A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 03/17/1996
The passage we have before us today is a great study in contrasts. Now, contrast is one of the most effective methods of definition. Try to imagine being able to understand darkness apart from light, evil apart from goodness, hunger apart from satisfaction, sickness apart from health, or sorrow apart from joy. Therefore, contrast is a technique frequently used by both visual and literary artists to bring out those features of their subject that they especially want us to notice. Can you remember in Hans Holbein the Youngers portrait of Henry VIII the way the rich, elaborately textured ornamentation of the royal robes contrasts with the bare, flat background? In Leonardo DaVincis portrait of the Mona Lisa he achieves a similar effect of highlighting in the opposite manner, as the simple folds of her garment contrast with the rich and complex tapestry of the landscape behind her. So also in his account of the Sanhedrin Trial, Luke uses the same technique of contrast to highlight at least three important ideas in his portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ.I. APPEARANCE AND REALITY
The first important contrast is between Appearance and Reality. Experience teaches us that they often do not coincide. The clouds that look like solid mountains from a distance dissolve into mist when you enter them. A stick half submerged in water looks bent for all the worldbut it is really still straight. And the world sure looks flat from here; but it did not look that way at all to Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looking back from the Moon.
So it is in the trial of Christ by the Sanhedrin. The appearancewhat you would have seen with the outward eyes if you had been in the gallerywas not very inspiring. The prisoner not only looks weak and helpless, but rather undignified, inglorious, and even pitiful. He even looks guilty. After all, why else would he refuse to answer the questions put to him? We all know what people assume when someone takes the Fifth Amendment. And all that You will see the Son of Man stuff sounds like whistling in the dark. I doubt any of us would have been able to see through that appearance to the reality.
And what was the reality? From now on the Son of Mana rather splendid character from the Book of Daniel of which no one would have been reminded looking at this scenewill be sitting at the right hand of Power (a euphemism for the right hand of God). This disheveled, pitiful looking object of mockery was the Word that was with God and was God, the Light of the World which enlightens every man. Look! There he stands. He looks nothing like any of that. Can you not trust your own eyes? Apparently not.
Was this prisoner weak? Tell that to the demons who screamed in terror at his approach, the lame who are still walking and the blind who are seeing even now, the widow of Nain whose son rose up out of his funeral shroud, or the moneychangers who were helpless to prevent the overturning of their tables in the face of his wrath. Tell it to the disciples, who just a few pages ago were asking, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the waves obey him? (Oh, by the way, where are those disciples? Hiding. Why? Because they were still men of little faith. So this contrast is going to teach us something about the meaning of biblical faith.) Was the prisoner inglorious? He had not seemed so on the Mount of Transfiguration. Was he guilty? Guilty of being a false Messiah? Not according to the Voice of God, which at both his Baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration had proclaimed him My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Nor according to John the Baptist, who had called him The Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. But try to see any of that here. What are you going to believe?
Now, none of the things we have just rehearsed were, as Paul says in Acts 26:26, done in a corner. So for the disciples, what they seemed to be seeing at this moment vanquished even their own memories. So what we seem to see here must be false; what we do see here is a very useful definition of faith. How do you tell the difference between Appearance and Reality? By faith. The disciples were defeated by appearance because of their little faith; the Sanhedrin were deceived by appearance because of their lack of faith. How then does this help us understand what faith is?
Well, how do you know that the stick in the water is really still straight, despite its appearance? Two things tell you so. First, you remember that it was straight before you stuck it in the water. And, second, this memory is strengthened if you know something about the laws of optics, the way the light rays are bent by passing through the thicker medium of water as compared to air. Based on the conjunction of these two factors, you have confidence in sticking to you belief in the straightness of the stick in spite of its currently crooked appearance. Do you see? Experience interpreted by Doctrine is the foundation of knowledge. Experienceyou remember the stick is straightplus Doctrineyou understand based on the laws of optics why it looks crookedconstitute knowledge of the sticks straightness. So what is faith? Faith is the ability to stick to your well grounded knowledge of the sticks straightness when what you see at the moment seems to contradict it.
The situation here is no different. Experiencethe disciples (or the elders) memories of Jesus mighty worksplus Doctrinetheir understanding of Old Testament theology as often explained by Jesusshould have allowed them to see what was really happening here instead of what their eyes seemed to be presenting them. Thus, like us looking at the stick in the water, they should have walked by faith and not by sight. Why didnt they? Why do we ourselves have no trouble having faith in the straightness of the stick but often allow ourselves to be plagued by doubts when, say, Gods promises seem to be delayed or we see the righteous suffer? Well, because there is a lot more at stake in what we see looking at Jesus trial. But it may help to realize that the stakes really do not change what faith is. Faith is the ability to trust in what you know on good grounds to be true over what you seem to see for the moment; faith is the act of trusting in what we know on good grounds to be true over what we seem to be seeing at the moment. Faith is not belief we have without evidence, still less belief contrary to evidence. People may well lack or fail to demand good grounds for what they believe, but that is their problem; it is not the essence of faith! Have you noticed that in Scripture faith is never opposed to or contrasted with knowledge? Never. How could it be, when the disciples had accepted Jesus as their Messiah based on their experience as interpreted by their understanding of biblical doctrine? Just as we have. Faith is not opposed to knowledge, but to sight. Faith is the ability to trust in what you know on good grounds to be true over what you seem to see for the moment. Faith is not the opposite of knowledge or of evidence. Faith is being faithful to what we know. Faith is believing, against sight, that the stick in the water is still straight.
By the way, do you remember the series of definitions of faith Luke has given us? It seems to be one of his major themes. If we put them all together, we begin to have a fuller understanding of this crucial spiritual realityfor if Justification is by faith alone, and if faith is the victory that overcomes the world, then there is nothing more important for us to grasp than the true nature of biblical faith, for we can neither become a Christian nor live the Christian life without it. So lets review this theme. In The Stilling of the Storm we saw that Faith is an understanding of who Jesus is that produces confidence in his solution to the problem. In The Healing of the Centurions Servant we saw that Faith involves an admission of our own unworthiness, an acceptance of Jesus authority, and an ascription of excellence to him. Those were the elements of the faith that Jesus commended in the Centurion. At The Feeding of the Five Thousand we saw that Faith can be expressed as an equation: an awareness of our need plus an admission of our inability to meet that need plus a determination to obey Jesus in spite of that inability sets the stage for the need to be met by Jesus through our very inability, using our inadequate resources. And here we realize that Faith is the ability to trust in what you know on good grounds to be true over what you seem to see for the moment. Do you begin to see what it means to exercise faith? Faith is not just naming it and claiming it (or blabbing it and grabbing it). It is not a belief we have in the absence of evidence or reason. Putting all these definitions together we can say that Faith is a very specific response to Gods Word, based on Gods character, focused on Gods Son, enabled by Gods Spirit. And when you see that, you truly understand that it is by this faith alone that we are justified, and by this faith alone that we overcome the world.II. TREATMENT AND DESERT
If faith is trust in Gods Word based on his character, it is good that our other two contrasts allow us to focus on that character as revealed in his Son. The next one is the contrast between the Treatment Jesus received and what he Deserved. I guess you could say that this contrast flows from the first one. Our Lord was treated in accordance with Appearance, and not in accordance with Reality, as the Sanhedrin walked by sight and not by faith. What did he deserve? Worship, adoration, obedience, love, devotion, service. What did he receive? Abuse, spite, brutality, cruelty, mockery. Once again, the contrast could hardly be more stark.
Our observation of this contrast has implications, both for our understanding of life and of salvation. As for life: Life isnt fair! I know you didnt need me to tell you that. But perhaps we do need Jesus example to make us take it seriously. Life isnt fair. God is just, but the world is fallen, and so his justice is not always seen or experienced now. (Do you see why we took most of our time with the first contrast? Rightly understanding Appearance and Reality is basic to everything else!) Even our Lord and Savior was not exempt from the suffering often brought by this fact.
Now, this is in one sense a very sad reality. But it another, it is a powerfully liberating truth! It can set us free from the disappointment and disillusionment that can be such a sharp challenge to our faith. Life isnt fair! That is often a tough enough fact to face. It is made far worse if you somehow expect that life should be or will be fair.
We already know that life isnt fair. Promotions, tragedies, recognition, and distress are not necessarily or always distributed according to merit. Like Hamlet, we all face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, the whips and scorns of time, the oppressors wrong, the proud mans contumely, the pangs of despised love, the laws delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes. The whole creation groans and suffers the pangs of childbirth until now, longing to be delivered from the futility imposed on it by mans rebellion. The world is out of kilter, and Gods people are not exempt from their share of the effects. Yet often we catch ourselves thinking that for some reason we should beand if we are not, we begin to doubt Gods love for us. The disappointments of life are hard enough to take as they are; they are made doubly hard by the assumption that they somehow mean that God has let us down. Well, he has not let you down! The Appearance that he has forgotten us is not Reality. How do we know this? We know it by looking hard at this scene. Life was infinitely more unfair to Jesus than it has been to you. And if he could bear it because of his love for us, his love for the Father, and the joy that was set before him; well, then, maybe with his help we can bear the infinitely more trivial examples of temporary unfairness that life has dealt to us. This is the Appearance. But these momentary sufferings are not even worthy to be compared either with those of our Lord or with the unimaginable joy that has been prepared for us. And that is the Reality. The disappointments we face are real and sometimes grievous; they can be heavy burdens to bear. But do not make them worse by the wholly unjustified assumption that life in a fallen and sinful world was ever meant to be, or could be, fair.
There is an implication here for salvation too. Jesus got the opposite of what he deserved so that we also could get the opposite of what we deserve. He was made sin that we might become the righteousness of God. He died that we might live. He was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief so that we might have joy unspeakable and full of glory in Him forever. No, life isnt fair. Its better than fair. We dont get justice, even if we are foolish enough to think we want it. In the long run, we get grace. What could be better than that?III. HUMILIATION AND GLORIFICATION
Our final set of contrasts is that between the Humiliation and the Glorification of our Lord. These classical theological categories are brought together here in this passage like they are nowhere else. As the mockery, the cruelty, and the shame built toward the climax they would have on the Cross itself, in the very depths of his humiliation, Jesus looked at the stick in the water and knew that it was straight. And so he said, But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God. No truer words of defiance were ever spoken.
Jesus earthly life was the time of his humiliation, when his glory was veiled. Small flashes of it got out from between the folds of his robe, as it were, and the lame walked, the blind saw, the dead were raised, demons fled in terrorand sins were forgiven. But mostly it was the time of his humiliation, and his glory was veiled. Imagine then the effect when he comes again in his power and glory! Well, it doesnt hurt to try. But we all know we have been told already that we really cannot imagine what that will be like!
From now on, Jesus said, the Son of Man will be sitting at the right hand of power on high. He has already been raised from the dead. He has already been exalted to the right hand of the throne of God. Do you get what that means? It is now the glorified Christ with whom we have to do! It is the glorified Christ who sent his Holy Spirit to indwell us as his personal agent and representative until he returns. It is the glorified Christ who is now the head of his body, the Church. It is the glorified Christ who sits at the right hand of God to make intercession for us, to represent us as his people to the Father. It is the glorified Christ who is going to come for his own in power and glory, in like manner as the disciples saw him go. It is the glorified Christ whom we proclaim as the Light of Life, the Savior of the World, and the Lord of All. It is the glorified Christ whom we represent in the world and to the world. We proclaim his humiliation leading to the Cross as the price of our redemption; but we also proclaim that God has raised him from the dead and made him Lord and Christ. It is all there in that earliest summary of the Gospel, the Apostolic Kerygma: Kyrios Christos, Jesus Christ is Lord! And it is because that is who Jesus is that our faith, our response to Gods Word based on his character as revealed in his Son, is truly the victory that overcomes the world.
We ourselves live still in our own period of humiliation. But lift up your head! For we are not the dupes of Appearance but the inheritors of Reality! We are not the slaves of sight, but conquerors who have caught the character of contrast. We walk by faith and not by sight. And the glorification of our Lord is present Reality that will be seen at his Appearing, but in the light of which we can live already. We walk by faith and not by sight.CONCLUSION
We see Christ here anticipating his Glorification in the midst of his humiliation, and we understand that it is the now glorified Christ who, in the days of his humiliation, allowed himself to be insulted, mocked, blindfolded, spit upon, brutalized, and nailed to a Crossthat he might pay for my sins and yours. What is one to say to this? We love him because he first loved us. Let us cast ourselves at his feet as we remember him at his Table.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams