by Mark Horne
The desire for status can be a huge temptation.
Lacking status in the eyes of other people, or at least thinking you lack such status, can be a horrible feeling. If you’ve ever been to a meeting where you didn’t know anyone but everyone knows each other and greets each other warmly but ignores you, then you know what powerful emotions can result from the perception that you have no status, no standing.
And when you go to such a meeting, you have to psyche yourself up to do what needs to be done in order to achieve standing in the sight of the people there. You can go to a Bible conference or seminar in our own denomination and it is very likely you will face this challenge unless you happen to be really well known. People will greet each other as old friends and no one will have time to look at you. It happens all the time.
There is a Greek myth about a handsome man named Narcissus who stared at his reflection in a pool until he died because he was so entranced with his own appearance that he didn’t care about food or sleep. Because of that myth we still use the term “Narcissistic” to describe someone who is incredibly selfish–who adores himself.
But the fact is that, in real life, Narcissists don’t go off by themselves to admire themselves. Even selfish people want admiration from other people. They may expect too much and show they don’t care about other peoples’ feelings, but they still gain their status from other people. They either expect recognition, acceptance, and/or admiration from others, or else they maintain their own sense of status by denying it to others and mistreating them as if they were worthless.
People want status and they get it, or try to get it, from their relationships. Often a young man or woman will crave the attention of some popular person in school, not because he actually likes that person but simply because that person’s social acceptance entails a sudden rise in status among his classmates.
That quest for status is often idolatrous, but even at it’s worst it reflects something fundamental about us as human beings. We are alienated from God. We have no status with him. Of ourselves, we are estranged from him. We are on the outs with him.
WE NEED RIGHTEOUSNESS BEFORE GOD
Our need for status ultimately has to do with a need for status from God. We hunger for acceptance because we were created to be acceptable to him but we’re not anymore.
Now that need for standing with God is another way of saying that we need to be found “righteous” before him. Yes, “righteousness” can refer to ethical uprightness but it can have other nuances as well. It can mean that one is accepted, so that one is rightly related to another and has status with that person.
This is what James tells us about Abraham when God reckoned him righteous in Genesis 15.6: “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,’–and he was called the friend of God” (James 2.23). Being counted as righteous means being reckoned as one of God’s friends. He accepts your company. You are all right by him.
For sinners to be justified, to be declared rightly related to God, is an amazing thing. Judged on our own merits, we more than deserve being alienated from God. We would, of ourselves, never have any standing with him. It is of his mercy that he somehow declares us righteous–that he gives us that status before him.
WHY WAS JESUS JUSTIFIED?
But why does our text declare that Jesus himself was justified by the Spirit? Jesus was God’s Son. Why did he need to be justified? Jesus was an eternal member of God’s own family, the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why would he need to be given that status by God?
By the way, your translations probably say that Jesus was “vindicated in the Spirit,” which is a fine translation except that it is not consistent with the way the Greek word is translated in the rest of the New Testament. If we are going to use the word, “vindicate” in our translations, then we need to do so consistently and speak of how “vindication is by faith.” If we use the word “justify” elsewhere, we should do so here.
But again: why did Jesus need to be justified?
because jesus was condemned
The answer is actually not that mysterious. Jesus needed to be justified because Jesus was condemned. “Condemn” means exactly the opposite of “justify.” Think of a court of law where a defendant is being tried for murder. The prosecutor will speak on behalf of “the people.” By virtue of his office his case will be “the people’s case.” When he rests his case, he will tell the judge, “The people rest, Your Honor.”
And so, if the jury finds him guilty, he will no longer have the standing he once did in his society. He will no longer have the status of a full citizen with rights. Rather, he will be a prisoner for a time with severely limited rights. He won’t be a full member of the society. He will be alienated. He will no longer have status in the eyes of “the people”–represented by the judicial system.
On the other hand, if he is declared “not guilty”–declared righteous, in effect–by the jury, his status will be affirmed. Our country claims that one is innocent before the law until proven guilty, but the fact is that in most cultures historically it is recognized that being hauled before a judge gives you a questionable status in society. You want the judge (or, in our case sometimes, jury) to give you a new status and you don’t want to leave the courtroom without it. You want to be vindicated before the law and declared to be innocent so that you can enjoy the standing you had before you were accused.
Now, it is not an accident that our gospels all climax in a courtroom. Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate as a condemned prisoner already. He is bound and has been beaten. Because the local leaders who did this don’t have the authority to inflict the death penalty they have come to Pilate, as the representative of the Roman Empire, to get him to condemn Jesus to the ultimate penalty, death by the torture of the cross.
In many ways, this is shown to us readers to be an amazing miscarriage of justice. Jesus is not guilty of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, Pilate sentences Jesus to die and God even indicates that he back’s Pilate’s sentence. Jesus himself confesses it with his own lips by crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus needed justification because Jesus was under condemnation. Even in the grave his official condemnation was evident to all because his grave was sealed with a Roman seal. Even in death he was not permitted that basic care that was ordinarily given to the deceased by those who loved them. He was condemned.
because we were condemned
The reason Jesus was condemned, not only by his enemies, but by his own Father, had nothing to do with his own sin. He was innocent. He was guiltless. He never did anything to jeopardize his status before the Father but rather trusted him faithfully to the very end.
The reason Jesus was condemned was because of his people’s sins. In the Bible, people can suffer because their leaders sin and leaders can suffer because their people sin. Once, when King David sinned, his nation was plagued by God.
Jesus was David’s descendant and the rightful king of Israel, but he never did anything to cause them to suffer. He was Israel’s representative. He spent his life trying to get Israel to repent, but then he was the one who was condemned to judgment. He died as Israel’s king suffering because of his people’s own sin. He was condemned, not Israel.
And furthermore, Israel’s king was the king of the whole world. God had chosen Israel back from the time of Abraham to be a light to the nations and bring them deliverance from condemnation. The prophets promised Israel when she lost her independent throne that God would again establish her king and that all the nations would eventually recognize his authority over them. Incidentally, the New Testament Church was quite confident that these prophecies were fulfilled in the preaching of the Gospel, resulting in masses of Gentiles as well as Jews submitting to Jesus as Lord. When Jesus suffered condemnation he suffered it as the embodiment of the whole human race. He was stripped of his status as righteous in God’s sight because humanity had no such status, even though he personally was righteous and faithful from beginning to end.
AS JESUS WAS CONDEMNED IN HIS DEATH; HE WAS JUSTIFIED BY NEW LIFE
Three days after Jesus died in condemnation, the Bible teaches us from multiple witnesses that he was raised to a new more glorious life. In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul states emphatically that the Spirit of God was the one who raised Jesus from the grave.
That deliverance from death and exaltation to life and even to his right hand was God’s justification of Jesus. Jesus, who by right should have always been able to stand before His Father, gave up that status in order for God to give it back to him in a public declaration that he was the faithful righteous son of his Father. And he went through the condemnation and alienation because he knew that his people needed that status of righteous in God’s sight to end their condemnation.
Jesus was not justified for himself alone. His righteousness counts to all who belong to him. His vindication is our salvation. What does the Apostle Paul say? Romans 8.1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are IN Christ Jesus.” If we belong to Christ by faith, he tells the Galatians, then we have already crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. What happened to Jesus counts for us. His cross and resurrection are counted as our past history.
We have standing with God because we are in, and belong to, Jesus—who has standing before God. We are no longer condemned. We are no longer alienated. Jesus went into the courtroom ahead of us and attained a verdict that would have been very different had God dealt with us as we deserved.
Now there are many implications of all this. Let’s mention some.
First of all, we all have been taught that justification is a legal declaration. But it is hard to understand how our belief corresponds to a declaration on God’s part that we can’t hear or experience. Perhaps understanding how Jesus was justified will help. When we are marked out by God by the gift of faith we are joined to Christ by that faith. At that point, the verdict God declared about Jesus applies to us because we belong to Jesus. The declared verdict was almost two thousand years ago. We share that status when we share in Christ by faith.
God tells us in many ways that we belong to Jesus: By arranging providence so that we are baptized into his Kingdom; by showing us we are his family in feeding us at his table in the Lord’s Supper as a Father feeds his children; by enabling us through the power of the Holy Spirit to declare that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead; by summoning us to corporate worship as his army under his command and care; and by many other means.
Let all those things give you confidence in knowing that Christ’s status as acceptable to the Father—as a friend of God’s much more than Abraham was—is yours as well. Your sins are already dealt with so God now forgives them freely for the sake of Christ. He took your curse and condemnation and God receives you as having the status of his own beloved son.
Secondly, this might help us understand that, even though we have, in substance, our entire salvation in Jesus Christ, we really are still waiting for it to be revealed. Right now, we look and feel like the wicked around us. We too get cancer and deal with old age, and have our children get sick, and struggle with finances, just like all the unbelievers around us. We too are under the general curse that was imposed on the sinful human race.
But one day, we will experience for ourselves the declaration that we are righteous in God’s sight through Jesus our Lord in a new way. Just as Jesus was declared righteous—justified—in his resurrection, so in our resurrection we too will be personally justified. That’s why now justification is by faith. We must believe that we have status with God as his friends even though we don’t see much difference between how we are treated and how God treats his enemies. But then we will see with our own eyes as we are reborn from the grave in the image and glory of the resurrected Jesus Christ our Lord!
Thirdly, if we understand that we have this status and yet God has not seen fit to yet reveal it as he will at the Final Judgment–that last courtroom scene which will end human history–then we might be able to understand some of the frustration we feel. Living by faith means living by hope for what we do not yet see. And, as Paul writes in Romans 8.25, “if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” If you are dissatisfied with your present life, maybe you should not be discouraged by that fact, but realize that the reason you are dissatisfied is that God has promised to bring you into something better–something you will not just hope in or trust him for, but that you will actually experience for yourself. Your resurrection in glory, when you see Jesus face to face and reflect his image as a mirror, will be God’s public declaration that he accepts you. You have status with him and you will see it then with your own transfigured eyes.
Finally, among many other things we could say, know for certain that all the status the world has to offer is worth less than nothing in comparison to the friendship with God and adoption into his family that is given in the Gospel. If you are excluded from your classmates or even your own family, for the cause of Christ, that is nothing in comparison to the glory into which he welcomes you. Don’t be seduced by the allurements of acceptability in the world.
Let God’s regard for you, the status he gives you, satisfy that craving we all have for acceptance in the eyes of others.
Let me close with some of what I think are the most challenging words written in the Bible. Listen to this as a charge to you in how you ought to value the status that Jesus Christ won for you by being condemned in order to be justified for your sakes. Romans 2.28 & 29:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.