Failing Successfully in our Witness — John 10:40-42

// November 15th, 2017 // Sermons

This week, I found an old article about a missionary named Dr. William Leslie. Dr. Leslie was pursuing a degree as a pharmacist when he turned to Christ in faith and became a Christian in 1888 (almost 130 years ago). Eventually, God grabbed ahold of his heart and called him into medical missions. He served in various areas, but eventually landed himself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo–the city of Vanga in particular. He served in this city for seventeen years. Eventually, tensions arose between him and some of the tribal leaders. They kicked him out and asked him never to return again. He left feeling absolutely discouraged, feeling like he hadn’t made an impact of Christ. Maybe feeling like he had wasted seventeen years of his life. Then, he died nine years later.

In light of that story I have a question: Was his ministry a failure? This also leads to another question to ask yourself: What do you do when you find yourself in a similar situation? What do you do when it feels like all of your efforts are failing? Last week, I told you that your job was to continue faithfully witnessing to your friends, families, schools, and communities, trusting that God would do the work. Understanding this gives us both peace and boldness in our witness. This week, we’re going to look at this from a slightly different angle. Let’s look at our passage.

[Read John 10:40-42]

Remember what was happening in our passage last week–what’s been happening for almost five chapters. Jesus has been discussing, debating, arguing with the Jewish leaders and they’ve been trying to kill him. It may sound simplistic, but it’s the reality of the situation. In last weeks passage, they sought to kill him and arrest him.

When we come to our passage for the night it says, “He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained.” (John 10:40, ESV). So, Jesus escapes their plans and heads to a place “across the Jordan.” John actually tells us that it’s the same place that John was baptizing. If we turn back to the beginning of John, we get a clearer picture of where Jesus went. In the first chapter it says, “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:28, ESV). John uses the exact same language in order to help us make the connection. So, Jesus heads to a place called Bethany.

Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of discussion about this place called Bethany. There’s a lot of discussion because John talks about Bethany in the next chapter, but it doesn’t seem to be the same one. It says, “Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off,” (John 11:18, ESV). This is the Bethany that everyone is pretty familiar about. It was the village of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. However, this Bethany is not “across the Jordan,” but only a couple miles from Jerusalem. Some scholars just claim that John messed up–or was misinformed–and that it proves the Bible is all wrong. However, other scholars spend more time looking and found another place named Bethany…..that is across the Jordan. It’s not a city but a region. In the Old Testament it was called the region of Bashan. Take a look at the map to get a better picture of where it is. It’s in the far Northeast corner of the country, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s technically not in the promised land. It’s the land just outside of the promised land that the tribes of Gad and Reuben chose to stay with their flocks. All of this to point out that it’s a place “out of the way” or a place that is “on the margins.” It’s not anywhere near Jerusalem.

So, why did Jesus go there? Well, most likely to distance himself from those who are trying to kill him. The next question is: Why did John tell us about it? Why did John write this? This is an important question to ask. Of course, John wrote it because it happened. But John has to pick and choose what he writes about. At the end of his gospel he says, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25, ESV). So, John admits that he had to pick and choose what to write about. The question is: Why did he choose to write about this…..right here? The answer to that question brings us to the point of this passage.

Remember what’s been happening for five chapters. This debate/argument/discussion has been going on between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Every time Jesus finds himself in Jerusalem his life is threatened because they refuse to listen and they hate him. Then, after having this discussion for a very long time, after pleading with them for a very long time, Jesus goes to a place that is far away–that is on the margins. Then John says, “And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” And many believed in him there.” (John 10:41–42, ESV). Calvin says this, “This large assembly shows that Christ did not seek solitude, in order to cease from the discharge of his duty, but to erect a sanctuary of God in the wilderness, when Jerusalem, which was his own abode and dwelling-place, had obstinately driven him out. And indeed this was a dreadful vengeance of God, that, while the temple chosen by God was a den of robbers, (Jer. 7:11; Matth. 21:13,) the Church of God was collected in a despised place” (423). Jesus went into the wilderness to erect a sanctuary of God–to gather the church–and the church was collected in a despised place. It didn’t happen in Jerusalem. It didn’t happen in the center of Jewish life. It happened on the margins, in places they didn’t expect. This is where Jesus gathered his church.

It’s also important to see that the word “many” was repeated in this passage. It wasn’t just a few people that followed Jesus. “…many came to him…many believed in him…” (John 10:41–42, ESV). This was a fruitful harvest. In Jerusalem, people were seeking to trap him, arrest him, and kill him. In the wilderness, people were flocking to Jesus and believing in Jesus. This is a condemnation of God’s people. It’s a judgement upon them. It’s also a reminder that Jesus WILL build his church. Nothing will stop him from building his church.

Now, there’s one more aspect of this passage that I want you to see. It has to do with John the Baptist–THE witness. The crowds coming to Jesus said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” Then, many believed in Jesus. Now catch what is happening here. Yes, ultimately they believed because they saw Jesus. However, they also believed because of John’s witness. Ridderbos says, “The intent of this statement (and of this entire conclusion)is clear: despite the hostility against Jesus that was dominant at the center of Jewish life and that already threatened his life, there were nevertheless many in Israel who–in the wilderness where John had called for a ‘highway’ for Jesus–were prepared to come to Jesus and make their decision for him” (379). They believed because John had prepared the way for him. John had faithfully witnessed to these people in the wilderness–on the margins–about Jesus. He had prepared the way for them. Then, when they saw Jesus, they believed and followed him.

Now, I don’t know the exact time frames here. I’m not sure how long it was between John’s witness to these people and their believing in Jesus. However, I’m guessing it’s been at least two or three years (but it could be longer). Two or three years after John’s witness to these people–after he’s already dead (most likely)–these people finally believe. His witness finally bears fruit. He never saw it. He never saw these people believe in Jesus because of his witness. He simply witnessed, faithfully to these people and trusted God.

I say all of this to wrap up this section and to wrap up these last few weeks with an important reminder. You may work hard at witnessing with your life and actions. You may witness faithfully and boldly while trusting God to work. Yet, it’s also possible that you may NEVER see the fruit of your ministry. It’s possible that you may do these things and NEVER see anyone come to Christ. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t.

You have no idea how God used, uses, and will use your witness in this world. You may spend an entire year witnessing to a freshman in your school. Then, graduate and never see them again. Four years later, they may become a Christian because of your witness. It happens all the time. This is why Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7, ESV). We plant and water. That’s our job. God is the one who gives the growth. We have no idea when he will give that growth. It could be a week, a month, or years later. We simply plant and water, trusting God. Yet, there’s hope in the midst of this trusting. God has repeatedly shown himself to grow what we’ve planted and watered. It’s not just a stoic: “I’m trusting God, even though I don’t think He’ll do anything with this” but an excited, passionate trust which says, “I know God will grow some of these seeds that I plant. I KNOW it. I don’t know when or how or how long but I know God will use this sometime. So I keep planting, keep watering, and keep trusting.”

Interestingly enough, in 2010, a group missionaries had heard about Dr. Leslie’s work in the Congo. They figured that it may be a place to start their missionary work because these people had, at least, heard about Jesus. So, they flew, hiked, and canoed into Vanga–almost one hundred years after Dr. Leslie’s missionary service. Guess what? Here’s what they said, “When we got in there, we found a network of reproducing churches throughout the jungle. Each village had its own gospel choir, although they wouldn’t call it that. They wrote their own songs and would have sing-offs from village to village.” They found churches that were planting churches. They found churches that were healthier than many churches in the United States. They even found a “cathedral” in one of the villages that seated 1,000 people. The villagers point all of this back to Dr. Leslie. He left there defeated and discouraged. He left there feeling like he hadn’t accomplished much, maybe like he’s wasted seventeen years of his life. Yet, 100 years later there are churches thriving, growing, expanding in those villages because of his work. God had provided the growth.

Don’t lose heart in your witness. Plant. Water. Trust God. Be excited about the Growth he will bring.

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