Refusing the Invitation

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 5:39-40

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

John 5:39-40 rsv

I’ve been thinking lately about how many in our modern world seem to appeal to the Bible as their authority. In addition to all the major communions in Christendom, all kinds of groups like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the Bible as their basis for doctrine and life. A cult leader in Waco, Texas, tried to explain his bizarre behavior on the basis of the Bible’s teaching. These groups may have drastically different understandings about what the Bible is, about its central message and its intended use.

Jesus discovered in His wilderness temptations that even the devil quotes the Bible and reasons on the basis of it. Jesus lived among a rebellious people who regarded the Scriptures of the Old Testament with the greatest reverence. Many of them had made those Scriptures their lifelong study and yet, as Jesus saw it, they were on the wrong track. How could that be?

Listen to these words in which He spoke to people in that situation. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 5, at verse 39:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

Jesus told these people that they were doing the right thing but in the wrong way. Then He told them the real purpose of the Bible’s message and how they ought to respond to it. All of that, I believe, brings a powerful, contemporary message to you and me.


He says first, “You search the scriptures.” Our reaction is, that must be a good thing. Remember what was said in the book of Acts about the people in Berea whom Paul and Silas went to visit? “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They searched the Scriptures. And to the writer of Acts, Luke, that was a sign of nobility.

It’s a grand thing to study carefully the Bible’s message. The psalmist speaks of how the blessed one is he or she who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates in that Word day and night. God gave that kind of instruction to young Joshua when he was about to take over leadership from Moses. “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein, for then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success.”

In my own experience and observation, the most vital Christians I have known have been people who search the Scriptures daily. They read, they ponder, they memorize, they internalize, they seek to live out the message of Scripture. And that focus upon the Word of God brings all kinds of blessing to their lives. I have found it to be a source of inexpressible enriching in my own life. For almost 50 years now, I’ve been reading the Bible practically every day, studying it, searching it, trying to understand and apply and proclaim its message. I would urge that upon anyone. It’s such a privilege, friends, that we have the Bible, that the message of the Word of God has been preserved through all the centuries and translated into our language and that we have copies of it that we can read. Marvelous!

Best of all, to search the Scriptures is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Himself. He must have meditated often and long upon the message of the Old Testament. It crops up again and again in His teaching. Surely we can’t go wrong if we search the Scriptures daily!


But Jesus says to these hearers that they are searching the Scriptures “because they think that in them they have eternal life.” Perhaps they thought that their future with God was secure because the oracles of God, the Scriptures, had been entrusted to them. Perhaps they felt that there was virtue in reading them, studying them, that God would surely be pleased with and would surely reward their careful reading of His Word. There were some scribes who held such a reverence for the actual letter of the Scriptures that they numbered the verses, words and letters of every book. They calculated the middle word and the middle letter of each one. They listed verses which contained all the letters of the alphabet or a certain number of them. You get the sense there was something almost superstitious about their attitude to the Scriptures, as though the words had an almost magical quality.

Jesus’ hearers at the time He spoke may not have been doing anything like that, but they were wrong to expect eternal life simply from having the Scriptures or memorizing the Scriptures, as though that discipline had saving power in itself. Think of the experts in the study of the Bible: Hebrew and Greek scholars, adept at biblical criticism, who are themselves not believers. They study the Scriptures, but do not take seriously the faith message of the Bible. Obviously, then, simply reading it, studying it, will not by itself bring people eternal life.


Now Jesus makes a remarkable statement about the nature and purpose of the Scriptures. Listen again: “It is they that bear witness to me.” He says later in this chapter, referring to Moses, author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, “He wrote of me” (v. 46). After Jesus’ resurrection, when He met with His followers, He was said to “open their ability to understand the Scripture.” And Luke writes, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He says, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Notice that: “Everything written about me.”

According to Jesus, the Old Testament Scriptures are incomplete. They point beyond themselves. They bear the promise of the Messiah, the One who is to come. They tell of the great things God will yet do for His people and for all the nations. They bear witness to God’s coming to His world. And Jesus sees as central to the entire message of the Scriptures the witness they give to Him, the One in whom God’s kingly, saving rule comes breaking into human history.

According to Jesus, then, we don’t grasp the full meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures until we see them as testifying to God’s saving purpose in Jesus Christ.

Someone has spoken about the relationship between the two testaments in this way, “The New Testament is in the Old concealed. The Old Testament is in the New revealed.” We best understand the Old Testament message by looking backward, by seeing all of it in the light of Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul picks up that emphasis of Jesus in what he writes to his friend Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). He prefaces these words with this observation to Timothy, “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). In other words, the central purpose of the Scriptures, both Old and New, is to instruct us for salvation, to lead us to salvation. They are a means of grace, a means to bring us God’s saving mercy. We apprehend that, says the apostle, we partake of that, “through faith in Jesus Christ.”

So we don’t grasp the Bible’s meaning and we don’t recognize its purpose when we simply read it as great literature or dip into it here and there. We never rightly access the Old Testament’s message when we read it as something complete in itself, apart from its fulfillment in the New. We only understand it when we realize that the whole Bible is about God’s saving purpose in history, and that Jesus Christ is its central theme.

That doesn’t mean that we are to allegorize everything we read in the Old Testament or make immediate applications of each verse to what Jesus did and suffered. But it does mean that rightly searching the Scriptures is not complete until we have seen every passage in the fuller light of God’s self-revealing in Jesus. The Scriptures, He says, testify to Him. The Bible, as one of the great hymns puts it, is the “heaven-drawn picture of Christ, the living Word.”


What, then, should our response be to a hearing or a reading of the Bible’s message? Listen again to what the Lord said to these first hearers of His, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Do we follow what He’s saying here? These Israelites have been searching the Scriptures, confident that in so doing they would have eternal life. But Jesus is saying that the whole purpose of the Bible is to bear witness to Him, Jesus. Eternal life is not to be found in possessing or studying the Bible but in heeding the Bible’s message in such a way that we come to Christ. It is then in Christ, through faith in Him, that we receive the wonderful blessing of eternal life.

That’s the heart of the gospel, isn’t it? “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That’s why God sent His Son. That’s why Jesus came and died and rose again – so that those who believe in Him may have eternal life. Eternal life is not a reward for Bible study but a gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. As John puts it in his first letter, “He that believes in the Son of God has [right now] eternal life” (1 John 5:12). “God has given us eternal life,” he goes on, “and this life is in His Son . . . He that has the Son has life.”

How deeply I long to be able to communicate that to you today! The purpose of the Bible is not simply to provide information for us, a philosophy of life, moral instruction, a religious outlook, important as those things are and involved as they are, in what the Bible brings us. The great overarching purpose of the Bible is to bring us into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ His Son. It’s to lead us to that trust in Jesus Christ whereby we receive Him into our lives and thus experience true, abundant, eternal life. Don’t rest content, friends, with any understanding of the Bible that doesn’t lead you to personal faith in, and commitment to, Jesus Christ.

But here was precisely the issue with Jesus’ hearers. He says to them, “You will not come to me that you might have life.” They were willing to read the Bible, even to study it at great length, willing to analyze with great care the 613 commandments of the Old Testament, to debate endlessly about how those could best be obeyed. But when the person came to whom the Old Testament pointed, when someone stood before them who was its living fulfillment, they would not believe what He said. They would not trust in Him. They would not come to Him for salvation.

Have you ever thought how much the will is involved in believing? The great American psychologist William James wrote a famous essay about that: “The Will to Believe.” Faith is never merely intellectual, although it is that. It’s not only emotional response, though that is surely involved. Believing includes decision. Remember how Jesus said, “If any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17). When people have been confronted with the Christian gospel, and don’t believe, it’s because they make that choice. They decline the invitation. They refuse to come to Him.

Maybe you today are a person like that. You have some knowledge of the Bible. You’ve had some contact with the Christian church in days past, but you’ve never realized that the center of the Bible is Jesus Christ and its chief invitation is that you should come to Him and receive eternal life. Now you’re hearing that. What will your response be?

Will you be one of those over whom the Savior lamented, as He did that day in Jerusalem? “. . . you would not come to me”? (see Matt. 23:37). That to me is the saddest thing in the world, when people say no to the gracious call of Christ, the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. But what a great thing it is, what a joyous thing, when anyone responds to Jesus’ call, “Will you come to Me? Will you trust in Me?” by saying from the heart, “Yes, Lord, I will.”