First the cross; then the crown.
(John 17:1-11a / May 24, 2020)
When we read the Bible, it is very helpful to have a basic timeline of events in our mind to use as reference points. This, by the way, is why Sunday school is so important. For this is how we understand where a particular story fits within the unfolding history of the Bible. Imagine reading a history book and not knowing when in the world’s history the events you are reading about took place. Well, many people read the Bible with this lack of understanding.
This is also true when it comes to the life of Jesus here on earth. That life of Jesus is found in the Gospels. There is a progression to the life of Jesus that goes from his throne in heaven, down to his birth on earth, forward to his death on the cross, then to his resurrection on Easter, and finally back to his throne in heaven at the Ascension.
Far too many people read the Gospels as if they were only a collection of important sayings. So, for them, it doesn't matter where Jesus is in his life on earth, they just pick out what he says devoid of any context and try to understand what it means. Which is precisely why they misunderstand what it means. No, it’s far better to become familiar with the various events and stages of Jesus’ life, and to understand that all of his life is heading in a linear direction: towards the cross, and then ultimately to his crown.
I'm going to give you the application of this sermon up front because it will frame the rest of what I say and help you with the "ah-ha" moment of this text. I'll circle back and shore up the application for you later on, but for now I want us to consider this point: that our lives as God's sons and daughters mirror Jesus' life as God's Son while he was here on earth.
We are Jesus' human brothers and sisters. We are human beings living in a sinful and adulterous generation in the same way that Jesus was human and lived in a sinful and adulterous generation. Our lives are not exact replicas of Jesus' life here on earth. For example, we are not God, nor we do die for the sins of the world. But they do mirror his life in a general sense, and this is true for every Christian. How so? The general progression of your life is the same as the progression of Jesus' life, and it is this: First the cross; then the crown.
John chapter 17 is a prayer of Jesus. It is commonly referred to as his High Priestly prayer because a priest prays to God and prays for others. First Jesus prays for himself in verses 1-5, and then he prays for his disciples. He prays for his disciples because unlike him, they are not about to go to the Father, but rather will remain in this world for a little while longer.
On Thursday of this past week, we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus left this world and returned to his rightful throne in heaven. Now he wears a crown of jewels rather than a crown of thorns. Now he no longer suffers, but rather he reigns. And as he teaches his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus repeats over and over that although he is going to die, he will nevertheless rise from the dead and return to his Father in heaven. In other words, first the cross and then the crown.
That is what John is talking about when in verse 1 of chapter 17 he writes, “After Jesus had spoken these things…” What things? Well, everything that he had said beginning with chapter 13. You should read chapters 13 - 16 at some point during the week. It will help you understand what I am saying so much better.
Well, after speaking “these things”, Jesus looks up to heaven and addresses his heavenly Father in prayer. Verse 13 of his High Priestly prayer reveals what Jesus is praying for in regard to the apostles: that they have the full measure of his joy while they remain in this world.
Now, today is the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost, and that means the theme is one of waiting and expectation. We are still in this world, and as we live, we wait for heaven with joyful expectation. We expect our suffering to end. We expect to receive a crown like Jesus. We expect to live forever with a joy that will never end. And we expect these things because that is what God has promised. Moreover, we are sure of these things because Jesus has already won our salvation for us with his death and resurrection from the dead.
So, we are already victorious. In the same way that Jesus was already the victor even before he suffered and died. Notice what he says in the first part of his prayer. Verse 1: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you.” Then he says, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.”
Well, he hadn’t yet finished it. It was the night before he died. And yet he talks as if it were already a done deal. He says, “Now Father, glorify me at your own side with the glory I had at your side before the world existed.” In other words, “Father, glorify me by giving me back my crown.”
And we know how the story unfolds. We heard it this past Thursday on the Ascension. We said that Jesus’ ascension was his coronation as King. And we worshiped and praised him as he ascended into heaven to receive his rightful crown. But now Christ’s Ascension has come and gone, and if it hasn’t already, the thought will soon creep into your mind: “Well, that’s great for Jesus, but what about us? We’re still here.”
Are you the type of person that finds it difficult to be joyful as you await heaven? I think of a man who knows his Bible better than most people, and he routinely says to me, “But I just want that joy that God talks about in the Bible. I don’t have that. I don’t feel that. I don’t know what God means when he talks about the Christian being joyful.”
Well, obviously he knows that Jesus has died and forgiven him his sin. He knows that one day he too will die and go to heaven. And he believes that in heaven he will be joyful because he will be free of suffering, and he will be with Jesus. But his frustration has to do with now. What about now?
One of the things that must have amazed the disciples as they spent their time with Jesus was the joy he retained despite the frustrations and pain of this world. So, that leads me to ponder the question: Can the Christian be joyful before heaven? And the answer is: Yes! But in order to be so, it is imperative that we keep the long-term perspective that Jesus did.
Verse 33 of chapter 16 sums up Jesus’ perspective on life exceptionally well. He speaks these words immediately before he prays to God in chapter 17. Remember, he has just spent several chapters explaining to his disciples what is going to happen to them once he dies. Then he sums it all up with verse 33. He says, “I have told you these things, so that you may have peace in me. In this world you are going to have trouble. But be courageous! I have overcome the world.”
Or to say it another way: First the cross; then the crown.
Now, what a different way to look at your life, that is, to look at all your life! For we too often expect the crown right now. “If I’m a Christian”, we say, “why doesn’t God give me the crown right now?” Why must I first suffer in this sinful world? Why didn’t God just take me to heaven the moment I was baptized?”
Well, remember when I said that our lives on earth mirror Jesus’ life on earth? Jesus was sent into this world to preach the Good News of salvation to a sinful and adulterous generation, and so are we. The reason Jesus was sent, however, was not only to preach but also to be punished, and that was his cross.
You and I, no matter what our difficulties may be, are not being punished for the sins of the world, nor will we ever be—not even for our own sins. That’s what Jesus’ cross was for, and we don’t need to try and take it away from him. However, because we are Christian, we are unmistakably identified in this world by the cross. I like to think of it as being branded by the cross. It follows us wherever we go.
So, what’s the secret? How do we retain our joy while at the same time suffering under the cross of Christ? Not a fake joy, but genuine joy?
It is in understanding that the progression of our life mirrors that of Christ’s life. From the moment he was born he was already the victor, and from the moment you were born again as a child of God you were already the victor. So, no matter what happens. No matter what suffering comes your way. No matter what tragedy darkens your day. No matter the fact that you are going to die, you still win.
We just have to keep in mind the progression of things. First the cross; then the crown.
Do you know why God hasn’t taken you to heaven yet, and given you your crown? It’s because he still wants you to shine as a light in this world. Now, depending on your individual situation, that is how you can let your light shine. For some of us, the brightest light we can shine to the world is to suffer with dignity and joy.
How so? By remembering that our troubles are momentary troubles. As Jesus told us: “You will become sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman giving birth has pain, because her time has come. But when she has delivered the child she no longer remembers the anguish, because of her joy that a person has been born into the world” (John 16:20-21).
Giving birth is a natural process. The suffering and subsequent joy is simply the nature of the progression of things. And Jesus says, “That is the way all of life is. You will become sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.”
Jesus can say that because he has already overcome the world. The proof of that is ascension to heaven. And he has been given all authority in heaven and earth, gut get this: he uses his authority not to take from you and me, but rather to give to you and me (v. 2).
So, heads up! Eyes towards heaven. And may the joy of Christ fill your hearts as you confidently expect his return. Amen!