Sunday after the Ascension (7th Sunday of Easter)

Readings: Acts 1:12-26 | 1 John 5:9-15 | 1 John 5:9-15

Text: 1 John 5:9-15

Last week, we heard some powerful words from St. John, in his first Epistle: This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”  Of course, all of God’s Word is powerful, but this stands out because of this word: testimony.

Testimonies are legal records, something which make the difference between a truth being judged as having merit or not.  This is so important that the Lord included it in His Law: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut. 19:15)  So that we might better understand how important testimonies are, it also says, “no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Num. 35:30)  Testimonies are a matter of life and death.

So what life and death matter is before us? Who Jesus is, and whether He is Savior we believe Him to be.  “This is He whom came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the One who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify…and these three agree.”   Rarely in human courts will you find three witnesses who agree, because people are fraught with faulty memory and blind spots, and our intentions and biases cloud our ability to be objective and impartial.  But not so with God.  God the Holy Spirit does not lie—in fact, you can actually say that He is incapable of lying.  God is Almighty, but He cannot lie.  Yet we’re not just given His testimony about Jesus.  His testimony is corroborated by the water and the blood.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:31-34)

What does this testimony mean?  That this Man Jesus, rejected by the Jews, executed by Gentiles, and pierced by an unwitting soldier—is the Christ whom God promised and the One who has brought life and salvation to the human race.

Yet John continues in the Epistle reading today: “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son.”  Here, first of all this refers to Moses, who was a human witness to the Word of God.  This came up in Jesus’ discussion about testimony with the Jews recorded in John 5, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

But it’s true that the testimony of God is always greater than any man.  Men are fallible.  And if our faith was based on the testimony of men, then it would be flimsy indeed.  The First reading today from Acts 1:12-26 hits on that point.  Judas, one of the Twelve, gave up his share in being an apostle and allied with the Lord’s enemies.  In gruesome detail, his fall is described. Yet, just because Judas failed doesn’t mean the ministry does.  That’s because the testimony of God is greater and more sure.  Even St. Peter, who, you’ll remember, betrayed the Lord in his own way, later taught the Church, “We ourselves…were with Him on the holy mountain [of Transfiguration]. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Pet. 1:18-19 ESV 2001)  More sure than the testimony of any man is that of God Himself.

Another place this hits us is if you look outside at the name of our congregation: Bethlehem Lutheran Church.  One day a few months ago, I had two different people bring up their alarm that our Church body bears the name of Martin Luther. They had each heard some pretty damaging stuff about what Luther said and because of that, they were suspicious what such a church would teach.  Their point is well-taken.  Well, it’s the unfortunate result of history that our forefathers in the Reformation allowed the first distinguishing name, Evangelical (that is, the Gospel-preaching Church) to fall into disuse.  But amid the other teachers who were spouting off different things in the 16th century—Zwingli, Calvin, Menno Simons—there had to be some kind of distinction.  But know this: Our confession of faith is not called Lutheran because we hold Martin Luther to some exalted status.  Luther said a lot of stuff, much of it under the influence of too much Wittenberg beer.  He wrote pieces like “On the Jews and Their Lies” which was later taken up by Adolf Hitler as justification for his Holocaust.  Luther was often a potty-mouthed, vindictive fellow, and thoroughly a sinner just like the rest of us.

But this isn’t the testimony in which we put our faith.  We revere Luther because of his labors to direct the Church back to the true testimony of God, Holy Scripture.  Where he did this, we honor Matin Luther as a gifted doctor of the Church.  That’s where the reading on Reformation Day from Revelation 14 equates him with the angel who proclaims an eternal gospel to the whole world (Rev. 14:6-7).  But he was no messenger of God where he so often was guilty of setting fires ablaze with his tongue and one out of whose mouth came much cursing. Neither Luther, nor St. Paul, nor any man is any worth to us, but instead that we would cling to Christ who alone is our Teacher and Savior. 

The fact remains, though, that this testimony of God, is lived out by men and women, small and great, publicly and privately.  I haven’t told you yet, but the word for testimony here is the root word for “martyr.”  When we hear martyr, bloodshed is the first thing that comes to mind (maybe that just comes from our fascination with extreme cases).  In fact, every follower of Christ gives martyria—testimony or witness by their life of faith.   The truth that Jesus was born, lived and died as the sinner’s substitute, and rose again would be of no value if that was not witnessed by those who still follow Him.  It is witnessed in word, deed, and example.

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.”  What is the testimony?  That Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and give them eternal life.  We are made witnesses, and living out that faith is the testimony which the world around us sees.  As our lives reflect Christ’s teaching and Christ’s living, they see what the Spirit, the water, and the blood first testified to.  One example is what St. Peter describes in chapter 2 of his first epistle,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:13-23)

This kind of godly submission is a continuation of our Lord’s own life through you, and it is a witness that God uses to display His works in the world.  The world, the devil, and our flesh hate that testimony.  They badmouth it and consider those fools who hold to it. Underneath the abrasive front, they don’t like what that testimony means, because “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20) It means defeat for the devil, death of the old sinful flesh, and that the world must acknowledge Jesus (not us, and not any man) to be Lord of all.  And it’s on that point where some of the witnesses of Jesus have been called to be martyrs in the sense of giving up their lives.  The world did not want their example, their charity, their contrast to the works of darkness.  So, the world gives them the worst punishment it can exact: Death.  The trouble is, the world and the devil have already tried that on God’s Son, Jesus Christ—and it was to their own undoing!  So even being on the receiving end of the worst wrath of unbelievers, the martyr is blessed because God can and does restore all, and restores it perfectly and forever.

If you reject the testimony which God has given concerning His Son, you’re left with the dead things of this world. But with the world you also inherit fear and hopelessness.  This can be seen in every church body that tries to hold onto the title Christian but dismantles the Word of God looking for distinction between man’s word and God’s Word.  The present world leads them about, and dictates what they hope for.  They are afraid because they’ve lost what is certain, but busy, lest they find out their work has been in vain.

And this is the place each of us would be in, if it were not for the protection and power of God’s Holy Spirit.  His testimony is more than lifeless record that we are left to decide.  He is the One who calls us by this same testimony, creates faith, preserves and strengthens it, and promises, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)

Yes, this is the testimony, proclaimed by prophets and apostles, and written for us:

12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

Having heard this Word of our God, let us pray:

Lord Jesus, You promised that when we are dragged before kings and governors for the sake of Your name, You will give us a mouth of wisdom to bear witness to Your saving grace. Give us courage in these gray and latter days to proclaim the Gospel, even in the face of those who do not accept our testimony of You; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. (prayer for July 26) Amen.

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