaches us about the payment and the Gospel Lesson teaches us about the promise.  Jesus says that whoever keeps his word will never see death.  The payment is packaged in the promise.  It’s not as if we can fly back to Calvary.  God must bring Calvary to us.  The blood that sets us free was shed two thousand years ago.  But we live here and now.  The payment must be brought to where we live.  This happens by means of the promise, by means of Christ’s word.  He speaks.  His speaking conveys that of which he speaks. 


Both the payment and the promise are necessary.  The payment without the promise would have God reconciled to us, but we would never be reconciled to God.  God’s anger would be set aside, but we would remain dead in stubborn unbelief, not ever benefitting from the gospel.  If we don’t hear the gospel we cannot trust in it. 


The promise without the payment is empty.  Without the death of Jesus, we are unredeemed.  We remain slaves to sin, death, and the devil.  Today’s delicate religious sensibilities shy away from confronting the fact that God punishes sinners for their sins.  This aversion to honestly confronting the seriousness of sin leads people to deny that God punished his Son for the sin of the world.  Prominent theologians have been denying this for years.  For example, in the doctrinal textbook that is required reading for seminarians at seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, this is what is written about Christ’s redemption:


But wrath cannot be placated . . . by heavenly transactions between Jesus and God.  Nothing is accomplished for us by that.  God’s wrath against us is placated only when God’s self-giving makes us his own, when God succeeds in creating faith, love, and hope.


But this is wrong.  God’s wrath against our sin most certainly was placated, stilled, quenched, satisfied – choose any word you want that means it was taken away – when Jesus died on the cross.  God’s wrath is not taken away when we believe in him and love him, as this ELCA textbook falsely teaches.  God’s anger against us was taken away when Jesus suffered and died on the cross for us.


The Bible teaches that God laid the sin of the world on his incarnate Son and punished him for that sin, thus satisfying the demands of his own justice, and procuring for us all the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  People find the biblical doctrine offensive.  It is too bloody for their religious tastes.  They argue that a loving God couldn’t demand a bloody sacrifice as the price of forgiveness.  It is a stumbling block to them.  They trip and fall over the preaching of the cross.


What is offensive to some is life-giving comfort to others.  A Jewish convert to Christianity of the 19th century by the name of Philippi, responded to the denial of Christ’s vicarious atonement with these words:


He who takes away from me the atoning blood of the Son of God, paid as a ransom to the wrath of God, who takes away the satisfaction of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, vicariously given to the penal justice of God; who hereby takes away justification or forgiveness of sins only by faith in the merits of this my Surety and Mediator, who takes away the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, takes away Christianity altogether, so far as I am concerned.  I might then just as well have adhered to the religion of my ancestors, the seed of Abraham after the flesh.

We need both the payment and the promise.  And we have both.  This is why Jesus can say, with full divine authority, “If anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.”  Jesus has confronted death.  He has defeated it.  This is how he has eternal life to give.  Listen once more to the words from Hebrews:


He is the Mediator of the New Testament, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first testament, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.   


Put simply, Christ’s death brings us the promise of eternal life.  As Luther put it in his beautiful Easter hymn:


It was a strange and dreadful strife

When life and death contended;

The victory remained with life,

The reign of death was ended.

Holy Scripture plainly saith

That death is swallowed up by death,

Its sting is lost forever.


Jesus gives what he purchased.  He doesn’t sell it.  We are too poor to pay for it.  He doesn’t lend it, only to take it back again later.  He doesn’t dangle it in front of our eyes to get us to run harder to grasp it.  He gives it to us.  “Whoever keeps my word shall never see death.”  To keep means to hold on to, to believe, to trust in.  To keep his word is to trust his promise.


St. John writes in his first Epistle:


And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.  These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.

Jesus claims to have eternal life to give.  There are two sides to this claim.  Those who believe his promise and keep his word in faith confess Jesus as their God and brother.  He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  He is the God who revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush.  Those who keep his word look to see their God on the cross where Jesus died.  They look to God on the cross because it is there that their God bears the burden of their sin and takes it away.  They know that without that death they would be lost, with no hope for eternal life.  Without Christ’s death they know they would face eternal punishment.


The other side to Christ’s claim is that those who do not hold to Christ’s word do not have eternal life but are eternally condemned.  Everyone is a sinner and only Jesus can take sins away.  Only Jesus has made the payment.  Only Jesus can give the promise.  The claims of Jesus make people angry.  Like the Jews who tried to stone Jesus, they persecute those who agree with what Jesus says.


Christians do not trust in a god who wouldn’t send anyone to hell.  Such a god is an idol – a false god invented by people who don’t want to confess their sins, and don’t want to admit their need for the blood of Jesus to be shed for them.  They argue against Christ’s claim to be the only way to heaven.  They argue on the basis of sentiment, thinking that because eternal damnation upsets them, it cannot be true.  They argue on the basis of a misplaced sense of justice, thinking that sin isn’t so serious as to call for such a harsh punishment.  They argue on the basis of a studied ignorance of what lies beyond, thinking, as the ostrich that hides its head in the sand for protection, that pretending there is no divine reckoning means that there is no divine reckoning.  They become angry at Christians who insist that Jesus is, as the Bible says, the only way to the Father and to heaven.  Faithful Christians are accused of being intolerant, loveless, narrow minded, anti-Semitic, bigoted, ignorant, and a few other things. 


Let them accuse us.  We don’t care.  We have something much more precious than social approval.  We have the promise of him who destroyed death.  His words give us eternal life – life that is free from God’s judgment, free from the sting of death, free from the guilt of sin, and free from the uncertainty and hopelessness that dog the consciences of those who don’t know Christ.  We know the payment Jesus paid.  We trust the promise Jesus promised.  We confess in the words of the hymn:


In Jesus I find rest and peace,

The world is full of sorrow.

His wounds are my abiding place,

Let the unknown tomorrow

Bring what it may, here I can stay,

My faith finds all I need today

I will not trouble borrow.


To me the preaching of the cross

Is wisdom everlasting.

Thy death alone redeems my loss,

On thee my burden casting.

I, in thy name, a refuge claim

From sin, and death, and from all shame

Blessed be thy name, O Jesus. 


Rolf D. Preus


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