The world has taken a season which in the Christian calendar was originally meant to point up the great truths of the incarnation and the coming of the Son of God into the world to save sinners and turned it into the worship of the Self. The Christmas holiday is no longer about looking out of ourselves to consider great truths, it is all about looking to ourselves and making ourselves feel good, at least for a few weeks. It’s all about getting the fuzzies and nostalgia and eating a lot of good food and exchanging presents. We’ve commercialized it so that Christ is at best peripheral to the season, even for many Christians. Santa has replaced Christ (this is true on other levels as well!), and the mall the manger.
There is, however, even for those who remain committed to a Christ-centered perspective on this season a tendency to turn inward in ways that are not right. I am guilty of this. This is not only true of the Christmas season; it is a perennial danger for orthodox believers. We can become satisfied with an intellectual, and even with a heart-felt, embrace of Biblical truths. The truths of the incarnation, the ministry of Christ, his atoning death, his resurrection, his intercession at the right hand of God, his return can all be believed and rejoiced in and yet never have the impact they were meant to have. For God’s truths were not only meant to have an impact in us, they were also meant to have an impact through us.
The amazing thing is that the story of Christmas itself ought to teach us this. It’s another instance of missing the Bible with the Bible.
What do I mean? Well, we are going to look at a passage that though it is not a traditional Christmas text, yet it is very much rooted in the meaning of the birth of Christ. It also says something about our mission as Christians and as the church – which is what I want to highlight. The text is in our Lord’s high-priestly prayer, found in John 17. In verse 18, our Lord prays this: “As you [the Father] sent me [your Son] into the world, so I have sent them [believers] into the world.”
First of all, I claim this text is rooted in the Christmas story. Now we are in what is called the Advent season, the weeks leading up to Christmas day. “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” and is a reference of course to the coming of Jesus – either in his incarnation or in the Second Coming. It is synonymous with the Greek word parousia, which is only used in the New Testament with reference to the return of Christ. However, another word which is used with reference to Christ’s first coming is apostello, from which we get the word “apostle.” Recall that the book of Hebrews refers to Jesus as “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). The word means “to send,” and refers to Jesus as the one who is sent.
Now this is the word which is used in our text. God the Father sent Jesus into the world. The question is, when did this happen? When did the commissioning and sending happen? Is this a reference to his baptism? Or is it a reference to something else that took place at the beginning of his public ministry? Well, the context makes it clear that this sending took place at his incarnation.
In verse 8, Jesus in his prayer claims that “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” Here, God sending his Son explains what Jesus meant when he says that he came from the Father. If you back up a few verses, you will see what is implied in that expression: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (ver. 5).
In other words, Jesus’ existence didn’t just begin – like you and I – when he was born. Before the manger, before his conception in the womb of the virgin Mary, he lived in glory in the presence of the Father. More than this, he existed before the word existed. These texts, and others like them, point us to the fact that Jesus is not just another remarkable man; he is the Son of God who has existed as such from eternity. He was never created. Rather, he is the creator of all things. So when he came from the Father into the world, he came from an unimaginably exalted status at God’s right hand into a sinless human existence that was nevertheless marred by all the devastating effects of sin. This is all implied in that phrase, “you sent me into the world.”
You see this stated in that remarkable way in the first chapter of this gospel. Jesus is the one who was in the beginning, who was with God and was God, who made all things, who is light and life (1:1-5); this is the one who “was coming into the world” (1:9), who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14).
Now why did God send his Son? If you go back to the very beginning of this prayer, you will see that Jesus came to glorify the Father by giving eternal life to those he gave to the Son (verses 1-2). God’s plan to bring this to pass was through the death of his Son: God cannot give eternal life to sinners unless their sin is dealt with. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were barred from eating the Tree of Life. We too are barred from the Tree of Life by our sin. Jesus came to atone for our sin by dying in our place. When Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come,” this is a reference to the time in the plan of God for Jesus to die. Over and over again in the gospels, we are told that people wanted to kill Jesus, but did not because his hour had not yet come (cf. Jn. 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20). Jesus’ whole life and ministry were meant to lead up to and be summed up in this one hour, the hour of his death, because redemption happens through the death of Christ. He was born – he was sent – to die. It is summed up in those well-known verses, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:14-16). Why did God send his Son and why did he come? He came to become an atoning sacrifice so that all who believe on him will not perish but have eternal life.
This leads naturally to the question, for whom did Christ come? He did not come for himself. He came for others. In answering this question, we must not ignore the wide-open language of John 3:16 – God so loved the world. And yet, when we come to John 17, Jesus says of his disciples, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (ver. 9). How could the Father love the world and send his Son to die for them and then the Son not pray for them that they might be saved? I think the key to this apparent discrepancy lies in the meaning of the term “world.” In John, it does not refer to the physical terra firma, nor does it refer to every person who has ever lived. Rather, “world” refers to humanity in rebellion against God. And it is precisely because we are rebels that atonement is necessary in the first place. “God so loved the world” means, I think, that he was not willing to leave men in this condition of alienation from him, and to remedy this he sent his Son. On the other hand, those for whom Christ died, those who belong to the Father – the elect – are redeemed not only from the penalty of sin (eternal death) but also from the power of sin. They come out of the world; they don’t stay in it. God loved the world so that he might gather a people out of it for himself. In John 3:16, world is viewed as that from which God will gather his elect. In John 17:9, world is viewed as that which stands in contrast to those who are gathered out of it. In John 3:16, the elect are seen as not yet separated from the word and in need of redemption; in John 17:9, the elect are seen as already separated from the world and in need of preservation.
But the main point of all this is that at one point those who belong to the Father at one time also belonged to a world in rebellion. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3). We should never think that God saves people because they stand out from others, or because they were special in some way. God saves sinners – that is the gospel. And we are all sinners, really, really bad sinners who are worthy of God’s eternal wrath, not his favor and love.
So, when you think on the meaning of Christmas, think of the words Jesus prayed: “you sent me into the world.” But that is not all the text has to say. In fact, these words set up the main thrust of the verse. It begins with the word “as,” and sets up a comparison between Jesus and his disciples. “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Now what does this mean? Certainly we cannot come into world the way Jesus did. Nor is our commission the same as Jesus’ commission. We are not sent to redeem the world as Jesus was. However, for this text to have any meaning, it must mean that Jesus’ disciples are a part of God’s plan to save a people for himself. The Father sent his Son to accomplish his part in this plan – the main part, we might say – and now the Son sends his disciples to accomplish their part in the plan. The question is, of course, what part is that?
After his resurrection, Jesus came back to his apostles, and said this: “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (Jn. 20:21-23). Verse 21 is clearly a restatement of our text. The next two verses illuminate what Jesus meant by this and help us to understand what our part is in God’s plan.
It seems clear (to me at least) that Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” was a symbolic gesture meant to point towards the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This is important, because the whole point of Pentecost was so that the church would be empowered to give witness to the risen Christ: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Thus, we are sent out to be witnesses “to the end of the earth.”
This is followed by the strange words about forgiving and withholding forgiveness. Does Jesus mean that the apostles literally had the power in themselves to forgive sins? I don’t think so. God is the one who forgives. However, the forgiveness of sins is nevertheless linked with the mission of the church, and thus with the preaching of the gospel. Though the church does not dispense forgiveness, it does preach a message of forgiveness. And God has said that all who believe the gospel will be forgiven, and that those who reject the gospel will not. Thus, when Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” I think he is referring to the proclamation of forgiveness in the gospel, a gospel preached first by the apostles and then carried on by those who believed their words. Those who embrace the message of repentance and remission will be forgiven; those who do not remain in their sins.
What then in our commission? It is this: we are sent into the world empowered by the Spirit with a message. It is the message that God stands ready to forgive sin, and that those who repent of their sins and turn to Christ, God will for Christ’s sake wipe the slate clean and embrace them into his family. As Paul put it in Antioch, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes in freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). Jesus was sent to purchase the forgiveness of sins; we are sent to proclaim his glorious accomplishment.
What makes a person part of this commission? Who are included? Some might argue that Jesus is just referring here to his apostles. And it is true that they are the ones immediately under consideration in our Lord’s words. But notice, in verse 20, our Lord says this: “I do not ask [these things, like the things in the previous verses] for these [the apostles] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” In other words, our Lord’s prayer encompasses all believers from the days of the apostles to our own day. This is because, in some sense, all of us have been converted to Christ either directly or indirectly through the words of the apostles (Scripture). So all who believe in Christ are sent into the world.
Now this implies that we are no longer of the world. As we already mentioned, everyone who belongs to Christ once belonged to the world. But we have been redeemed from the world, and it is the fact that we are no longer of the world that qualifies us to be sent back. The world cannot change the world. It is Christ in his church, a church is different from the world, that changes the world. In other words, it is holiness in a Christian that makes them able to reach an unholy world.
This is probably why Jesus prayed, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (ver. 15-17). It is because they are sanctified that they are sent. Unholy Christians would be so unlike Christ that there would be no comparison between them. We must be holy if we would be useful. This is why Paul told Timothy, “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable use. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful for the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21).
There has been so much emphasis on technique in evangelism, and though I don’t want to denigrate all such emphases, it seems to me that the Bible places much more emphasis on character rather than technique. We must be sanctified, make holy through the word of God, putting all our life in obedience to its commands, if we would join God in his mission to make known his glory in the gospel.
But then, we must go out. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God calls all of us to be foreign missionaries or even to lead inner city ministries. God does and will keep calling servants into these fields, and if God is calling you to do this, what an honor that would be! And we ought all of us to keep our ear open to God’s plans for us. If he is calling you to the mission field, don’t forsake that call to stay here in America. Don’t be a Jonah, or you might find yourself on the bottom of the ocean in the belly of a large fish. But God is calling all of us to be light and salt wherever he has placed us. And that means being in the world but not of the world. That means being willing to rub shoulders with unbelievers, to foster relationships with them, to listen to their concerns, and then to be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within you with meekness and out of reverence for Christ.
St Patrick was a man who exemplified with his life what our Lord prays for here. When he was 16, he was kidnapped from his home in Britain, and sold into slavery by pirates into Ireland. When he was kidnapped, he wasn’t particularly religious, but this earth-shattering event in his life God used to awaken him to eternal realities. He was eventually converted, and then when he was 22, was able to escape from his master and return to his homeland. But God didn’t leave him there. He tells us that a few years after returning home, he saw a vision:
I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed as that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’
Patrick heard their cry and returned to Ireland, and was evidently greatly used by God to advance his cause among the Irish. God saved him from the Irish and then sent him back to them. In a similar way, if God by his grace has saved you from this world, he has done so to send you back.
And that, I claim, is what this season ought to remind us. God sent his Son into this world; very well, he has also sent you. Or, to put it in terms of the Christian calendar, you cannot separate Christmas and Pentecost. May God so bless us that we, like our Lord, go into the world and shine like crazy his blessed gospel.