The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019
“Doctrine is Life”
St. John 8:46-59
"Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God." Then the Jews answered and said to Him, "Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?" Jesus answered, "I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. And I do not seek My own glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death." Then the Jews said to Him, "Now we know that You have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and You say, 'If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.' Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? And the prophets are dead. Whom do You make Yourself out to be?" Jesus answered, "If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, 'I do not know Him,' I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." Then the Jews said to Him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. St. John 8:46-59
What do you think is more important: doctrine or life? If doctrine is what we teach and life is how we live, we may be inclined to say that life is more important than doctrine. Any parent, teacher, or pastor knows – or should know – that what you do demonstrates the sincerity of what you teach. What do you think of those who say they believe in the teaching of God’s gospel, a teaching of God’s love for us sinners, but show no love toward their neighbors? You might question their sincerity. It is as Thomas Kingo put it in his hymn, How Fair the Church of Christ Shall Stand:
Doctrine is life. If what is taught to you about Jesus Christ has no influence on you, does not turn your heart to love your neighbor, and has no effect on how you live, of what value is that doctrine?
But wait a minute. Is it the fault of the doctrine that people reject it? That they pay lip service to it but despise it? Does unbelief negate the truth? God forbid! The Jewish leaders disbelieved Jesus. They rejected his doctrine, his teaching. They attacked him personally. How did Jesus reply? He said:
There was nothing wrong with Christ’s doctrine. It was God’s doctrine. What was wrong was in the sinful and callused hearts of those who rejected it. Doctrine is life. Jesus said so. He said, “If anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.” To keep is to believe. It is to treasure. It is to hold onto. To keep Christ’s teaching is to believe it. To disbelieve it does not prove it wrong.
Jesus teaches us about himself. He teaches us who he is. Those who rejected his teaching, which was God’s teaching, rejected him. Jesus’ doctrine centers on who Jesus is. This is why those who rejected his doctrine attacked him personally. Jesus taught that he was true God and true man. The Jews who did not believe in his teaching attacked his person.
The Jews wanted to regard themselves as children of God, but they denied that Jesus was the Son of God. There is no such thing as a child of God who does not confess Jesus to be true God and true man. The Jews of Jesus’ day wanted to shove God into the doctrinal box they had invented. But God won’t be contained within boxes made from the doctrines of men. God cares nothing for the doctrine of men. He is the teacher. Jesus is the Christ, anointed by God to teach. To dishonor Jesus is to dishonor the Father. Even as we must distinguish between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we may not separate them. The Father will not be gracious to you; he will not forgive you; he will not give you life beyond the grave except through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Lord.
When Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my word he shall never see death,” he is speaking as he who is one with the Father. As Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) The truth of what Jesus says depends on the truth of who Jesus is. Jesus cannot promise to be able to give eternal life unless he is eternal. But how can Jesus be eternal when he’s not even fifty years old? They appeal to Abraham. Are you better than Abraham? He’s dead. The prophets are dead. Who do you think you are?
Note how Jesus replies. He does not honor himself. The Father honors him. The Father sent him. At his baptism, the Father identified him as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. Nobody honors the Father who does not honor the Son. This is why Jesus says to the Jews who deny his teaching that they are not children of the Father. He says that they lie when they say that the Father is their God. They do not know God. Jesus knows him. He keeps his word. They do not know him. They deny his word. To know God is to know his word. His word is what he teaches us. Doctrine is life.
It is not our doctrine. It is God’s. We don’t give anybody eternal life. Only God does. God teaches and by teaching he gives eternal life. God taught Abraham. He revealed Christ to Abraham some two thousand years before he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was born of the Virgin Mary. Abraham saw Christ on Mt. Moriah where he went to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command. God did not require Abraham to kill his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved. God provided a ram for Abraham to offer instead of his Son. The ram directed Abraham’s faith to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, his only Son, whom he loved. He would be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As today’s Epistle Lesson says, “With His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12) When Jesus said that Abraham saw his day and was glad, the Jews replied: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” They see only the man Jesus. They cannot see because they will not see because they are blinded by their own sin that this man Jesus is the eternal God. Not only will they not believe it, they will not tolerate it. When Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you: Before Abraham was, I am,” they were infuriated, picked up stones to stone him for the crime of blasphemy because he, a mere man, made himself out to be God.
But it was the Father who identified Jesus as God. It was the Holy Spirit, through the writings of the prophets, who showed him to be God. It was Christ’s works, works that only God can do, that showed him to be God. When Jesus directly claimed to be God by identifying himself with the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he was not speaking alone. The Father and the Holy Spirit were and are saying the same thing.
Doctrine is life. Our doctrine isn’t much. But God’s doctrine is eternal life. Jesus says that those who take it in and hold onto it will never see death. They will never taste death. Sin yields death. The perfect life of the sinless man offered up on the cross is the payment for sin. But were Jesus only a man, his death would be insufficient. It could not take away sin. It could not defeat death. It could not secure eternal life. The reason the death of Jesus Christ on the cross does take away all our sin, destroy our death, and gain eternal life is that Jesus is not just a man. He is God. He is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity and true man, born of the Virgin Mary.
Doctrine is life. Doctrine is not from us. We aren’t the authors of the teaching. It is God’s doctrine. It gives us eternal life. If we will never see death, we have a life to live right now. Doctrine is life. God’s doctrine about Christ – who he is and what he has done for us – is the source of life. Those who hold to this doctrine have eternal life. Those who deny this doctrine have only death and hell to look forward to.
I know what the world says about pure doctrine. It denigrates it as of little importance. Live a holy life! I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. I don’t need some preacher to teach me anything I don’t already know. I will do my best to live a good and decent life and that is good enough for God.
No, it’s not. Jesus makes it crystal clear. Those who keep his word are the ones who shall never see death. God doesn’t want whatever good works you think you are doing for him if they are not done in faith in Christ your God and your brother. In fact, apart from faith in Christ – that is, apart from keeping his word, taking to heart his doctrine – none of your so called good works are any good at all. Only those who are good can do good that God calls good and only those who are covered in the goodness of Christ are good. As Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” God’s doctrine is living words that give us eternal life.
Doctrine is life. That’s because God’s doctrine gives us a life to live. It is the life of Christ. What he did for us when he died and rose again gained our lives for us. What he gained for us on the cross he gives to us in the words of the gospel he speaks to us. What he gained for us and gives to us we get for ourselves through faith in his words, his holy doctrine. Where there is faith in the heart, kindled by the Spirit of truth, there is also love.
This is why we cherish the pure doctrine of Christ. It is why we want to learn it, confess it, teach it to our children, and talk about it. Doctrine is life. God’s doctrine bestows the life of love. When God frees us from our sin, he empowers us to love. He cleanses our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. The love we show, especially to the most unlovable, is how we serve our God. Doctrine is life. It is the good life.
Rolf D. Preus