'Whoever Confesses Me Before Men . . .'
By: Rubel Shelly

Jesus was not well-received by his own people in his time on Earth. How is that for understatement? And he told the people who committed themselves to follow him that they could expect the same sort of rude and hostile reaction he got. He was brutally honest and warned that some would be persecuted, others dragged into court, and some die for their commitment to him. The language is incredibly direct. But he didn’t want anyone following him with false expectations.

"Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Be as wary as snakes and harmless as doves. But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and beaten in the synagogues. And you must stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. This will be your opportunity to tell them about me – yes, to witness to the world. . . .

"A student is not greater than the teacher. A servant is not greater than the master. The student shares the teacher's fate. The servant shares the master's fate. And since I, the master of the household, have been called the prince of demons, how much more will it happen to you, the members of the household! But don't be afraid of those who threaten you. . . .

"Don't be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Not even a sparrow, worth only half a penny, can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are more valuable to him than a whole flock of sparrows.

"If anyone acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will openly acknowledge that person before my Father in heaven. But if anyone denies me here on earth, I will deny that person before my Father in heaven.

"Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! No, I came to bring a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household! If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for me, you will find it (Matt. 10:16-39 NLT).
Everything he predicted for those who believed in him took their stand with him came true for those original disciples. Some, of course, never confessed Jesus as Messiah and Son of God because of their fear of what could happen. From events in the final week of Jesus’ life among humankind, John writes: “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:42-43). Others who initially confessed him got weak in the knees and either fled or denied him – even the Twelve. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death have only a group of faithful women willing to stand at the cross with the dying Son of Man!

Then comes Pentecost Day. The arrival of the Holy Spirit. And the preaching of salvation, healing, and hope in the name of Jesus. It wasn’t long before now-emboldened, now-empowered Peter was challenged and dragged before the Sanhedrin. “By what power of what name did you do this?” they demanded to know. “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth!” answered Simon Peter. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10a,12). It isn’t difficult for me to picture the Risen Christ turning to his Father and saying, “That bold man who has just confessed me before his opponents is one of ours! He is one of those for whom I died. He is redeemed and holy to us. That is the new Simon Peter!”

Two chapters later in Acts of the Apostles, a man named Stephen is confessing the name of Jesus before the Hellenists of Jerusalem. For his trouble, he was eventually stoned to death and became the first Christian martyr known to us. But he died still confessing Christ before men. The last words that came from his mouth before he died were these: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. . . . Lord, do not hold this sin against [my murderers]” (Acts 7:54-60).

Countless stories of this sort are told across the ages. In the middle of the second century, a godly old man named Polycarp was burned at the stake rather than deny the Christ whose name he continued to confess with the last breaths he drew.[1] In 1536, William Tyndale – who had been imprisoned for the previous eighteen months in Brussels, Belgium – was taken from his cell, strangled to death, and his body burned; his crime had been to translate the New Testament into “plowman’s English.” In the late 1960s, Chiu-Chin-Hsiu and Ho-Hsie-Tzu were two teen-aged girls among the thousands who died in a pogrom under China’s Red Guard; their crime against the state was to be Christians who refused to renounce their faith. In 1999, on the island of Ambon, Indonesia, Roy Pontoh stood before a Muslim mob that screamed, “Renounce your Jesus, or we will kill you!”; the fifteen-year-old boy was murdered when he answered, “I am a soldier of Christ!”[2] In that same year, Cassie Bernall was murdered in Littleton, Colorado, for saying she believed in God.

These things still happen in our world. When one of us identifies herself as a Christian or confesses his faith in Jesus, our relatives usually congratulate us. Our church family celebrates the event. And our government neither registers us as a suspicious person nor persecutes us for believing in Jesus. Such is not the case everywhere! I have personally met and talked with people who been persecuted for their faith in the former Soviet Union, Poland, and Ukraine. I have been in the apartment of Father Vaclav Maly in Prague – a man arrested and persecuted for preaching Jesus publicly in that city before the Velvet Revolution that ousted the Communist Party from power in what is now the Czech Republic. I have met refugees who have fled Sudan, Cuba, Iran, and other countries – fleeing not because of political partisanship but Christian faith. We have members of our own church family who know the stories of property confiscation, personal abuse, and deaths of Christians in countries they once called home.

So what does this passage about confessing Christ Jesus before men mean to us? First, it certainly includes the initial confession of faith that all who come to Christ for salvation make with our mouths. Paul writes: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Rom. 10:9-10).

Early Christians associated this oral confession that “Jesus is Lord” – Master, Son of God, Sovereign – with baptism from the most primitive days of the church. If you have a King James Version of the Bible, you will find a formula for the baptismal confession of Christ that was inserted into the text of the New Testament by some zealous copyist. It is inserted into the Book of Acts where the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian is being related by Dr. Luke. After Philip preached Jesus to the man from the Isaiah scroll he had been reading when they met, the Ethiopian saw and pointed to a body of water they were passing. “Look, here is water!” he said. “Why shouldn't I be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Our oldest and best manuscripts follow immediately with these words: “And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:38).

Our best manuscripts don’t have what appears as verse 37 in the King James Version: “Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may. The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ ” The oldest Greek manuscript we have which contains that confession is from the sixth century. Yet Christians writings older than that copy of Acts reflect the fact that an oral confession of faith was made when people were baptized into Christ. Something of the sort certainly should be said not only for the sake of the person being immersed but also as a teaching opportunity for others who witness it. For a variety of reasons, the majority of the baptisms we do here go unwitnessed by the larger body of the church. There’s nothing “wrong” with that, but I certainly like the public oral witness baptism gives to Jesus.

From Romans 6, we immediately see that baptism itself is a confession of the saving work of Christ. A person deaf to the oral confession of faith or standing off at a distance where she could not hear would still have the death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God declared under a visible symbol by seeing a baptism. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

But, second, we confess Christ before others by our authentic apprenticeship to him. By our Christ-like actions. By a Spirit-transformed heart, vocabulary, and lifestyle. It is this second point which is at issue for Paul in Romans 6. He isn’t trying to define baptism. Isn’t concerned to lay out a verbal statement appropriate to its administration. He is reminding some Christians in the capital city of the empire that their lives actually say more about their faith than their words.

So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we've left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn't you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace – a new life in a new land!

That's what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-sovereign country. . . . From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did.

That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don't give it the time of day. Don't even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time – remember, you've been raised from the dead! – into God's way of doing things. Sin can't tell you how to live. After all, you're not living under that old tyranny any longer. You're living in the freedom of God” (Rom. 6:1-5,11-14 MSG).
Baptism is not a “sacrament” – that is, a sacred act that imparts grace of itself. Baptism is – like the Lord’s Supper that baptized persons eat together – a participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It is not simply a memorial to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. It is participation – we confess Christ, claim his righteousness over against our unrighteousness, and proclaim our intention to walk his path instead of ours. I like The Message here – “If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection.” Let me read verses 11-14 one more time for emphasis:

From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did. That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don't give it the time of day. Don't even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time – remember, you've been raised from the dead! – into God's way of doing things. Sin can't tell you how to live. After all, you're not living under that old tyranny any longer. You're living in the freedom of God.”
Some of the brothers and sisters at Rome were garbling their confession. They had confessed with their mouths, but their lives were giving mixed signals. Oh, what a danger that is to the church anywhere and in every generation! Remember Jesus on this point? “Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Or these words from John? “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:9-10).

The confession that means salvation for you and me is the one that comes authentically and naturally from our lips – because our hearts really have been captured by God. We are not “mouthing words” but revealing our true and innermost conviction. And our lives are progressively over time fleshing out what our hearts believe and our lips have confessed. Christ is Lord! And the old way of life is falling by the wayside as Christ is daily being formed in us.

So what is our proclamation today? Not “Well, it seems to us that . . .” or “We have some intuitive sense that . . .” but “Scripture teaches us that Jesus Christ is the Way, Truth, and Life who alone gives sinners access to the Father.” And our appeal to others? Not “Our church says this but yours something else” or “We are right and you are wrong” but “In our confession that Jesus is Lord, we are one at the foot of his cross.”

This is the question Jesus puts to us all: “Who do you say I am?” For those who reply to acknowledge their faith in him, his promise is that he will acknowledge us to the Father. “Father, I died for Myra! By the power of my blood shed at Calvary, I redeemed her for you!” Or, “Father, that one is named Rubel – forgiven for your sake and kept for you! Satan will bring charges against him and try to claim him for hell’s population, but he cannot be judged or condemned because I was judged and condemned in his place!”

Those are his confession words about us today. He will continue to acknowledge us as we confess him in our worship and in our workplaces, at school and in our homes, on vacation among strangers or at play with friends. And it will not be long now before we will hear him confessing our names to the Father on the Last Day. What a day that will be!

[1] Martyrdom of Polycarp. 7:1–9:3.
[2] These and similar stories of persecution and martyrdom may be found in works such as Susan Bergman, ed., Martyrs (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), and dc Talk, Jesus Freaks (Tulsa: Albury Publishing, 1999).