It was Friday night, and the little cabaret was filled with people eager to relax and enjoy the evening’s performance. In the dim light I watched with interest the thoughtful expression on my companion’s young face. Her dark Jewish features were knit together in a solemn expression as she stared at her wine glass.
Suddenly she looked up at me and said, “You’re a Christian, right?”
Immediately I became uncomfortable, although my conscience was too dull to tell me why. Cautiously I responded, “Yes, I’m a Christian. How come?”
“Well, I’ve been wondering . . . why do you Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God?”
I could tell that the evening was in danger of being ruined. The pleasant dinner, the glass of wine, the planned entertainment, all were about to be sabotaged by this question. It wasn’t that she was antagonistic with the way she asked it. She seemed genuinely curious, and even a little puzzled. But religion was the last thing I wanted to talk about.
I had felt for several years that there wasn’t much difference between Jews and Christians. Both believed in the God of the Bible, and in my personal experience, the moral character (or lack of it) in both groups seemed roughly the same. So, to have our relationship disturbed by what I thought was a mere point of doctrine seemed both undesirable and unnecessary.
I could sense myself groping for a tactful answer. The first one to come to mind was something I had heard in college, and I quickly voiced it.
“As I understand it, Jesus never actually said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ This was something that others said about Him.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her, or at least to graciously put her off, and the issue was dropped for the evening. But I began to be bothered. Technically I had been correct: the New Testament when literally translated contains no quotations in which He proclaimed, “I am the Son of God.” But really I had lied, and I knew it.
I wasn’t much of a Biblical scholar, but having been raised a Christian, I was at least vaguely aware that Jesus often spoke of God as His “Father in Heaven.” So of course that meant that He thought of Himself as God’s Son, as anyone with common sense would realize. As dull as I was to my sin, and as good as I was at rationalizing it away, I couldn’t seem to shake the conviction that I had been dishonest, and for some pretty base motives.
The experience started me thinking. Never in my Methodist Sunday school, Baptist kindergarten, or Presbyterian vacation Bible school had I ever been taught why I believed that Jesus was the Son of God. To be honest, I’d never even considered it. I had just always accepted it as a fact of life, like the sky being blue and the grass green. But now I began to wonder, “Why is it so important that He is the Son of God?”
I didn’t have any grasp of the theological significance of His divinity, so the conclusion I arrived at was pretty simple and down to earth: if Jesus really is the Son of God, and I’m not doing what He said, then I’m in big trouble. To me, the real issue behind His divinity was the right He has as our Creator to tell us how to live — and the power He has to judge us if we are not obedient.
The result of my reaching this conclusion was that I began to turn away from the obvious sins in my life and to want to know more about what the Son of God had commanded. My relationship with my Jewish girlfriend fell apart, but it hardly mattered, for I was beginning to be consumed with knowing about this man who actually was the Son of God. I was willing to do anything if it was His will.
Even though the hypocrisy and apathy of “organized religion” had repelled me as a youth, I soon found myself in a little denominational church, telling the pastor that I wanted to give my whole life to serving the Son of God. The little congregation was delighted to have at their disposal a zealous young man who was willing to do anything. But my stay with that little church didn’t last long. The more I read the words of the Son of God, the more convinced I became that not only was I not obeying Him, but, as far as I knew, no one else was either.
The radical life of discipleship that I found described in the Gospels and the book of Acts seemed to have vanished from the earth. Where were the fishermen who had left their nets and tax collectors who had abandoned their wealth to form a community of people who loved one another without reserve? Were there others who, like me, had a desire burning in them to be pleasing to the Son of God?
Amazingly, I stumbled onto a group of people with exactly the same life and heart that I had been reading about in the Bible. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. I held on tight to this precious needle, these true friends that I had found. The Son of God had captured their imagination, just as He had mine. But as they shared with me about the suffering that He had gone through to pay for my sins, my heart began to be captured as well as my imagination. I entered into a covenant with this Son of God, actually giving my life to Him the way I had been willing to do for so long. I forsook all that I had and was baptized into His death, just as I had read about in Luke 14:33 and Romans 6:3-4.
The more I understood His word the more I became confirmed in the course my life had taken. One day I read in Matthew that the Master had asked who people thought He was. After the disciples told Him what people had been saying, He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded with his characteristic impulsiveness, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And the Master replied,
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. (Matthew 16:13-18)
To Catholics this passage means that Peter was the rock on which the true (Roman Catholic) Church would be established. To Evangelicals it means that whoever is in the true Church (all sincere Christians) can’t go to hell because the gates of Hades shall not overpower them. But both miss the point the Master was making. It was Peter’s revelation of Him being the Son of God which was the rock on which His Church would be built.
This rock is the same rock He was talking about in Matthew 7:24-25:
Every one who hears these words of Mine and does them will be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)
He expressed the same concept in John 8:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps (obeys) My word he shall never see death.” This is why the gates of Hades (death) shall not overpower the Church that He builds: it is because they are being obedient to His words. This is why Peter was so blessed. He had revelation of who the Master was. He did not think of Him as some ordinary man spouting off a bunch of philosophy or theology. He realized that He was the Son of God, and as such His words had weight. He had authority, and He meant what He was saying. It was only upon the foundation of this revelation that our Master promised to build a Church which the gates of Hades would not overpower.
This is an important point for Christians today to consider, because almost all Christians will admit that they are not actually obeying the words of our Master. In fact, most would probably be shocked at the concept. “After all,” they might say, “Isn’t the whole point that we’re just sinners who can’t actually obey? All God really expects of us is that we would just believe, right?”
Yes, since we are powerless to save ourselves, all we can do is trust in the Son of God. And this true belief (or “saving faith”) is all that God wants, as John 3:16 says,
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
In fact the whole reason that John wrote his gospel was so that we would believe, as he said,
... these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)
But this true belief in God’s Son always produces something: obedience to His word. So John made sure to include in his gospel the words of John 3:36,
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)
The absence of obedience is the same as the absence of belief, as Hebrews 3:18-4:1 plainly states,
And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. (Hebrews 3:18 - 4:1)
But who in today’s modern Christianity fears that his lack of obedience exposes him as an actual unbeliever? And who knows or even cares what it means to come short of entering His rest?
We know for certain that it is only by grace that a person can be saved. There are no works that one can do to save himself; it is only through faith, which is a gift from God, as Ephesians 2:8-9 makes absolutely clear. But Ephesians 2:10 makes it equally clear that a person is saved for the purpose of “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
This is what our Master gave His life for, according to Titus 2:14, so that we would be “a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” The reason His people will be so zealous to do these deeds of love is that they are eagerly awaiting the return of their Messiah, and they know what they need to do to be ready for the Bridegroom, as Revelation 19:7-8 says:
... His bride has made herself ready. And it was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. (Revelation 19:7-9)
If we do not love Him enough to get ready for His return, we will surely be disappointed when we stand before Him, for He will judge each person “according to what He has done, whether good or bad.”1 We cannot think it will be otherwise.
Some people are so confident in their own minds of their salvation that they have no concern at all whether they are doing the good works they were supposedly saved for. But since we human beings cannot save ourselves by our own effort, how much less can we do it by our own imagination? Shouldn’t we make sure that we have actually passed out of death and into life?
John must have had such things in mind when he wrote 1 John, for he said,
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
And the whole letter continually speaks of knowing and having confidence (a total of forty times), but the standard John sets for being confident wouldn’t give most Christians today a lot of assurance. What he says is this,
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:3-4)
There are around a hundred commandments that the Son of God personally gave recorded in the gospels alone, but what John spoke of most in his letter was the commandment to love:
And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. (1 John 3:23)
This is a direct reference to our Master’s words, recorded in John 13:34, where He specifically stated exactly how we are to love:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)
To this John also makes reference in 1 John 3:16:
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (1 John 3:16)
All the other commandments are simply explanations of how to love the way He did.
This, then, is what it means to truly believe in the Son of God, as John 5:24 states,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. (John 5:24)
If we hear His word and believe enough to do it, then we can be assured that we have believed unto eternal life, as John re-emphasized in his letter:
We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)
This is what I had seen was so lacking in my life and the lives of other Christians I had come in contact with. In fact, in my Christian experience, actually loving as He loved wasn’t even considered. I see now why such self-sacrificing love was hardly ever a topic of conversation. It was embarrassing to even think about it because this lack of love showed that we weren’t really disciples, according to John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So instead of being ashamed of ourselves (or even fearing, rightly, that we were abiding in death), we were ashamed of the Master and of His words.2 Some, like me, were overtly ashamed, and others, more clever in their self-justification, were more subtly ashamed. But all of us were headed for severe disappointment on the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
I am so thankful that God opened up my eyes to see my lack of true belief in His Son. Had He not done so, I would have gone on being deceived and deceiving others with empty words such as the ones I spoke to my Jewish girlfriend.
My unbelief and lack of obedience, at least some of it, wasn’t hard to see. In other people it may be more subtle. But I appeal to all my brothers and sisters who read this: please give heed to the things written here, especially to the Scriptures. As the apostle Paul wrote,
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 5:6)
I now have become convinced that the Son of God, whose blood was shed for my sins, is worthy of my total obedience, affection, time, and possessions. May all who read these words come to the same conclusion. I write in love.