An Ad Hominem/Ad Deum Attack
Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
You know an argument is not going well for someone when he or she has to resort to name calling. Experts call this argumentum ad hominem, a Latin phrase literally translated as “an argument to the man.” Argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy in which an argument is opposed by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument rather than addressing the substance of the argument itself. The result of an ad hominem attack can be to undermine someone’s case without having to deal with the actual issue at hand.
Stung by the unveiled truth from Jesus’ lips, the Jews resort to name-calling: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” To be fair, our text drops in on the middle of the conversation, and Jesus has just told His opponents that they are doing the work of the devil, which itself sounds like a personal attack—unless it happens to be true. Undoubtedly, to their way of thinking, the Jews are simply answering Jesus in kind. “You say the devil is our father? We say you’re a half-breed and you have a demon inside you. How can anyone believe anything that you say?”
Jesus speaks the truth, however, not they. He’s not trying to impugn them, but to warn them of the dangers of not believing His Word. Moreover, this matter is not about names. Jesus simply denies their charge and points to the real problem: They don’t believe He is the Messiah. If He isn’t the Messiah, then they would be perfectly correct in calling Him demon-possessed. Only a mad-man or a charlatan would call themselves the Messiah—unless He really is! Then the Jews have a real problem, because if Jesus is telling them the truth, if He’s the Messiah and they oppose Him, then they are opposing God and siding with the devil.
So the pertinent question of this theological debate is simply this: Is Jesus truly the Messiah or not? If He is, then they’ve got to believe everything He says about Himself. If He’s not, then He really is a dangerous man to be avoided, even attacked, if necessary. So what does Jesus say about Himself? He says, “I do not have a demon, but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me.” For one thing, Jesus denies that He has a demon. But more than that, He declares that His Father is in heaven—not Samaria, and that He understands exactly what He’s saying and the claims He’s making, and that what He says honors His Father in heaven. His words aren’t frivolous: He declares unequivocally that He’s speaking the truth.
Jesus glorifies His heavenly Father, but the Jews dishonor Him. By being at odds with Jesus, they are at odds with God the Father. Jesus is not seeking His own glory, but the Father is seeking glory through Jesus. And the Father is the ultimate judge. By attacking Jesus, they are attacking God and bringing condemnation on themselves.
Now, all that’s going to rile His audience, but next comes the statement that really sets them off: “Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps My Word, he will never see death.” This is Good News, yes? The Messiah, sent by the Father, gives eternal life by His Word. Jesus He underscores His Word again. The way to know the Word, who is God, who is Jesus, is to keep His Word. Believe the message of Jesus and you will never experience everlasting death.
But Jesus’ opponents don’t hear it as deliverance, rather as proof of diabolical madness. Even Abraham and the prophets died. How can Jesus say that anyone who keeps His Word will never taste death? Where faith is denied and human reason takes over, people must conclude that Jesus is making preposterous claims. Only through faith do we see that He is in truth the Son of God. Otherwise, we ask: “Who do you make yourself out to be, Jesus? Some self-appointed Savior? Do you actually claim to even have the power over death?”
But Jesus doesn’t let them get away with that. He’s not self-appointed, so He tells them again: “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing. It is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known Him. I know Him. If I were to say that I do not know Him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know Him and I keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see My day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:52-53).
Jesus claims no glory for Himself; that would be worthless. Many before Him and many since have claimed to be messiahs for their own glory and did no good. The Father gives Jesus glory, however. So, why don’t the Jews? They don’t glorify Jesus because they don’t really know God. They lie because they don’t know the truth. They argue foolishly because they can’t see Wisdom Himself there. The Jews have lost sight of the Word of God that promises Christ. They have kept God’s Word only selectively and added to it with their own traditions.
Jesus is keeping God’s Word to the letter and in spirit. Jesus speaks the truth, but the Jews follow their father, the devil, not Abraham whose name they invoke for support. Jesus can legitimately claim Abraham on His side, because Abraham trusted the promises of God and believed in the coming of the Christ. By faith, Abraham saw Jesus’ day, believed in Him, and was saved.
Jesus offers the same to the Jews. He tells them to turn from their unbelief because He has life for them, too. But His opponents aren’t ready to give in. They don’t want Him to be the Messiah. If He is, they have to admit that they’re wrong. They have to repent of their false teachings that say you’re saved by works, not by faith. But they’ll have none of it. Each claim Jesus makes confirms them in their unbelief. Hardened hearts often grow harder when confronted by God’s truth.
Jesus doesn’t bother to explain how by faith Abraham saw God’s plan of salvation fulfilled in Jesus’ day (Hebrews 11:8-10). Instead, He uses their question to witness one last time to His own eternal divinity: “Before Abraham was, I AM!”
“I AM,” says Jesus, and the way He says it makes His meaning very clear. In Exodus 3:14, God reveals to Moses that His name is Yahweh, which means “I AM.” Jesus is saying that He’s more than just a man sent by God. He’s not just a prophet. He’s saying that He is God. Very God of very God, being of one substance with the Father. The One by whom all things were made. He’s Yahweh, Himself, in the flesh and standing before them. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. He is the Son of God sent by the Father to win salvation. And He gives eternal life by means of His Word. What Good News!
But one cannot believe God’s Word without faith. One cannot believe in Christ without the work of the Holy Spirit. To the Jews this is not good news, but the final blasphemy. They pick up stones to throw at Jesus. But while they get their stones, Jesus hides Himself from their sight and leaves the temple. His time to sacrifice Himself to pay for the world’s sin has not yet come.
“Before Abraham was, I AM.” With that sentence, Jesus presents two important doctrines. The first is the doctrine of the Incarnation: Jesus, clearly a man, says that He is Yahweh. He is fully human, and He is fully divine. Jesus was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem (long after Abraham died), and He was before Abraham, begotten of His Father before all worlds, being of one substance with the Father. The second is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: if Jesus is “I AM,” then He is God. He is God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.
Those two doctrines, the Incarnation and the Trinity, are enough to make Jesus’ opponents pick up stones to kill Him. Theirs is a literal ad hominem attack, “to the man,” but is also an ad deum attack, one directed “to God.” An attack with not just words, but stones they pick up and intend to cast at “the Stone the builders rejected” (Matthew 21:42), the “spiritual Rock that followed” the Israelites and supplied them water to drink in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4).
Those two doctrines are also what the Athanasian Creed is all about, and the focus of this Festival of the Holy Trinity. That makes this festival unique in the church year. The other festivals are about what our Lord does: Christmas is about His birth; Easter, His resurrection; Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Festival of the Holy Trinity is not first about what our Lord does, but who He is.
If, by chance, you think that this makes it a second-rate festival, you need to reconsider. To not care who the Lord is, is actually more foolish than saying to your spouse, “I don’t care who you are, as long as you do what I say.” By faith, we rejoice that God makes Himself known to us; neglect of His identity is sin.
If the Lord isn’t who He says He is, then He can’t do what He says He does. We’ll start with the Incarnation: If Jesus is not fully man, He can’t take your place and die for your sins. If He isn’t fully God, then He can’t die for the sins of all.
Or consider the Trinity: If God is not one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the Son cannot be one with the Father. If that’s true, then Jesus can’t be the beloved Son, fully God, who goes to the cross for you. If He’s not the Son, then you’re not redeemed from your sin. You don’t have a Father in heaven, because you’re still unholy. If God is not one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the Father and the Son don’t send the Holy Spirit to you to grant you faith, and so you don’t have faith. And if the Holy Spirit does not give you faith, then the Father and the Son will not come to you and dwell with you.
If God is not one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—then what does your baptism mean since you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If Jesus isn’t both God and man, how does it help you to be joined to His death and resurrection by water and the Word? If Jesus isn’t both God and man, how can He give you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins? Do you see? Who He is matters. The Lord has to be who He is in order to do what He does. Thus we gladly confess the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity.
That may still not strike you as controversial, but it sets Christianity apart. The controversy you find in the Gospel lesion is still around. If you witness to a Muslim, the Incarnation is not just a strange teaching—it’s outright blasphemy. If you’re speaking to a Jehovah’s Witness, you’ll find that their version of the Bible is heavily edited to get rid of the Holy Trinity. If you’re talking religion with your average secularist, you’ll probably hear him say, “I have no problem with the idea that a man named Jesus lived once upon a time. But the idea that He was also God? That’s where I’ve got to draw the line.” This, really, is the crux of the matter: Jesus is either who He says He is or He isn’t. Jesus either does what He says or He doesn’t. There’s no middle ground.
The world doesn’t want an incarnate Christ or the Trinity, and there’s really a simply reason why: both the Incarnation and the Trinity are mysteries that we accept by faith; they can’t be apprehended by reason or logic. “Who God is” is greater that we can understand, and I, for one, think that is not a bad thing. Do you really want a God so limited that you can fully understand Him?
The Incarnation and the Trinity are mysteries that we accept by faith, not formulae that we can explain. Therefore, we don’t argue and try to persuade people into believing these doctrines are true. Rather, we confess them. We confess what the Lord says about Himself in His Word; and we trust that the Holy Spirit will work through that Word to bring to faith all who will believe.
And as we confess these truths, we rejoice in their comfort for us. For this is true: because Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, He is the Messiah who has gone to the cross and died in your place for your sin.
Because the Son died for you, you have a loving Father in heaven who sends His Spirit upon you to give you faith and the forgiveness that the Son won on the cross.
Because God is triune, all of this is delivered to you in your baptism and absolution, because you are baptized and absolved in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Because the incarnate Son is a person of the triune God, He delivers to you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
That is who Jesus is: the incarnate, second person of the Trinity. The world will try to persuade you differently, but you have His Word. By His Word, and by God-given faith on His Word, you know who He is and what He has done. And because He is the Son of God who became flesh to go to the cross for you, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.