Message 9, Jesus Made in America:
Our culture is willing to voice respect for Jesus, but the Jesus it respects is not the God-man of Scripture. More often than not, the Jesus in view is just one among many saviors, a man who is nothing more than our brother and friend. In this session, Dr. Stephen Nichols reminds us that although Jesus is indeed our brother and friend, He is also the King of kings and Lord of lords. Calling on God to restore us to a high view of the biblical Christ, Dr. Nichols presents the biblical view of Jesus’ love and majesty that we must lift up as the only light that can overcome the darkness around us.
Good morning. Those of you that come to these conferences are a bit like the elite troops of the armed forces, let’s call you Navy Seals. And those of you that are here at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning braving frigid temperatures, let’s call you Seal Team 6.
Well, Seal Team 6, if you would please locate in your Bibles, Matthew 16. We will begin reading at verse 13 and read on through verse 23. While you are finding that passage let me just say a word. I was asked the other day why did I make the decision to come down to Ligonier Ministries and why did I make the decision to become president of Reformation Bible College.
And, I was asked to give that answer in 1 or 2 sentences. Now, before I was a president I was a professor and professors like to profess a lot. It was hard for me, normally to put an answer into 1 or 2 sentences, but that one was easy. It’s a Bible college in the Reformed tradition founded by Dr. R.C. Sproul and connected to Ligonier Ministries and it’s in Florida.
Let’s look to God’s Word. “Now, when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi He asked His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist and other say Elijah and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’
And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’
Then He strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him saying, ‘Far be it from You Lord. This shall never happen to You.’ But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man.’” May God bless His Holy and inerrant Word in our midst this morning.
Like you I was deeply blessed by the message yesterday of our trusted mentor Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. And, somewhere along his lecture he offered what I thought was a very profound statement. You might remember these words well that he said when Dr. Ferguson looked at us all and he said to us, “Jiggery pokery.” No, those are not the profound words that I remember. It was these profound words, “What does Jesus want for the church according to the Scriptures?” That’s the question that we need to ask. Not the question, what do we want for the church from our inculturated place?
This morning we have a variant of that question before us. The question is, who is Jesus according to the Scriptures? Not who do we think Jesus is according to our inculturated place? Now, the title for my message is ‘Jesus Made in America.’ I don’t think this was on the conference planner’s minds, but when I see that phrase I am reminded of a sermon that Billy Sunday used to preach.
Now, there’s a name that you don’t often hear at Ligonier’s Conferences — Billy Sunday. It was the 1910’s, America happened to be at war with Germany and Billy Sunday, rather acrobatic preacher probably at the time he said this he was standing on the pulpit or jumping around doing backflips he said, “Turn hell upside down and what’s stamped on the bottom? Made in Germany.” You can laugh, it’s a joke.
If we were to turn Jesus upside down, our Jesus, would it be stamped on the bottom, made in America? Now, what does that mean? Let’s try to unpack that. In our text we have a moment where Jesus has just come off of yet another round with the religious leaders of His day, yet another frustrating encounter with those who were entrusted as the spiritual shepherds of God’s people.
The Messiah Himself was standing in front of them and they used every opportunity to dodge who He was and why He was there. And on the heels of this, Jesus, you can see Him huddling with His disciples, and He pulls them aside for just a time for a chat and He says, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And out flow the answers.
Well, some say You’re John the Baptist. A few chapters prior John the Baptist was beheaded and now he’s somehow animating this figure that is before the crowds. Some say Elijah or some say Jeremiah or perhaps maybe Malachi, you know one of those forgotten prophets that we never read.
Even the New Testament authors forget their names so they say, “And other prophets.” This is a prophet. Come down from God. How long has it been? Centuries. They rejected John the Baptist. Centuries since they had thought that a prophet had been sent to them from God and this is who Jesus is.
So Jesus turns to His trusted band of brothers and He says to them, “Who do you say that I am?” And here goes Peter. Never timid, Peter, is he? Here goes Peter, “You are the Christ.” It’s a title. Christ is not the last name of Jesus. Jesus is not Mr. Christ. It’s a title. Jesus the Anointed One. Jesus the Messiah.
And you could figure it out yourself if you pieced together all of the clues that are there in the Old Testament but very few people did, that this one who be promised to come, the Messiah, is indeed the Son of God. And Peter figured it out, a fisherman with his calloused hands, from his decades of casting nets. This not even blue collar worker got it right. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
You see, when Jesus asked this question He’s asking the question that every single generation needs to be asked and every single generation needs to answer. It is in fact the most important question, it is the ultimate question. Who is Jesus? And, the answer to that question is not a matter of life and death, the answer to that question is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.
You know the saying, the more things change the more they stay the same. This question that Jesus asked received a distorted answer in the first century. And this same question receives a distorted answer in the twenty-first century with apologies to our Canadian friends in our American context, or we’ll say North American context.
If you study the American Jesus it’s very fascinating, you can almost break it down into three time periods. The first time period is the time period of our fathers, faith of our fathers, our Puritan forebearers. And that Jesus was a credal Jesus, a confessional Jesus. These stalwart England Puritans were committed to the Reformed confessions and the ecumenical creeds of the early church.
When they thought about Jesus they thought about Jesus as the God-man who is the substitutionary atonement for our sin. As the words of the Nicene Creed, probably some of the most beautiful words in all of theological literature. That Christ, who is the God-man came down from heaven for us and for our salvation. This is a credal, confessional Jesus.
Those creeds are not straightjackets or chains that restrict us, they are guardrails that keep us safe. Those confessions that mean so much to us are not just relics from the past, they are helpful guides as we make sense of Scripture and as we bring that Scripture to bear upon our lives, those confessional standards, those credal standards keep us on the right path by the grace of God. And this was our Puritan forebearers, the first American Jesus was a credal Jesus, a confessional Jesus.
And then we move into the second stage of Jesus, and I’ve used this expression that it is the Biblicist, or Biblicism stage. Now, on the one hand we would think this is a good thing to say the Jesus of the Bible, but let me explain what I mean by Biblicism to you. See, in the nineteenth century especially, there was this move away from the Puritan confessions.
We see it in Charles Finney in the Second Great Awakening. We see it in the Stone-Campbell movement, in fact, it was Barton Stone that held a funeral service for the Westminster standards at his church. And, they put them in a box and they went outside the church into the church yard and they dug a hole and they buried the standards because we’re past that now. But here’s what happens, what the standards force us to do, what the creeds force us to do is wrestle with the whole counsel of God. Who is Jesus?
My goodness there’s a lot of texts in here that talk about who Jesus is. And what we need to do is we need to pull all of those strands together, weave them into a beautiful tapestry and that is Jesus fully God, fully human, our substitutionary sacrifice.
The creeds remind us of the whole counsel of God because you know what we like to do? We all do this, we’re all guilty of this, we find the texts in Scripture that we like and we camp out there. And we become reductionists. The Victorians did this in the nineteenth century. The favorite image of the Victorians and the favorite text of the Victorians was “Suffer the little children to come unto Me.”
And so, there are the images after images of Jesus from the nineteenth century surrounded by little children, the loving Jesus, the kind Jesus, the meek Jesus. And fortunately, for the Victorian poets child rhymes with mild. So, the Jesus who loves the child is the Jesus who is oh so mild.
We reduce Jesus to the Jesus we want Him to be. You know, in the 1970’s Johnny Cash — does that name come up often at Ligonier Conferences? The man in black made a movie about Jesus, and Cash was a counter cultural rebel in the 1970’s so the scene he likes is Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple. Cash looks right into the camera as if his eyes are going to drill a hole right through the lens and says, “Jesus stood up to the establishment.” And then Johnny Cash calls Jesus the greatest cowboy who ever lived. The maverick Jesus.
What happens very quickly as we move from the confessional Jesus to the Jesus of Biblicism is exactly what I outlined for you. We move to the personal Jesus. The cultural Jesus. It was said relatively recently if we keep making our defense from letters that are 2,000 years old we will only prove our irrelevance to culture. When standing in front of us are flesh and blood people who love each other regardless of their gender. Jesus would be loving and kind and accepting. This is the cultural Jesus. Such a distortion and so far removed from the real thing we barely even notice.
The reality is — and J. Gresham Machen said this so well — “The reality is no matter how bad our distortion is” or maybe I’ll flip that around. No matter how close we get to the right picture of Jesus it doesn’t matter. Machen said this, “No matter how high your view of Christ is any view that is less than Christ as infinite is infinitely less than the real thing.”
No matter how high your view of Christ is any view of Christ that is less than infinite is infinitely less than the real thing. And so, we are driven back to Peter’s confession, aren’t we? You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, and don’t miss what a cultural stumbling block this was. Shall we rehearse Jesus’ pedigree? Poor, at best, questionable circumstances surrounding His birth. An insignificant birth in an insignificant place in an insignificant country that was under the heel of the superpower of Rome. That is where the Messiah made His entrance.
None of us would script this story. None of us would have God entering the world the way that Jesus did. Do not miss what it took for Peter to say, “You are the Christ.” You. Remember John chapter 6? I know you know that chapter well.
It’s a long chapter, John chapter 6. And, somewhere along the line in John chapter 6 do you remember what the crowd says to him? Is not this Joseph’s son? And he’s standing up there and He’s telling us, if you want access to the Father, you have to eat of Me because no one comes to the Father except by Me. We know who this is. He lives in Nazareth and He’s Joseph, the carpenter’s son. Jesus was a stumbling block in the first century and He’s a stumbling block in the twenty-first century.
In fact, the text gives us insight that this calloused-hand fisherman, Peter, did not arrive at this conclusion on his own. In fact, do you remember what the text tells us? Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon, Bar-Jonah.” I think of what this must have meant to Peter.
You know when you have a master and when you have someone that you look up to, a mentor and you’ve been following that mentor. And, that mentor puts you on the spot with the question. School is in session. Who do you say that I am? And Peter ventures the answer. And the words float in the air and fall, and then there is just bated breath. What will He think of my answer? Blessed. Could you imagine what that did to Peter? To have his master say to him, “Blessed.”
But don’t get too pumped up, Peter. You’re not all that after all. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” I picked this text for a lot of reasons, one it gets right at the question, who is Jesus? It shows us how Jesus is distorted by the masses. But I also picked this text because Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon from this text. This was the verse that he focused on and he preached this sermon in 1734 in North Hampton.
In 1735 and 1736, revivals came at north Hampton and they also came to the Connecticut River Valley, those towns dotting the Connecticut River as it goes through Massachusetts and on down into Connecticut and revival came there in 35 and 36 and it was on the heels of faithful preaching. From 1731-1735 and in 1734 Edwards preached his sermon, ‘A Divine and Supernatural Light.’ No Peter, “flesh and blood did not reveal those to you but my Father who is in heaven.
Edwards says this in his sermon, “That a divine and supernatural light is immediately” — now that just doesn’t mean instantly. It also means without a mediator. Immediately to the soul by God is the divine, is from above. It is super supra — natural. Above the natural realm that revealed this to Peter. And then Jesus tells Peter, “You are a rock.” This had to be a highlight of Peter’s life. Blessed — and you are the rock. Well, it was a high point, it did not last long. If Jesus is, or if Peter, rather, is a rock, in verse 19, He Himself becomes a stumbling stone in verse 23.
So Jesus takes His disciples aside, He sees great progress in them, and He thinks now is the opportunity and the moment to take them to the next level, and so He brings His disciples aside and He begins to tell them what is going to transpire and it doesn’t look good, especially if Jesus the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel who will come and lead captivity captive. No. This Christ must suffer and He’ll be killed. I don’t think Peter heard the rest — and be raised. Because he was already tripped up at suffer. And he went into apoplectic shock when Jesus said, “I’ll be killed.” And Peter checked out. In his high becomes quite a low.
No way will this happen to You, here’s the impetuous Peter that we all love. The one who gives us all hope. If this guy makes it we can make it. And so, he jumps in there and he says, “Oh no, I will put myself between You and the entire Roman army.” Jesus says to him, “Get away Satan.” How would that burn into Peter? How would that rebuke? Like a heat-seeking missile, make its way right to the core of his being. It’s no wonder then, that we have those even within evangelicalism today that don’t like the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
It boggles my mind — not the liberals. This was alluded to last night; not the liberals, we expect as much. Wiggle your way out of what Jesus was doing on the cross. Equivocate. We expect that from the liberals, but when it’s in house, that’s a danger, that’s a threat. That leads a generation astray. When we have self-professing Evangelicals denying the substitutionary atonement of Christ that is a dangerous trajectory to be on.
Jesus does not elaborate here. We don’t know, obviously this conversation with the disciples is more than what is recorded for us in the canon of Scripture. We don’t know if He introduced to them the idea that His killing would come as a crucifixion on the cross, but we know that’s how it happened.
But this should not surprise us either if the entrance of the eternal logos, if the entrance of very God, of very God into this world was in a lowly, even insignificant place, then should we expect anything different when we see His death on the cross? Paul tells us this, doesn’t he? One of those irrelevant 2,000 year-old letters. Not only did He become a man and not only did He become a servant and not only did He die, but He died on a cross.
]And it is the deepest irony in all of history that a symbol of shame has become our confidence. But it’s a stumbling block, and flesh and blood does not reveal this to us. Praise God it’s a divine and supernatural light, immediately departed to the soul by God that this Jesus who is the Christ will suffer and will die on a cross and will be raised again.As we look at the cultural Jesus may I suggest that we think in terms of who Jesus is by three simple phases.
Number one: He is the seed of the woman. He is the seed of the woman. What this tells us is that Jesus is fully human. He did not hover off the ground six inches, His feet not getting dusty. He did not as the heresies circulated even before we get out of the pages of the New Testament He did not appear to be human. No, prick Him and He will bleed. Keep food away from Him and He will be hungry. Keep Him awake and He will tire. He is flesh and blood. He is very man of very man.
The doctrine of the incarnation reminds me of an old Carter family song. It takes a wearied man to sing a wearied blues. Jesus in His humanity identifies fully and wholly with us. They tell us that today the criteria is authenticity. Not necessarily worried about your credentials, or we don’t need to hear, we need to see that you are the real thing. Authenticity is quite a value. Jesus is authentic. He is the real thing. You think you have challenges in your life. Your closest associates constantly miss who you are, and we’re not even talking about Jesus’s enemies.
The author of Hebrews tells us so clearly, He had to be made like us. He was compelled to be made like us. He had to be made like us so that we could have a faithful high priest. You know the answer to the question that Jesus is a prophet is not all that wrong.
He is a prophet, He’s the prophet and He’s also a priest. He’s the priest. The faithful High Priest. That’s what the incarnation reminds us of, that we have a wearied man and He sings on perfect pitch with a true tone, oh weary blues. And if you are heavy laden come unto Me and I will give you rest. The Jesus is the seed of the woman. He is the seed of the woman and He is our sovereign Lord.
I think one of the things that we do well in evangelicalism is talking about Jesus as our friend. He’s even the kindly neighbor next door, as one popular author put it. He’s also our King. Calvin articulated this so well for us. It’s roots are in the early church, but Calvin perhaps more than any in the history of theology developed this for us, that Jesus is Prophet, Priest and King. This baby, this infinite is the infinite one. Very man, of very man, very flesh, of very flesh and very God, of very God. The God-man.
A few years ago I wrote a book called, “Jesus Made in America.” My editor and I had a lot of fun with that book. I found myself in emails in the subject line; I just reduced it one time to Jesus MIA. But He’s not missing, in fact He shows up everywhere. The incarnation took an all-time low when I saw a rubber ducky nativity set. Complete with the little rubber ducky infant Jesus in a manger.
Now, my first reaction was, that’s a choking hazard. They better prepare themselves for the lawsuits that are surely to come. It’s a theological choking hazard. The incarnation reaches an all-time low with our flippant, casual depictions of Jesus. It’s a flippant thing to neglect that this Jesus is not the sovereign King.
Do you remember the moment, of course you do, when the disciples were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? And for a moment Jesus peeled back His humanity and the glory of God was on display. This is Jesus. Seed of the woman, sovereign Lord and King. Do not be reductionist about the person of Jesus.
Here’s why, because the person of Christ has everything to do with the work of Christ, and so we have our third remedy. He’s the seed of the woman, He’s the sovereign King and He is the sacrificial Lamb. It was the Nicene Creed for us and for our salvation. Without the person of Christ we would not have a proper view of the work of Christ, and that’s the gospel, and that’s the ball game, and without it go spend your time at one of the Disney parks because that will be more meaningful than this.
If it’s not Jesus as the God-man who died on the cross in our place because we owed a debt we could not pay. It was Pascal who said, “The incarnation shows man the greatness of his wretchedness.” Because the incarnation is the first step to the cross. In the extreme weight (gravitas) of the cross. The extent of the remedy is directly inversely proportional to our wretchedness. And if you lassoed Jesus and you bring Him down you will bring down the cross. And what Jesus does there is of no benefit. Machen’s primary contender in the 1920’s was Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Fosdick would tell the story fresh on the heels of World War I of the grenade that was launched into the foxhole.
The selfless soldier would hurl himself on the grenade so that his buddies would live. A sacrifice so that others may live. What an example of selflessness. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He showed us how to be selfless and it put a smile on God’s face, and when your selfless you too put a smile on God’s face. Isn’t that wonderful?
That’s not the gospel and you know that. But when we lasso Jesus and we bring Him down we bring down the cross. It is the God-man because, in His humanity He identifies with us in our sinfulness, He identifies with us the offending party, and in His deity — His precious blood, as Peter calls it — His precious blood is sufficient to pay the price for our sin. He is the seed of the woman, He is the sovereign King and He is the Suffering Servant. The sacrificial Lamb who died for us.
This is not an inculturated Jesus. As I mentioned, none of us would script any of this story this way. We would be more like Satan in the temptations. Here’s the pinnacle of the temple and all the crowd, they’re always there in Jerusalem, thousands milling about. Go stand on that pinnacle and throw yourself off and I will make sure that you land softly. And that will win the crowd.
That’s how we would script this story, too. Something extravagant, something fantastic. That’s an inculturated Jesus. A Jesus who says things we don’t like. Yes, let the little children come unto Me. But He also says a lot about the destiny, the eternal destiny of the unrighteous. Hell is real. It is a real place. And it is not only occupied by Hitler and a few others.
Jesus taught us that. It might be a teaching of Jesus that we don’t like, but it’s the Jesus according to Scripture. And, it is also the Jesus of Scripture who tells us in the next verses that we too need to take up our cross and follow Him. You know it was alluded to last night, I think it was alluded to yesterday — are we entering into unchartered waters as a church and as a culture?
It was mentioned last night of a post-Christian Europe with exhibit A being empty churches. You know it takes a while for things in Europe to make its way to America. We’re always a few years behind the fashion trends. And we also tend to lag a little bit on the cultural trends. But maybe what we’re seeing in Europe might be the reality for us in the next generation. A post-Christian America.
And I think the words of last night need to be echoed again, that in a post-Christian America we do not simply protest, and we do not simply sort of shuffle our feet and just wax nostalgic about the days of the Puritans. But that we proclaim the seed of the woman and the sovereign King in the sacrificial Lamb. That in a post Christian America, catch this, maybe who Jesus is will become more clear, because the mushy middle of a mild Jesus has washed away. And in a post-Christian America the real thing is rather distinct and rather clear.
Chris Larson, who not only assigned me an 8 o’clock time slot also made a brilliant comment a few months ago: “The future belongs to Christians of conviction.” And at the center of that conviction — this is why we like to talk about the Reformation, isn’t it?
It’s sola Scriptura, it’s the Word of God as our only sure foundation and anchor, but it’s the doctrines of Scripture, it’s where Scripture takes us, and it takes us to solus Christus — Christ alone, and it takes us to sola fide, sola gratia. The person and the work of Christ and that must be our conviction.
You know, we didn’t always get it wrong as in, American Jesus. In fact, many times we get it right. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh and I ponder it. It makes me tremble, tremble, tremble.” Is this the Jesus that we have? Is this the Jesus that we teach to our next generation?
The Jesus who’s person and work makes us tremble? And is this the Jesus that we proclaim to America, and in North America, and to those around the world? Who do you say that I am? When the master pulls you into his school and puts the question in front of you, what’s your answer?
Let’s pray. Father God, we are humbled by this divine and supernatural light that has revealed to us the truth of Your dear Son. We praise Your Name for who He is and what He has done for us and for our salvation. May we not waver in our conviction and may we have the courage of our conviction to proclaim this Jesus to a culture in such desperate need, and may You be praised and may You be glorified. Amen.