A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 02/11/1996
All people naturally feel that a great deal of solemnity and significance attaches itself to the last words of great men. Sometimes they have risen to great moments of eloquence and profundity. I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country. --Nathan Hale. Be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man, and by Gods grace we shall light this day such a candle in England as shall never be put out! --Hugh Latimer, as he faced martyrdom through burning at the stake. Eighty-six years I have served Him [the Lord Jesus Christ] and he never did me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me? Polycarp, refusing to curse Christ in order to save his life. Let us cross over the River and rest in the shade of the trees. --Stonewall Jackson. Fight on! Francis Schaeffer.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was granted by the Father to give his final instructions to his followers twice: once before his death (here in this passage) and again before his ascension into Heaven (the Great Commission). These are not literally his last wordsthose would be the Seven Last Words from the Crossbut they are his final instructions to his followers before his impending death, before leaving them. Since they are instructions for his disciples, they are then also his last instructions for us. Let us hear them as such. They include a great commandment; a great caution; and a great counsel.I. A GREAT COMMANDMENT (vss. 24-30)
This is not what we have come to call the Great Commandmentthat we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourself. Nor is it the New Commandment that flows from itthat we love one another as Jesus has loved us. But it is a great commandment that fits right with those and is a necessary part of a life in which they are being obeyed. Let the one who aspires to be great among you be the servant of all.
The context of this teaching is of course the argument over which one of the disciples was the greatest (vs. 24). This dispute was probably a reaction to the prophecy that one of them would betray the Lord, which we read last week. As the disciples tumbled over one another to distance themselves from any suspicion that they were the one, their protestations of loyalty and devotion would easily have escalated in extravagance until they overflowed into another argument over which one of them was indeed the greatest. John chapter 13 fits here in the life of our Lord. It was part of Christs response to this same squabble on the same occasion. We learn from John that he not only taught that they should be servants of one another, but modeled it, performing himself the office of a menial servant and washing the disciples feet. How humbled the disciples must have been by that! The climax of Johns account is Jesus words, A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have also loved you. . . . By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-5). The words we have read today are part of that same conversation. I am among you as one who serves (vs. 27).
It is not the first time this issue has come up. On another occasion Jesus had responded to the same argument by standing a little child in the midst of the group and telling the disciples that they would have to become like little children if they wanted to enter the kingdom. They still at this point have not learned the lesson. Like them, I suspect we also need a reminder. Once again the Lord has emphasized that the path to greatness in the Kingdom is the path of sacrifice and servanthood. It was important enough to be part of Jesus final instructions as he was about to leave the world. And John tells us why: By this men will know that you are my disciples.
The promise of reward in verses 28-30 for those who learn the lesson should be a powerful encouragement and incentive. God has indeed destined us for greatness. The disciples would sit on thrones judging the tribes of Israel! But the path to true greatness is not grasping for greatness, but rather the path of laying down your life for the brethren. Dont lord it over one another like the Gentiles! Let the one who is greatest be the servant of all. For I am among you as one who serves. And it is enough for the servant that he be like his Master.II. A GREAT CAUTION (vss. 31-34)
Peter still hasnt figured out this whole servant thing. He is still asserting his greatness, professing his readiness to follow Christ to prison or to death. And so the Lord delivers a warning that was especially for Peter but has an application to all of us. We will return to Peter when we reach the part of the story in which his denial occurs. For today, lets concentrate on what we can learn about our own weaknesses and our own situation.
We have a great enemy who is constantly looking for opportunities to trip us up, and we should not take him lightly. But neither should we live in fear of him, but rather in confidence in the One who is greater. There is a twofold message here. First, Peter, Satan is going to sift you like wheat. He is going to mess with you to the point that you will think you are going to come apart. But the second part is that Jesus has prayed for Peter. Satan will only be allowed to go so far, and Peters faith will not be destroyed.
We have a great Enemy; we should be sober. But he can only go as far as he is permitted; we should be confident. Peter had a misplaced confidence in his own faithfulness, and hence lacked a proper sobriety which left him vulnerable to temptation. Others fall into despair. We are to do neither, but walk in sober confidence because we are trusting not in our own faithfulness but in Christs.
When you next come into temptation, remember two things. Satan is on a leash! He hates you and wants to trip you up and destroy your testimony. He wants to do you harm. But he can only go as far as he is permitted. What he intends as harm, God will use as training in righteousness to strengthen you spiritually. If you want to get stronger physically, you cant just wave your arms around. You have to have some weights in your hands. You have to work against resistance. What Satan intends as harm, God can use as spiritual resistance training to make you stronger. It is Christ, not Satan, who is in control. Never forget that.
But the second thing to remember is even more astounding. Jesus is praying for you! Christ our great Mediator, Christ our Intercessor, is praying for you that your faith will not fail. It is not just an abstract truth that Christ, not Satan, is in control during times of temptation. It is a highly specific and personal truth. Christ is taking a personal interest in your situation. He will keep Satan on his leash so that you will not be tempted above what you are able; but it is more than that. He is personally interested in you, personally invested in your successto the point of shedding his blood. When you enter into temptation, dont just remember that God is sovereign. Remember that Christ is praying for you at that very moment. It is in the light of that astounding fact that we experience the reality that faith is the victory that overcomes the world.III. A GREAT COUNSEL (vss. 35-8)
This last section is one of the most misunderstood in all of Scripture. People talk about it as if they thought the swords were the pointif youll pardon the expression. Does the Jesus who told us to turn the other cheek really want us to sell our cloaks to buy swords? Why were two enough, when the instruction seemed to apply to all twelve of the disciples? Having encouraged the disciples to acquire swords, why does Jesus turn around and condemn Peter for using his in the Garden of Gethsemane? How does this passage relate to the prooftexts for and against pacifism? These are all exercises in missing the, er, point.
The key to understanding this whole conversation is verse 37. The reason for the change in directions for Christian missions is the fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus was to be numbered among the transgressors. Why does that mean that we should suddenly start taking bags and spare sandals and even swords when before when we went out two by two we took none of those things and suffered no lack? The point is that before when the disciples were sent out, Jesus was popular, and they basked in his popularity. People mostly received them with enthusiastic hospitality and catered to their every need. But now they are going to be looked at as criminals. In other words, what Jesus is saying in his usual graphic way is, Get used to hard times. The sword for which they were to trade their robes was a symbol, technically a metonymy, for how hard those times were about to get. The discipleslike some of their equally dense descendantstook the swords literally, and the two who had them (we know one was Peter) proceeded proudly to pull them out in demonstration of how prepared they were (i.e., greater than the othersahem). Can you hear the sadness and resignation in Jesus voice when he says, It is enough? It was not an estimate that one sword for every six followers is the right ratio! I think it was something like, Never mind. You guys still arent ready to understand yet. Never mind. Pentecost is coming. It will be OK. Then. Im just dropping the subject for now. Sigh.
The point of the sword then is that it is an illustration of the kind of commitment that was going to be required for the hard times that were coming. Jesus counsel to us is not to buy a swordor a Smith and Wessonwhether or not you own firearms you will have to decide on other grounds. It is to be prepared to give up anything and everything if only we can go on fighting, if only we can continue the spiritual struggle for the souls of men and women. It is to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ, not entangling yourself with the affairs of this life, as Paul would later apply it to Timothy.SUMMARY
Do you hear what Jesus is saying? God has destined you for greatness, true greatness, not the false counterfeit pursued by men who lord it over one another. Therefore, practice servant leadership now and love one another; therefore, beware of your own weakness and trust in God when Satan attacks you; therefore, have the firmest commitment to life as spiritual warfare, so that the true Kingdom may indeed come.CONCLUSION
Last instructions are significant ones, and Jesus two sets should be taken together. The very last set, the Great Commission, gives us our purpose and our mission, to make disciples of all nations. These last words in the Upper Room give us the attitudes we will need to successfully carry that mission out. Show me a church which has a servant spirit flowing from genuine love from Jesus in its heartsshow me a church which is humble and which puts itself in the hand of God so it can learn and grow through its trials and temptationsshow me a church which is prepared for hardship and is committed, whose most valuable possession is its swordand I will show you a church where people are getting saved and believers are being strengthened. May God help us increasingly to be such a church.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams