Believe in God, believe also in Me.
Here Christ gives the reason for His previous words, with which He has begun to encourage them to be of good cheer and unafraid. He says: “Do not be afraid and timid because I am about to depart from you physically and will leave you alone in the midst of the world and the devil’s power, which will oppress and vex you and inflict every evil upon you. No, face boldly and steadfastly whatever may confront you. As Christians you must not mourn and tremble; you are different from those who lack comfort and confidence in affliction, misfortune, and adversity. They do not believe, nor do they know God’s Word; but they place their trust in temporal things and attach their hearts only to what is present and visible. Whenever this vanishes, courage and trust vanish with it. Therefore when fortune changes into misfortune, they collapse and despair as though they were done for. Such people have no God and know and experience nothing of the comfort which can avail and conquer in the utmost need and distress, when everything temporal and transitory, to which they had hopefully looked, passes away.”
Christ declares: “You must not be like that; for you have God’s Word, through which you have learned to know Him and believe in Him. Therefore do not let any terror overwhelm and subdue you; but withstand boldly and manfully, and prove that you know a far different, surer, and higher comfort and support than all the world has, and greater strength and power on which you can rely than that of the world and the devil. Let others depend on their temporal power and fortune and boast of it; but you take comfort in this, that you have a God, that you know Him, and that you can rely on His presence and aid, as He has guaranteed to you in His Word. There He has promised that He will surely never fail you even though everything opposes you, but that He will stand at your side, protect and rescue you while you suffer all for His sake.
“Now if you believe in God and rely on Him, then believe also in Me. If your faith is true, so that you expect everything good from God, then expect this also from Me. Whatever help and consolation you seek and look for from God, expect it also from Me. I will surely not disappoint you, just as God Himself will not fail you. If I have aided you hitherto and supplied all your wants, if I have shown Myself with words and deeds as One in whom you find comfort and on whom you can boldly rely, if I have never left you in the lurch before—I will not do so in the future either. I will not desert you, even though I do not remain with you physically. For I still have the same power and might, both from God and together with God. Therefore I can and will keep My promise. But do not doubt and be dejected, as though you had lost both God and Me. No, stand firm in the faith, and do not let your confidence sink or flag, even though you see Me suffering and dying and leaving you behind alone. As you have witnessed and experienced physical assistance and protection from Me in the past, you must trust that these will be yours also in the future, even though they will no longer be visible to you. For if you are My disciples and true Christians, you must not always continue to see and feel external comfort; but you must progress in the Christian art of believing unwaveringly that I can and will help you, even though you neither see nor feel this but see and feel the opposite, namely, suffering and need. Even though everything else disappoints and fails you, you must cling to this comfort that you have God and Me.”
Here you see clearly that Christ says and testifies of Himself that He is equal to God Almighty, since He wants us to believe in Him as we believe in God. If He were not very God with the Father, then such belief would be false and idolatrous. For in no circumstances dare the human heart believe in or rely on anyone but the only God. All other trust and confidence is pure idolatry, as, for example, the trust that a rich man reposes in his wealth, when he becomes bold and proud in the knowledge of a treasure to support him. Another places his reliance in some good friend or a gracious prince and says to himself: “If all else fails, I still have this man as a friend.” Scripture also calls this “trust”;6 but it is trust in men and princes; it makes an idol of man by trusting in him, by becoming proud and smug, as though one had God and everything else and needed no more.
From such idolatry you see and learn that the two, reliance and God, belong together.7 That which affords the heart comfort and confidence is surely its god, even though it may be a false god. It is surely certain that nothing but an idol holds sway throughout the world—Christ calls him Mammon—until the day when the true, the only, “the great God” appears, as Paul calls Him in Titus 2:13. But at present everybody clings to the great idol. He who has him is proud and confident, interested in no one else. Thus all pride, reliance, and security must center in a god. If this is the true God, then the reliance is also true, and vice versa.
Now since we are Christians and not of the world, our confidence and trust must be reposed in God. This must be our position: “I am in this world, which, together with the devil, is hostile to me. My own conscience also stings and saddens me. Everything strives to frighten me and make me despair. What attitude must I assume under these conditions? This: When I see a rich belly relying on and believing in his idol, when I see him depending on his mammon if someone offends and molests him, convinced that he need not fear so long as he has this god—should I, then, not find much more comfort and confidence in my true and eternal God?”
Christ wants to admonish us to learn from the idolatrous world how to rely on the true God. Therefore just as we see how everyone relies on his mammon or on his prince against his neighbor, so let us place our reliance against the devil and his retinue on our Lord and God, saying: “I defy you to try your greatest terrors on me! After all, what terror and harm can you inflict? Don’t you know that I have a Lord mightier than you, a Lord who can give more of courage, comfort, and joy than you can inspire of fear and torment? If you are able to impoverish me, He has enough to enable Him to nourish me richly. If you can malign, disgrace, and kill me, He is able to restore my honor and to revive me.” Thus always be confident, and constantly remember: “Even if everything goes wrong, I still have God. Why should I fret about any adversity? He who will not laugh, let him frown. He who will not give, need not. Away with you and your pride, hatred, and envy! Go to the devil with your idol, and let me have my God!”
“Yes,” says the world together with its master, the devil, “I will seize you by the head, hurl you into a dungeon, inflict all sorts of torture, and kill you. Then let me see what good your God will be to you!” “Good and well, do what you must. What more can you do than torment and kill me? You cannot kill me oftener than God can revive me. No matter how much shame, harm, and grief you cause me, God can make thousandfold restitution and reimburse me with honor and goods.”
Behold, that is how a Christian should boldly rely, not on himself or on mammon, but on God. This is the meaning of the word of Christ spoken here: to believe in God and to face without fear whatever may oppose and confront us. For all the loss, Christ wants to say, that you can suffer on earth is, of course, insignificant compared with the gain and the advantages that are yours through faith. You have a Master and God who can compensate you a hundredfold for every gulden they take from you. If they deprive you of your honor, reputation, life, etc., He can restore everything richly, and for the brief life which you must surrender anyway He can give you another life, imperishable and eternal, which no one can touch or take from you. It makes sense to ignore this slight loss, in view of the great gain that is ours from God. For in Him we have eternal life, riches, power, and honor to offset the beggarly lot which earth affords us and which, in the end, must be left behind. Many hundreds of thousands have already departed this life without taking a shred with them and have gone down into the abyss of hell with their idol, on whom they had relied so firmly. We have nothing on earth on which we place our reliance. And they do not shrink from taking our life and inflicting all sorts of knavery if they can. How long does our life endure at best? It lasts as long as a dance to High Mass.8 Then things will change; and God, in whom we believed, will pronounce this judgment: “You were plagued and dishonored, but I will honor you eternally. And a thousand angels shall be your friends, yes, your servants, for every proud and evil peasant who hated you.”
Thus you see what it means to believe in God, namely, to cultivate a heart that grows strong and fearless in the face of all that devil and world may marshal against you—poverty, misfortune, disgrace, and even sin. A Christian must be able to disdain all that the world possesses, both its good and its evil, as well as everything with which the devil can lure and entice or intimidate and threaten. Singlehandedly he must set himself against all power and become a knight and a hero who defeats and vanquishes all.
Christ says: “If you have such confidence in God, then you must also have the same confidence and trust in Me.” Thus He makes Himself, as already stated,9 equal with God and demands the very same measure of honor that is God’s due. Not that He adds another god to the one God; no, He wants to point out here that He is about to establish His kingdom on earth, that He is leaving them to assume His real office and reign. It is as if He were saying: “Now I am looked upon as a poor, wretched, powerless man here on earth (that is how Pilate, Talking, and the chief priests viewed Him at that time). But when I ascend into heaven, I shall draw the hearts of all men to Me—this He tells us elsewhere (John 12:32)—so that they will accept Me as their comfort, their reliance, their trust, and their all. Then you will realize what you possess in Me. For I will manifest Myself as one in whom you do not place your confidence in vain and as one in whom you believe as truly as you believe in God.”
Why, then, does Christ elevate Himself to the level of God? Is He divesting the true God of His honor and usurping it for Himself? Not at all. His doctrine, proclaimed particularly and consistently in the Gospel of St. John, shows us where we must properly place our reliance, lest we fail to encounter the true God. For that is what all the Turks, Jews, schismatics, and heretics do. They retire into some corner and give themselves over to their own reflections on ways and means of serving and pleasing God. They exert themselves strenuously, do much for the sake of God, give up their mammon, and willingly suffer disgrace, shame, and misery. Some let themselves be tortured and killed, just as true Christians do. And this is not surprising. Just think of the foolish soldiers nowadays, who expose life and limb to spears and muskets for the sake of their pay. A merchant courts death on the highway daily, from footpads and murderers. In like manner, a pious citizen or nobleman exposes himself to jeopardy daily, for himself or for his prince and master.
All this is motivated by temporal gain. These people, however, do much more for the sake of God. It is natural for those who trust God to risk money and goods and even their life, and, if need be, to surrender these. In times past we did the same thing in our false reliance on the saints and our idolatrous worship of them. Did we not give St. Lawrence and other saints more than we gave God Himself? How much people sacrificed for St. Anne, although it is not certain whether such a person ever existed!10 How many monks we supported for the sake of St. Francis, whereas today people will not provide for one priest for the sake of God! These were our gods, in whom we trusted. And everybody assumed that God should agree with us and also think: “Look at these people! They call upon St. Anne and St. Francis! What saintly children they are!” All Jews, Turks, and other mad saints of their ilk suppose that God respects their worship. When they honor their Mohammed or someone else, they imagine that God has to regard them as great saints. A monk, too, assumes that God has to look with favor upon his observance of his monastic rules and view this as a special and excellent service. Where do such ideas come from? All these people derive their notions about God not from God but from the very devil and from their own heads. For where did God ever bear such witness to Himself? Where did He ever proclaim that He was thus disposed and that He wanted to be served as they assume?
But that is the way of human reason. When it hears the name of God and the demand to rely on Him, it is so mad that it proceeds forthwith to fashion its own ways of dealing with God, and its own rules. For example, when a monk hears that he must trust in God, he applies this to his monastic rules and thinks to himself: “In this way I will serve God. This monastic order will be pleasing to Him.”
Since the concept of trust in God and service to God must suffer violation and is expanded to such lengths—everyone stretching it to fit his own thoughts, the one interpreting it in this manner, the other in another way—therefore God designated a special place for Himself where He wants to be found, and identified Himself with a definite Person, so that it is impossible not to be aware of Him. And this Person is none other than Christ Himself, in whom “the whole fullness of Deity dwells bodily,” as St. Paul declares in Col. 2:9.11 Thus God is to be found nowhere but in this Person.
Therefore Christ wants to say here: “You have heard that you must trust in God; but I want to show you furthermore where you will truly find Him, lest your thoughts create an idol bearing the name of God. This means: If you want to believe in God, then believe in Me. If you want to apply your faith and your confidence properly, that it may not be amiss or false, then direct it toward Me; for in Me the entire Godhead dwells perfectly.” And as Christ declares later (John 14:6, 9): “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He who has seen Me has seen the Father. He who hears Me hears the Father. Therefore if you want to be sure to meet God, take hold of Him in Me and through Me. If you have Me, you surely have Him also, as the Father Himself testifies of Me.” Repeatedly in the Gospels Christ declares that He was sent by the Father. He says and does nothing of His own accord, but states that it is the Father’s order and command to all the world to believe Christ as God Himself. Thus no one dare adopt another person or another means to apprehend God than this one Christ. He assures us that if we rely on Him, we will not encounter an idol, as the others do who resort to other ways to deal with God. For God has portrayed Himself definitely and clearly enough in the Word. Therefore it is certain that he who bypasses the Person of Christ never finds the true God; for since God is fully in Christ, where He places Himself for us, no effort to deal with God without and apart from Christ on the strength of human thoughts and devotion will be successful.
Whoever would travel the right road and not go astray with his faith, let him begin where God says and where He wants to be found. Otherwise he will surely miss the goal, and all that he believes and does will prove vain. Like those who occupy themselves with great and arduous tasks in an effort to attain God’s grace, the only thing he accomplishes is miserable self-deception. I myself was a monk for twenty years. I tortured myself with prayers, fasting, vigils, and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me.12 It caused me pain such as I will never inflict on myself again, even if I could. What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry. For I did not believe in Christ; I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge, portrayed as seated on a rainbow.13 Therefore I cast about for other intercessors, Mary and various other saints, also my own works and the merits of my order. And I did all this for the sake of God, not for money or goods. Nevertheless, this was heresy and idolatry, since I did not know Christ and did not seek in and through Him what I wanted.
The same thing was done by the Jews, whom God had forbidden so often and so strictly to establish any worship on the mountains, in the valleys, meadows, or green forests. In brief, no place was to be so appealing and inviting to them that they might say: “Oh, this would be an excellent place to erect a church and to institute divine services!” “No, you are to seek and find Me where I have placed Myself, namely, at the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant.” But the Jews did the same thing we are doing. They ran helter-skelter, hither and yon—in fact, everywhere but to that place where God had directed and ordered them to seek Him. “What,” said they, “should we do in front of that gloomy ark or in the temple in Jerusalem? Things are so merry and so convenient here. Here we can have an excellent worship of God.” And they came in droves and gave money in abundance. This enabled one queen alone to support four hundred priests of her Baal (1 Kings 18:19), while the true priests had to suffer hunger and want.
God had proclaimed through the prophets and had foretold through Moses that prayer or worship at any other places would be unacceptable to Him. But they would not listen. Instead, they cried out: “This is where we worship the true God.” And they persisted in their self-invented worship and even killed the prophets over it. There was a small group, however, which believed God’s Word and paid no attention to the great multitude. This is what true Christians must do today. They must not be influenced by the actions of those who enjoy the name and the reputation of great and holy people, who are called God’s servants and the church. They must declare: “Here is my God. I refuse to believe in any other God than the Creator of heaven and earth. I will believe only in the God who is united with Him who is called Jesus Christ. In Him I must place my trust. Then I know that I have the true God. If I have Him, I can proudly defy the devil and the world. If they deprive me of mammon, goods, honor, life and limb, I still have a Christ who is Lord over life and death, over the world and everything. And even if the devil frightens me and makes me depressed and conscience-stricken, he will still not obtain the victory. For here is my Lord, in whom I believe. And if I trust in Him, I am trusting in God; for He Himself is true God. Hence whatever temporal and physical harm I suffer, I account as a husk or as a hollow nut, instead of which God will grant me an eternal treasure and everlasting life.”
Thus these words are also spoken as a consolation for the Christians, whom God allows to suffer this misery and to cope with their enemies—the devil, who plagues and torments them, and the world, which confronts them with pride, contempt, persecution, murder, etc. Christ says: “To remain cheerful in the midst of all this, and to ward off defeat, remember only that I am the real Savior and God, and rely on Me; then you will encounter the true God and experience My omnipotent power and might. Let the world and the pseudo saints depend and rely on whom they will. Let them believe and do as they want. It is all vain and futile. Against all this you need no other weapon or armor than your adherence to Me. In this way you cling to God. He cannot do otherwise than help you. Therefore if they hate, persecute, and murder you, We will love, adopt, and protect you; We will quicken you and dwell with you forever.”
Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 24: Luther's works, vol. 24 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (24:17). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.