READ : John 5:19-29
For a man who is commonly thought to be one of the world’s greatest religious teachers Jesus made some very shocking claims for himself. If we take what he says seriously we will have to make a decision about it.
Anyone who has ever read the New Testament Gospels carefully must have noticed that Jesus, for a man who is generally held to be one of the greatest of all the world’s religious teachers, said a number of very surprising things. Especially about himself. C. S. Lewis, the great Christian writer, drew attention to this fact in a famous and much-quoted passage from his classic, Mere Christianity.
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
What Christians Believe, “The Shocking Alternative”
Lewis might have had a chapter like John 5 in mind when he wrote those words. I don’t know of anyplace in the New Testament where Jesus makes a greater number of more stupendous assertions about himself than here. It all started when Jesus healed a crippled man by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. It was a spectacular miracle, for the man had been paralyzed for 38 years. But one day Jesus came along, asked him if he wanted to be healed, and then said, “Get up, roll up your mat, and walk away” (John 5:8). And the man immediately did exactly that.
But some people were offended because Jesus did this on a Sabbath day. When these people learned that Jesus was the one behind it all, they turned their animosity against him. “This is why the Jews were persecuting Jesus,” reports John, “because he was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 16).
Jesus Defends Himself
Jesus defended himself by identifying himself with the God who is at work continually, even on the Sabbath: “My Father is working until now, and I am working,” he said (v.17). The Bible does say that when he created the world God “rested from all his work” on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). That is a poetic way of saying that God had finished the creation and was taking active delight in it. But it doesn’t mean that he suddenly began to do nothing.
The Father is always working. The God of Providence is continuously engaged in ruling, governing and upholding all things. God does not take the weekends off from his job of running the universe. He doesn’t need a break, or a holiday, or a vacation. So Jesus continues his work too, day in and day out, Sabbath or no Sabbath – his work of healing, restoring, saving, forgiving (cf. v.14); his work of recreation.
This defense, though, fails to impress Jesus’ critics. In fact, it only makes things worse. John says that when they heard this, Jesus’ enemies wanted to kill him, “because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (v.18).
Whereupon Jesus starts to throw gasoline on the fire. If they thought the claim implied by Jesus’ reference to God as his Father was blasphemous, then think about this. Jesus says that whatever God does he does; that every act of his is actually an act of God (v.19). He says that God loves Jesus, shows him everything he is doing, and will do even more (v.20). Then Jesus declares that, like God, he can give life to anyone he chooses, eternal life, in fact; that he will be the ultimate judge of every human being; and that anyone who wants to worship God truly must worship Jesus himself (vv. 21-24, cf. vv. 26-27).
And finally, Jesus announces that there will come an hour at the end of time when the mere sound of his voice will cause all the dead to rise from their graves to face eternal judgment (vv. 28-29). Quite a series of claims for a humble Jewish rabbi to make, if that is all Jesus was or thought himself to be.
The Present Hour
In the middle of all these stunning statements Jesus then says something that could escape our notice if we’re not paying careful attention. It’s another claim having to do with a decisive moment and the sound of his voice.
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear it will live.
At first glance that sounds like what Jesus says about the resurrection of the dead at the last day in John 5, verse 28. “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out. . .” But there Jesus is clearly referring to a future event, to something that hasn’t happened yet, in fact, that won’t happen until the end of the world. But in the other statement, Jesus is talking about a present event, something that was happening right then, even as he spoke those words; indeed, it’s happening again right now even as I speak these words. “An hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” What does he mean?
One way to think through the implications of this statement is to ask some simple questions. First, who are “the dead” to whom Jesus refers, that is, those who will live in response to his voice. There were several occasions in the Gospels when Jesus raised people from physical death by the mere sound of his voice. The most dramatic of these was for his friend Lazarus, whom Jesus called out of the tomb by the power of his spoken word after Lazarus had been dead for four days. But that was an isolated instance of Jesus performing a special sign for a specific purpose (see John 11:4ff.).
When Jesus speaks here in John 5 about his word raising the dead here and now in the present, he is talking about a regular, on-going experience, not just with one or two individuals but for a whole host of people; not at the end of time, but here and now. So Jesus is speaking literally about physical resurrection on the last day in John 5:28, but he is speaking metaphorically about spiritual resurrection in the present day in John 5:25. The dead here are the spiritually dead, not the physically dead. In other words, he’s talking about us – all of us.
The apostle Paul, describing the condition of the Ephesians before they became Christians, says that they were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3). That, according to the Bible, is the universal state of humankind by nature. We are dead; dead to God, dead in sin, dead as far as hope is concerned, dead with respect to faith, and bound for eternal death.
But Jesus’ promise is that all who hear him will live. That is, they will live spiritually. They will come to life with respect to God, and therefore they will live eternally. Paul continues like this in Ephesians 2, to which I just made reference a few moments ago.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Jesus says here in John 5 that “whoever hears my word . . . has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (v. 24). Eternal life, you see, isn’t just something you get when you die and go to heaven. It begins right here, right now, for those who are made alive spiritually by the word of Christ, by the grace of God.
Here is another question. Jesus says that this salvation, this wonderful change from spiritual death into eternal life, happens to those who hear him. But what does it mean to hear? Just as Jesus is not talking here about physical death and physical life, so it can’t be merely physical hearing that he means, that is, simply being exposed to the sound of his words. We know that many listen to his words with their ears without ever really taking them in. Two people read the same Bible, sit in the same church pew, tune in to the same broadcast, listen to the same message. And one is changed, one comes alive spiritually, one falls in love all over again with Jesus Christ while the other remains utterly indifferent, dead to him. And the difference between them is in the way they hear; not that they hear merely but how they hear.
Just as the dead Jesus is talking about are the spiritually dead, and the life they receive is spiritual life, so there is a spiritual hearing, a spiritual way of listening to Jesus, and this alone leads to eternal life. The hearing that makes us alive in Christ is hearing with faith. Jesus said, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (v. 24). And it is hearing with obedience. The one “who hears these words of mine and does them” will be wise, according to Jesus in another passage (Matthew 7:24).
I wonder if you realize that for these last few minutes you have been listening too to the words of the Son of God. The question is, how’s your hearing?