The prophet Jeremiah was not the most popular guy in town. When there was a controversy, you could bet that Jeremiah was in the middle of it. It wasn’t that he set out to cause trouble. In fact, he seems to have been quite distressed by all of the accusations and quarreling he encountered. In Jeremiah 15:10 the prophet says, “Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me.” You see, when you are zealous for the divine truth, you can’t help but “a man of strife and contention,” just like Jeremiah.
Or just like Jesus, for that matter. Though He came into the world to save it and speak nothing but the truth, our Lord was One whom the high priests, Pharisees, and scribes constantly accused and quarreled. As Simeon warned, Jesus was appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign to be spoken against (Luke 2:34).
If you were to ask most Christians today about Jesus, they’d probably portray Him as the Gentle Shepherd, gathering sheep into His arms and blessing children (Mark 10:14). Or if not exactly like that, probably in some other positive manner. The fact that Jesus was constantly embroiled in conflict and a man of sorrows seems to have been lost to a good extent today. Many still hide their faces from the ugliness of the crucifixion, putting so much emphasis on the resurrection that they actually get upset by the sight of a crucifix. And this despite the clear testimony of Scripture, “We preach Christ crucified.”
Jesus, like Jeremiah, was a “man of strife and contention.” The first thing He does after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is to storm into the temple, throw the tables over and drive out people who were just trying to make a living (Matt 21:12). In today’s Holy Gospel, Jesus gets into a fight with some Jews who accuse Him of being a Samaritan and having a demon. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches here; he tells it like it is, in effect saying, “you are of your father the devil, and you’re liars and murderers just like him,” (John 8:44).
Why was Jesus so sharp with these people? And why is He sometimes so gentle and compassionate? Remember what Simeon said: Jesus would cause both the rising and the fall of many in Israel. It all comes down to what they need to hear. Those who are self-righteous must be shown how helpless they really are before they can hear the Gospel. Those who are crushed by the weight of the Law or who in weakness fall into sin are raised up by the Gospel.
Today’s text deals with the self-righteous. Anybody who doesn’t think they need a Savior is self-righteous. We can easily forget how badly we need the grace of God too, especially when our lives seem to be going well. The opposite of self-righteousness is to hunger and thirst for the grace of God, which He gives in Word & Sacrament. You can be self-righteous not only by failing to receive these gifts, but
you can also receive God’s gifts in a self-righteous way. That is to say, if you receive them with indifference, as if coming to church were just another thing to check off on your to-do list for the week. To do this is to despise Jesus. It’s no better than what the Jews did in today’s Holy Gospel.
They accused Jesus, saying that His doctrine came from the devil. Could you imagine something more arrogant than that? But remember, this wasn’t the first time Jesus was accused of being in league with Beelzebul, as we just heard two weeks ago. But again, we do the same exact thing every time we break one of His commands. Every time we sin we disagree with God, we treat Him as if He were a liar. But who are we to think we know best?
In this, we see how arrogant the sinful flesh is, that we could actually presume to know better than God. But this happens all the time among Christians, especially when tragedy strikes.
Don’t you believe that God is Almighty? Nothing happens apart from His will. And what’s more, He uses everything that happens for your good. Even when Satan or human beings act out of evil intent, God uses those very same things for your good. Joseph knew his brothers meant him harm when they threw him in the pit and sold him to the Midianites (Genesis 37:24, 27—28), but Joseph also knew that God would work even this for his good (Gen 50:20).
It’s a good thing that God is Almighty. It’s a tremendous comfort to know that God is in control of all things, even when things seem to be falling apart. God neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psa 121:4). How God is at work may not always be clear to us especially in the midst of suffering, which is why we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). Trust in His goodness; know that God is never in league with Satan; and that He loves you and your loved ones even more than you do.
Another point of strife and contention between Jesus and the Jews pertained to their family tree. The Jews were boasting that they were children of Abraham. In response, Jesus says this cannot be, because they didn’t act like Abraham’s children. They neither acted like Abraham nor believed the same things Abraham believed.
What about you? You call upon God as Father. How well do you imitate your heavenly Father? As Mary once sang, “He who is mighty has done great things for me,” (Luke 1:49). What great things have you done for God lately? I bet if I gave you enough time, you could list at least a few things. But here’s the thing: if you think you’ve ever done anything great for God, then you’re just as arrogant as the Jews in today’s Holy Gospel. They thought they were pretty good, too. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit never does good works through us, but to take credit for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is nothing short of idolatry.
There is only One who is Good, and Jesus says it’s not you (Matthew 19:17). You have sinned against God not only by what you have done, but by what you have left undone. Jesus is the only One who deserves to be called a Son of God, for He alone imitates God the Father perfectly. He alone did everything God wanted Him to, and never once failed to act when He should have.
Ever since the fall into sin, every son of Adam or daughter of Eve has acted more like a child of the devil than the heavenly Father. But still, Jesus doesn’t leave you out of His family. He adopts you into His family through Holy Baptism, where the privileged status of Beloved Son is granted to you. God gives to you what you could never have given to yourself: a clean heart. God doesn’t just invite you into the Holy of Holies—that’s Old Testament stuff. He makes you into the Holy of Holies (1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19) so that He might dwell in you through Word, body, and blood.
Toward the end of His dispute with the Jews, Jesus says one of the most comforting things ever uttered by human lips: “Truly, truly I say to you: If anyone keeps My Word, He shall not see eternal death.”
Jesus is on His way to die. Opposition to Him is increasing. Passiontide, which began today, is the most solemn time of the church year. This is why we set aside the Gloria Patri, veil the crosses, and continue without alleluias. We’ve heard Satan tempt Jesus, the accusations of His being in league with the devil, and next Sunday, we will witness Him entering into Jerusalem. By Friday, He’ll be dead on the cross and His work of salvation will be finished.
“If anyone keeps My Word, He shall not see eternal death.” This beautiful promise has meaning because God didn’t abandon Jesus’ soul to Sheol (Psalm 16:10). Jesus died, to be sure, but He did not see eternal death. His Word cannot be quieted, not even by death, that Great Silencer. His Word is the Word of life. The Gospel is not mere information. It’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). His Word is Spirit and Life (John 6:63). God is merciful. Remain steadfast in His Word and Spirit-filled Grace. By these means, He will preserve you in body and soul, both now and forever.
Soli Deo Gloria
Based in part on “On the Sunday of Judica” by Johann Gerhard (tr. Rev. Dr. Elmer M. Hohle). Postilla: An Explanation of the Sunday and Most Important Festival Gospels of the Whole Year. Malone: The Center for the Study of Lutheran Orthodoxy, 2001.
+ Rev. Eric Andersen
St. John 8:46—59