STUDY 9: JOHN 5 – THE FIRST DEBATE WITH THE JEWS

© Rosemary Bardsley 2009

Having healed a man on the Sabbath and having told him to pick up and carry his mat on the Sabbath [5:1-15], Jesus finds himself in direct confrontation with the Jews. In the course of the debate that follows Jesus affirms his deity and identifies four additional witnesses which affirm his deity.

 

A. THE JEW’S ACCUSATIONS

The Jews ‘persecuted’ Jesus because ‘he was doing these things on the Sabbath’ [ 5:16 ]. The word translated ‘persecuted’ has a range of meanings – followed, pursued with hostility, tracked down, persecuted. The minimum meaning we can understand here is that they deliberately set about confronting him with the perceived wrongness of his actions. From the expression ‘he was doing these things’ we can infer that this was not the only incident where Jesus did miracles on the Sabbath [this is quite evident in Mark’s gospel]. There is a continuity of Sabbath breaking here that has greatly offended the Jews.

But this offence is multiplied when they hear Jesus’ response to these complaints and accusations. When he states ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working’ [ 5:17 ] their aggression becomes murderous. They see with great clarity the real meaning of these words, the blasphemous, in their opinion, and damning claim embedded in them. They know exactly what these words mean - an assumption of equality with God – and they reject utterly the right of Jesus to assume and express that equality. To refer to God as ‘my Father’, and to equate one’s work with his, is to claim equality of deity. It is to claim equality with God. It is to see oneself as equal to God [ 5:18 ].

For this reason, the Jews tried all the harder to kill him. [Again this statement gives the impression of an on-going antagonism, not just something happening at the moment of the conversation recorded in the rest of the chapter.]

 

B. JESUS AFFIRMS HIS DEITY

Having affirmed his equality with God, and thus his deity, in verse 17, and having thus further antagonized the Jews to a murderous hatred, Jesus does not back off. Rather he further affirms and intensifies his claims to deity.

From the verses listed identify how Jesus affirms his equality with the Father.

19

20

21

22

23

 

24

25

26

27

30

Here we find both equality and identity:

      • The Son does what the Father does
      • The Son raises the dead and gives life just as the Father does
      • The Son has been given the Father’s authority to judge
      • The Son is to be honoured just as the Father is honoured
      • Indeed, not to honour the Son is not to honour the Father
      • The Son has life in himself just as the Father has life in himself

Also evident in these verses is an evident unity of purpose and pleasure and will between the Father and the Son.

If we look at these affirmations of Christ and compare them to the Old Testament concept of God we find that Jesus is here claiming to have the power and authority that is God’s alone. It is God who has the power of life and death – God is the source and giver of life, God is the one who brings life out of nothing or less than nothing. It is God who is the Judge of all the earth, to whom all are accountable. It is God who alone is worthy of honour and worship and praise, and who alone must be honoured as God. Yet here Jesus claims that all of this right and power and authority, all of this pre-eminence and respect, has been given to him by his Father and must be accorded to him by man.

How do these Old Testament texts help us to understand the extreme significance of the claims Jesus makes in John 5:19-30? [Take notice of what is said about God and his role and actions, and the respect and honour in which he should be held.]

Genesis 18:25

1Samuel 2:10

1Chronicles 16:33

Exodus 34:14

1Chronicles 16:23 -29

Psalm 96

Genesis 2:7

Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Job 33:4

Note : This section is important for us to keep hold of when certain cults try to convince us that Jesus is not fully God. The Jews listening to him knew Jesus’ words were an expression of equality with God; that is why they were so opposed to him. They gave Jesus the opportunity to revoke his claim, but rather than revoke it he added more and more weight to it. The cult members try to argue their way out of this by saying that the Jews were mistaken in what they understood Jesus to be saying; but the fact that Jesus continued to reinforce his claim, both here and in later conversations with the Jews makes that suggestion untenable.

 

C. FIVE WITNESSES THAT AFFIRM JESUS’ CLAIMS

Jesus is very much aware that he is making radical claims, and that for a mere man to make these claims would indeed be blasphemy. He is also aware that if these claims stand on his word alone they are not valid. Therefore he lists five witnesses which testify to the validity of his claims.

      • Firstly [ 5:31 ], there is his testimony about himself – the claims he has just made in verses 19-30.
      • Secondly [ 5:32 -35], there is the testimony of John the Baptist.
      • Thirdly [ 5:36 ], the work that Jesus was doing testified that the Father had sent him.
      • Fourthly [5:37-38], the Father has testified about him Note that this may refer to the Father’s spoken affirmation of Jesus at the time of his baptism and his transfiguration [see Matthew 3:17; 17:5], or it may be that Jesus is referring to the total testimony of the Father in the Old Testament scriptures [5:38-46].
      • Fifthly [ 5:39 , 45-46], the Scriptures testify about him.

As Jesus explains in his mention of the testimony of John the Baptist, the reason he mentions these witnesses is not because he wants or accepts human acclaim, but so that these Jews might be saved. The bottom line is that if they cannot believe in him, if they cannot believe that his testimony about himself is true and valid, then they cannot be saved. It is an impossibility to reject Jesus Christ and at the same time be saved. Jesus’ full-on confrontation of the Jews with his claims to equality with God, both here and in the following chapters, have this one intention: to bring his hearers face to face with the ultimate question on which their salvation depends: the question ‘Who is Jesus?’

 

D. THE FAILURE OF THE JEWS

John 5:38-47 is extremely confrontational and provocative.

In these verses Jesus makes it clear that the Jew’s failure to accept him is far more than a simple rejection of a Galilean carpenter’s claims to be God. Because Jesus actually is God, this rejection of his claims is nothing less than a rejection of God. Nor is their rejection of God just a recent or current thing. Jesus points out that it was a foundational and historic thing that characterized not just these Jews to whom he was speaking, but the Jews as a whole. Their miss-reading of the scriptures and their associated re-definition of God has this terrible outcome: that when God stands face to face with them they do not recognize him.

Consider what Jesus said about them to their face:

      • They have never heard the Father’s voice nor seen him [verse 37]
      • The Father’s word does not dwell in them [verse 38]
      • Though they diligently study the Scriptures seeking eternal life, they refuse to come to him [Jesus] about whom those Scriptures speak, and through whom they could have eternal life [verse 39-40]
      • They do not have the love of God in their hearts [verse 41]
      • They do not accept him [Jesus] even though he came in his Father’s name, yet they would accept someone coming in his own name [verse 43]
      • They make no effort to obtain the praise that comes only from God [verse 44]
      • Moses, in whom they trust, accuses them [verse 45]
      • If they really believed Moses, as they claim to do, they would believe Jesus because Moses wrote about Jesus [verse 46]
      • They actually do not believe what Moses wrote [verse 47], and because of this they cannot believe Jesus.

If this is the condition and attitude of the Jews, to and through whom the Scriptures were given … if the Jews, with generations of advantage of studying the scriptures and anticipating the coming of the Christ are this ignorant of God … if these people who knew more facts about God and his greatness and glory than any other people on earth did not love him and did not really know him and cannot now recognize him in the incarnate Christ … then where do the rest of us stand?

This ignorance, this inability of even the Jews to see God and to really know God, underscores what Jesus has made clear earlier in his conversation with Nicodemus: we must be born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. And in his conversation with the Samaritan woman: we need the living water that only Jesus gives.

But as long as these Jews reject his testimony, and those other four witnesses he listed, as long as they feel adequate and sufficient in their impoverished ‘knowledge’ of God, they will never ask him for that living water, they will see no need for regeneration. And they will not be saved. As indicated above, Jesus’ desire for their salvation motivated his aggressive and damning exposure of their ignorance and condemnation [verse 34].

The Jews are silent.

 

E. THE CENTRAL THEME OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

This passage [John 5:31 -47] is also very instructional about the content of the Old Testament. Firstly Jesus refers to ‘the Scriptures’ as testifying about him [verse 39], and then to ‘Moses’ as writing about him [verse 46]. From Jesus’ perspective the Old Testament is about him. Yes. It speaks of many different things, but in its totality, in its purpose, in its cohesive theme, it is all about Jesus Christ.

Read these texts. In what way do they affirm that Jesus Christ is the central theme of the Old Testament?

Luke 24:25-27

 

Luke 24:44-45

 

2Corinthians 1:20

 

Colossians 1:25-2:4

 

 

F. THE KEY SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS FOR OUR ETERNAL DESTINY

Before we leave this chapter we must look at the key significance of Jesus for the eternal destiny of every human being.

      • We are dependent on him for life beyond death [21,25,40]
      • He has the authority to judge us [22,27]
      • Any claim we make to honour God stands or falls on the basis of whether or not we honour Christ [23]
      • If we hear his word, and believe the one who sent him, he promises three things: that we have eternal life that we will not be condemned, and that we have already crossed over from death to life [24].

Special attention must be drawn to:

F.1 Verse 23

This verse is incredibly important, both for our understanding of who Jesus is, and for our eternal destiny. As we have seen above, this verse gives Jesus equal deity with the Father. The purpose of the Father’s entrusting all judgment to the Son [22] is that everyone will honour the Son just as they honour the Father.

In the light of the Old Testament emphasis on the exclusive worship due to God, this verse is extremely powerful in its affirmation of the deity of Christ: Christ is to be given the same honour – this exclusive worship, this exclusive obedience, this exclusive commitment of all the love of all our heart and mind and soul and strength – as God the Father. All this honour that is due to God is due also to Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son, must be honoured as God.

But verse 23 goes further than this: here Jesus states clearly that if we do not give him this honour we are not honouring the Father. Such is the equality and unity between the Son, Jesus, and the Father, that to worship Jesus [with the same worship as is due to the Father] is to worship the Father. We will see this unique unity and identity again later in this Gospel. We will see also that refusal to honour Jesus as God demonstrates ignorance of God.

Reflection: Around the world there are many who believe they are worshipping ‘God’, yet they do not honour Jesus Christ as God. What does verse 23 imply about the validity of their worship?

 

 

 

F.2 Verse 24

The promise of Christ in verse 24 is packed with powerful assurance for all those who hear [= believe and obey] the word of Christ. Consider the significance of the Greek tenses:

      • has eternal life [present tense – we have eternal life now],
      • will not be condemned [future tense – from this day forward into eternity],
      • has crossed over from death to life [perfect tense – this has already happened and remains in place]

In the Greek text the word alla [a strong ‘but’] is placed between ‘will not be condemned’ and ‘has crossed over from death to life [literally ‘out of death into life’]. This word sets up a strong contrast between being condemned and having crossed over from death to life. Death goes hand in hand with condemnation; life goes hand in hand with freedom from condemnation. Note also the ‘crossed over’ – there is no flipping and flopping back and forth in and out of salvation. Those who believe in Christ, those who hear his word, have already crossed over, and remain crossed over.

Thus our response to the words of Jesus determines our present – either life and freedom from condemnation or death and condemnation – which will continue to be our future. This is not an outcome that awaits our physical death before it kicks in: it is both current and future. Here Jesus’ words bring back his statement in John 3:18: that ‘whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of god’s one and only Son.’