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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Unless you believe in Jesus, you will die in your sins
Text:John 8:21-30 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 33:1-3

Psalm 33:4 (after the law)

Hymn 39

Hymn 79

Psalm 33:5,6

Scripture readings: Exodus 3, Isaiah 43:8-13

Text: John 8:21-30

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved church of Christ,

There are two words our culture is extremely allergic towards:  “sin” and “hell.”  The idea that any behaviour would be described as a sin is weird at best and offensive at worst.  Do you ever think about why that is?  And why is it that our unbelieving culture gets so worked up when someone talks about hell in public?  Unbelievers say they don’t even believe in the existence of hell, so why should they be bothered by that?

It’s because both sin and hell say something about the true God. 

Sin says not only that there are wrong things, wrong words, behaviours, and even thoughts – but that these things are wrong in relation to God.  God is included in the definition of sin.  Something is sinful because it’s sinful in God’s eyes.  Something is sinful because it’s done against God.  When we talk about sin, even if we don’t mention God, God is there.  Of course, that rubs unbelief the wrong way.  It reminds those caught in unbelief that there is a holy God.

What about hell?  Hell says not only that sin has consequences – but that these consequences are directly connected to God’s wrath against sin.  Hell is the place of God’s just wrath against the sin committed against him.  If we talk about hell, even if we don’t mention God, God is there.  Again, that reminds people who aren’t Christians that God is real and someday they’re going to face him.  The Bible tells us in Romans 1 that unbelievers know this, but they suppress it.  They hate it when Christians bring it out into the open.  They don’t want to hear about what’s real:  sin and hell.  They want to stay in their fantasy world where there is no sin and no hell.

The Old Testament prophets spoke about these things without hesitation.  God commanded them to.  If they didn’t, the blood of sinners would be on their hands.  For example, God said in Ezekiel 33 that if the prophets didn’t warn the wicked, the wicked person would die in his sin, but the prophets would also bear guilt.  So faithful prophets like Ezekiel spoke about sin and hell.

In the New Testament, the most faithful prophet of all also spoke about these things without hesitation.  It’s often been pointed out that no one in the Bible speaks more about sin and hell than our Lord Jesus.  It’s true.  And he does so in our passage from John this morning too.  As he continues to interact with the Jewish religious leaders, he warns them about the sin of unbelief and its serious consequences.  I’ve summarized our passage with the warning of Jesus in verse 24, Unless you believe in Jesus, you will die in your sins.

We’ll consider this warning and:

  1. The contrast Jesus paints
  2. The authority by which Jesus speaks
  3. The response Jesus finds

Our passage sees Jesus continuing to speak with the Pharisees at the temple in Jerusalem.  Now, more than anything, you need to remember that he’s speaking to religious people, religious leaders even.  These are people who talk about God all the time.  These are people who think about God all the time.  They’re people doing their best to live according to God’s commandments.  They think they’re doing pretty good at it.  They believe they’re righteous, which is to say they think they’re in a right relationship with God and it’s because of their good religious behaviour.  You know sometimes how people can be unsure of whether they’re going to heaven?  Not these men.  They know they’re going to heaven.  Why wouldn’t they?  They’re religious experts, righteous and holy men, doing everything according to the book.            

Jesus speaks to these religious people in verse 21.  He says he’s going to go away.  When Jesus talks like that he means he’s going to leave this earth.  While there’s some sense in which this means he’s going to die, it ultimately refers to his ascension into heaven after he’s raised from the dead.  He’ll be in heaven with the Father, with God.

Then he says, “then you will seek me.”  That statement might confuse you.  Does it mean they’ll be looking for Jesus here on earth, frantically searching for him?  No, it has to be understood in the context of who Jesus really is.  He’s the Messiah, the Son of God sent to earth to rescue sinners.  After Jesus has disappeared from earth, the Jews will continue to seek the Messiah.  Even though he’s already come, they’ll be searching for the Christ.  This is exactly what happened.  To this day, many Jews are still expecting the Messiah to appear.  They do that because they don’t think Jesus was the Messiah.  They haven’t believed in the Messiah God already sent.

Because they don’t, Jesus says, “You will die in your sin.”  Now remember, he’s speaking to religious people.  So he doesn’t have to spell out exactly what he means.  When Jesus says, “You will die in your sin,” they would automatically understand that he’s saying, “You’re going to hell.”  If you die in sin, if you die living in sin, making it your habit and your pattern of life, if you don’t turn from sin and turn to Christ, you will go to hell.

That’s where the contrast gets painted.  Jesus is going to heaven to be with his Father.  That’s where he’s going.  But where he’s going they cannot come.  They cannot come to heaven if they die in their sin.  Cannot come.  It’s impossible.  Why?  Why is it impossible for these very religious people to come where Jesus is going?  Why is it impossible for these religious people to go to heaven?  Because they’re going to die in their sin.  They’re living in sin.  They’re making a habit of sin.  The sin in focus here is unbelief, refusing to believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour.  The sin here is refusing to follow Jesus Christ.  This sin isn’t a light matter.  They could be religious all day long, they could be trying to be good according to God’s law all they want, but their sin of unbelief means they CANNOT come where Jesus is going.  Their religion doesn’t help.  They have religion, but they reject Jesus.  Therefore, it’s impossible for them to be heaven-bound. 

What was true for them is true for you too.  You can do all sorts of religious stuff apart from a personal faith commitment in Jesus Christ.  You can go to church twice every Sunday.  You can give money to the church, support the Christian school.  You can go to Bible Study, go to catechism, do profession of faith, go to the Lord’s Supper -- you can be involved in all kinds of religious activities.  You can tell yourself that doing all this good religious stuff is your ticket to heaven.  But the truth is that without Jesus Christ and a personal faith commitment to him, you can’t go where he is.  It’s impossible. 

Verse 22 shows that the Pharisees don’t really get what Jesus is saying.  He’s saying he’s going where they can’t come and then they wonder whether he’s going to commit suicide.  In that Jewish religious context, committing suicide was an unpardonable sin.  In their way of thinking, if you commit suicide, you go to hell.  That way of thinking is wrong because it’s tied directly to their idea of how salvation works.  In their thinking, salvation depends on you doing good things and if you do a really bad thing right before you die, like kill yourself, then you can’t possibly go to heaven.  As Christians, we believe in God’s grace.  Grace means you receive the opposite of what you deserve.  Someone can be a true believer in Jesus Christ, and yet commit a terrible sin right before they die.  The grace of God in Jesus Christ will cover that terrible sin too.  Suicide is not an unpardonable sin for true Christians.  It is a horrible, wicked sin, it’s wrong, nobody should do it, but it will be forgiven if someone is a true child of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  But that’s not how these Pharisees thought.  For them, it wasn’t about God’s grace, but your efforts.  They made good efforts.  But Jesus was clearly a bad man and they didn’t think it beyond him to take his own life and then send himself to hell. 

That leads to Jesus sharpening the true contrast between him and them in verse 23.  They’re from below, he says.  That relates back to what he told them in verse 15.  They judge according to the flesh.  They’re worldly.  Even though they’re religious, they’re actually worldly people.  They’re not acting or talking on a spiritual level, but on a human level, a sinful human level.  On the other hand, Jesus is on a spiritual level, he’s from above.  He comes from heaven.  He was sent by God.  He thinks God’s thoughts and speaks God’s Word. 

That contrast is what drives him to warn them in verse 24, “Unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”  Literally, Jesus says, “Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.” “I am.”  It’s the same in verse 28.  When Jesus says, “then you will know that I am he,” he actually says, “then you will know that I am.”  That was a loaded way to speak.  A Jewish religious leader would hear that and it would trigger thoughts of Exodus 3 and Isaiah 43, those passages we read earlier.  Jesus was claiming to be I AM WHO I AM, Yahweh.  He was claiming to be God.  He is God come in the flesh for the rescue of sinners.  God has come on a rescue mission.  If you’re going to be rescued, you need to believe in the Rescuer.

That makes sense from the perspective of human responsibility.  Let’s say you were in a small boat fishing in the ocean off the coast.  The weather gets out of control, the waves get higher, and then your boat gets capsized by a giant rogue wave.  It flips over and you’re in the cold water.  Soon a rescue helicopter comes and drops someone in the water to rescue you.  That person is going to hook you up to the winch to pull you to safety in the helicopter.  But what if you push that person away and refuse to believe they’ll rescue you?  What if you swim away from the rescuer as fast as you can?  What if you see that rescuer as your enemy trying to drown you?  There’s a sense in which you need to believe in the Rescuer.  There’s a personal human responsibility to take hold of the Rescuer.  That’s the perspective from which Jesus is speaking here.  He’s not speaking about God’s sovereignty in our salvation, how he takes a cold, dead sinner and works in them with the Holy Spirit so that they can and do believe.  No, this is about the call to human beings to believe in Jesus Christ so they’ll be rescued. 

Loved ones, you need to believe that Jesus is God come for your rescue.  You need to believe that for yourself.  It’s been said that God has no grandchildren.  God has no grandchildren.  He only has children.  What’s meant by that is every person has the call to believe in Jesus for themselves.  We’re not talking here about the extraordinary situation where the children of believers die in infancy.  We’re talking here about the ordinary course of things.  In the ordinary course of things, every single person in the church of Jesus Christ is called to believe in Christ for themselves.  Nobody can believe for you.  Unless you believe that Jesus is the great I AM come for your rescue, you will die in your sins.  Dying in your sin means an eternity spent under God’s wrath in hell.  You don’t want that.  So listen to Jesus’ warning and call in our passage.  Believe in him.             

The Pharisees didn’t.  Look at verse 25.  They say to him, “Who are you?”  It’s not a genuine question.  It’s a snarky, mean-spirited fake question.  What it means is:  “You, who do you think you are?  What gives you the right to say stuff like that?”  They’re really questioning not just who he is, but his authority to make these radical claims.

Jesus takes them on.  In the second part of verse 25, he first tells them that he’s just saying what he’s been saying from the start of his ministry.  He’s not making new claims.  If they’ve been paying attention, they’ve heard him say such things before.  For example, in John 5, he claimed that he’d be the Judge of the living and the dead.  That’s something only God can do.  There too, Jesus was claiming to be the Great I AM. 

Jesus points out in verse 26 that he could be saying a lot more, and when he judges at the end of the age, he will.  But for now, his calling is to declare to the world of unbelief what his Father has told him to say.  If you want to talk about authority, Jesus’ authority comes from the fact that he is God the Son, sent by God the Father to speak truth to a fallen world. 

When Jesus says this, again his words are met with a wall of ignorance.  They don’t understand that when Jesus speaks of the one who sent him that he’s speaking about God the Father.  They hear Jesus, but they don’t understand him.  It’s like he’s speaking another language that they don’t know.  They can hear the words, but the meaning escapes them. 

However, according to verse 28 a time is coming when things will change.  Jesus says that the change will come when they have “lifted up the Son of Man.”  Here you need to think of Jesus being hoisted up on the cross.  He would be nailed to the cross as it lay on the ground.  Then they would take the cross and drop it into a hole in the ground.  The Son of Man would then be lifted up into the air.  He uses the expression “Son of Man” to refer back to that royal Messianic figure mentioned in Daniel 7.  The Messiah is royal, he’s a king, but he’s also going to be lifted up, not glorified, but crucified.  Then they would know that Jesus really is the Great I AM.    How would they know that and what does that mean?

They’d know it two different ways.  Some of them would know him through the way of salvation.  While still alive, they would recognize Christ as their God and Saviour.  They would know he’d been speaking the truth all along, and they would accept his authority, believe in him, and be saved.  The book of Acts tells us that after Pentecost there were a good number of Jewish religious leaders who did in fact coming to saving faith in Christ.  Jesus is prophesying that this would happen. 

But there was another way.  Some of them would recognize him as the Great I AM through the way of judgment.  Terrifying judgment.  After they took their last breath, they would stand before God and they would be judged for their unbelief.  Then they’d know that the one who was lifted up on that cross was in fact God and Saviour.  Only when it was too late would they realize he was their only way of rescue, the only way to fellowship with the Father forever.  Only when it was too late would they realize they should have heard him and realized he was speaking the truth given to him by the Father.  Only when it was too late would they realize the truth of his authority and his power to save.

That drives us to the question:  will it be too late for you?  If you haven’t already, will you recognize Jesus as your God and Saviour now and believe in him, or will that recognition come too late?  It says in Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”  Unless Christ comes back first, there is one thing everyone in this room has in common.  Fully 100% of everyone in this room will die.  When your time comes, will it be too late?  Loved ones, this is why God graciously sends us the gospel today.  Right now.  Right now, believe for yourself that Jesus is God sent for your rescue from the wrath you deserve.  The urgency is there for all of us because we don’t know the number of our days.  We don’t know how long we still have on this earth.  You don’t know and I don’t either.  This could be the last sermon you ever hear and if that were true, wouldn’t you want to make it count?

Jesus further bolsters his authority with what he says in verse 29.  He says God is always with him.  That’s true in the sense that he is God in the flesh, God incarnate.  So he always has his divinity with him.  But it’s also true in the sense that God is always present with him in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit filled our Lord Jesus and in that sense too, God was always with him.  God will never leave him, because, as he says, he always does the things that are pleasing to God.  In other words, he never does anything sinful that would offend the holy God and require distance.  God’s holiness means he stays as far away from sin as possible.  Won’t have anything to do with it.  But God is always with Jesus and he can because Jesus is a perfectly obedient person.  He follows God’s law perfectly and that’s why God can always be with him, thereby emphasizing again his authority. 

There’s also gospel comfort in those words, “I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”  That’s exactly what God requires of us as human beings.  God requires of us that we always do the things that are pleasing to him.  Yet if we’re honest, we know we fail again and again.  Instead, we’re doing the things that are displeasing to God.  Sin.  But if you believe that Jesus is the one who’s come for your rescue, then this is part of the good news for you:  Jesus did the things that are pleasing to God in your place.  He did it for you.  If you place your trust in Christ and believe that he did do this, then all of the pleasing works that Jesus did are yours.  Those pleasing things are given to you as a gift.  God then looks at you like he looks at his Son.  He looks upon you with pleasure and approval.  He looks upon you with love and acceptance – all because of what Jesus has done in your place.

Now I just want to look briefly at the response we find in verse 30.  It sounds promising, doesn’t it?  “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.”  We might be tempted to say, “Wonderful!  He preached the gospel and people believed.”  If we just stopped at verse 30 and didn’t look a bit further, that would be our conclusion.  But you can’t do that.  You have to look further in the chapter.  There’s more than meets the eye with these people who “believed in him.”  Not all belief is the same.  When you get further into John 8, you find that some of these “believers” are still of their father the devil.  Some of these “believers” are not of God.  Some of these “believers” are still slaves to sin.

Again, remember the context here.  Religious people doing religious things.   Religious people maybe even having some religious feelings about Jesus, “believing” in him in some superficial sense.  And yet, yet, Jesus clearly says they’re not saved.  You’ve got to think about that.  Could you be one of those religious people doing religious things and only having a superficial “belief” in Jesus?  One way you can tell is in how you would answer this question:  if you were to die tonight and appear before God and he should ask you why he should allow you into heaven, what would you say?  A true disciple will say with no hesitation, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ alone.  Only because of his life and death in my place.  Only because Jesus Christ is my Saviour.”   

In our passage, Jesus was speaking hard words like an Old Testament prophet.  But he wasn’t an Old Testament prophet.  In fact, he was the one who sent the Old Testament prophets.  They were speaking for him.  They spoke about sin and hell, because he told them to speak about sin and hell.  So, it’s no surprise that when he comes, he speaks about sin and hell too.  These hard realities are the truth which rebellious human beings need to hear.  The name Jesus means Saviour, God saves.  Salvation makes no sense apart from something from which you need to be saved.  We need to be saved from our sin and its consequences in hell.  Apart from Jesus, you will die in your sins and die eternally.  But if you believe in him, you will live through his cross, and live eternally.  AMEN. 


Our heavenly Father,

Your Word is the pure truth.  Sometimes the truth is hard for us to hear.  In our sinful selves, we don’t want to hear about sin and hell.  But thank you for speaking to us what we need to hear.  Thank you for sending our Lord Jesus to speak the truth to people like us.  We thank you that in him and through the cross there is rescue from our sins and from the hell we deserve.  Thank you that we have forgiveness through the cross of Jesus.  Thank you that he always did what was pleasing to you and that his obedience is ours when we believe in him.  Please help us all with your Holy Spirit to take hold of Jesus Christ for ourselves.  Please work faith in all our hearts and strengthen our faith too.  We pray that none of us here this morning would die in our sins without Christ.  Please show us your mercy and work among us with your Holy Spirit in a powerful way.  Work among us for your glory and for the rescue of poor sinners.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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