Sunday, May 13, 2018

Uttermost, Intercession, Drawing Near

If today were Christmas Eve there would be a certain something in the air, a bit of anticipation. The same would be true if today were Easter, though maybe not quite as strong. But that's about all the notice that many Christians these days give to the church calendar. But what is the birth of Jesus and His resurrection without what happened on Good Friday, at Jesus' ascension into heaven and on Pentecost? Leave out any of these other events and you're ignoring something that the Father sent Jesus to accomplish. You’re leaving out a key part of the Gospel. There is no coming of the Spirit without Jesus ascending to the right hand of the Father. And there would be no ascension without a resurrection. But there would be no resurrection without an atoning death. And there would be no death if there had never been a birth. The work of Jesus is all of these things. So, while it is obvious to celebrate Christmas and Easter, it should also be obvious to celebrate Good Friday, Ascension Sunday and Pentecost. We need to celebrate all of what Jesus has come to do as our Savior.

Now, I said all of that because today is Ascension Sunday. So, we're going to take a break from our journey through Romans to spend a little time considering something that we confess quite regularly: 'He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…' We’re going to look at the ascension of Jesus to heaven.

And how shall we consider this? What if I ask this question? Now that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father, what is He doing? If His ascension is such a big deal, He must be doing something important. What is it? I'm going to answer that question, partially answer that question, using something from Hebrews. The author of this letter has been reflecting on Jesus' ministry as our high priest in heaven. Listen to one conclusion that he makes.

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7.25

This morning we're going to meditate on this sentence, and we'll do that by looking at three phrases that make it up.

Here's the first phrase: 'he is able to save to the uttermost'. Now, just to be clear, 'to the uttermost' means 'completely'. So, according to this phrase, Jesus is able to save you completely.

There are quite a few implications from this that someone could pursue. Here's one. You're not yet completely saved.

Here, let me remind you of the tenses of 'saved'.

You were saved, past tense. Something happened in your past. The Spirit did His mysterious work in you so that you were born again. At that point, you became God's child and were given new life. You were saved.

You will be saved, future tense. When Jesus returns everything gets fixed. There will be a new heavens and a new earth. And everyone will be resurrected, that is, everyone will be given a renewed body, one that works perfectly. You will enjoy the presence of God in that new heavens and new earth with those wonderful bodies. It will be like the Garden of Eden, except better. You will be saved.

Now, back to my point. You're not yet completely saved. So, what remains? Well, for one thing, your sin remains. You still sin. And remember, that's not just about your actions. Sin is also expressed in your thoughts and in your desires. You sin, and you do that a lot.

But this is where you return to that sentence in Hebrews.

…he is able to save to the uttermost… 

Jesus is quite busy, even now, saving you. Let that percolate a bit. Jesus is, right now, saving you. That should make you very happy. Think about how you sin. Doesn't that just frustrate you? And so often, it's the same old sin. But little by little, Jesus is dealing with it. He is in the process of removing every last bit of sin from your life until He saves you from it, to the uttermost. And thanks be to God for that! So, hold on to that note of hope. Jesus is still saving you, especially the next time it feels like your sin is winning.

However, I need to remind you that while Jesus is the one who does the actual saving, there is something that you need to do. You need to believe the Gospel. Behind all of our sin, whether we're talking about sinful acts or sinful thoughts or sinful desires - behind it all is the sin of unbelief. All too often, in some particular moment, we choose to believe the gospel of some false god. What is that, in that moment, but unbelief in the Gospel of Jesus.

We all have much sin in us, most of which is hidden from us. We need the Spirit to do His work of pointing it out to us so that we can repent of it and believe the Gospel instead. That is how Jesus will save us to the uttermost.

So, let me suggest again a prayer that fits here.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalms 139.23-24

I would encourage you to pray that, or something like that, quite regularly. It's part of my daily prayers. Ask God to reveal to you your sin so that you can repent of it and believe the Gospel. That is how Jesus will save you to the uttermost.

On to the next phrase.

…he always lives to make intercession… 

First, a definition of 'intercession'. It refers to a situation where someone is acting as a go-between, a mediator, for two others. In our sentence, it's about Jesus as our mediator, the one who stands between us and the Father.

Now, what is He doing in this role? Something John wrote fits here.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins… 1 John 2.1-2

Notice the pastoral balance in John's words. He calls the saints to holiness. 'Don't sin!' Pursuing holiness lies at the heart of being one of God's children. But John doesn't want to overwhelm any of those saints. So, he reminds them of Jesus, their advocate with the Father. And that is what Hebrews is talking about when it uses the word 'intercession'. Jesus is our mediator, our advocate, interceding for us with the Father. And we really need Jesus to do this interceding because we still sin.

So, how does this intercession work? This is where John's word 'propitiation' comes in. This is an important word. It's a response to the Father's call for justice. Your sin is a great offense against God. He has made it so very clear that a just consequence is required. Remember the words of the prophet.

…the soul that sins, it shall die. Ezekiel 18.4

Think about some sin of yours from the last week. It doesn't matter what it was. A just consequence is required. You should die for what you did, what you thought or even just what you desired. You sinned. You should die. And remember we're talking about hell, eternal dying.

But Jesus intercedes for us. You can picture it like this. You sin. Justice sees that sin and speaks. It calls for your death as punishment for what you just did. This is when Jesus points to His scars, tokens of the Cross, and says, 'Father, I paid for that sin'. Hearing this, justice ceases its demand. Punishment for sin has occurred. Justice is satisfied. Propitiation. That gives you a sense of what Jesus' intercession is about.

However, let me remind you again that this work of Jesus is yours only by faith. And just as there is an ongoing work of saving because of your ongoing sinning, there needs to be an ongoing believing. There is to be none of the sadly common presumption that says, 'I professed my faith in Jesus when I said the sinner's prayer. That means I'm in. It's all good'. What is required is not some one-time expression of faith. It needs to be an ongoing faith, a daily faith, a moment-by-moment faith.

Let’s pause here. Take a minute and consider. Do you see the beauty of what is going on here, the realism of the Scriptures and the glory of the Gospel? Here we are, saints by faith. And yet, we still sin. A lot. The Bible doesn't just sweep that under the rug. No, it acknowledges the truth of that. It acknowledges reality. But the Gospel has that covered also. Jesus, who has ascended to the right hand of the Father, intercedes for us there, continuing to apply His saving work to cover, to atone for, our continuing sin. Jesus is in the process of saving us, present tense. And because of what He is doing, we can be assured of that future tense. One day the process will be completed. One day we will be saved to the uttermost. And God be praised for that.

Now for our last phrase of that sentence.

…those who draw near to God through him…

This is the point of what the rest of the sentence is about. This is the goal of Jesus' saving to the uttermost, the goal of His intercession: that we would be able to draw near to God. This is why there is salvation.

So, what does 'drawing near to God' mean? I think that it's fair to say that for way too many Christians this is just a phrase describing one's status. 'Though I was lost and running from God, I heard the Gospel, believed it and drew near to God. That is, I became a Christian.' Drawing near to God is merely a matter of a change of status.

But is that what the words actually mean?

Let's use the word 'near' in a different context. What does it mean to be near someone? That has to do with distance. It's being near, instead of being far. Now, you might be able to substitute the word 'close' for the word 'near'. If you do that you can talk about emotional distance. You have a close friend. There isn't any emotional distance in that relationship. You are, in that sense, near each other.

Now, let's take that and use it to understand the words 'draw near'. You were at a distance from someone, maybe physical distance, maybe emotional distance, maybe both, but that's changed. You have moved closer. You have drawn near to that person.

I think that you can see quite clearly now what it means to 'draw near to God'. It's about removing distance, especially emotional distance.

Imagine a parent and an adult child. They've had a falling out. They just don't get along any more. And to underscore the emotional distance, one lives on the east coast and the other on the west. But something happened. There was deep healing, and things changed. So, while the one still lives at a great physical distance from the other, they call one another and talk about life for an hour or more each week. The emotional distance is gone. The two are now so very close. They have drawn near to each other.

With this in mind, listen again to the sentence we've been meditating on.

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Hebrews 7.25

What do you think? Would it be wrong to say that the work of Jesus, the point of the Gospel, this saving to the uttermost, along with the intercession that makes it possible - that all of this is so that we can be emotionally close to the Father? What do you think? I think that seeing it that way makes a lot of sense.

People talk about how great it will be to be in heaven. And why? Well, for too many it means that they get to see their friends. Now, that will be good. I have a few people that I am looking forward to seeing again. But that can't be the main point of it all. The glory of the age to come is that the Father with whom we have been developing a relationship, the person to whom we have, inch by inch, been drawing closer to - He will be there. And whatever distance there may have been, whether emotional or even in some sense physical - it will disappear. We will be close. That's drawing near to God.

The glory of the Gospel isn't the gifts that we get: answered prayer, living forever, love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest. Those are wonderful gifts, and they should be enjoyed to the full. But the glory of the Gospel is knowing, that is, being close to, the giver of those gifts. That's the point of all the repentance and faith, the intercession, the praying about our sins, the saving to the uttermost. We get God: Father, Son and Spirit. And it will take an eternity to even begin to experience the wonder of what that means.

Believe the Gospel so that you can draw near to God.