THE GOSPEL: BASED IN TRUTH
I John 1:1-4
There is a term that we hear often these days, although I think it is relatively new. I don’t remember hearing it until a couple years ago. Now we hear it a lot. It comes up often in American politics, and it became a public issue here in Malaysia in the weeks preceding the recent election. The term is: fake news.
Fake news is a story that is shared through some form of media that appears to be true but is really false. Fake news is spread by those who want to achieve a certain goal, who have a particular agenda, and they think that spreading a false message will help to promote that goal or agenda.
As I shared last week, during my final weeks here there are a few things I want to highlight in my last sermons. Last Sunday I spoke on the Bible, that it is a letter to us from our Heavenly Father, telling us who God is, His love for us, and what God has done for us in Christ so we can have an eternal relationship with God.
Today I want to zero in on one aspect of that message – what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The point I want to stress today isn’t so much the content of that message, since I have spoken about that a number of times. Instead, I want to assure us that we can confidently believe the message of Jesus.
The heart of the Christian faith is not about ethical ideals or moral principles or even religious devotion. The center of our faith revolves around Jesus – who He was and what He did for us, especially through His death and resurrection. However, many people would claim today that the story of Jesus’ death and especially His resurrection is really fake news. Jesus, they say, was just a man not God in human flesh, and He did not rise from the dead. That is a story that was spread by His followers but it didn’t really happen.
To the modern mind, the story of Jesus – His identity as God the Son, His death and resurrection – does sound like fake news. And we have to admit, it does sound pretty outrageous.
We believe that the God of all creation came to us as a tiny infant born in a Bethlehem stable 2,000 years ago. We believe that as the baby grew into a man he displayed the fullness of both true humanity and true divinity – that he was fully human and fully God. We believe that not only did He die on the cross, but that somehow through His death He actually bore our sin resulting in our forgiveness before God. And if all that isn’t enough, we believe that three days after being crucified He rose from the dead, proving that He really was and is the Son of God. As Rom. 1:4 proclaims: “(He) was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.”
Those are pretty incredible beliefs! And it all happened 2,000 years ago – so far removed from us. So, it should not surprise us if people question the truthfulness of the Gospel message. Nor should it surprise us if from time to time doubts spring into our own minds. When they do, we want some evidence that will put those doubts to flight so we can rest assured in our faith.
After all, if you are going to base your life and your hope for the afterlife on these claims regarding Jesus Christ, you want your faith to be well founded.
Of course, ultimately it is only by faith that we believe. But ours is not an unreasonable faith. It is not a blind faith. It is not a leap in the dark. Ours is a reasonable faith. It is reasonable to believe that Jesus is God the Son. And what I want to show us today is that it is much more reasonable to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord than it is not to believe in Him. I hope that today we can put some of the doubts we may have to flight.
What is true for us in this sense was true even for first-century Christians. They were much closer to the events surrounding the life of Jesus than we are, yet they also needed to be reassured. We see this in the opening comments of I John 1:1-4. John was writing to some first-century Christian believers who were wrestling with just who Jesus really was and is. And so, John writes to them:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
We can have fellowship with God the Father and Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. We can live now and forever in loving relationship with God. And the reason we can have fellowship with God is that the word of life appeared. This, of course, refers to Jesus. As we read in the Gospel of John 1:1 & 4: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”
As the Word, Jesus is God’s message to us. Through Jesus God was communicating to us, telling us what He truly is like and telling us how very much He loves us. And as the Word of life, Jesus is the One through whom we can receive the fullness of life now and eternal life in the world to come because on the cross He died for our sins.
In trying to convince his readers that this is really true John can hardly contain himself. He wants to assure his readers that this is not something made up or something based in mythological fairy tales. This is true! In his enthusiasm to assure these early Christian believers John keeps repeating himself like a child who just returned from her first trip to Disney World and keeps telling her friends over and over what she saw and did because she’s so excited about it.
These four verses we read are really just one sentence in the original Greek, and in this one sentence John refers four times to what he has seen, twice to what he has heard, and once to what he has touched with his hands. Actually, he writes in the plural form for he was not the only one to see, listen to and touch Jesus – both before and after His resurrection. There were many other witnesses as well.
So, while it may sound a bit awkward and repetitive, John’s purpose is to erase any doubt in the minds of his readers that God really came to us in Jesus Christ, that we can have fellowship with Him now and receive the gift of eternal life through him, for Jesus is the Word of life. It is not a made-up story. Listen to how John emphasizes this: “(That) which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, we have looked at and our hands have touched, we have seen it, (He) has appeared to us, we proclaim what we have seen and heard.” As I said, John keeps repeating himself for he is so wrapped up in his own real-life experience with Christ and he wants to pass on that assurance to others.
Those first-century readers of this letter could hardly miss John’s point. What John proclaims – that we can have fellowship with God and eternal life through Jesus Christ – is absolutely true, for John was an eyewitness of Jesus. He heard Jesus teach. He touched Jesus with his hands. He saw Jesus – both before His death and after His resurrection. John proclaims that he witnessed firsthand – through sight, sound, and touch – the Savior sent from God.
That was probably sufficient for those first-century believers. For they were contemporaries of John and some of them certainly knew John personally. They had no reason to doubt John’s word or integrity, or that of the other eyewitnesses. But maybe now, 2,000 years later, we want a bit more than that. We’ve never met John so how do we know that he is trustworthy? Or to put it more bluntly, how can we know for sure that this is not fake news, that Jesus really is Savior and Lord, the key to our relationship with God and the source of eternal life?
What the question boils down to is this: Who was Jesus? And there are only several possibilities. The first, of course, is that Jesus is exactly who He said He is – the Son of God. Now we need to be sure we understand that title correctly. That Jesus is the Son of God does not mean that Jesus is somehow the offspring of God the Father or that the Father existed before Jesus the Son. That Jesus is God the Son really means that He is of the same essence as God the Father.
According to the Jewish understanding of that time, to be the son meant you were equal to your father. For instance, in Jn. 5:17, Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” Then John states in vs. 18: “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Jesus claimed to be God the Son and that meant He was equal with the Father. There is one God, who has existed eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus was fully divine. That’s why Jesus could say, “I and the Father are one,” (Jn. 10:30) and “Anyone who has seen me as seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9)
And in His clearest assertion that He is equal to and of the same nature as God the Father, in Jn. 8:58 Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!” “I am,” of course, is how God identified Himself in the Old Testament to Moses.
So, there’s no question that Jesus proclaimed He is God the Son, the One who as the way, the truth, and the life is the way to the Father. The question is: should we believe Jesus when He made those claims? It’s interesting that the one thing virtually everyone acknowledges is that Jesus was trustworthy. Most nonreligious people and even respected people of other religions, such as Ghandi, see Jesus as the greatest moral teacher ever.
But a man who thinks and proclaims he is God when he clearly is not is neither trustworthy nor a great moral teacher. Jesus simply doesn’t give us the option of considering Him merely a great moral and religious teacher, as many like to view Him today. As some such as C. S. Lewis have concluded, Jesus was either God the Son and Lord of all - which is why His teaching has such moral authority - or He had to be either a liar or a lunatic to make the claims He did. Those are the only possibilities.
So we must ask, could Jesus simply have been a liar, proclaiming to be the Son of God when He knew full well that He wasn’t? Let me suggest three reasons why it simply does not make sense to conclude that Jesus was deliberately lying when He claimed to be God the Son, the One who forgives our sins and is the way to the Father.
First, Jesus doesn’t have the personality profile of a liar. People who lie do so for selfish reasons. They hope to gain something by lying. And the more they lie and the bigger their lies the more they hope to gain. Maybe they will gain some money by lying on their income tax return. Maybe they will gain some notoriety or position by lying on their resume and thus get a prestigious job. In a negative sense, sometimes people lie into order to cover up something wrong they did in hopes of escaping punishment or protecting their reputation. People lie for selfish reasons; they hope to personally gain something from it.
Yet Jesus was not a selfish person. One reason Jesus is so respected even by those who are not Christians is that He was so unselfish. His life was characterized by love for others and compassion to those in need. Jesus was concerned about the needs of others rather than His own. He taught them. He fed them. He healed them. Ultimately, He died for them and for us. Jesus simply does not have the personality profile of a liar because He had more concern for others than for Himself.
Second, and related to that, what was there for Jesus to gain by making the claims He did if they were not true? People lie for selfish reasons, they hope to gain something from their untruthfulness. What was there for Jesus to gain by claiming to be equal to God the Father, to have the authority to forgive sins, and that He is the source of eternal life? Nothing at all! Because of His claims He was rejected, ridiculed, misunderstood, humiliated, tortured, and ultimately killed. As we read in Jn. 5:19, because He called God His Father, making Himself equal with God, the Jews tried all the harder to kill Jesus. People don’t lie knowing it will bring that kind of result.
And third, it would have made absolutely no sense for Jesus to claim to be the Son of God if He knew He wasn’t. For you would only lie in that sense if you really hoped people would believe you. There would be no point in lying if you did not expect or hope that you would be believed. And there would be no group of people less likely to believe Him than the Jewish people He spoke to. And as a Jew Jesus knew that full well. The Jews were extremely monotheistic. Is. 46:9 says it plainly, “I am God, and there is no other, I am God, and there is none like me.” The Jews were the least likely people of all to believe that a man was somehow God.
So, it is utterly unreasonable to believe that Jesus was lying when He claimed to be the Son of God our Savior. He did not have the personality of a liar, He had nothing to gain from such lies, and He would have known beforehand that no one would believe Him anyway.
But what if instead of being a liar He was a lunatic? He wasn’t deliberately saying things He knew were not true but He was crazy. He really believed He was divine but in fact He wasn’t. After all, there have been plenty of other people in history who have claimed to be God and we dismiss them as being delusional or mentally unstable. Could that have been true of Jesus?
Not at all! Again, Jesus simply does not have the personality profile of someone who is mentally unstable or unbalanced. When you read of His life there is no way you would conclude that this is a crazy person. For such a person lacks the very qualities that shine through so powerfully in the life of Jesus. The profound wisdom of His teaching, the love and compassion He showed to others, those are not traits you associate with someone who is mentally unbalanced.
On the other hand, traits that are associated with someone who has delusional fantasies of being God or whatever are completely missing in the life of Jesus. Dr. Gary Collins, a very respected Christian psychologist from the United States, points out that such people display a variety of characteristics, such as inappropriate emotions, depression, outbursts of anger, anxiety, paranoia, the inability to relate to others by acceptable social standards or to carry on a logical conversation. In short, they are in various ways out of touch with reality. There is no hint of any such characteristics in the life of Jesus.
Furthermore, people were captivated by Jesus. Some accepted Jesus while many rejected Him but they all were captivated by Him. Thousands came to hear Him teach. But people are not captivated by someone who is mentally unbalanced. In fact, they shun such a person. We’re not drawn to such a person as people were drawn to Jesus; we try to avoid such a person because they make us feel uncomfortable.
There is simply no way a reasonable person could conclude that Jesus was only a good person and a wise teacher but not the Son of God because the claims He made eliminate that possibility. Someone who teaches they are God cannot be viewed as a wise teacher, unless of course, they are God. If Billy Graham would have started to claim that he was God incarnate he would have lost all his credibility as being a spiritual leader and moral teacher. As for Jesus, it’s unreasonable to conclude that Jesus was lying when He made such claims, just as it is inconsistent with the evidence to conclude that He was just another lunatic who thought he was God. And if He wasn’t lying, and He wasn’t crazy, then His claims must have been true, He was the Son of God.
But there is one more possibility to consider. What if Jesus was simply a religious teacher who never claimed to be the Son of God and the Savior of the World? Could it be that those claims were simply made up by the disciples or the early church? Could those statements have been inserted into the New Testament by the writers but in fact Jesus never made such statements? Some people have claimed that is the case.
But this possibility also presents many unanswerable questions. For instance, if this were true then who invented this lie and for what reason? Would the apostles of Jesus have made this up as a kind of tribute to the One they followed? As we’ve noted, people lie for selfish reasons. Yet all of the apostles except John were killed for proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and John died in prison. After the first one or two were killed the others would have given up the game if they had made it up, for people don’t willingly die for what they know is untrue.
The same is true for the early church. During the first few centuries of the church, thousands of Christians were persecuted, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Would they have made up the story for that? Not only were many martyred, but historical records indicate that often they went to their deaths – even gruesome deaths – full of faith and joy with hymns of praise on their lips. What self-made lie ever gave thousands of people that kind of strength and peace and joy in the face of death?
And as was true for Jesus, what Jewish person would have made up this lie? For as we know, there isn’t another idea the Jews would have been less likely to believe – that God came to us in human form. For several thousand years God made it absolutely clear to the people of Israel that they were not to confuse Him with a creature as the pagans did. Twenty-five of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written by Jews. There is no way they would have made up or passed along such claims unless they were totally convinced they were true.
Furthermore, if these claims of Jesus were made up later by His followers, it could only have been after several generations had passed. For if they were made up in the first century then those who knew Jesus personally would have refuted them if they were not true. They would have discredited those claims on the basis of their personal knowledge of Jesus.
But in the first place, there is no record of those claims being refuted by those who knew Jesus. And second, all the New Testament documents were written in the first century, more or less between the years of 45 and 90 – not later when no one who knew Jesus would have been alive. So, the testimony about Jesus as Lord was there right from the beginning; it was not something made up later and added to the Christian tradition. And no one had anything to gain by doing so anyway.
Sometimes doubts do creep into our faith. That’s not unusual. But the evidence overwhelmingly points to the truth of the Gospel – that in Jesus God came to us and that through His death and resurrection He was drawing us to Himself.
Imagine the author of a play or movie inserting himself into the script. Some of you remember Alfred Hitchcock, the television and movie director, producer, writer, and actor would often do this. He would write the story, but he would also briefly appear as a character in the show. When you saw him on the screen, in that moment who was he? Was he the real-life author and creator of the story, or was he the character in the story interacting with other characters in the story? Well, he was both at the same time.
That is what God has done in Jesus Christ. He inserted Himself into the human drama. He is the author of life and creator of all things. But He placed Himself within His creation. He became one of the characters. Jesus was at the same time a human being like us as well as God the Son. Because He was a human being we can see God and what God is like in a way we can understand. Because He was God we know that what He said and taught are really true.
The One that John and the others heard, saw, and touched is real. While we today cannot physically hear, see, or touch Jesus, believing what John proclaimed is the only reasonable conclusion regarding the Word of life. It is not fake news! We can share John’s confident enthusiasm that Jesus Christ is God the Son, our Lord and Savior.