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Unless You Believe...

April 30, 2023


Pastor Peder Kling


Sermon Passage: John 8:21-30

Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)

A Serious, Serious Warning
This morning, as we are continuing to study Jesus’s interaction with the Jews at the feast of tabernacles here in John 7 and 8, we are beginning to make headway into the latter half of his conversation with the Jewish authorities wherein Jesus sets before them the seriousness of his claims. Did you hear any sense of seriousness in what Jesus said, here, in these verses? It was literally in the first verse we read—verse 21,

I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you
cannot come.


That’s downright judgment. That’s making it sound like these Jewish authorities whom he’s speaking with have no hope. “You will seek me, and you will die in your sin.”

That doesn’t sound much like Jesus, does it? What do we usually think of Jesus saying about those seeking him? Any well-known, often quoted Bible verses on that one? Perhaps Matthew 7:7 rings a bell—

Matt 7:7   “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

That’s the Jesus we all know and love. Yet, Jesus is making a very clear, confounding statement in our passage this morning. He actually says “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin.” He says, “where I am going, you cannot come.” He said the same earlier in the feast, if you look back to chapter 7 verse 34—although in that verse, he simply said “you’ll seek me and you won’t find me”. Now, he’s upping the ante. “you will seek me, and you’ll die in your sin”.

This is a serious passage, folks, and we need to make sure we understand it correctly if we have any chance of walking away this morning with any hope and comfort. Jesus is saying that these Jews will seek him, and yet they will still die in their sins—verse 21, and then again in verse 24. He says there, in verses 23–24,

“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I
told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in
your sins.”


So, he says it twice. “You will die in your sin”. This is serious. It’s not a passage to be trifled with. Either you’re of this world and you’ll die in your sins, or you’re not of this world and you’ll die with Jesus without your sins. It’s a two-way street, folks. You’re either going this way, or your going that way—and Jesus, here, is emphasizing the warning of going that way.

So, this is where we’re going this morning. First, we will to consider what Jesus means in verse 21, there. He tells the Pharisees that they will seek him and not find him, and they will in fact die in their sin. What does he mean by that—and, how does that apply to us, this morning? That’s verse 21—and really, as we’ll see, verses 21–24 are all centering around that statement in verse 21.

Then, we’ll consider why Jesus is able to make such profound statements about these Jews, and about himself. Imagine a man saying this to you—“you will seek me, you won’t find me—and therefore you will die in your sins. Oh, and where I am going you cannot come”. If someone said that to you, you’d probably back up and say “who are you? what gives you the right to make such a profound statement?”. That’s what we see in verses 25–30, where the Jews literally ask, “who are you?”, and Jesus answers them. So, the second part of our time together this morning will be considering those verses, and how Jesus backs up his word with authority.

So again—we’ll consider Jesus’s shocking claim in verse 21, and how it applies to us today. Then, we’ll consider in verses 25–30 why he has the right to make such a claim.

“You Will Seek Me and Die in Your Sin”—Wait, Really?
So again, consider verse 21, where Jesus makes that startling claim to the Jews at this feast. “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin.”

Folks, this is a profound statement which, if we don’t read it carefully in its context, it would seem to contradict everything the Bible says about Jesus’s free offer of grace and the gospel. Again, Matthew 7:7—“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find”. Is that not a promise? If we seek Jesus, really and truly, we will find him, the door will be opened for us? In fact, I think when Jesus says that in Matthew 7, he’s alluding to what God says to the Old Testament people of God in Isaiah 55—

Isa 55:1    “Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Isa 55:6    “Seek the LORD while he may be found;

call upon him while he is near;


That was back in Isaiah, when God said that. Seek him, while he may be found, while he’s making himself freely available to sinners with a most lavish, abundant, grace of his provision. Don’t you love that imagery in Isaiah? “Come, buy and eat… buy wine and milk without money and without price”. God said that, in the Old Testament! God has always revealed himself as a God who freely offers his blessings and salvation to those who seek him. We can find passages like that all over the Bible, even to Israel when they were stuck in their sin and idolatry. God kept sending his prophets to call Israel to repentance and faith. His grace and patience is unthinkable, folks, to make himself so available.

Yet, we also run into passages like this, in our passage. “You will seek me, and you will die in your sin”. Or, you might think of what we read in Hebrews last week during our Wednesday night Bible Study. “ 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God… 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Or, you could think of the rich man in Luke 16 who died and was buried, and was being tormented in hades, and he looked up for mercy to cool his tongue in water, and he could not receive what he was seeking from the Lord. He was in a spot of seeking the Lord’s mercies, having already been cast into Hades, and the Lord said “no, I’m not to be found by you”. 

Now, each of these verses deserve their own attention, and aren’t necessarily all referring to exactly the same thing. There are nuances in these verses. Although, they do all show us that there are times in the Bible when people seek the Lord’s mercies, and his mercies are not to be found. His patience is limited, his justice is real.

What about our verse, this morning? “You will seek me, and you will die in your sin”, Jesus says to these Pharisees. What does Jesus mean? Notice that the word “sin” there is singular. That’s a really, really big observation. “You will seek me and die in your sin”—Jesus is saying, “you’ll die in a particular sin that keeps you from seeking me rightly to find me. Therefore you’ll die in your sin—you’ll die in that sin.” What sin is he talking about, folks? What is the one sin which keeps you from rightly seeking and finding Jesus? Might we call this “the unpardonable sin”—that one and only sin which cannot ever be forgiven? I think that’s what’s in view, here. What is it?

The Unpardonable Sin: Unbelief
Jesus is referring to the sin of unbelief, here. It’s that simple. He’s referring to the sin of not believing, receiving, and trusting in Jesus and what he says concerning himself and concerning you. Here, Jesus is saying to these Pharisees that when he goes away, they will seek him, but they won’t find him because they will not have faith. They’ll be full of the sin of unbelief. Look at how verses 22–24 develop, as the aftermath of this shocking statement, and we’ll see Jesus bring exactly that matter of unbelief to light. Starting in verse 22, there, we see the beginning evidences of raw, worldly, hard-hearted unbelief. Verse 22 (after Jesus says he’s going away, and they’ll die in their sin)—

22 So the Jews said, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot


Do you see how carnal-minded they are in this? They don’t even bring up the weighty matter Jesus said—“you’re going to die in your sin, in judgment!”. They respond, “where is he going? Is he going to kill himself?” I heard one minister say at this point that the Jews at the time regarded suicide as an unpardonable sin. You kill yourself, you commit murder—and, you’re dead. There’s no opportunity to seek the Lord’s grace and mercy through ceremonial sacrifices and such after that. You die in sin. That’s what they’re concerned about. “Where is he going to go, that we can’t find him?”. They aren’t even concerned about Jesus’s statement about their death and their sin. That’s unbelief—it’s absolutely calloused toward Jesus’s warnings. “Where’s he going?”. Keep reading, verse 23— 

23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not
of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins [ah, interesting, now we’re talking
about “sins” plural], for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”


Do you see what this is all about? Do you see what Jesus is drawing our attention to, here? “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins [plural]”. Another way to say that, “if you don’t believe in me, if you commit the sin [singular] of unbelief, you will die in all of your sins”. On the flipside, “if you do believe in me, and not commit that one sin of unbelief, then all of your sins will be covered and you won’t die in them.” Do you see how he’s singling out the power of faith, here? 

Belief, and Our Ball of Sin
Folks, this is a watershed statement. If you believe in Jesus—if you believe, as Jesus says that “I am he”, then you will not die in any of your sins. But if you don’t believe, you will die in all your sins. Do you believe that? Have you taken to heart the power and wonder of simply believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be? We’ve already seen a hint at the power of belief in John’s gospel, and I know you know the verse I’m referring to. It’s in chapter 3. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish [should not die in their sins] but have eternal life”.

Folks, this is something we take for granted all the time—but, it really is shocking. Belief—that’s it—belief in Jesus is the difference between dying in your sins, under God’s wrath for all eternity—and not dying in your sins. Pick any sin you’ve committed this week, last week, or the week prior. Consider the worst sin you’ve ever committed against God—and folks, even unbelief counts in this category. Consider all of it, and package it all into a ball of sin. It’s conferring to you guilt, judgement, God’s wrath. It’s saying to you that you will perish before God, for all eternity. It’s saying to you that you’ll end up like that rich man I referenced earlier, who begged for a drop of water for a moment of mercy and relief in the fires of hades. You acquired that ball on your own. You created that ball, it’s yours—and, no sane person would ever receive it if you sought to give it away. You can’t do away with it, you can’t undo those sins. You could try to do a whole bunch of good works—but, then you simply have a ball of good works in one hand, and you still have that ball of sin and God’s judgment before God in your other hand. You’re going to die with it, bring it to the grave, and so long as you have it, you’re going to the flames. What does Jesus say? “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins”. That’s called a gospel warning. It’s true, but so is the reverse folks. If you believe in him, you won’t die with that ball of sins. It’ll be gone, done away with, every last sin you’ve ever committed. Through belief—through receiving Jesus—we are positionally united into Jesus’s death and resurrection. We’re united into his atoning death, and his victorious resurrection unto life. He takes our ball of sins, our sinful nature, and he brings it to the grave where God’s wrath is satisfied, and he comes out with new life for all who believe in him. That’s the power of faith and belief. That should shock you, that a holy and self-sufficient, righteous God would be so inclined to work that way with his sinful creatures. “Unless you believe I am he”, Jesus says.

The Object of our Belief: “I Am He”
By the way, what does Jesus mean by that? “I am he”—that’s the content that faith must believe, that (quote) “I am he”. What does he mean by that? It’s a broad statement, isn’t it? If someone came up to my door and asked “are you Peder Kling?”, I would say “I am he”, or “I am. Yes, that’s me”. But, what would you be wondering about in that moment? “What part of Peder Kling are you referring to? Are you seeking for the Pastor Peder Kling, and you need a prayer? Are you seeking the Peder Kling who is a father, and you have a question about my kids? Are you seeking the Peder Kling who is a tax payer, and you have questions about my taxes? Are you seeking the Peder Kling who is a voter, and you’re trying to give me some promotional material?” When we’re talking about a person, we’re talking about a lot of nuances, folks.

That’s what we’re talking about in this passage. Jesus is saying we must believe (quote) “I am he”—and, there’s a rich context to that statement. At this feast, for example, Jesus has claimed that he is equal with the heavenly Father, and sent by the heavenly Father. “I am he”, Jesus says. Jesus has also claimed to be the fulfillment of this feast, which happens to be a feast which celebrates the Exodus. So, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Exodus—he’s the water that satisfied God’s people in the desert. He’s the light that led the people in the wilderness. “I am he”, Jesus says. He satisfies you as water in the desert. He guides you as light in darkness. You’ll die in your sins if you reject that.

Although, there’s even more to this statement. In the Greek, Jesus says very simply that “unless you believe that ego eimi (i.e., “I AM”), you will die in your sins”. There’s all kinds of debate about whether this is a reference to Jesus being God speaking to Moses in the burning bush. I think it’s conceivable—Jesus certainly goes there in verse 58 at the end of this chapter.

I’m more inclined to think, however, that Jesus is making a reference to the many passages in Isaiah when God speaks this way concerning himself as the Savior of his people. Let me just give you a sampling of this—it’s beautiful, folks. God declares to his people—

Isa 41:4 Who has performed and done this [work of salvation],

calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the LORD, the first,
and with the last; I am he.

Isa 43:10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD…

that you may know and believe me [hear the emphasis on belief?]
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.

Isa 43:13 Also henceforth I am he;

there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”


So, in all these, we see God saying “I am he”—he’s the God who delivers. He’s the God whose purposes and salvation cannot be thwarted. He’s the God who reveals himself to be believed upon, that we might know that (quote) “I am he”. Then, get this—

Isa 43:25    “I, I am he

who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.


If you don’t believe this, you will die in your sins.

Isa 46:4 even to your old age I am he,

and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.


He’ll save you, he’ll carry you, he’ll protect you, he’ll defend you—“I am he”, God says. That’s what Jesus says in our passage. “Unless you believe that I am he”—he who offers all these powerful blessings—“you will die in your sins”. It’s exactly what God says of himself in Isaiah. 

What is Jesus saying, in our passage? He’s saying that he’s God, he has the power of God to forgive sins and protect and give life and blessing—and if you don’t believe it, you’re in big trouble. 

Folks, doesn’t this sound wonderful? He is such a merciful, mighty God. All our sin, our anxieties, our troubles, our enemies—they’re all taken care of if we would simply believe in Jesus and what he says. It is wonderful. 

The World, and the Jews, Seek…
It’s something to seek, is it not? Folks, this is what the Jews were seeking. They were seeking God’s protection, forgiveness, peace, comfort. These are things all humanity seeks, period. They are good, even necessary things for human flourishing. However, what the Jews and what the rest of the unbelieving world miss is that Jesus alone can satisfy these needs. God made us with these needs, these longings, and he made us so that only Jesus can fulfill them.

C. S. Lewis puts it this way, that “there have been times when I think we do not desire heaven [or, perhaps “Jesus”], but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else…it is the secret signature of each soul, the… unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, , and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work… all your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness.”

Lewis, there, is speaking about heaven—about eternal glory with Jesus. We long for it, we seek it. Lewis says “I find myself wondering whether… we have ever desired anything else” except heaven, except Jesus. Underneath all of our wrong and sinful desires are fundamental desires and needs that only Jesus can meet—pleasure, security, comfort, joy, forgiveness. We seek these things in all the wrong places, and Jesus has come to be sought and found, by faith. “This is eternal life, to know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”, Jesus says in John 17. I other words—“I am he”. Seek no further.

And yes, this is where we circle back to the big question we opened up earlier.

What did Jesus mean in verse 21, when he said to the Jews “am going away, and you will seek me,and you will die in  your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Is it possible to seek Jesus, and not find him, and actually die in your sin?

Again, Jesus intentionally singles out one sin in that verse. When Jesus goes away, when he dies and ascends to glory, the Jews will seek him, but they will die in their sin of unbelief. It’s a terrifying thought. Specifically in speaking to these Jews, Jesus was saying that they would continue to seek for him—meaning, for the Messiah who would offer all these blessings of forgiveness and protection—but they won’t find such a Messiah. He came, he went away, and they didn’t believe in him, and they still seek to this day.

They must seek, no? They’re seeking forgiveness. They’re seeking peace, comfort, protection, hope. It’s what the whole world is seeking. that’s what Jesus says in verse 24, “You are from below” (i.e., “your worldly! Your of the world!”). Folks, the worldwide search for happiness and forgiveness and protection is not a secret. It’s what drives economies. It’s what drives wars. It’s what fuels people in their vocations—they work to be accepted, to find security and happiness. This is what drives people to bitterness and depression, when they can’t find forgiveness. This is what’s fueling the massive demand in America’s pharmaceutical companies. We’re searching for happiness. We’re searching for a Messiah in all the wrong places—and God is saying, here in this passage, that you won’t find any of it if you don’t believe Jesus when he says “I am he”.

This isn’t a matter of intellectual, theological ascent. We’re talking about handing over our guilt, our shame, our anxieties, our discomforts, our insecurities, our trials, our jobs, and our joy—all of it into Jesus’s sovereign and gracious and just and abundant purposes. “I am he”, he says.

So, we considered what Jesus means by his statement in verse 21. Jesus is going away—he’s going to the cross, and then to glory, and the Jews who are seeking a Messiah will not be able to find their Messiah because they rejected the only Messiah God gave them. They did not believe in him, in Jesus. So, they are left to die in their sins as they seek forgiveness and protection and life through a false and empty hope, just like the rest of the world.

Jesus says “I am he”—he’s God, he’s the Messiah, who offers eternal life now and forevermore. That’s the claim he makes. Now, the obvious question is “what right does he have to make that claim? Who are you to say such a thing?” That’s where the rest of our passage goes.

“I Am He” — Wait, “Who Are You?” (Verses 25–29)
Look at verse 25, where we see how the Jews reacted to all this.

25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you
from the beginning.


Don’t you love that? The Jews have reached an impasse, a gridlock, with Jesus. Throughout this entire conversation at this feast of booths, Jesus has been making wild claims concerning his identity—that he literally fulfills the feast of booths—and then the Jews keep coming back with “who are you to say this? what’s your authority?”. Jesus keeps coming back with, essentially “I am he”. He keeps coming back with “I and my Father testify to my words”—and, then he makes another wild claim (a claim like “unless you believe I am he you’ll die in your sins”). Then, again, the Jews circle back to the same question, “who are you?”. That’s where we’re at, again.

This time, Jesus simply answers “just what I have been telling you from the beginning”. That’s an awesome statement, right there. What “beginning” is Jesus referring to? He says “I am who I’ve been telling you I am from the beginning”—what beginning? Are we talking about the beginning of the feast of booths? Are we talking about the beginning of his public ministry? Are we talking about when he was a little boy in the temple, astounding everyone with his wisdom at age. Remember that, in Luke 2? “all who heard [twelve year old Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers”, and when his parents found him Jesus said “did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). He was talking about his heavenly father even then.

What beginning is Jesus referring to? “I’m who I’ve been telling you from the beginning”. Don’t forget that he’s literally claiming equality with God. It makes me wonder (and, I say this fairly open- handed) if Jesus isn’t alluding to what he’s been saying to the Jewish people literally “from the beginning”, through the prophets, through Moses. He’s God, he’s the Messiah, he’s the ultimate judge and authority and arbiter of truth and salvation.

Jesus goes on to say,

26 I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare
to the world what I have heard from him.”


So, Jesus is alluding to the fact that he is from God the Father, sent by God, and he’s declaring God’s words to the world as the Messiah.

Don’t you think all of this would have been enough for them to understand what Jesus was saying? From our perspective, folks, it’s crystal-clear. We have the whole of the Old and New Testament revelation to work with. We have the fact of Jesus’s death and resurrection to consider, and see what Jesus is referring to. “Ah, yeah, when he says ‘I’m going away’, he’s referring to the cross and resurrection. I got that. And of course, he’s the judge, he speaks truth. He’s sent from the heavenly Father, from God, it all makes sense”. Perhaps the Jews should have understood this, perhaps not. What’s clear is they were carnal-minded, and hard-hearted toward Jesus, and Jesus was ultimately in control. Keep reading, there in verse 27—

27 They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father.

In other words, these Jews were completely lost. They had no idea what Jesus was saying, except that he was making shocking claims and speaking with a level of authority which drew in the masses. They were confused, but as we see in the next verse, Jesus sovereign control ruled the day. Verse


28 So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I
am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. 29
And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are
pleasing to him.”


Have you ever heard the phrase “proof is in the pudding”, or “put your money where your mouth is”? We like to see people make good on their word, don’t we? In fact, sometimes when they do make good on their word, we’ll say “ah, now I know what you mean, it all makes sense now”. It’s like when a teenage genius proposes an idea to his mother on how to become a millionare, and his mom says in confusion “ok, have at it, good luck, I’m glad your confident”. Five years later, after watching little Billy become big bucks Bill, mom says “ah, now I see what you meant”.

Jesus is saying that he will go away according to the Father’s will, and when he does, Jesus says there in verse 28, “you will know that I am he”. Do you see that? “I am he”—and you’ll know it. When? Not just “when I go away”, generically. Jesus is speaking more specifically than that. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man”. That’s his Babe Ruth moment, calling his homer in center field. He called the impossible before he did it—and when all would be said and done, “then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority… that I always do the things that are pleasing to him”.

Folks, this is downright amazing. Jesus is calling every shot. He’s calling who will believe upon him when. He’s calling how he’s going to go away and be glorified—“when you have lifted up the Son of Man” on the cross. He’s literally saying that it’s all going to happen in accordance with his Father’s plan.

The cross is where the faith ultimately stands or falls, folks. He said he’d be going to the cross, to die for the sins of his people. He said he’d do it. So the question is, did he do it, and what does that mean about him? Before the cross, folks, the Jews had all kinds of reasons to doubt Jesus. Not good reasons, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Then, the cross happens, just as he said would happen. Then, he rises from the dead, just as he said would happen. What do you do with that? Jesus says “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he…”.

Just so we’re clear, Jesus isn’t referring to all the Jews he’s speaking to. Not all of them will believe. One minister says about this, and I think he’s right, “By this [statement] John is not saying that all of Jesus’s opponents will be converted in the wake of the cross. But if they do come to know who Jesus, they will know it most surely because of the cross. And even those who do not believe stand at the last day condemned by him whom they ‘lifted up’ on the cross, blinded to the glory that shone around them, yet one day forced to kneel and confess that Jesus is Lord.”

The cross happened, folks. Jesus is risen on the cross, and he’s ultimately risen to glory. He made good on his word. Will you believe it, so that you might not die in your sins? He’s offering his grace freely to all who seek him by faith. Now is the day of salvation—let us repent and believe, for Jesus says “I am he”.

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