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September 15, 2013
The Christian faith rests entirely on the correct answer to Jesus’ question (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” If Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel, the eternal Son of God in human flesh, who died on the cross in the place of sinners, who was raised bodily from the dead, and who is coming again in power and glory to judge the living and the dead, then everything else is secondary.
There may be difficulties in the Bible that you cannot resolve, but that’s secondary. You may struggle with hard questions, like, “Why do little children suffer and die?” or “Why do some people never have the chance to hear the gospel?” but those questions are secondary. You may struggle with doubts because of personal trials or unanswered prayers, but those struggles do not undermine the truth of Christianity. If Jesus is who He claimed to be and who the Bible proclaims Him to be, then the entire Christian faith stands. If He is not who He claimed to be, then our faith in Christ would be in vain (see 1 Cor. 15:13-19).
You’ve probably heard liberal professors or theologians say that Jesus never claimed to be God. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons hold Jesus in high esteem and even claim to believe in Him, but they deny His true deity. There are many others who think that Jesus was a great moral teacher and example, but they do not affirm that He is God.
But C. S. Lewis slammed the door on that option in an often-quoted statement. He said (Mere Christianity [Macmillan], p. 56):
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 … 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.
So you’ve got to decide: Is Jesus crazy or is He God? And that decision will have drastic effects on how you live your life and on where you spend eternity.
We’ve just studied the story of Jesus healing the man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-16). It’s an interesting miracle for John to use in his Gospel of belief, because there is no indication that the man believed in Jesus. He didn’t even know who Jesus was when He did the miracle. When he found out, he never thanked Jesus for healing him. Rather, he went to the Jewish authorities to report Jesus, so that they could go after Him for violating their Sabbath traditions. Since John wrote his Gospel so that we would believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, you have to ask, why did he include this miracle where the healed man did not believe?
John included this story because it illustrates the irrational but growing hostility of the Jewish leaders toward Jesus that led to His crucifixion. They began to persecute Jesus because He was doing these things on the Sabbath (5:16). But also, the confrontation between the Jews and Jesus that erupted because of this event set the stage for Jesus to make some of the strongest statements for His deity in the Bible (5:17-47). J. C. Ryle states (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:283): “Nowhere else in the Gospels do we find our Lord making such a formal, systematic, orderly, regular statement of His own unity with the Father, His Divine commission and authority, and the proofs of His Messiahship, as we find in this discourse.” The practical bottom line for us is:
Christ’s amazing claims to be God demand that we honor Him as God and submit to Him as Lord.
When the Jews accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, He could have pointed out their error in interpreting the Sabbath laws, as He did on other occasions. He could have said that it was right to do good on the Sabbath. But rather, He put His own activity on the Sabbath on a par with God’s activity (5:17). When they then accused Him of making Himself equal with God (5:18), rather than denying it with horror, as even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets would have done, Jesus goes on to affirm it emphatically. Our text reveals six ways in which Jesus is equal with God:
In response to the Jews’ accusation that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath and to their persecution, Jesus answered (5:17), “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” John explains (5:18), “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”
First, Jesus calls God, “My Father.” The Jews would sometimes speak of “our Father,” or if they used “my Father,” they would add, “in heaven,” or some other expression to remove any suggestion of familiarity (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 309). But Jesus speaks of God as His Father in the most intimate of terms. Leon Morris (p. 310, italics his) states,
He was claiming that God was His Father in a special sense. He was claiming that He partook of the same nature as His Father. This involved equality.
Later, Jesus explicitly stated (John 10:30), “I and the Father are one.” As a result, the Jews again sought to kill Him. When Jesus asked for which of the many good works from the Father they were stoning Him, they replied (10:33), “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” They understood His claims! The problem was, they didn’t accept His claims.
While Jesus is equal with God in sharing the same nature, He is also distinct from the Father as the Son. Jesus’ existence as the Son of God does not imply that there was a point in time in which He did not exist, and then He was created as the Son of the Father. That was Arius’ heresy, whose modern followers are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. John has already made it clear that the Word existed in the beginning with God and that He created all things that have come into being (1:1-3). If Jesus came into being at a point in time, that verse would be false. Nor did Jesus become the Son of God when He was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit.
Rather, Jesus has existed eternally as the Son of God in relation to God the Father. Just as a human son shares his father’s nature, so Jesus shares the same nature as God the Father. But just as a human son is a distinct person from his father, so Jesus is distinct from the Father as the second person of the Trinity. In John 5:19-26, Jesus refers to Himself as “Son” nine times; He is emphasizing His divine Sonship. As the Son, Jesus is equal to and yet functionally subordinate to and distinct from the Father (as the following verses show). God is one God who exists as three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
By saying (5:17), “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working,” Jesus links His own activity directly with God’s activity. As D. A. Carson points out (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 247), “For this self-defense to be valid, the same factors that apply to God must apply to Jesus ….” The Jews acknowledged that after creation God worked on the Sabbath to sustain His creation. Jesus is saying, “To accuse Me of Sabbath-breaking is to accuse God of Sabbath-breaking, because He is My Father and I work exactly as He works. The Father works continuously, including on the Sabbath; so do I.”
Also, implicit in Jesus’ statement that He is working right alongside the Father is that He always has been working alongside the Father. The Bible is clear that all three members of the Trinity were involved in the work of creation. John has told us specifically that Jesus, the Word, was involved in creation. Since He and the Father are one, Jesus has been working with the Father since the beginning of time. Clearly, Jesus was claiming to be God!
The Jews got it. They sought all the more to kill Him because He was making Himself equal to God. Jesus responded (5:19), “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” Jesus uses “truly, truly” three times in this discourse (5:19, 24, 25) because He wants us to take special note of what He says.
The first thing he affirms is that “the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing.” This is not a statement of weakness or limitation, but rather of His absolute unity with the Father in nature and in will. He is saying that it is impossible for the Son to act independently of the Father because they share the same nature. What the Father does the Son does and what the Son does, the Father does. There is a complete correspondence in their actions. In Jesus, we see God. When Jesus worked, it was God working. Whatever Jesus did was an act of God; whatever He said was the word of God. There was no moment of His life and no action of His which did not express the life and action of the Father.
Yet at the same time, these verses reveal that as the Son, Jesus is always subordinate to the Father in terms of carrying out the divine will. The Father commands and the Son obeys. Jesus was sent to this earth by the Father (5:23) to accomplish the work that the Father gave Him to do (4:34), especially the work of redemption on the cross (3:14; 12:27). But subordination in the hierarchy of the Trinity does not in any way imply inferiority. All three Persons of the Trinity are equally and eternally God. But for the sake of carrying out the divine plan, the Son is subject to the Father and the Spirit is subject to the Father and the Son.
The last part of verse 19 explains why it is impossible for the Son to do anything of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing: “for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” Carson (p. 251, italics his) explains the thought: “It is impossible for the Son to take independent, self-determined action that would set him over against the Father as another God, for all the Son does is both coincident with and co-extensive with all that the Father does.” So John’s point is that while Jesus as the Son of God is subordinate to the Father and carries out His works in obedience to Him, He is at the same time fully equal to the Father as God. No lesser being could make the claim of verse 19.
In verse 20, Jesus explains how the Son can do whatever the Father does: “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel.” The Father’s love for the Son is seen by His disclosing to the Son everything that He is doing.
In a recent sermon, John MacArthur pointed out the startling implications of this verse (“The Most Startling Claim Ever Made,” Part 1, on gty.org):
It might shake you up to hear this, but at the heart of God’s redeeming work is not God’s love for you, not God’s love for me. Not God’s love for the world. Not God’s love for sinners. At the heart of redemption is … the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father.
You say, “Didn’t Jesus die because He loved us?” In a secondary sense, but in a primary sense, Jesus died because He loved the Father. “Didn’t the Father send Jesus to the cross because He loved us?” In a secondary sense. In primary sense He sent the Son to the cross because He loved the Son. You say, “How am I to understand that?”
You’re to understand it this way, that the whole purpose of redemption, the whole purpose of creation, the whole purpose of the world, the universe, human history is so that God can collect a bride to give to His Son a bride that’s an expression of His love…. The Father … will give to the Son a redeemed humanity, collected one day in heaven forever and ever and ever to praise and serve and glorify the Son and always be an everlasting expression of the Father’s love.
Jesus’ point in 5:20 is that the Father’s love for the Son is displayed by the fact that He shows Him all that He Himself is doing. I understand that to refer to the time when Jesus was on earth, since before He came to earth, Jesus and the Father possessed all knowledge inherently, so that there would have been no need for disclosure. In Colossians 2:3, Paul says that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” These treasures are disclosed to us in God’s inspired Word, which is sufficient for all of life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). We don’t need to turn to the “wisdom” of the world for answers to our personal and relational problems. The answers are in Christ and in God’s Word.
The “greater works” that Jesus refers to in 5:20 are in the next two verses: Giving life to whom He wishes and judging all people. We’ve seen that Jesus is equal with God in His nature, His works, and in His love and knowledge.
John 5:21: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” This verse is an example of how Jesus does the works of the Father: He gives life to whom He wishes. It’s a startling claim! What mere man could claim that he could give life to whomever he wished? Either Jesus is crazy or He is God!
“Life” here refers on one level to Jesus’ ability to raise the dead physically, as He did on three recorded occasions: The widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17); Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-56); and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Also, at the end of the age, Jesus will give the command and all the dead from all ages will arise, either for judgment or eternal life (John 5:28-29).
But Jesus’ miracles were illustrations of spiritual truth. His power to give physical life to whomever He wills and to raise the dead physically at the end of the age show us that He also has the sovereign power to give spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead. In John 5:24 he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
As with many aspects of salvation, we see all three members of the Trinity involved in the giving of life. Here we see that both the Father and the Son raise the dead and give them life. In John 6:63 Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life.” But clearly the giving of life is an activity that only God can do (1 Sam. 2:6).
And, Jesus asserts His sovereignty in the giving of life. Leon Morris (p. 315) says, “Men may not command the miracle. The Son gives life where He, not man, chooses.” As verse 24 states, to have eternal life we must hear Jesus’ word and believe in Him. But He initiates the process. We cannot believe in Him or know the Father unless the Son wills it (Luke 10:22). That way we can’t take any credit for our salvation. He gets all the glory.
John 5:22: “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son ….” In verse 21, the roles of the Father and Son are parallel in giving life. But here, the Father has delegated all judgment to the Son, because (as Jesus explains in 5:27), “He is the Son of Man.” Because He took on human flesh and died for the sins of the world (1:29), the Father delegated all judgment to Jesus (Acts 17:31).
In John 3:17, we saw that Jesus did not come “into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” His purpose for coming was to provide salvation. But those who reject Him are already under condemnation because they have not believed in the only provision for their sins that God graciously provided (3:18). If they die in that condition, they will face His eternal judgment.
Also, to be a just and fair judge, Jesus has to possess all knowledge of all people who have ever lived. If an earthly judge is missing key facts, he is likely to make an erroneous judgment. To judge every person, Jesus has to know all of their circumstances, their thoughts, and their motives. So again, to make this claim, Jesus either was crazy or He was God. Finally,
John 5:23: “… so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” If Jesus is not fully God, then His words in verse 23 are nothing short of blasphemy! What created being could say that we should honor him just as we honor the Father? Clearly, Jesus is claiming to be God.
This means that you can test anyone’s claim to believe in God by their views of Jesus. If they claim to believe in God, but they think that Jesus was just a good man, they do not believe in the living and true God. They only believe in a god of their own making. If they do not honor Jesus, they do not honor the Father.
John MacArthur (“The Most Startling Claim Ever Made,” Part 2, on gty.org) recalls a conversation that he had with Larry King after he had taped a TV show one evening. Larry said, “You know, John, I’m going to be okay…going to be okay.” John said, “What do you mean you’re going to be okay?” “I think I’m going to make it to heaven.” John said “Based on what, Larry?” He said, and he named a certain evangelist and said, “He told me because I’m Jewish, I’m going to be okay.” John concludes, “That may be the worst thing that anybody told him. But to come from a Christian evangelist to tell him that?”
No one will be okay on judgment day who has not honored and loved and worshiped Jesus Christ as God! As Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 202), “The name of God, when it is separated from Christ, is nothing else than a vain imagination.” As John puts it (1 John 2:23), “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” Jesus is equal with the Father in belief and in worship.
Polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe that Jesus is God, but that belief has not changed the face of America. It’s not enough to believe that Jesus is God intellectually. You must also trust in Him as your Savior from sin and judgment and live in submission to Him as Lord of all your life. Remember, to believe in Jesus as merely a great moral teacher is not an option. Either He was crazy or He was God in human flesh. Believe in Him as your God and Savior and you have eternal life!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation