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"Reason to Believe"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 13, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Reason to Believe)
Copyright 2019 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 1:19-51

The next day, John was standing there again, with two of his disciples, and he sees Jesus walking past. Again, he says, "Look! The Lamb of God!" And, the two disciples, when they heard him say this, followed Jesus. Jesus turning, and seeing them following Him says to them, "What are you seeking?" They say, "Rabbi," which means teacher, "Where are You staying?" He says, "Come and see." So, they went with Him and saw where He was staying and spent the day with Him.

It was about four in the afternoon. Now Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, was one of the two disciples that had heard what John had said and had followed Jesus. The first thing that Andrew did was to go and say to his brother Simon, "We found the Messiah, that is, the Christ!" He brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus, when He saw him, looked at him and says, "You are Simon, son of John. From now on, you will be called Cephas," which is translated, Peter: the rock.

The next day, Jesus decided to go back to Galilee and seeing Phillip, He says to him, "Follow Me." Now Phillip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, where they were going. Phillip went and found Nathaniel, and says to him, "We've found the One Moses wrote about in the Torah and the One about whom the prophets also wrote: Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!" "Nazareth?" Nathaniel says. "Can anything good come of there?" Phillip says, "Come and see." When Jesus sees Nathaniel approaching, He says, "Now here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit." Nathaniel says, "From where do You know me?" Jesus says, "Before Phillip called you, I saw you sitting under the fig tree." Nathaniel says, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel."

Jesus says, "You believe, because I had told you I had saw you sitting under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. I am telling you the truth. You will see the heavens open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

These are the words of the Gospel of John 1.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine shared with me that her daughter had said to her, "Mom, I'm not sure if I believe all this stuff that you and Dad tell us." "What stuff?" She said. "All the stuff about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. I'm not sure if I believe it or if it's just that's what you and Dad tell us."

I remember feeling like that. I don't think I ever told my parents about it. But I remember feeling that. Now my parents, they took us to church every Sunday whether we felt like it or not. I was pretty sure that they believed in Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. But I wasn't sure if I believed it. I think that's a common feeling these days. Maybe, not for everybody, you might be reacting in a different way when you hear this. You might be thinking, "I don't understand how anybody has doubts about this." You believe it and you're certain about it, and there's no doubts. But I think other people, you might hear this, and I mention doubt, and you're right there with me; you know what that's like—to not be sure. Other people might have their reasons to believe, but their reasons don't count for you. They don't necessarily work for you. Even if you did have a reason for you to believe, it wouldn't necessarily mean that you have a reason for everyone to believe what you believe.

I think that's a good description of how a lot of people feel these days. That, individuals might have reasons to believe, but not a reason for everybody to believe what they believe. Yeah, that's a way I think you could describe our cultural mood: that individuals have reasons to believe, but not a reason for everyone to believe what they believe.

That's why I'm so interested in the Gospel according to St. John, that we started listening to last week on the program—is that I find something different there. The author of the Gospel according to John, he clearly has a reason to believe for himself, but also a reason for everyone to believe what he believes. So, John's got a reason for everyone to believe what he believes. Now, I don't want to give you the impression that everyone believed the same thing in John's day. There were lots of conflicting beliefs, and John got into trouble for believing what he did. He was willing to be in trouble for that. He put his life on the line for his belief. He didn't fight for his freedom to believe. He sacrificed his freedom for his belief.

People today, we might think that we have belief like that, that we hold beliefs that seriously. At best, the jury's still out on us, because most of us haven't been tested in the same way that John and his friends were tested for their beliefs. Again, I come to this book of John, and it's fascinating to me, because I find a level of conviction that's rare in these days—that John has a reason for everyone to believe what he believes.

Then, you got to ask the question "Why? or "What's John's reason? One way you can answer that is to say that believing feels good, and having everybody believe what you believe, would feel even better. Maybe that's John's reason: that it feels better to believe than not to believe.

In 1979 a British comedy troupe called Monty Python, produced a satirical comedy titled The Life of Brian. Maybe you've seen it. The story goes that there's this Jewish guy named Brian and he happened to be born, supposedly, on the same day as Jesus of Nazareth. Brian grows up, and people begin to think that he's the Messiah, because somebody overheard him repeating something that he heard Jesus say, and it sounded really smart to them. So, they all start following Brian as the Messiah. Brian knows that he's not the Messiah, but he can't convince them otherwise, because apparently it feels better to believe than not to believe. They need someone to believe in, and Brian gets so frustrated, that at one point in the movie, he turns, and he says to this great big crowd, "You don't need to follow me! You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to learn to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!" And the whole crowd shouts back in unison, "Yes! We are all individuals!"

As hard as Brian tries, he can't convince them that he is not the Messiah, and they cling to him like teenage groupies. The film's obvious satirical target is Christianity, and not just the church of today, but the early followers of Jesus. If you were to ask the question, "What's John's reason for everyone to believe what he believes?" The Monty Python answer would be that it feels good for John to believe, and it would feel even better if more people believed and everybody believed. So, the Monty Python answer, it's good for a laugh, but is it fair? Is it historically accurate?

One thing that the Monty Python answer gets right/accurate, is that many Jews of John's day were hankering for a Messiah. The whole Gospel of John is written to answer that one question: "Is Jesus the Messiah?" So, that's something the Monty Python answer gets right, but is it fair; is it accurate to say that John's belief in Jesus as the Messiah was based on his feelings? He believed it because it made him feel good. If you understand a little bit about ancient Jewish belief, then I think you'll see that actually, it was the opposite. This would not have been a feel- good belief for John and his friends.

Let me try to explain why: the first belief of ancient Jews that you have to keep in mind when trying to answer this question is the belief that there's only two kinds of reality, and there's only two kinds of reality for Jews: there is God and everything else. There's no third category, and there's an infinite distance between them. There's God and then creation and nothing in between. As for God, there were ancient Jewish writings to include the Bible that sometimes described attributes of God as personified agents of God.

Let me explain what that means: in Psalm 33, you hear: "By the Word of the Lord, the heavens were made." So, the Word of God, the Word of the Lord—personified attribute of God. Or, in Genesis 1, you have, "The Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the deep"—the Spirit of God. So, you had God and the Word of God and the Spirit of God. These passages, and many others like them, led many Jews to believe, even well before the time of John and Jesus, that although God is one. There is one God. There is more to God than just one. Although there's one God, there's mysteriously more to God than one. There is God, God's Word, and God's Spirit. Even if Jews could think about God like that, they knew that there's still just God and everything else. There's no category in between. If you could think about God and God's Word, and God's Spirit, with God, then they were all on the God side of reality and not on the creation side, and there's an infinite chasm between the two.

That's the first ancient Jewish belief you have to keep in mind. Now, I put a lot out there for you. So, let's review. I'm trying to ask the question, or answer the question: What reason did John have for everyone to believe what he believes? We have introduced the Monty Python answer, which says that it felt good for John to believe this. Now, we're trying to evaluate that answer to see if it's fair, if it's accurate, by looking at some ancient Jewish beliefs. The first belief that we put out is that there is an infinite chasm between God and creation in the ancient Jewish mind.

The second belief of the ancient Jews to keep in mind is that the human Messiah would come; the human Messiah would come. Israel was waiting for a human Messiah. He was said to be the "descendant of David," 2 Samuel 7. Daniel 7 calls Him the "Son of Man." Psalms 2 calls Him the "Son of God." Now that's probably, from their perspective, was an adopted son of God—not natural son, but the human king that God would adopt, and this King would live forever and rule forever. But the Jews were not expecting God or God's Word to become a human being and be the Messiah.

Now, I can hear someone from the Monty Python troupe say, "Well, what about Greek mythology? Weren't those stories about gods becoming human beings? What if the Jews got the idea from that?" Well, it's true that the Greek myths did talk about gods becoming human beings, but there's an important difference. The Greek gods of Mount Olympia masqueraded as human beings. There was never a Greek story about an immortal god becoming a mortal man. That would be unthinkable for the Greeks. Just as it would be unthinkable for the Jews to imagine that the Word of God, the eternal Word of the Creator-God would cross this uncrossable chasm and become a human being, and yet, this is what John and all the other authors of the New Testament claim about Jesus. So you've got to ask where did this come from?

I'm drawing a lot of this from a book called Incarnation: Myth or Fact? by a man named Oskar Skarsaune, and he shows in that book that it would not have been a feel-good belief for Jews or Greeks to believe that God would become a human being. So, why would a God-fearing Jew like John come to believe it. If you want to be fair to John, you need to consider the answer that it came from Jesus Himself. John and his friends claimed to have watched Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead—not by praying to God and asking for a miracle, but by speaking as God and making it happen. Then, these same guys watch their Rabbi, held down, mocked, spit on, whipped, and crucified because He claimed to be equal with God. He was presenting Himself as equal with God.

Now, this is the greatest offense to ancient Jews. It is an offense punishable by death. So, you have to ask the question "How likely would it be that a Jew like John would make this kind of story up?" It seems unlikely that any Jew would make a story up about God becoming a human being so that He could be the Messiah and get crucified. Even if one crazy guy made that story up, it seems very unlikely that any other Jews would believe it. That's not to say that they would stop looking for the Messiah; they'd keep looking for the Messiah. It's just that it'd be for certain that the maniac who claimed to be God in the flesh and got Himself crucified for it was disqualified. And yet, John, and many other Jews, came to believe this so strongly that they devoted the rest of their lives to spreading this belief around the world and, in fact, they have changed the course of human history.

So, you got to ask the reason: "What reason did John have for everyone to believe what he believes?" Just one. They witnessed the crucified Jesus bodily raised from the dead, showing Him to be the Messiah and thereby the Judge and the Savior of everyone.

Those are historical facts. John's belief is based in fact, not feeling. At the same time, John understands that believing in Jesus is more than just acceptance of facts. For example, I trust my parents. I also believe that I share their DNA. But it goes further than that. I have come to trust them. I have observed them for 40 years. I have seen them in action and have concluded that they are reliable. So, it's belief as trust. That's the kind of belief that John is aiming for—for all who encounter his book. Not simply that we would accept facts about Jesus, but that we would entrust our whole lives to Him, which includes our feelings: feelings about family and football, feelings about money and morality and the past and the future and everything.

So, when my friend told me about her daughter—the one who had doubts about Jesus—I said to her, "It's really good that she can talk to you about these things." Do you have anyone that you talk to about your most deeply held beliefs? Do you have people who come and talk to you about their most deeply held beliefs? If you are a follower of Jesus, do you talk to other people who have doubts? Do you have a reason for everyone to believe what you believe? If you're not sure, I understand. I also have doubts. I accept the facts about Jesus, but I am still struggling with entrusting my whole life to Him, including my feelings. This is why I just keep going back to this Gospel according to St. John and listening to it. I hope you'll do the same. Because in it, I hear Jesus say to me, "Come and see." It's like He's saying, "Let Me show you. Let Me show you that I am who I say I am. That I've come for you, and I have come for all."

If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me.

Lord, Jesus Christ, Word of the living God. You have called me out of the darkness and into the light to follow You. Give me ears to hear and eyes to see, that I might be Yours—that I might be Your witness like John and Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathaniel, and all the company of the saints, because You are the life, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit—one God, now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for January 13, 2019

Title: Reason to Believe

Mark Eischer: Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. And I have in the studio here, a good friend of mine, Dr. Joel Okamoto. He is a professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and also the chairman of that Department of Systematic Theology. So, thank you for joining me, Dr. Okamoto.

Joel Okamoto: Well, thank you for having me.

Mike Zeigler: We were talking the other day and you had mentioned a survey you had seen done online and you were able to read some of the results, and the question generally was "Why are you a Christian?"

Joel Okamoto: Yes. And like a hundred results and every one of them was a personal reason. They had grown up in the church; their father was a pastor; they met somebody there; they got involved; they thought the interpretation of the Bible was correct. But they're all personal reasons. Now, I want to be clear, of course every Christian ought to have his or her own reasons, but the kinds of things that you raised in the message, the kinds of things that we had in this conversation, they point out the importance of having what I'll call "public reasons."

Those are the reasons that the whole church has to acknowledge that there's one God, that He's the God and Father of Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, that He is the Savior of the world, that His Word is the Word of God, and those kinds of things.

What I mean by public are reasons that aren't just mine but are ours —and then to those who don't yet believe —they're the reasons we think you should at least consider, take up, deal with —not just what I think, but what we think. And not just what we think here and now, but what has been thought by the church all the way back to Jesus Himself.

Mike Zeigler: And so, the Gospel of John sure seems like that kind of account. That this is a public account for Him.

Joel Okamoto: Yes. It definitely is. You can see that in the so-called prologue at the very beginning of the book, which lays out who Jesus is. You can see it throughout the narrative —the story that the evangelist tells. You can see it in Jesus and His "I am" sayings. Jesus is offering reasons to see not who He is as much as He is the Son of God. In John's Gospel the miracles are called "signs." They signify; they are signs of His divine glory. Being the Son of God is the reason in John's Gospel that He's rejected and crucified. That's what He shows when He rises from the dead and in case that was unclear, as you hear the Gospel, then the evangelist even adds at the end, "These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that by believing you might have life in His Name." It's offered as reasons not just why the writer thinks so, or a few characters in the book think so, but why Jesus thinks so. Why the church thinks so.

Mike Zeigler: What are the implications for us as Christians, as witnesses?

Joel Okamoto: What is it we want to, what is it we should, witness to, testify about? And in our time where there a different religions, different philosophies, different paths, different options to think about. Whereas before at least you could assume that something had to do with our God, Jesus Christ, the Bible. It always made sense to most people. Whether they accepted it or not.

But Christians have to be willing to and able to, and maybe it's more about being able to right now, testify. When we say God, we mean whom? When we say Jesus, what is it we want to say about Jesus in this context? Not everybody's interested in the forgiveness of their sins. Not everybody is racked by guilt over not keeping the Ten Commandments, or something like that.

Not that they shouldn't be, but it's not happening. You can't do that if you don't know who God is. So you have to talk about —be able to explain —this is what we mean by God, and this is why we think He exists, how we know about Him. He is, ultimately, in John's Gospel, the whole of the Bible, Jesus. But Jesus as God's Word, God's Son, the One He appointed to be Lord over all things. And to be able to not just say just those kinds of bare statements, but here's how it arises, here's why we think it's right and true.

Mike Zeigler: So, in past times when we had a lot of shared assumptions, we might have been able to approach somebody with right to the point, so to speak, of felt guilt or grief over sin and present Jesus as a solution to that. That's still an important moment in the Christian experience, but we might, in our time, need to back up a bit.

Joel Okamoto: Yes. That's exactly right. Grief, pain, uncertainty, meaninglessness, shame, guilt, of course, matter. They matter as much now as ever. Christians don't offer just an answer to those things. But more than that, they offer a relationship to the God who makes and governs all things through Jesus Christ. And we can't assume that people know or think it reasonable, those kinds of things.

Mike Zeigler: Well, we might need to start with something like the Gospel of John.

Joel Okamoto: Yes.

Mike Zeigler: Listening to that. Talking about it. Well, thank you so much for being here, and having this conversation with me.

Joel Okamoto: Oh, no, thank you. And you're certainly welcome.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Within the Father's House" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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