September 29, 2013
George Bernard Shaw had it right when he observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die.” In light of the certainty of death, you would think that everyone would be very concerned to prepare for what lies beyond. And yet many push it out of their minds and focus on other things that really won’t matter on the day of death. The evangelist, George Whitefield, told of seeing some criminals riding in a cart on the way to the gallows. They were arguing about who should sit on the right side of the cart, with no more concern than children today arguing about who gets to sit in the front seat of the car.
In our text, Jesus is replying to the Jews, who accused Him not only of breaking the Sabbath, but also of claiming to be equal with God (5:19). Rather than responding with horror to such a charge and backing off, Jesus intensified His claims to be God. As we saw in our last study, He claims to be equal with God in His nature (5:17-18), His works (5:17, 19), His love and knowledge (5:20), His sovereign power (5:21), in judgment (5:22), and in worship (5:23). No mere man and no created being could make these claims unless he was crazy. Jesus is clearly claiming to be God!
Now Jesus continues to hammer home His amazing claims. In 5:24, He asserts that there are two categories of people: those who have eternal life and those who are spiritually dead and under judgment. The difference between these two groups is that those who have life have heard Jesus’ words and believed in the One who sent Him, whereas the latter have not. Jesus goes on (5:25-26) to state that He inherently has the power to impart eternal life to dead sinners. Then (5:27-30) Jesus claims that in the future He will raise from the dead everyone who has ever lived and judge them for all eternity. These are mind-boggling claims! Since death and judgment are absolutely certain, our text screams at us:
Since Jesus can impart eternal life and since He will judge all people, make sure that you are right with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Before we work through the text, note that in 5:20, Jesus said that the Father would show Him greater works than these, “so that you will marvel.” But in 5:28, He tells the Jews not to marvel at what He has just said. Why does He tell them that they will marvel and then turn around and tell them not to marvel? I understand Jesus’ words in verse 20 to be an invitation to the skeptical Jews to believe in Him when they observe the miracles that He would perform. But in verse 28, He is warning them not to be amazed in the sense of scoffing at His claim to judge all people. In other words, amazement at the signs that Jesus did should lead to faith in Him and His claims, not to scoffing. Our text makes three main points:
John 5:24: “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.” Clearly, when it comes to being alive or dead, there are two and only two categories of people. Maybe some of you would qualify for being half-dead, but technically, you’re alive! What is true physically is also true spiritually: Everyone is either spiritually dead or spiritually alive. There is no in-between category.
What distinguishes these two groups? The difference is that those who have eternal life have heard Jesus’ word and have believed the One who sent Jesus, whereas those who are spiritually dead have not heard or believed. Jesus’ word stands for His entire message or teaching. Hearing Jesus’ word is the same thing as hearing God’s Word, since Jesus only did what He saw the Father doing (5:19) and spoke what He heard from the Father (8:38). And the Father testified of His Son (5:37-38). God sent His Son to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). He sent Him to be the Savior of the world (4:42).
Hearing Jesus’ word referred to more than just hearing the sound of His voice. Obviously, the Jewish leaders who were challenging Jesus heard the sound of His voice, but they didn’t accept or submit to what He was saying. In spite of witnessing the amazing miracles that Jesus did, the Jewish leaders opposed Him and rejected His claim to be sent to earth from God. In John 10:27, Jesus said, by way of contrast with these unbelieving Jews, that His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. And so to hear Jesus’ word means to hear with faith and obedience. It means to believe that what Jesus says is true and to submit to His lordship.
Jesus adds (5:24) that those who have eternal life also believe “Him who sent Me.” As Leon Morris points out (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 316), it is more common to have a reference to “believing in,” rather than just believing and to have Christ as the object of belief, rather than the Father. But, he adds,
All those who believe the Father, who really believe the Father, accept Christ. It is not possible to believe what the Father says and to turn away from the Son. The theme of this whole passage is the unity of the Father and the Son.
Jesus says that the one who hears His word and believes in the One who sent Him “has eternal life.” In 5:21, we saw that Jesus gives life to whom He wishes. That statement emphasizes Jesus’ sovereignty in the matter of salvation, which theologians refer to as the doctrine of election. We are saved because God chose us to be saved. That doctrine gives God all the glory for our salvation.
But I’ve had people ask me, “How can I know whether I am one of the elect?” The answer is in 5:24: Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin and judgment? Do you believe the biblical witness to Jesus as the eternal Son of God who was sent to this earth to bear your sin on the cross and who was raised from the dead by the power of God? If so, you are one of God’s elect, because none but the elect truly believe in Christ.
The Lord here also gives those who believe in Him great assurance. He says that the one who believes “has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” Judaism in that day believed that the attainment of eternal life was a future event, not a present reality (Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], p. 188). But here Jesus says that eternal life is the present possession of the one who believes His word. That person has moved from spiritual death to spiritual life. And if the life that God gives to those who believe is eternal life, then it isn’t temporary life. Or to put it another way, if you can lose it, then it isn’t eternal. God wants those who believe in Jesus to have the assurance, as Paul put it (Rom. 8:1) that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Assurance of salvation is in part a feeling, but it’s a feeling based on fact. The fact is Christ’s promise that those who believe have eternal life and will not come into judgment. Note that Jesus prefaces His words with, “truly, truly,” to underscore what He is saying. Either we trust His word or we don’t.
A man once came to the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody, and said that he was worried because he didn’t feel saved. Moody asked him, “Was Noah safe in the ark?” “Certainly he was,” the man replied. “Well, what made him safe, his feeling or the ark?” Our salvation doesn’t rest on our feelings, but on Christ our Savior. If we’re in Him, we’re secure and protected from the storm of judgment that is coming on the world. Our feelings rest on the absolutely truthful promises of Jesus.
As Leon Morris points out (pp. 316-317), verse 24 is more than a statement of fact. It’s also an invitation or call to hear the words of Jesus Christ and believe in Him. Have you put your trust in Him? If not, why not do it now?
From our Lord’s next words we learn…
John 5:25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Jesus again prefaces this statement with “truly, truly,” to affirm the importance and truth of what He is saying. He used the same phrase, “the hour is coming and now is” with the woman at the well when He spoke about worshiping the Father in spirit and truth (4:23). He meant that it was a present reality, but also that there was more to come. In this case, the “more to come” would be the cross, Jesus’ resurrection, His ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. But “now is” meant that as He spoke, Jesus had the power to speak so that the dead would hear and live.
Jesus demonstrated that power physically at the tomb of Lazarus when He called out (11:43), “Lazarus, come forth.” With the command, Jesus imparted the supernatural power for that dead man to hear and obey. Only God has such power (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7). But that miracle or sign pointed to the spiritual truth that Jesus has the power to speak to those who are spiritually dead in such a way that they receive eternal life. That is the main focus of 5:25-26. While we all would have been amazed if we had been there at Lazarus’ tomb, we should realize that the miracle of the new birth is just as great, if not greater, than the raising of a dead man. Just as Lazarus was raised instantly at the command of Christ, so dead sinners are instantly saved when they truly hear the voice of the Son of God. With the command to believe comes the power to believe.
In verse 26, Jesus explains why He can impart life to those who hear His voice: “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself ….” Life is inherent in God. He spoke all life into existence in the original creation. Even so, Jesus says, the Father “gave to the Son also to have life in Himself.”
But what does this mean? No less a theologian than John Calvin understands that the Father granted this power to Jesus in His incarnation (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 207). But in John 1:4, John said, “in Him was life,” in His pre-incarnate state as the eternal Word. Thus this act of the Father granting life to the Son must, as D. A. Carson puts it (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 257), “be an act belonging to eternity, of a piece with the eternal Father/Son relationship ….” Jesus doesn’t say that life comes from the Father through the Son, but rather that just as the Father inherently has life in Himself, so also He granted or ordained that the Son has this same inherent power of life in Himself. It is another claim that Jesus shares full deity with the Father.
At the same time, the verse distinguishes the Father and the Son and shows that the Son is eternally subject to the Father. Through the centuries a heresy called Sabellianism, monarchianism, or modalism has denied the Trinity. It teaches that there is no distinction of persons between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God projects Himself at times as the Father, at other times as the Son, or again as the Spirit. These are just three modes revealing the same divine person (C. A. Blaising, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 727). The error persists today with the “oneness Pentecostal” movement.
But Athanasius, an early defender of the faith, used verses such as John 5:26 as proof that the Father and the Son are two distinct persons (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:297-298). The Athanasian Creed puts it, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance [Essence].”
Thus Jesus is teaching that there are only two groups of people: Those who are spiritually dead and those who have eternal life. Also, He is the only one powerful enough to impart life to those who are dead. Thirdly,
By the way, for Jesus’ claims here to be true, He had to be raised bodily from the dead. Our entire faith rests on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-19). There are five important truths here, which I can only touch on:
John 5:27: “…and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.” Along with 5:26, this verse explains 5:25. The reference to the Son of Man goes back to Daniel 7:13-14, where the prophet saw one like a Son of Man coming up to the Ancient of Days. He was given everlasting dominion, glory and a kingdom so that all the peoples and nations might serve Him. Jesus is that Son of Man, eternal God in human flesh. He is uniquely qualified to judge humanity because He is both the all-knowing God and at the same time a man who understands by experience what it is like to be human (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15).
John 5:28-29a: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth ….” I take it that Jesus’ hearers were scoffing at His amazing claims to have life in Himself and to judge all people. So Jesus warns them not to scoff or marvel at this. Then He adds a further claim of His divine power: In the future He will give the command and every dead person from every people group from all ages will arise from the dead! Whether their bodies were drowned or burned or eaten by scavengers or blown apart by a bomb, all will be raised to face judgment.
Other Scriptures indicate that there will be two resurrections. Believers will be raised at the second coming of Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 20:4). They will not face judgment for condemnation (John 5:24), but they will be judged for rewards in heaven (Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 3:13-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). Unbelievers will be raised at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:11-15). But no one will escape this final roll call.
John 5:29b: “… those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” Jesus is plainly teaching that this life is not the end of our existence. Either there is life beyond the grave for every person—both the righteous and the wicked—or Jesus is wrong. He says that both those who did good and those who did evil will be raised. The teaching that the wicked will be annihilated contradicts Jesus’ teaching. They will be raised for judgment and then “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). If eternal life is forever, then so is eternal punishment.
John 5:29b: “… those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” I had a Roman Catholic friend in college who was very interested in spiritual things. At my urging, she bought a Bible and began reading the Gospel of John. One day she told me that she had been wondering how a person gets to heaven. Then she said that she had come across a verse that told her how. I thought, “Praise the Lord, she has read John 3:16!” But she turned to John 5:29 and said, “It’s by good deeds!”
So I had to explain to her that verse 29 is describing the lives of those who have received new life from Jesus by faith as opposed to those who have not trusted in Him. She had missed John 1:12, which says that the children of God are those who believe in Jesus’ name. She had missed John 3:16, which says that whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. She had missed John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life….” She had missed John 5:24, “He who believes Him who sent Me has eternal life.” Leon Morris (pp. 321-322) explains verse 29 well:
Judgment, as always in Scripture, is on the basis of works…. This does not mean that salvation is on the basis of good works, for this very Gospel makes it plain over and over again that men enter eternal life when they believe on Jesus Christ. But the lives they live form the test of the faith they profess. This is the uniform testimony of Scripture. Salvation is by grace and it is received through faith. Judgment is based on men’s works.
John Calvin (pp. 209-210) comments on 5:29, “For without the pardon which God grants to those who believe in Him, there never was a man in the world of whom we can say that he has lived well; nor is there even a single work that will be reckoned altogether good, unless God pardon the sins which belong to it, for all are imperfect and corrupted.” He goes on to refute the Roman Catholic error that we gain eternal life through the merit of our works. Then he concludes (p. 210), “And indeed we do not deny that the faith which justifies us is accompanied by an earnest desire to live well and righteously; but we only maintain that our confidence cannot rest on anything else than on the mercy of God alone.”
John 5:30: “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” He not only said that He did not do anything on His own initiative, but that He could not. This goes back to the theme of the entire section, His unity with the Father in all things. Jesus will be impartial and completely fair in His judgment of all people. No one will be able to complain that he or she was judged unfairly. Jesus will be completely just or fair when He judges everyone. But you never want to ask God to be fair with you! Plead rather for His mercy!
You’ve probably heard the expression, “going first class on the Titanic.” It describes those who foolishly devote themselves to seeking after pleasure in this life only. This world and all who live for it are headed for judgment. Going first class on a ship that is certain to go down is not wise! Rather, get in the lifeboat while you can! There’s plenty of room for everyone, but you’ve got to get in.
Jesus claims that He can give eternal life to those who are spiritually dead and that He will raise all people for judgment. Either He is crazy to make such claims or He is God and He will do it. Make sure that you have passed out of death and into life because you have put your trust in Jesus Christ and His substitutionary death as your only hope for 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