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Lesson 22: Coming to Salvation (John 4:15-26)

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August 4, 2013

If I were to ask each of you, “How did you come to Christ?” the stories would probably be as varied as each of you are. We’re unique individuals with different personalities and backgrounds. Each of us would have a slightly different story to tell about how we met the Savior.

But probably after we’d heard all the stories, we could identify some common elements in each one. We all came to a point of sensing our need for the Lord. We all recognized that we are sinners and that our sin has separated us from the holy God. We realized that we could not play games with God, who looks on our hearts. We had to deal with Him on the heart level. And, we had to believe in Jesus as the One who died to save us from our sins.

The story of Jesus’ encounter with this unnamed Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well and how she came to believe in Jesus is unique in all the Bible. And yet it has some common elements with all who come to salvation. This woman moves from the beginning of her encounter with Jesus, where she seems to have no interest in spiritual things, through a gradual process to the point of believing in Him as the promised Messiah. By studying these verses we can learn how to help others come to salvation. And, if you’ve never tasted the living water that Jesus offers, I hope that you will see how you can do so.

To drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need, confess your sin to God, bow before Him on the heart level, and believe in Jesus for who He is.

As we saw last time, the living water that Jesus offers to give this woman (and all who thirst for God) is symbolic of the eternal life that the Holy Spirit imparts to all that believe in Jesus Christ. In John 4:13-14, Jesus tells this woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” The world and the things in the world might quench your thirst for a short time, but you’ll get thirsty again. But when you drink of the water of salvation that Jesus gives, you’re satisfied! I didn’t mention it last time, but verse 14 also shows that the salvation that Jesus gives is not temporary. Jesus says that it will permanently satisfy your spiritual thirst, which would not be true if you could lose your salvation. Let’s work our way through this story:

1. To drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need to God: “Give me this water” (4:15).

There is a subjective element in interpreting this woman’s request (4:15), “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” Some think that she was being sarcastic. She has just pointed out that Jesus has nothing to draw with and the well is deep. She has expressed her doubt that He is greater than Jacob. So perhaps now she is taunting Him or viewing His offer as amusing, but not serious. Others think that she was only thinking in material terms. She was interested in the living water if it would spare her the trouble of coming each day to draw and haul water from this well.

I understand her response to reflect sincere interest in what Jesus is offering, but she’s still confused. I think that she recognizes that this unusual Jewish stranger might be talking about something more than physical water, but she’s still thinking on too literal of a plane, like Nicodemus when he equated the new birth with returning to his mother’s womb (3:4). She was a woman looking for love, but she had failed in her relationships with men. She probably had a vague discontent with her Samaritan worship, which had not satisfied her spiritual thirst. So she responds to Jesus’ invitation to ask for the living water, but she’s still mixed up in thinking that it will also satisfy her physical thirst.

J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:217) observes wisely that it is useless to analyze too closely the first imperfect desires in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit is beginning to move. We should not demand that a person’s early motives in coming to Christ must be free from all imperfection. He says (ibid.),

Material water was not out of her thoughts, and yet she had probably some desires after everlasting life. Enough for us to know, that she asked and received, she sought and found. Our great aim must be to persuade sinners to apply to Jesus, and to say to Him, “Give me to drink.” If we forbid them to ask anything until they can prove that they ask in a perfect spirit, we should do no good at all. It would be as foolish to scrutinize the grammatical construction of an infant’s cries, as to analyze the precise motives of a soul’s first breathings after God. If it breathes at all and says, “Give,” we ought to be thankful.

The point is, this woman recognized some sort of inner need for the living water that Jesus offered, even if she didn’t completely understand what that living water was. If you want to drink the living water of salvation, you have to acknowledge your need for God, even if you’re not totally clear about what salvation means. Being self-sufficient will not bring you to Jesus. You have to recognize that you have needs that only God can satisfy.

2. To drink the living water of salvation, confess your sin to God (4:16-19).

The woman has asked Jesus to give her this living water, even though she is still thinking too much on a material level. If Jesus had led her in a prayer to receive the living water at this point, she would have been a false convert, because something crucial was missing. So Jesus abruptly changes direction (4:16-19):

He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.”

This is an example of Jesus, the Light, shining in the darkness and exposing the evil deeds of this woman (1:5; 3:19-20). Jesus shows her that He supernaturally knows all about her past and present. Jesus knew about Nathanael even before He met him (1:48). He knew what was in the hearts of the superficial believers in Jerusalem, so that He did not entrust Himself to them (2:24-25). We will see Jesus’ omniscience on other occasions in John’s Gospel (6:6; 6:64; 11:14; 13:38; 18:4).

It would be more than a little unnerving to have a perfect stranger uncover the sins of your past and present! But Jesus wasn’t doing it to be mean. He did it to show her that her real need was spiritual, not material. He was helping her come to terms with the nature of the gift that He was offering (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 221). As Ryle observes (p. 218), “No one values the physician until he feels the disease.”

It’s possible, but not likely, that this woman’s first five husbands had died. Jesus would not have needed to mention that, since there is nothing wrong with a widow remarrying. Jesus could have simply pointed out her current live-in boyfriend to zero in on her sin. Since divorce in that culture was usually not done just for incompatibility, it’s likely that this woman had been unfaithful to her previous husbands, which caused them to divorce her. In her current situation, she hadn’t bothered to make it official. Perhaps at this point, she didn’t expect this one to last, either.

I’ve had couples tell me that the fact that they were living together or having sexual relations meant that they were married in God’s sight. They didn’t “need a piece of paper” to be married. But Jesus makes it clear that living together is not the same thing as being married in God’s sight. Marriage is a formal covenant commitment before God and witnesses to be faithful to one another until death (Mal. 2:14). Moving in together or sleeping together is not biblical marriage. Even our State views marriage as a legal contract and we are to be subject to the laws of our land.

I read about a young man whose father did not approve of the fact that he was living with his girlfriend. But the young man argued that marriage was “just a piece of paper.” His father went to a file drawer, pulled out his will, and told his son that he had willed his entire estate to him. Then, to the young man’s horror, his father tore up the will. The boy shrieked, “Dad, what are you doing?” The dad shrugged and said, “It’s just a piece of paper.”

But to come back to the point: Before you can drink the living water of salvation, you have to acknowledge or confess to God that you’re a sinner. He knows that, of course, so there’s no point in trying to hide it. But he wants you to admit it. Jesus didn’t die on the cross just to give you some helpful hints for happier living. He died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins. To come to Him for salvation, you must realize that you are a guilty sinner. Like the prodigal son, you have to say (Luke 15:21), “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight!”

Granted, this woman did not explicitly confess her sin to Jesus, but I think it may be implicit in her droll reply (4:19), “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.” She was admitting that His analysis of her life was accurate!

At this point (4:20), she brings up a point of tension between the Samaritans and the Jews regarding whether people should worship at Mount Gerazim or in Jerusalem. As with verse 15, so here commentators differ in interpreting the woman’s reason for bringing this into the conversation. Some say that she was trying to divert the conversation from her sins, which made her uncomfortable, to a safer topic: “Let’s talk about the religious controversy between the Samaritans and the Jews.” Others argue that Jesus’ exposing her sin made her realize that He truly was a great prophet, so she brought up to Him a sincere, nagging question about the proper way to worship God. Ryle (p. 221) goes so far as to say that her words are just another form of the Philippian jailor’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”

I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle. She probably was uncomfortable with Jesus’ penetrating gaze into her secret life, as we all would be. So perhaps she was trying to divert the conversation to a safer topic. But also, she probably was sincerely confused about whether the Samaritan or the Jewish way of worship was correct. So the issue she raises in 4:20 was not insincere. She wanted to know from this prophet which way was right. Jesus’ reply leads to the third aspect of coming to salvation:

3. To drink the living water of salvation, bow before God on the heart level (4:20-24).

John 4:20-24:

Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

These are important verses that merit an entire sermon! In the context, Jesus is making the point that outward religious rituals and ceremonies are not at the heart of salvation. Eternal life is a matter of knowing and worshiping the living God on the heart level. As Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:6), “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We must be born of the Spirit to worship God in spirit. But at the same time, worship is not just an internal matter based on your own feelings. Worship also must be in line with the truth.

The issue that the woman brings up focuses on the externals of this centuries-old controversy (4:20): “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain [Gerazim], and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” But Jesus cuts through the external aspects of that controversy to say that very soon neither place will be the official place to worship. Both places will be surpassed by those who worship God truly in spirit. He is referring to the new age of the Spirit, based on His finished work on the cross. The woman had talked about the worship of her fathers, but Jesus directs her to the worship of the Father, which suggests a personal relationship as opposed to ritualistic ceremonies.

Note that Jesus does not gloss over the errors of Samaritan religion. It is false to say that every religion is equally valid and that we should not judge other religions as false! Jesus bluntly states that the Samaritans worshiped what they did not know. They were spiritually ignorant and wrong. The Jews worshiped what they knew, because “salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus does not mean that all Jews were saved or worshiped properly by virtue of being Jews. Rather, He is pointing out the historical fact, revealed in the Pentateuch (which the Samaritans accepted), that God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and promised to bring the Messiah and Savior through their descendants. God promised to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham, which is Christ (Gal. 3:8, 16).

When Jesus states (4:23, italics mine), “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” He is referring to Himself as the catalyst for this dramatic shift in focus. Through His death on the cross and His sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in His church, the Jewish system of worship would become obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Jesus is the new temple (2:19) that would replace the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

To explain why we must worship God in spirit, Jesus states (4:24), “God is spirit.” While it is true that God is a spirit, Jesus does not mean here that God is one spirit among many. Rather, He is emphasizing the kind of being God is: He is spirit. He is not material. He does not exist in a body that can be seen or touched, like our bodies. Any physical representation of God, whether by an idol or by a picture (as a white-haired old man), is a misrepresentation of God. While the Bible sometimes uses human terms to refer to God (the eyes of the Lord, the arm of the Lord, etc.), these are only analogies to help our limited ability to grasp what God is like. As Paul describes Him (1 Tim. 1:17), He is “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God.” Or, again (1 Tim. 6:15-16), He “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” God is spirit.

Therefore, Jesus twice repeats, true worshipers must worship the Father “in spirit and in truth.” “Spirit” here refers to the human spirit, which is the immaterial part of our being. Of course, we worship through the Holy Spirit, who imparts new life to us (John 3:6) and dwells within us. We can only worship God in spirit when the Holy Spirit has caused us to be born again.

But here Jesus is referring to the human spirit. Sometimes the Bible distinguishes “spirit” from “soul” (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12); but sometimes they are used interchangeably to mean the same thing (Luke 1:46-47). The Bible uses “heart” and “soul” and “spirit” to refer to our innermost being (Ps. 51:17). Here Jesus means that true worship must come from the depths of our being, as opposed to just going through external rituals or ceremonies. To worship God in spirit means to worship Him with complete sincerity, not with outward show or profession when our hearts are far from Him (Mark 7:6-7).

To worship God in truth means to worship Him as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. If you worship God as you conceive Him to be, apart from the truth of His Word, you are worshiping an idol, a figment of your imagination. We cannot know the invisible God except as He has chosen to reveal Himself, and we have that revelation in His written Word. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh, is the supreme revelation of God to us (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 1:1-2; Luke 10:22). He is the way, the truth, and the life; no one can come to the Father, except through Him (John 14:6). If we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). To worship God in truth is to worship Him in accord with how He has revealed Himself in His Word.

Charles Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 12:333) describes true worship: “True worship lies in your heart paying reverence to him, your soul obeying him, and your inner nature coming into conformity to his own nature, by the work of his Spirit in your soul.” So to drink the living water of salvation, you must deal with God on the heart level. As He opens your eyes to see who He really is and to see your own desperate need as a sinner before Him, you must bow in submission to Him.

Thus, to drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need to God; confess your sin to Him; bow before Him on the heart level. Finally,

4. To drink the living water of salvation, believe in Jesus for who He is, the Christ of God (4:25-26).

John 4:25-26: “The woman said to Him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He.’” Some think that the woman is still trying to divert the conversation from her own sin to a safer theological topic. But it may be that she was legitimately confused over the matters that Jesus has just stated. But she recognized that when the Messiah came, He would resolve all these issues. The Samaritans believed that the coming Prophet would declare all things (Deut. 18:15).

Jesus, who concealed His identity as Messiah from the politically-oriented Jews, declares openly to this Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am He.” He has been added by the translators. Literally, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am.” Some argue that Jesus is not here referring to Himself in the language of Exodus 3:14, where God identifies Himself to Moses as “I am.” But John may intend for his readers to pick up on that reference, which is clearly behind Jesus’ declaration in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” As Jesus confounds the Pharisees (Matt. 22:42-45), the Messiah is both David’s son and David’s Lord. He is God.

The point is, we must believe in Jesus as the Bible reveals Him: He is the eternal God, creator of all that is, who took on human flesh and died as the supreme and final sacrifice for our sins. He is risen from the dead and exalted on high. To deny either His true deity or humanity is to believe in a false Christ.


Jesus told this woman that the Father is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Jesus was seeking this sinful, confused, emotionally wounded woman so that she would become one who would worship the Father in spirit and in truth. He is seeking you, too, as one who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. To drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need to God; confess your sin to Him; bow before Him on the heart level; and believe in Jesus for who He is, the only Savior, the Christ of God.

Application Questions

  1. How can we help lost people to sense their desperate need for God when they seem to be oblivious to that need?
  2. Must a person experience deep conviction for sin before he believes in Christ, or can such conviction come afterwards?
  3. What are some practical ways for us as believers to grow in worshiping God in spirit and in truth?
  4. Must a person believe in Jesus as God to be saved? To what extent should we emphasize this when we witness?

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

Related Topics: Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 23: The Priority of True Worship (John 4:23-24)

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August 11, 2013

Years ago when the billionaire Howard Hughes died, his company’s public relations director asked the casinos in Las Vegas, where Hughes owned multiple casinos, to show him respect by giving him a minute of silence. For an uncomfortable sixty seconds, the casinos fell eerily silent. Then a pit boss looked at his watch, leaned forward, and whispered, “Okay, roll the dice. He’s had his minute.” (From the book, Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years, cited in “Our Daily Bread,” 11/77.)

I wonder if sometimes we treat God as those gamblers in Las Vegas treated Howard Hughes. We interrupt our busy schedules once a week, rush into church, give God “His hour,” and then forget about Him and get back to what we’d rather be doing.

John MacArthur was certainly correct to title his book on worship, The Ultimate Priority [Moody Press, 1983]. God created us for the ultimate priority of worshiping Him. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Or, as John Piper modifies it, our chief end is “to glorify God by enjoying Him forever” (Desiring God [Multnomah Books], 1996 edition, p. 15).

It’s no accident that the longest book in the Bible, Psalms, is all about praising and worshiping God. When we get to the end of the Bible, we see the saints and angels in heaven falling on their faces and worshiping God (Rev. 4:10-11; 5:8-14; 7:9-11). Since worship will be our ceaseless activity and greatest joy in heaven, we ought to be practicing it now.

Here are a few definitions of worship:

John MacArthur: “Worship is our innermost being responding with praise for all that God is, through our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words, based on the truth of God as He has revealed Himself” (The Ultimate Priority [Moody Press], p. 127). Or, he gives a simpler definition: “Worship is all that we are, reacting rightly to all that He is” (ibid., p. 147).

William Temple: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God” (cited in MacArthur, ibid., p. 147).

My definition is not so eloquent: Worship is an inner attitude and feeling of awe, reverence, gratitude, and love toward God resulting from a realization of who He is and who we are.

Also, John MacArthur gives this helpful clarification (on, “Messiah: The Living Water,” part 2): “Worship, by the way, is not music. Worship is loving God. Worship is honoring God. Worship is knowing God for who He is, adoring Him, obeying Him, proclaiming Him as a way of life. Music is one way we express that adoration.” As Paul states (1 Cor. 10:31), “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Thus all of life is to be oriented “God-ward,” permeated with a sense of His majesty and glory.

Jesus’ words about worship to this unnamed Samaritan woman occur in the context of His witness to bring this woman to saving faith. We might not think that witnessing is the right context to talk about the priority of worship. But Jesus takes her implicit question (4:20) about whether Samaritan worship or Jewish worship is correct and uses it to zero in on the aim of the gospel: to turn sinners into true worshipers of God. We learn:

Since God is seeking true worshipers who worship Him in spirit and truth, we should make it our priority to become such worshipers.

Jesus tells this woman that a significant transition is about to take place (4:23), “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Jesus’ presence began this change from the old covenant to the new. Under the old way of worship, place was significant: all Jewish males had to appear before God in Jerusalem for the three annual feasts (Deut. 16:16). But in the new way which Jesus inaugurated, He is the new temple (John 2:19-21). Believers are being built into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5). Thus where we gather to worship is secondary. How and whom we worship is primary.

Unbelievers, such as the Samaritan woman at this point, often mistakenly think that if they go through the proper externals of “worship,” then things are okay between them and God. As long as they go to a church building and go through the weekly rituals, they figure that everything is fine. But they haven’t dealt with God on the heart level. They haven’t repented of their sins of thought, word, and deed. So Jesus tells her that it’s not the externals that matter as much as the internal. We must make it our priority to become true worshipers of God in spirit and truth. Note three truths from these important verses:

1. God is seeking true worshipers.

As Jonathan Edwards argued, God created the world for His own glory (see John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books]). Everything, including the salvation of His elect and even the damnation of the wicked, will result in glory to God. So God now is seeking worshipers who will bring Him glory, not just for an hour on Sunday, but every day through all their activities. We can’t properly worship God on Sundays if we’re not worshiping Him throughout the week. You begin that process by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You grow in that process as you bring every thought, word, and deed under His lordship. Note two things:

A. The fact that God seeks true worshipers implies that there are false worshipers.

False worshipers either worship something other than God or they may attempt to worship the true God, but do it in ways that actually dishonor Him. But either way, sincerity is not the only criterion for measuring true worship. All true worshipers are sincere, but all sincere worshipers are not true. For example, there are devout, sincere worshipers of Allah or Krishna or Buddha or the Mormon god or the Jehovah’s Witness god. But they are sincerely wrong, because they are not worshiping the only living and true God, who has revealed Himself in the Bible.

There are also Christians who are sincere, but their worship is man-centered. Sometimes it’s patterned more after the entertainment world than after the Bible. It draws attention to the performers, but not to the Lord. Or, on the other end of the Christian spectrum, some go through ancient liturgies week after week, but their hearts are not in submission to God. They mistakenly think that because they went through the rituals, they’re good for another week. They’re like the Jewish leaders of whom Jesus said (Matt. 15:8, citing Isaiah 29:13), “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.” So we need to be careful not to fall into the category of false worshipers.

B. The fact that God is seeking true worshipers means that this is of utmost importance: it is our priority.

In verse 24, Jesus says that these true worshipers “must worship in spirit and truth” (italics mine). It’s a necessity. It isn’t optional; it’s essential. A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, online at points out that there are three musts in John: “You must be born again” (3:7); the Son of Man must be lifted up (3:14); and “those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24). The first concerns the Spirit, who imparts the new birth. The second concerns the Son, who was lifted up on the cross as the atonement for our sins. And the third concerns the Father, the object of our worship. And the order is important. First, you must be born again by trusting in Christ’s death for you. Only then can you worship God properly.

So the first point is that God is seeking you as a true worshiper. If you haven’t yet put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, start there. If you have trusted in Christ and perhaps have drifted off course, come back to this as your priority: God wants you to become a true worshiper.

2. The true worshipers that the Father seeks worship Him in spirit and truth.

Jesus repeats this twice so that we don’t miss it (4:23-24): “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” To be true worshipers, we must worship both in spirit and in truth. To worship in spirit without truth is to worship false gods. To worship in truth without spirit is to fall into dead orthodoxy. We may be doctrinally correct, but we’re lifeless. And, the Father must be the focus of our worship.

A. We should worship the Father, who is spirit.

Jesus emphasizes three times to this Samaritan woman that it is the Father that we are to worship (4:21, 23 [2x]). And, He explains to her that God is spirit. This is His essential nature. We looked at this last time. It means that God does not have a material body. He is invisible to human eyes (John 1:18; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16). The fact that He is spirit means that He is not confined to one locale at a time. He is omnipresent. He has existed as spirit for all eternity, before He created the material universe. When we’re born again, we possess human spirits (John 3:6), which can worship Him. Because He is the only omnipresent spirit, we can worship Him anywhere and know that He is there.

Through Jesus, we come to know God as our Father, whom we worship. John Piper (“Not in This or That Mount, but in Spirit and Truth,” at suggests three reasons that Jesus emphasizes the Father to this Samaritan woman: First, God is the Father of the Samaritans. This woman mentions “our father Jacob” (4:12) and “our fathers worshiped in this mountain” (4:20). So Jesus shifts the focus from these human fathers to the Father, who alone is to be worshiped.

Second, Jesus is pointing out that the Father has spiritual children. Having children is what makes one a father. We become God’s children through believing in Jesus and being born of the Spirit (1:12-13; 3:5-7). Being children of the Father implies that we have a personal relationship with Him.

Third, God is the Father of His unique Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This does not mean that Jesus became the Son at a point in time. There never was a time when He was not God’s Son. The relationship of God as the Father of Jesus the Son points to Jesus’ sharing the same essential nature as the Father. Jesus is God. John 5:18 states, “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.” In John 10:30, Jesus stated, “I and the Father are one.” In John 17:5, Jesus prays, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” God the Father and God the Son have always been equal as God.

I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended for the Samaritan woman to grasp the mystery of the trinity in this first encounter! But the Holy Spirit inspired these words so that we would come to worship God in His triune nature. As Jesus says (John 5:23), the Father has given all judgment to the Son “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.” True worship worships the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit (Phil. 3:3).

B. We should worship the Father in spirit.

To worship in spirit is to worship from the heart or from within. It’s opposed to formal, ceremonial, external worship by those whose hearts are not right with God (Matt. 15:8). Thus the most important factor in becoming a worshiper is to guard and cultivate your heart for God. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 161) says that worship in the spirit is the inward faith of the heart which produces prayer, purity of conscience, and self-denial, leading to obedience.

I believe that worship in spirit is, in part, emotional or felt. This is not to say that we should pump up our emotions with music or crowd fervor. Genuine emotions for God stem from focusing our minds on the truth of who He is and what He has done for us at the cross. But if your worship never touches your emotions, something is wrong. It’s like my love for my wife. My relationship with her is not built on my feelings, but rather on my commitment to her. But when I think about all that she means to me, I feel love for her and I ought to express that love in some outward manner that shows her that I love her.

C. We should worship the Father in truth.

God has revealed Himself to us in His Word of truth and supremely in His Son, who is the truth (John 1:18; 14:6; 17:17). To worship God in truth means that we worship Him for all that He is in the majesty of His attributes as revealed in all of Scripture. We worship Him for His love, but also for His justice and righteousness. We worship Him for His kindness, but also for His severity (Rom. 11:22). We worship Him for His sovereignty and for His grace. We worship Him when He gives, but also when He takes away (Job 1:20-21). We worship Him for all His ways. The Bible is our only guide for worshiping in truth. As I said, worship in spirit flows out of worship in truth. Feeding your mind on the truth of God moves your spirit to praise and love God.

Since God is seeking true worshipers who worship Him in spirit and truth …

3. Make it your priority to become a true worshiper of God.

This applies in three directions:

A. If I’m not growing as a true worshiper, I’m not in line with what God is seeking to do in my life.

As we’ve seen, personal worship is not restricted to a few minutes on Sunday mornings. In the context of 1 Corinthians 10:31, where Paul mentions glorifying God through eating and drinking, he is talking about relationships that do not cause offense to others, whether to unbelievers or believers (10:32). So how we treat others should be a matter of worship. Evangelistic or missionary efforts are a matter of worship (Rom. 15:16). Giving to support Christian workers or to help fellow believers is a matter of worship (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16). Godly behavior is a matter of worship (Eph. 5:10; Phil. 1:11). An attitude of praise and thanksgiving is a matter of worship (Heb. 13:15). The point is, you can’t live a self-centered, worldly life all week long and then come to church on Sunday and worship.

B. If we’re not growing as a worshiping church, we’re not in line with what God is seeking to do in this body.

Why do you come to church? If your focus is to get something out of the church service, you’ve got it wrong. Your focus should be to give praise and honor and thanks with all the saints to the God who gave His Son for you. Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that often a congregation views itself as an audience, watching the worship leaders and the pastor give their presentation or performance. But the truth is that the congregation is actually the cast of actors, with the worship leaders and the pastor acting as prompters, giving cues from the wings. The real audience is God and the entire presentation is offered to Him, for His pleasure and glory. So the issue when you come to church is not, “Did I get anything out of it?” but, “Did I give God the heartfelt praise and thanks and glory that He deserves?” That’s our aim as a church.

C. If we’re not seeking to help others locally and globally become worshipers, we’re not in line with God’s purpose.

John Piper wrote (Let the Nations be Glad [Baker], p. 17), “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.” His words apply not only to missions in other countries, but also to our efforts to reach the lost in Flagstaff. Our aim is to turn sinners into worshipers. That was Jesus’ aim with this sinful Samaritan woman.


Here are seven practical suggestions on how to grow as a true worshiper of the Father:

1. Make sure that you truly believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.

You don’t worship to gain eternal life; you worship because God has given you eternal life. Worship is your response after you have believed in God’s grace through Christ’s death on your behalf.

2. Establish a daily time alone with God in the Word and prayer.

I cannot over-emphasize this. Worship is your response to the truth that God has revealed in His Word. Prayer is a response to the truth of the Word. Without spending consistent time alone with the Lord, your soul will shrivel up. You won’t worship.

3. Eliminate all of the garbage from the world that hinders your growth in worshiping God.

The world is constantly competing for our worship. It bombards us daily through the media. If a TV show or movie defiles you or crowds out your daily time with the Lord, cut it out. If the computer gobbles up your time, you’ve got to restrict it. If you’re yielding to the temptation to view porn on your computer, you’re in serious spiritual trouble (Matt. 5:27-30)! You cannot glorify God with your body unless you flee from immorality (1 Cor. 6:18-20). You’ve got to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), because true worship is inseparable from godliness.

4. Prepare your heart Saturday night for corporate worship on Sunday morning.

I have an advantage on you, in that to survive in the pulpit on Sundays, I have to prepare my heart Saturday evenings. I don’t go to social events on Saturday evenings. I’m not suggesting that you do as I do in that regard, but I am suggesting that you should get home early enough to spend some time before the Lord, making sure that your heart is right with Him and praying that He would be honored by our worship as we gather on Sunday.

5. Put away distractions on Sunday mornings and don’t be a distraction to other worshipers.

Don’t read the bulletin during singing or the sermon. If you have a medical condition that requires you to use the restroom during the worship service, sit near the back and on an aisle so you don’t disturb others. If you’re thirsty, you can wait until the service is over to get a drink. If your child is a distraction to others, take him to the nursery or out of the service.

6. Ignore others around you and remember that God is the audience.

There is a balance here. We should feel free to express our love to God outwardly without worrying about what others think of us. David danced before the Lord even though it embarrassed his wife, but God sided with David (2 Sam. 6:14-23). On the other hand, if you’re so demonstrative that you’re distracting others and calling attention to yourself, you’re out of balance. “All things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:40).

7. Spend time worshiping God in His creation.

If you live in a big city, you’ll have to work harder at this than we who live in beautiful Flagstaff do. But wherever you are, pay attention to what God has made: the night sky with its stars; the sun to warm the day and give light (Ps. 19:1-6); the flowers, the birds, the butterflies, and even the bugs; your body, which is fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). In Romans 1:18-21, Paul indicts ungodly people who have ignored the evidence of the Creator that is all around them in His creation. Their sin was that they did not honor God or give thanks. In other words, they didn’t worship the Creator. But that’s our ultimate priority!

Application Questions

  1. What are some ways in which evangelical Christians may worship God falsely? How much cultural freedom is there in true worship?
  2. Since true worship is in part a matter of our feelings, how can a Christian who has lost such feelings reignite them?
  3. What are some worldly influences that choke out worship in your life? How should you deal with them?
  4. Complete this sentence: If truly worshiping God is my priority, my daily schedule must change by ….

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

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation), Worship (Personal)

Lesson 24: The Witnesses God Uses (John 4:27-42)

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August 18, 2013

If you’re anything like me, you struggle at being an effective witness for Jesus Christ. I’ve prayed about it for decades, I’ve read many books, gone to different training seminars, and even taken a seminary class in evangelism, but still I often fail at being a good witness. An hour or two after an opportunity, I think, “I should have said such and such,” but I didn’t think of it at the time.

Our text gives us some help in being the kind of witness that God uses from an unlikely source: A woman who is a brand new convert, who is still living with a man outside of marriage, who knows almost no sound doctrine, and who has not had a training course in how to share her faith. Yet she effectively evangelizes her entire village for Christ!

When Jesus tells her that He is the Messiah (4:26), she gets so excited that she leaves her waterpot, goes back to her village, and tells the men, who normally would have laughed at anything she said (4:29), “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” As a result, they streamed out of the city to meet Jesus. They invited Him to stay with them. He spent two days there, during which time many more Samaritans came to believe in Him. At the end of that time, they proclaimed (4:42b), “This One is indeed the Savior of the world.” This narrative teaches us that…

God uses witnesses who are excited about Jesus, have a harvest perspective, and invite others to come to Him.

When Jesus told this woman that He is the Messiah, she had to decide: Is He or isn’t He? Although a few commentators question whether she believed in Christ (John never states this explicitly), the great majority believe that she did. How do we know? We know because of her response to Jesus’ self-revelation and because of the result that came from her witness: She immediately went to tell others about Jesus resulting in their believing in Him. We learn three things about becoming more effective witnesses for Christ:

1. God uses the witness of those who are excited about Jesus (4:27-30).

Just as (or after) Jesus told this woman that He was the Messiah, the disciples returned from the village with the food that they had bought for their lunch. John says (4:27) that “they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman.” Their amazement stemmed from two sources: cultural conditioning and they didn’t understand Jesus’ mission (4:31-38).

Culturally, it was taboo for a Jewish man to speak with a woman in public, much less with a Samaritan woman, especially a Samaritan woman who had questionable morals. Some (not all) Jewish leaders taught that it was at best a waste of time to talk with a woman, even with your own wife, and at worst a diversion from the study of the Torah that could possibly lead one to hell. Some rabbis went so far as to suggest that teaching your daughter the Torah was as inappropriate as selling her into prostitution (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 227). To speak with a woman in public, even with your own wife, could lead to gossip and should be avoided. Some Jewish leaders taught that Samaritan women were perpetually unclean (Colin Kruse, John [IVP], p. 137). Thus the disciples were amazed to find Jesus speaking with this Samaritan woman by the well.

But in spite of their shock, the disciples did not question Jesus about why He was speaking to her. Some say that they were silent out of deference to Jesus, but at other times they didn’t hesitate to question Him. Maybe they were struck speechless by their shock and when that wore off, Jesus was already teaching them about His mission. But John tells us what they were thinking (4:27b): “What do You seek?” “Why do You speak with her?”

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 167) offers two helpful insights on 4:27. First, he says that if the disciples marveled that Jesus spoke with such a sinner as this Samaritan woman, they should have looked at themselves and marveled. None of us are any more worthy of heaven than this sinful woman was. Second, the fact that they did not question Jesus should teach us that if anything in God’s Word is disagreeable or puzzling to us, we should not murmur against God, but rather wait in silence until He reveals the matter to us more clearly.

John continues (4:28-30), “So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, ‘Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?’ They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.”

John does not tell us exactly why she left her waterpot, but I think that she was so excited that she couldn’t wait to tell her village about Jesus. She wanted her people to meet this remarkable man before He slipped away. Carrying a heavy waterpot would have slowed her down. So she rushed back to the village to tell everyone who would listen about her amazing encounter with this stranger who had uncovered her past. I think that her exaggeration, that Jesus had told her all the things that she had done, also reflects her excitement. Normally, she would never have brought up anything about her sordid past. But the encounter with Jesus had changed her. Now, she wanted everyone to meet Him, too.

We need to understand that in that culture, the testimony of a woman, much less a woman of ill repute, was disregarded. The Jews would not accept the testimony of a woman in court. This woman was notorious in such a small village for her string of divorces and her current live-in boyfriend. Most of the men in the village would have avoided having any contact with her at the risk of raising suspicions that they were wrongly involved with her. If word got back to their wives that they had spoken to this woman, they would be in trouble when they got home! Yet, they listened to her and responded to her invitation to go and see whether Jesus might be the Messiah.

With all of this against her, why was her witness so effective? I think that part of the answer lies in her careful way of speaking to these men. Her question (in Greek) implies a negative answer: “This is not the Christ, is it?” If she had stated boldly that she had met the Christ, they all would have had a good laugh and gotten back to their conversation. But her question, framed as a tentative suggestion, piqued their curiosity. She deferred to the self-assumed wisdom of the men by letting them come to their own conclusion (C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 18:305).

This teaches us that to be effective witnesses, it’s often good to ask questions rather than make pronouncements. Bill Fay (audio recording) suggests asking these questions: “(1) Do you have any kind of spiritual belief? (2) To you, who is Jesus? (3) Do you think that there is heaven or hell? (4) If you died, where are you going? (5) Why would God let you into heaven?” Then, after listening to the person’s answers, ask, “(6) If what you believe is not true, do you want me to tell you?” Fay says that in thousands of encounters, he’s never had a firm “no” to that last question. Then you can show the person the Bible verses that explain the gospel.

But I think the main reason that this woman’s witness was effective was that she was excited about Jesus and these men who knew her could see the change in her. Before, she would not have spoken to any of them. She didn’t even want to speak to the other women in the village, which is probably why she was getting water at noon, when no one else would be at the well. But here she was, willing to bring up her own notoriously sinful past, exuberantly telling about this man whom she had met. The change and her excitement about Jesus were evident.

Evangelism and sales have many differences, but there are some parallels. One common feature is that the most successful salesmen are those who are excited about their product. They think that what they’re selling will solve your problems. If a salesman is apathetic about his product, you’re not likely to buy it. But if he tells you how the product changed his life and he wants you to experience the same thing, you just might be interested.

So here we have a woman who knew far less than Nicodemus did and she had a far worse background than his. But she was far bolder and did far more good than he did because she was excited about Him as the Messiah and she testified about her own experience with Jesus. God will use your witness if you’ve had a genuine encounter with the Lord Jesus and you’re excited about Him. And if you’re not excited about Him, you need to figure out why not.

2. God uses the witness of those who have a harvest mindset (4:31-38).

Verses 31-38 are a “meanwhile, back at the well” scene that shows us a second reason the disciples were amazed that Jesus was talking with this woman: they were clueless about Jesus’ mission. The disciples arrive back at the well with their Big Mac and fries for Jesus, but He isn’t interested in eating. They urge Him to eat, but He tells them (4:32), “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” They don’t get it! So they wonder among themselves (4:33), “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?”

Chances are that they had passed this woman as they were going in to buy their lunch. Perhaps they took a wide path around her; surely, they did not speak to her. Now they come back to find Jesus speaking to her, much to their shock. She leaves, so they want to get on with their mission, namely, getting Jesus to eat lunch so that they can get back on their journey north. But Jesus clues them in on His mission (4:34): “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” Then as the villagers begin streaming out in their white robes to meet Jesus, He tells the disciples (4:35), “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.”

The disciples needed to develop a harvest mindset. They needed to understand what God was doing in this situation. I’ve often been just like these clueless disciples, focused on the natural when I should have been awake to what God was doing spiritually around me. Like them, I needed to develop a harvest mindset.

A. A harvest mindset puts the will of God and His work above everything else (4:31-34).

The disciples were focused on eating lunch; Jesus was focused on doing the Father’s will and accomplishing the work that the Father had sent Him to do. We don’t know whether Jesus ever got His drink of water or whether He ever ate the lunch that the disciples had brought back. But He saw a whole village of Samaritans come to faith in Him as they discovered that He is the Savior of the world. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Food and drink were secondary; reaching lost people was primary. So in three short years, Jesus could pray (John 17:4), “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.”

So often we’re like the disciples, focused on the temporal, but clueless as to the spiritual and eternal. A neighbor kid annoys you by cutting across your yard and stepping on your flowers. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity to show this boy the love of Christ, you chew him out and tell him that if he does it again, you’ll tell his parents. You’ve just put your yard above God’s work. A person at work grates on you with her obnoxious personality. You avoid her and tell the boss how annoying she is. You’ve just put your comfort above God’s work. A harvest mindset puts the will of God and His work above everything else.

B. A harvest mindset focuses on sowing and reaping (4:35-38).

Jesus makes four points in this short lesson on sowing and reaping:

(1). The harvest may be ready in situations where you never would expect it (4:35).

Jesus seems to be quoting a familiar saying that means something like, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” You don’t sow seed and expect to go out the next day and reap a harvest. It takes time for the crop to grow. But in this case, the spiritual harvest was instant.

This Samaritan woman was an unlikely prospect for evangelism if there ever was one! She wasn’t interested in spiritual things when Jesus turned the conversation in that direction. She had all kinds of mixed up ideas due to her Samaritan religious beliefs. She was an immoral woman, not a “key” person and potential leader, as Nicodemus was. But by crossing cultural taboos and taking the time to talk with this messed up Samaritan woman, Jesus ended up reaping a harvest with the entire village.

You never know how God may use your witness with someone whom you consider to be an unlikely prospect for the gospel. I would have zeroed in on Nicodemus, but he proved to be a bit slow in responding and we’re not told that he ever reached anyone else with the gospel. Like the disciples, I probably would have kept my distance from this immoral Samaritan woman, but she proved to be the key to reaching an entire village.

(2). There is great reward and great joy in doing God’s work (4:36).

Jesus says (4:36), “Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.” Earthly wages are of no value after you die, but wages that pay rewards for eternity are worth working for! A billionaire on his deathbed who has not laid up treasure in heaven is like the man in Jesus’ parable who planned to build bigger barns, but was not rich toward God (Luke 12:15-21). He was a fool. But the one with a harvest mindset who labors for souls is storing up eternal joy. We don’t know for sure, by the way, to whom Jesus is referring when he mentions the one who sows. It could be the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist. Or, it could be Jesus and the woman. But the fact that someone sowed before Jesus reaped leads to a third lesson:

(3). To reap a harvest, seed must be sown (4:37-38).

John 4:37-38: “For in this case the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.” To state the obvious, there is no reaping without prior sowing. But we often forget this. We expect to reap without sowing. We wonder why we don’t see people coming to Christ. Often the answer is simple: Because I haven’t been sowing any seed! At the very least, begin praying for opportunities to share the gospel with others. Jot down a list of those that don’t know Christ with whom you regularly have contact and begin praying for their salvation and for God to give you an opportunity to talk to them about the Savior. To reap a harvest, we have to sow the seed.

(4). You may do the hard work of sowing only to have others reap the harvest (4:37-38).

“One sows and another reaps” (4:37). We need to keep in mind that we never labor alone. If you lead someone to Christ, probably you’re reaping where someone else has already sown. It’s rare for someone to come to faith the first time he hears the message. And, if you share the gospel and the person does not respond, don’t get discouraged. Pray that God would water the seed that you’ve sown and bring along someone else who may reap the fruit. As Paul said (1 Cor. 3:6), “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:246) observes:

Let it be noted, that in doing work for Christ, and laboring for souls, there are sowers as well as reapers. The work of the reaper makes far more show than the work of the sower. Yet it is perfectly clear that if there was no sowing there would be no reaping. It is of great importance to remember this. The Church is often disposed to give an excessive honor to Christ’s reapers, and to overlook the labors of Christ’s sowers.

Adoniram Judson labored his entire lifetime in Burma with much hardship, many disappointments, and little visible fruit in terms of converts. But today there are over a million Christians in Burma who trace their roots back to Judson’s labors. Your sowing is not in vain if others reap the fruit. Be faithful in sowing the seed!

Thus God uses the witness of those who are excited about Jesus, who have a harvest mindset. Finally,

3. God uses the witness of those who invite others to come to Jesus Christ (4:39-42).

John 4:39-42: “From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.’”

In light of the centuries of hostility between Samaritans and Jews, the Samaritans’ warm acceptance of Jesus is amazing. The Holy Spirit can break down barriers that the world has erected. Just as Nathanael had to “come and see” Jesus for himself (1:46), so now at the woman’s invitation to “come,” the Samaritans came to Jesus and came to believe that He is the Savior of the world. Note two things:

A. Focus on who Jesus is.

The woman came to know Jesus as the Messiah who could give her the living water of eternal life. She told the men of her village about Jesus as she had come to know Him. And, her statement, “He told me all the things I’ve done” showed Jesus to be at the very least a prophet, but we know, as the omniscient God.

After spending two days with Jesus (a privilege that no Jewish village ever had) the Samaritans came to know that Jesus is indeed more than any other prophet; He is “the Savior of the world.” He is not only the Savior of the Jews, but also of any person of any nationality who believes in Him. That He is Savior means that people are lost and need saving. They don’t just need a few helpful hints for happy living. They need to be raised from the dead and given eternal life. In your witness, focus on who Jesus is. Encourage people to read the gospels and answer Jesus’ crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?”

B. Invite sinners to come to Jesus.

The woman invited the men of the village (4:29), “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done.” They went, they saw Jesus, and they believed in Him. Jesus invites those burdened with sin (Matt. 11:28), “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” The entire Bible ends on this same note (Rev. 22:17), “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.”


That’s God’s invitation to you: “Come to Jesus!” Are you burdened with sin? Come! Are you thirsty for the water of life? Come! Jesus gives living water freely to unworthy sinners like this Samaritan woman who come and ask Him for it. Then when they have come, He uses them as effective witnesses, inviting others to come to Jesus and live.

Application Questions

  1. If you’ve lost your excitement about Jesus, how do you get it back? (See Rev. 2:1-7.)
  2. How would you describe a “harvest mindset”? How can we cultivate such a mindset?
  3. What are some practical ways that you can sow the seed of the gospel with unbelievers?
  4. Why is it important to keep in mind that you may sow only to have others reap or you may reap where others have sown?

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

Related Topics: Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 25: From Foxhole Faith to Saving Faith (John 4:43-54)

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September 1, 2013

We’ve all heard stories of men who had “foxhole” conversions. The man was on the front lines in battle. Bullets were flying and mortars were exploding all around him. He feared that he would die. Suddenly, his partner was hit and killed right next to him. In his panic, he flashed back to the Sunday school upbringing from which he has strayed. He thought about his godly mother, who prays for him every day. He cried out, “God, get me out of here safely and I will follow You the rest of my life!” The Lord answered his prayer and brought him safely through the battle.

The real test of that man’s faith, however, is not how sincere he may have been in crying out to God in the heat of the battle. The real test of his faith is rather measured by what he does when the pressure is off. Will he forget God and go back to his old ways? Or, will he go deeper and develop genuine faith in the person of Christ that is not just a response to his immediate need? Will he repent of his sins, trust in Christ as his Savior, and follow Him as Lord after his crisis is over?

This also applies to everyone who has cried out to God in an emergency. Maybe you or a loved one was facing a serious health problem. You cried out to God and promised that if He brought healing, you would follow Him. Maybe it was a financial crisis or the need for a job. Perhaps you were lonely and praying for a wife or husband. The Lord does not want us to seek Him merely for deliverance from some crisis, and then to put Him back on the shelf until we need Him in the next crisis. Rather, He wants us to go deeper in our faith and to trust and follow Him because of who He is, not just because of what He can do for us.

This is the central point in John 4:43-54, where Jesus heals the son of a royal official who is near death. The lesson is:

The Lord wants you to move from the foxhole faith that solves your crisis to the mature, saving faith of eternal life.

The Lord often graciously meets us at our point of crisis, but that’s just the beginning. He wants us to believe in and follow Him not only because He delivered us from our crisis, but also because He is the only Savior and Lord. He is worthy of our trust because of who He is.

Background (4:43-45): It’s possible to receive Jesus without truly believing in Him.

Verses 43-45 form the background to the narrative that follows. After two days of fruitful ministry in the Samaritan village of Sychar, Jesus and the disciples headed north into Galilee. John adds (4:44), “For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country.” This statement occurs in the other gospels in connection with Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (Matt. 13:57; Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24), to explain His rejection there. But here John does not mention Nazareth, but only Galilee. And, why does he introduce the verse with “for”? It’s not easy to see how verse 44 explains verse 43.

Perhaps the sense is that after His unexpectedly warm reception in Samaria, Jesus went into Galilee to show that His own people did not receive Him, illustrating John 1:11, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 285) explains,

He had come unto His own, not under a delusion that He would be welcomed, but knowing full well that He must expect a rejection. This would not take Him by surprise, for it was in the divine plan. So, to fulfil all this implies, He went to Galilee.

John wants us to understand that Jesus went to Galilee because He was following God’s will. In spite of knowing that He would not be honored in his own country, He went. But then we would expect verse 45 to say that when Jesus came to Galilee, He was rejected. But instead, John adds (4:45), “So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast.” Why does he say this?

There are two clues to interpreting verse 45. The first is the phrase, “having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast.” This takes us back to 2:23-25, where many of the Jews at the feast were believing in Jesus because they saw the signs (miracles) that He did. But Jesus was not entrusting Himself to them, because He could see that their faith was shallow. Then John tells the story of Nicodemus, who was impressed with the signs that Jesus was doing (3:2), but who did not understand his need for the new birth through faith in Jesus as his sin-bearer (3:3-14).

The second clue is Jesus’ rebuke in 4:48, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” “You” is plural in this verse. Jesus was not just rebuking the man who was asking Him to heal his son. He was rebuking the Jewish people because of their superficial reasons for seeking Him. They sought Him for the miracles He did, but they didn’t understand that they should seek Him because He is their Messiah and Lord.

So in verse 45, John is using irony. He doesn’t stop here to explain that the Galileans’ reception of Jesus was superficial, but that’s his point. Neither they nor the royal official recognize and honor Jesus as the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans did. They believed in Jesus without any miracles, except for His words to the woman unmasking her past and present immorality. They believed in Him because of His word (4:41-42). But the Galileans only sought Him because of the signs which He performed. John wants us to go beyond the shallow Galilean “faith,” which receives Christ because of the miraculous. He wants the signs that Jesus did to lead us to believe in Him for who He is, the Christ, the Son of God, so that we might have eternal life in His name (20:31).

That background brings us to the story in 4:46-54, which illustrates the point of 4:43-45. This royal official comes to Jesus with Galilean “faith,” looking for a miraculous sign, but ends up going deeper to believe in Jesus as the Christ. Note the emphasis on “life” in the story: In 4:50, Jesus tells the man, “Go; your son lives.” In 4:51, as the man was returning home, his slaves met him, “saying that his son was living.” In 4:53, the father came to know that his son had been healed in the same hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son lives.” As a result, both he and his whole household believed. Thus they serve as an illustration of John’s purpose for writing this gospel (20:31), “these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

1. Foxhole faith: Often we don’t cry out to the Lord until we’re desperate (4:46-49).

John notes (4:46) that Jesus came again to Cana of Galilee, where He had done His first miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding feast. Then he concludes the story by linking this second miracle or sign to the first (4:54). Why does he make these connections here?

A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, on says that John wants us to compare the two miracles. He draws seven comparisons, which I can’t mention for sake of time. But the most significant comparison is that the result of the first sign was that the disciples believed in Jesus (2:11); the result of this second sign was that the royal official and his household believed (4:53). That’s the response that John wants all of his readers to make: These signs are written so that you will believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and thus have life in His name (20:31).

But as James Boice (The Gospel of John [Zondervan, 1-vol. ed.], p. 293) points out, there is also a great contrast between the two stories. The first is a scene of joy and happiness; but the second is a scene of sickness, desperation, anxiety, and the shadow of death. Boice says that by comparing the two stories, we are to see that life is filled with both kinds of situations and that Jesus is the One that we need to trust in all the joys and sorrows of life.

John describes the man as a royal official. We don’t know whether he was a Jew or a Gentile, but he probably had some post in Herod’s court. He could have been Manaen, who is mentioned in Acts 13:1 as having been brought up with Herod the tetrarch. Or, he may have been Chuza, Herod’s steward, whose wife Joanna contributed to Jesus’ support (Luke 8:3). But we don’t know. We can be sure that between John the Baptist’s witness and the report of this miracle on his official’s son, Herod had more than adequate witness about Christ. And yet he refused to believe. This official probably had heard of Jesus’ first miracle in Cana and also of the miracles that He had done in Jerusalem at the feast.

But he probably never would have come to Jesus if it hadn’t been for this personal crisis: His son was sick and at the point of death (4:47). He probably had sought all of the physicians in Capernaum, but they had not been able to help. So in desperation, the man makes the 15-20-mile walk from the north shore of the Sea of Galilee up to Cana to find Jesus. The verb tense that John uses indicates that he was repeatedly imploring Jesus to come down and heal his son. Every parent who has had a very sick child knows the anxiety that this father was feeling.

God often uses the crises in our lives to get us to seek Him in ways that we never would have done if the crisis had not occurred. But we need to understand that seeking the Lord in a crisis is not automatic. Many curse God and grow bitter when trials hit. We should follow this man’s example by seeking the Lord when trouble strikes.

Probably the man was fairly well-off, but his position and his money could not save the life of his son. All of us, whether rich or poor, will face afflictions and eventually death. Being young does not guarantee many more years of life. This young boy was dying. The story shows our helplessness without God. The time to seek Him is now, when you have the opportunity, not later.

Jesus’ reply to this man’s desperate cry for help seems harsh (4:48): “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” But Jesus knew that the man was not seeking Him because he wanted to worship Him or follow Him for who He is. He wasn’t coming as a sinner seeking forgiveness and eternal life. Rather, he was like the soldier in the foxhole. He desperately needed immediate help. And so Jesus’ rebuke, which as I said was directed both at the man and at the Galileans who were there, was a gracious rebuke intended to help the man see his greater need. Jesus wanted him to move from his foxhole faith to genuine saving faith. We should learn that the Lord never rebukes us to hurt us, but always for our good, so that we might grow in faith and holiness.

Note also that the man’s faith at this point was quite limited. He thought that Jesus had to make the journey to Capernaum in order to heal his son. And it never occurred to him that even if his son died, Jesus could raise him from the dead. But it was sincere faith, even though limited. He didn’t try to convince Jesus that he was worthy of this miracle because he was a royal official or a man of means. He didn’t take offense at Jesus’ rebuke. He just pathetically cried out (4:49), “Sir, come down before my child dies.”

Before we leave this point, even those of us who have believed in Christ as Savior need to look in the mirror. All too often, we’re just like this royal official. We don’t pray unless we’re in a crisis. We keep Jesus on the shelf, like Aladdin’s lamp. When we need Him, we pull Him off the shelf, try to rub Him the right way, and ask for His help. But after the difficulty passes, we put Him back on the shelf and get on with life virtually without Him.

But Christ wants to be worshiped as Lord, not used as Aladdin’s lamp. He wants us to believe in Him for who He is and to fellowship with Him at all times. He doesn’t just want us to seek Him when we need something or we’re in a jam. Any father can identify with this. What if your son only talked to you when he needed money or wanted to borrow your car? Well, that’s better than no communication at all. But it would be far better to hear, “Dad, I love you because you’re such a wonderful father.” And it would be nice if he wanted to talk to you at times when he didn’t need anything, just because he liked being with you.

The story moves from foxhole faith to the next stage:

2. Initial faith in Christ’s promise: When we cry out to Him in our desperate need, we either must take Him at His word or not (4:50).

As I said, the man had it fixed in his mind that Jesus had to accompany him back to Capernaum to heal his son. Often, we have a preconceived idea of how the Lord must work to solve our crisis. Jesus could have gone with the man and healed the boy in his presence. He did this with Jairus’ daughter when He raised her from the dead (Luke 8:41-56). That would have been more dramatic, but it wouldn’t have developed the man’s faith.

So, instead, Jesus puts the man in a curious dilemma: The man said, “Come!” but Jesus said, “Go; your son lives.” By doing this, Jesus forced the man to believe without a sign. Either he had to doubt the word of the One in whom he had placed all of his hopes for his son’s recovery, or he had to believe Him and go. So Jesus very skillfully drew this man into a deeper level of faith: Faith in Christ’s promise or word.

Here, the man has nothing but Jesus’ “bare word” to go on, but John reports (4:50), “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off.” Note that the Lord answered the man’s desire (to heal his son), but not his request (to come down to his house). So the man had to put aside his expectations of how Jesus would work and just take Him at His word.

This story reminds us of the story of the Syrian army captain, Naaman, who had leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19). His servant girl, a Jewish slave, told him about Elisha the prophet, who could cure him of his leprosy. He was desperate, so he put together a nice reward and went to the prophet. He expected Elisha to come out to him, stand and call on the name of the Lord, wave his hand over him, and heal him. But instead, Elisha didn’t even come out of the house. He sent his servant out to tell this important man to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times and his leprosy would be cured. Naaman was furious. This wasn’t what he expected. Besides, the rivers in Syria were better than the lousy Jordan. So he went away in a rage.

But then his servants appealed to him and said (2 Kings 5:13), “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So Naaman went and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan River and was cured of his leprosy. He believed the word of the prophet, obeyed, and was healed.

J. C. Ryle points out that Christ’s word is as good as His presence. He says (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 4:254-255):

What Christ has said, He is able to do; and what He has undertaken, He will never fail to make good. The sinner who has really reposed his soul on the word of the Lord Jesus, is safe to all eternity…. In the things of this world, we say that seeing is believing. But in the things of the Gospel, believing is as good as seeing.

So this royal official believes Christ’s word that his son was healed and he demonstrates his faith by starting off for home. This leads to the third level of faith:

3. Saving faith: When we come to understand who Jesus is, we trust Him apart from His solving our crisis (4:51-54).

The official probably had to spend the night somewhere on his return journey. The following day, as he was on the way home, his slaves met him with the wonderful news that his son was living. The man was no doubt overjoyed, but he wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just a coincidence. So he asked them at what hour “he began to get better.” They replied (4:52), “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” Left is the same word used when the Samaritan woman left her waterpot. It wasn’t just a slow, natural recovery. It happened instantly. The man then knew that it was the same hour when Jesus had spoken the word, “Your son lives.” As a result, the man and his entire household believed in Jesus.

At this point, he entered into a deeper faith in Christ’s person. C. H. Spurgeon calls it the “full assurance of faith” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 6:249). His faith has grown from the initial foxhole faith when he sought Christ to get him out of a crisis, to the stronger faith of taking Christ at His word, to this mature faith in Jesus for who He is, the Christ, the Son of God. He and his family recognize that Jesus is no ordinary prophet, but one who can speak the word and heal at a distance. He is God in human flesh.

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 182-183) realistically acknowledges that God doesn’t often give us immediate answers to our requests, as Jesus did to this man. But even then, we must trust that He has a good reason for His delays and that He waits for our good. Calvin applies this by saying that while we wait, we should “consider how much of concealed distrust there is in us, or at least how small and limited our faith is.” Ouch! But Calvin’s point is on target. How often I expect God to answer in my way and my timing; but when He doesn’t, I doubt His love or His care. I need to trust that in His way and His timing, He will work all things together for my good, even if I don’t see it in my lifetime.


I conclude with two other applications. First, if you have believed in Christ, entreat the Lord for the salvation of your entire household. Throughout the Book of Acts, as here, there is a sequence of entire households coming to saving faith (Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31; 18:8). It may not happen instantly with your family, as in these cases. But if the Lord has done wonders in saving your soul, begin to pray for your family. Live a gospel-transformed life in front of them every day. Let them see the love of Christ in you. Ask the Lord to save your family from their sins.

Second, if you have never believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, then you’re under the sentence of death—eternal separation from God. But just as Christ instantly granted life to this dying boy, so He will instantly give you eternal life, if you will call on His name. You cannot do anything to save yourself, but Christ can and will save you if you cry out in faith to Him. This sign was “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

Application Questions

  1. Is “foxhole faith” enough to save a person or does he need to repent of his sins and believe in Jesus as his sin-bearer?
  2. Can we biblically promise miraculous healing to a person if he has enough faith? If the person isn’t healed, is it due to a lack of faith?
  3. What are some reasons that the Lord delays answers to our prayers? Are His promises still good when a sick child or loved one dies? How would you counsel a person in this situation?
  4. Why is it crucial to come to believe in Jesus for who He is, rather than for what He can do for us in life’s crises?

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

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 26: The Impotence of Religion, the Power of Christ (John 5:1-16)

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September 8, 2013

There are billions of people around the world seeking salvation through religions that cannot save anyone. With sadness in my heart, I’ve watched Buddhists in Asia offering sacrifices, spinning prayer wheels, and going through other religious rituals in the hopes of attaining Nirvana. We have quasi-Buddhists in Flagstaff who fly prayer flags in the hopes that it will bring them good karma. I’ve seen Hindu holy men at the temple in Kathmandu who think that by looking weird and meditating every day, they will gain salvation. When we were in western China last year, our driver stopped the bus at sundown, got out his prayer rug, and said his prayers toward Mecca before we could resume our trip. We were there during Ramadan, when the Muslims think that fasting during the daylight hours will help get them into heaven.

I watched a woman in an Orthodox cathedral in Romania weep as she prayed to an icon of some “saint.” I’ve seen Roman Catholics kneel before statues of Jesus and Mary, praying their rosary beads in their attempt to be right with God. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses canvass our neighborhoods every weekend, thinking that their efforts will earn them salvation. And—let’s be honest—there are people in Protestant churches every Sunday who mistakenly think that their church membership and good deeds will get them into heaven when they die.

But the Bible is clear that religion is impotent to save anyone. By religion, I mean any humanly devised system of belief that teaches that by keeping their rules, rituals, and requirements, a person can gain eternal life. Jesus consistently confronted the Jewish religious leaders of His day, even though they claimed to be following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They thought that by adhering to the Law of Moses, they could commend themselves to God. Over the centuries, they had added to that Law many of their own traditions. But Jesus deliberately confronted these religious leaders. Eventually, they were the ones who put Him to death.

In our text, we move from a section in John’s Gospel where we saw initial belief in Jesus as the Son of God to a section of mounting unbelief and opposition to Him, originating with the Jewish leaders (whom John often calls, “the Jews”; 5:10), leading finally to the cross. At the root of their hostility toward Jesus was that He confronted their man-made religious traditions, especially their Sabbath laws. Jesus never broke the Sabbath as God intended for the Jews to keep it. But He deliberately violated the human traditions that had grown up around the Sabbath, because many of the Jews mistakenly thought that by keeping these traditions they could be right with God. But no one can gain eternal life by keeping God’s law, because no one can keep it perfectly from the heart, which is the requirement.

And so Jesus deliberately did things on the Sabbath to confront the Jewish leaders. After all, He could have waited 24 hours to heal this lame man by the Pool of Bethesda. He had been paralyzed for 38 years; what difference would one more day make? And, Jesus could have told him to leave his mat there by the pool and come back and get it the next day, so as not to provoke the religious leaders. They had taken the Sabbath stipulation not to carry any burden on the Sabbath (Jer. 17:21-22) so far as to say that you could not carry a handkerchief from one room to the next. But to get around this rule, if you tied it on, then you could wear it into the next room! Jesus could have told this healed man not to do anything that would violate these Jewish traditions, but He did not. He told him to pick up his mat and carry it.

The great contrast that comes through in this miracle is the impotence of religion versus the mighty power of Christ. Neither the Jewish leaders nor the superstition about the angel healing the first person into the water after it was stirred up had helped this man in 38 years. But in one crisp command, Jesus brought instant and complete healing to him. The lesson is:

While religion is impotent to save, Jesus is mighty to save.

Let me explain that I do not see any evidence that this man whom Jesus healed was saved spiritually. In saying this, I am disagreeing with the venerable C. H. Spurgeon, who thought that the man exercised faith to obey Jesus’ command to get up, pick up his pallet, and walk (see, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 13:201; 21:22). But John never hints that the man believed in Christ. At first, he didn’t even know who Jesus was. He never thanked Jesus for healing him. And when he found out who Jesus was, he went to the Jewish authorities to report Him, even though he surely knew that they were hostile towards Him.

So while I do not believe that this healed man believed in Jesus and was saved spiritually, I do think that this miracle illustrates Christ’s power to save, as contrasted with the impotence of religion to save anyone. And so I hope that you understand that coming to church, serving the church, being baptized, taking communion, or any other religious activities can never forgive your sins or gain you eternal life. But Christ is powerful to save you and will save you instantly if you will believe in Him. Note three things:

1. The human race, fallen in sin, needs God’s salvation above all else.

The pathetic scene around the Pool of Bethesda (the most likely reading, which meant, “Pool of Mercy”) must have been a sight to behold! It was a large pool surrounded by five porticoes, and, “In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered” (John 5:3). These people in various states of physical impairment are a picture of the human race maimed by sin. While not all sickness is a direct result of sin (although this man’s condition did seem to stem from his sin, 5:14), all sickness and death is a result of Adam’s fall into sin. Those awful effects of sin will one day be removed in the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:4).

Do you ever look at people whose bodies are impaired and grieve over the toll that sin has taken on the human race? In 1987, Marla and I were walking on a very crowded street in Guangzhou, China in the rain. We were moving along with the crowd when I almost stepped on a man who only came up to just above my knees. He had no legs and no wheelchair. He was using his arms and hands to propel his torso along the muddy street. He probably often got stepped on or knocked over. A wave of horror swept over me and I immediately thought of the rest of the people around us, who were just as impaired spiritually as that poor man was physically.

The scene by this pool must have become even more grotesque when the water bubbled up. Verses 3b-4 are not in the original text of John, but were added by a later copyist to explain the man’s comment to Jesus in 5:7. Occasionally the water would bubble up, probably from a spring below, but the people superstitiously thought that it was an angel causing the disturbance and that the first one into the water would be healed. Perhaps someone had once been healed of some psychosomatic disorder after the bubbling of the water, and it led to this myth. So there was probably a mad scramble of these blind, maimed, and crippled people, clamoring over one another to be the first into the water after it bubbled. It’s a tragic picture of helpless, sin-wounded people, putting their faith in some religious superstition that cannot save them, rather than trusting in Jesus Christ, who can save the worst of sinners.

2. Religion is impotent to save anyone, but it is powerful to enslave many.

Religion has no power to save anyone, but it is powerful in one way: it is powerful to enslave those under its influence.

A. Religion is impotent to save because it focuses on outward conformity to manmade traditions, not on inward conformity to God’s Word.

The Pharisees were the religious police of the day, much like the Taliban in Muslim countries today. When they saw this man carrying his mat on the Sabbath, they pounced (5:10), “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” When the man explains that he has been healed and that it was the one who made him well who told him to carry his pallet, the religious police didn’t rejoice at his healing or praise God for such a miracle. Rather, they wanted to know who had healed him, so that they could go after him. We’ll see the same thing with the blind man whom Jesus heals in John 9. Impotent religion emphasizes outward conformity to its rules, but it can’t change hearts.

We watched the movie, “The Kite Runner,” because it was filmed in some of the areas where we traveled last summer. It exposes the hypocrisy of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In one horrific scene, they stone a woman accused of adultery. But the leader who carries out the stoning also takes children from an orphanage to use for his own evil sexual pleasure, and then disposes of them like so much trash. That’s the impotence of all religion: it focuses on outward conformity to its rules, but it ignores its own lack of conformity to God’s holy standards on the heart level (Mark 7:6-23).

Jesus sought out this man after he was healed and warned him (5:14), “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” As I said, not all bodily sickness is directly linked to sin (see John 9:2-3), but sometimes it is. This man’s 38 years of being crippled was due to his sin! Sin never gets us what it promises! Jesus lets him know that He has healed him, but that now he needs to stop sinning. Going to the temple and keeping the Jewish traditions will not deal with his heart. God is not fooled by those who are religious outwardly, but whose hearts are full of lust, greed, pride, and selfishness. The “something worse” that Jesus warns the man about is not another 38 years of sickness, but the eternal judgment of God, which is far worse. Religion can’t save because it focuses on external conformity. It can’t deal with our sin on the heart level.

B. While religion is impotent to save people from their sins, it is powerful to enslave people to its damning system.

These religious leaders surely had seen this man lying helplessly by the Pool of Bethesda over the years. Now they see him walking around in the temple. You would think that they would be rejoicing with him over this amazing miracle and giving glory to God. But all they could do was rebuke him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath and track down the healer who had told him to do it! John says (5:16), “For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath.”

You would think that they would recognize that Jesus could only do such a miracle by God’s power. Later, when Jesus healed the man born blind on the Sabbath, the healed man pointed this out to the Jewish leaders (9:30-33). The climax of their spiritual blindness was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but rather than repenting and believing in Jesus, they sought to kill both Jesus and Lazarus (11:53; 12:10)! So the religious leaders were enslaved to their own system, which could not save them from their sins.

But they also sought to enslave the people under them. Here, they threaten this man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath, which was their manmade tradition. He apparently was afraid of their threats and wanted to put himself in good standing with them, because when he later found out who Jesus was, he informed the Jews, knowing full well that it would put Jesus in jeopardy (5:15). Rather than worshiping the One who had healed him (9:38), the man was afraid of offending the religious leaders. He was in bondage to their damning religious system.

All human religions work the same way: they use fear and threats to keep people in submission to the system. The Roman Catholic Church held power over most of Europe for a thousand years by threatening people with torture, imprisonment, death, and eternal hell if they dared to challenge the Pope. They did not teach that God graciously forgives all the sins of the one who believes in Jesus apart from works. Islam is even worse for holding people in bondage to their system by brute force.

But this miracle contrasts the impotence of religion with the mighty power of Jesus:

2. Jesus is mighty to save.

As I said, there is no indication in the text that Jesus saved this man spiritually. To the contrary, the evidence points to the fact that he was not saved. But all of Jesus’ healing miracles are illustrations of spiritual salvation. They display Jesus’ mighty power, not just to heal bodies that will eventually die, but to heal souls that will live forever with Him in glory. Note three things here:

A. Jesus knows the condition of every person.

John 5:6: “When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” We are not told whether Jesus asked someone nearby about the man’s situation, but we’ve already seen that Jesus knew about Nathanael before He met him (1:47-48). He knew the hearts of the people in Jerusalem who superficially believed in Him (2:24-25). He knew the sins of the woman at the well in Samaria (4:17-18). So it’s likely here that Jesus’ knowledge of this man’s condition was supernatural. He may have picked him out of the crowd to heal because He knew that he was the most pathetic case there. He had 38 years of frustration and discouragement in his attempts to be healed. Jesus knew.

Jesus also knows everything about you. He knows all of your thoughts and secret sins. He knows all of your disappointments and discouragements. There is nothing hid from His sight (Heb. 4:13). And He not only knows, He also cares!

You may wonder, “If Jesus knew all about this man, then why does He ask him (5:6), “Do you wish to get well?” At first glance, it’s a strange question to ask a man who has been sick for 38 years! Didn’t Jesus know the answer to that question? Of course He did! Jesus never asked questions to gain information! He asks questions to get us to see our need for Him. He may have wanted the man to recognize his own helplessness and to look to Jesus for healing. Or, He may have wanted the man to recognize how discouraged and lacking in hope he was, as seen by his complaining answer (5:7).

Also, the question uncovers the fact, as strange as it may seem, that some people do not want to get well because it means that they will have to be responsible. As James Baldwin observed (in Reader’s Digest, 1/83), “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” If he became well, the man would have to stop begging and start working for a living. If he got well, he couldn’t complain about his circumstances. He couldn’t blame those who didn’t care enough to help him into the water. And, he may not have wanted to be healed because, as Jesus later tells him, he then needed to stop sinning so that nothing worse would happen to him. Some people actually love their sin so much that they are willing to risk going to prison or contracting a disease like AIDS or to go on suffering rather than give up their sin!

B. Jesus can speak the word and instantly heal a soul who has been bound by sin for decades.

Jesus didn’t reply to the man’s complaint about nobody caring for him (5:7). Rather, He said (5:8), “Get up, pick up your pallet, and walk.” With the command, Jesus imparted the power. The man’s atrophied legs were instantly strengthened (5:9): “Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.” It’s the same as when He told the man with the withered hand (Luke 6:10), “Stretch out your hand.” But that was the problem—he couldn’t stretch out his hand. But with the command, Jesus imparted the power. Even more dramatic was when Jesus spoke to the dead Lazarus (John 11:43), “Lazarus, come forth.” Dead men aren’t known to respond to commands! But because of the power of Jesus’ word, Lazarus came forth after four days in the tomb. It’s like His future command at the end of the age (5:28-29): “All who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth,” either for a resurrection of life or of judgment.

As I said, this isn’t just a story of a physical miracle, but a picture of what Jesus can do for you spiritually. He commands you to do something that you cannot do for yourself, any more than this crippled man could obey Jesus’ command to walk. He says to you, “Believe in Me and you will not perish, but have eternal life.” No matter how long you’ve been crippled by sin, if you will respond to Christ’s command, your response is not from your sinful heart. It’s the gift of God. When you obey His command, He imparts His power to give you eternal life.

C. Jesus is sovereign in imparting salvation to whomever He wishes.

Why didn’t Jesus clear out the Pool of Bethesda by healing everyone there? He had the power to do it. But it wasn’t His purpose to do so. He only chose to heal this one undeserving man. Why didn’t the Lord choose everyone in Ur of the Chaldees to follow Him, but just chose Abram? It wasn’t His purpose to do so. Why didn’t He choose both Ishmael and Isaac and both Esau and Jacob? It wasn’t His purpose to do so. Why doesn’t God save everyone? It’s not that He lacks the power. Rather, it isn’t His purpose to do so. Jesus makes this clear (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.” Jesus is sovereign in imparting salvation to whomever He wishes (Luke 10:22). The rest are responsible for their damnation.

Many Christians stumble over the doctrine of election, which runs from Genesis to Revelation. They want to attribute their salvation to their own “free will.” But the Bible is clear that before we are saved, we are spiritually dead, blind, and crippled. Romans 3:11 says, “There is none who seeks for God.” If you’re saved, it’s not because you were smart enough to choose God. It’s because He was gracious enough to choose you. That way, He gets all the glory and you get none (1 Cor. 1:26-31)!


Some of you may be thinking that I’m contradicting myself. On the one hand, I say that you must repent and believe in Jesus to be saved. On the other hand, I say that you cannot repent and believe in Jesus unless He has chosen you for salvation and He works in your heart to bring you to repentance and faith. So you’re saying, “Come to Christ,” but, “You cannot come!”

Asahel Nettleton, a great revivalist preacher (1783-1843) raised this seeming contradiction in a sermon and then said (Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors [Banner of Truth], by Bennet Tyler & Andrew Bonar, p. 216, italics his):

A celebrated preacher, in one of His discourses used this language: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In another discourse, this same preacher said: “no man can come unto me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” Now, what think you, my hearers, of such preaching, and of such a preacher? What would you have said had you been present and heard Him? Would you have charged Him with contradicting himself?

Then he adds the obvious, that this preacher was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ! Religion cannot save you. Christ is mighty to save you. He invites you to come to Himself. But if you come, it’s because the Father graciously drew you.

Application Questions

  1. Since there is no indication in the text that this man believed in Jesus, why did John include this story in his Gospel?
  2. Some have argued that if God could save everyone but chose only some, then He is unloving. The same could be said here: Jesus could have healed all, but only chose one man. Was He unloving? How would you answer this charge?
  3. Why is it important to affirm (as Scripture does) that salvation is totally from the Lord and not a joint project between Him and us? What truth is at stake (1 Cor. 1:26-31)?
  4. What is the main difference between “religion” and biblical Christianity? Why is the distinction important?

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

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation), World Religions

Lesson 27: Is Jesus Crazy or is He God? (John 5:17-23)

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Editor's Note: Apologies for the audio quality. The recording encountered technical difficulties. Please bear with the inconvenience, thankfully the manuscript is also available below.

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:

1. Jesus is equal with God in His nature, but distinct from the Father as the Son (5:17-18).

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.

2. Jesus is equal with God in His works (5:17, 19).

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.

3. Jesus is equal with God in His love and knowledge (5:20).

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

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.

4. Jesus is equal with God in His sovereign power (5:21).

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.

5. Jesus is equal with God in judgment (5:22).

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,

6. Jesus is equal with God in worship (5:23).

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 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!

Application Questions

  1. There are some Pentecostal groups that believe that Jesus only is God. Thus they deny the Trinity. Can such people be saved?
  2. Can people who deny the deity of Jesus be saved? Why not?
  3. Discuss the implications of Jesus’ claim in John 5:21 to give life to whom He wishes. How does this interface with our responsibility to believe?
  4. Why does Jesus’ subordination to the Father not imply inferiority to the Father? What parallels does this have in Christian marriage roles (Eph. 5:22-33)?

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Christology, Theology Proper (God), Worship

Lesson 28: Eternal Life or Judgment? (John 5:24-30)

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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:

1. There are only two groups of people: Those who are spiritually dead and those who have eternal life (5:24).

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…

2. Jesus is the only one powerful enough to impart eternal life to spiritually dead sinners (5:25-26).

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,

3. Jesus will be the one who raises all the dead of all ages and then judges them for all eternity (5:27-30).

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:

A. The Father has given the Son authority to judge because He is the Son of Man (5:27).

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).

B. Jesus will raise all people to face judgment (5:28-29a).

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.

C. At the judgment, there are two and only two eternal destinies: eternal life or eternal condemnation (5:29).

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.

D. The basis for judgment will be a person’s deeds (5:29b).

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.”

E. Jesus’ judgment will be just because He does not seek His own will, but the will of the One who sent Him (5:30).

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!

Application Questions

  1. In light of these verses, why is it essential to affirm Jesus’ deity? Discuss: Can anyone be saved who denies His deity?
  2. Some say that we should not talk with unbelievers about God’s judgment, but only about His love. Why is this mistaken?
  3. How would you explain to a Roman Catholic friend that John 5:29 is not teaching salvation by our good works? What Scriptures would you use?
  4. Should Christians be concerned about standing before Christ for judgment someday? Consider Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 3:13-15; 2 Cor. 5:10; and Matt. 25:11-30 in your reply.

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

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 29: The Witnesses to Jesus (John 5:30-40)

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October 6, 2013

How can you know for sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? An old hymn put it, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” Okay, but that’s pretty subjective. A Buddhist might say that Buddha lives within his heart. How can you verify such a thing? A critic might say that Jesus is just a legend or myth. Or, maybe the apostles embellished stories about Him so that what we read is far from the actual truth. Perhaps He was just a great religious teacher who was tragically murdered because of jealous men who felt threatened by Him.

If you’ve ever sat on a jury or watched a courtroom drama or followed a trial on the news, you know that having multiple witnesses of reputable character who all say the same thing independently of one another is crucial to prove a case. Those who are called on to bear witness in court must swear to tell the truth or be liable for perjury. A witness is not free to make up his own story; he must report the facts as he saw them. If the witnesses are credible people who give consistent witness, the case is pretty secure.

In our text, Jesus continues His defense to the Jews, who were accusing Him of breaking the Sabbath and of making Himself equal with God (5:18). Instead of backing off and responding with horror to such charges, Jesus sets forth His case in even stronger terms by showing that He is one with the Father in all of His actions. He asserts (5:22-23) that the Father “has given all judgment to the Son so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” He asserts that He has life in Himself and that in the future He will speak and all who have ever lived will come forth from the tombs for a resurrection either of life or of judgment (5:26, 28-29). Clearly, Jesus is claiming to be equal with God.

But, how do we know that these claims are true? What evidence backs them up? Would they hold up in court? In answer to these questions and in deference to Jewish law, which required at least two or three witnesses to establish any legal matter, Jesus gives a number of witnesses to verify His claims.

“Testimony” or “witness” was an important concept to John. He uses the noun and verb 47 times in this Gospel and 30 more times in his epistles and in Revelation (Edwin Blum, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck, 2:291). We don’t need to take a blind leap of faith. God has provided adequate testimony that Jesus is the truth.

Actually, there is one main witness, the Father, who uses these various witnesses to testify to the truth of who Jesus is. As John argues (1 John 5:9), “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son.” Every day we accept the testimony of men. When you go to the store, you don’t run a chemical analysis of every item that you buy, to make sure that it isn’t contaminated. You trust that the company has followed basic health procedures and that the store has kept the goods from spoilage or contamination. You go to the bank and hand over an endorsed paycheck to a teller whom you don’t know and trust that she really put it into your account. I could go on and on with examples of how you accept the testimony of fallible men, even men that you do not know, every day. So, John argues, why do we not accept the testimony that God has given concerning His Son?

In our text, the Father is the “another” (5:32) who testifies in conjunction with Jesus Himself. Also, the Father used John the Baptist to bear witness to Jesus (5:33-35). The Father used Jesus’ works (miracles) which He gave Jesus to do to bear witness of Him (5:36). The Father used the Scriptures to bear witness of Jesus (5:37-47). Since all of these witnesses line up, the case for Jesus is solid: He is the Christ, the Son of God (20:31).

But before we look at these witnesses to Jesus, I need to touch on two other important matters. First, although we should not have to debate the point, I need to make it clear that there is such a thing as absolute truth in the spiritual realm. Postmodernism argues that either there are no absolute truths, or if there are, we can’t know these truths with any degree of certainty. But that philosophy is self-refuting, because then we can’t know whether postmodernism is true or not!

But John repeatedly emphasizes “truth” in this gospel. As Leon Morris states (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 293), “Truth is characteristic of God, and it is only as we know God that we know truth.” He points out (p. 294) that John uses the Greek noun for “truth” 25 times in his Gospel, plus 20 more times in his epistles (as against only once in Matthew and three times each in Mark and Luke). He also uses two other Greek words meaning “true” far more than other New Testament authors do.

Here in our text (5:32, 33), Jesus asserts that the Father’s testimony about Him is true and that John has testified to the truth. Jesus later claims that He is the truth (14:6). He affirmed in His high priestly prayer (17:17), “Your word is truth.” He told the cynical Pilate (18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” So there is absolute truth in the spiritual realm and there is damnable error. The truth centers in the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Word of God.

Second, note that Jesus’ aim in this defense of His deity was not to win an argument, but to win souls. He tells the Jews (5:34), “I say these things so that you may be saved.” He laments (5:40), “You are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” When we have opportunity to bear witness, our aim should not be to win an argument, but to win the person to Christ. If he isn’t trusting in Christ, he is spiritually dead and under condemnation. He needs eternal life and that life comes by believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The point of these witnesses to Christ is to testify to who He is so that people (including you!) will be saved. So the point here is:

The Father bears witness to Jesus through Jesus’ testimony, John the Baptist, Jesus’ works, and the Scriptures so that we may come to Jesus for eternal life.

1. The Father bears witness to Jesus through Jesus’ testimony to Himself (5:30-32).

As we’ve seen, in 5:19-29 Jesus bore witness of Himself. In 5:19, He made the point that it is impossible for the Son to do anything on His own initiative apart from the Father, because the two share the same nature. Now (5:30) He repeats that point to sum up His testimony: “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.” In God’s eternal plan, the Father sent the Son to bear our sin and the Son submitted to the Father’s will. Everything that Jesus did while He was on earth He did in submission to the Father. Thus He wasn’t bearing witness of Himself independently of the Father.

But a Jewish lawyer would have said at this point, “Yes, but self-evidence is not admissible in a court of law. There must be outside testimony.” Jewish law required the testimony of two or three witnesses to establish the truth (Deut. 19:15). Jesus condescends to this point in 5:31: “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” Jesus is acknowledging that His testimony would not be valid if He were acting independently of the Father. So He goes on to give other witnesses to His claim. Behind all these witnesses is the Father, to whom Jesus refers in 5:32: “There is another who testifies of Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true.”

Later (John 8:13), the Pharisees said to Jesus, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.” On that occasion, Jesus replied (8:14), “Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” So even though self-testimony may not be sufficient in a court of law, it does not follow that it’s not true. This is especially so when it came from Jesus, who was sent to earth by the Father and knew that He would return to the Father after He accomplished the Father’s will. But then Jesus added (8:17-18), “Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.”

A man’s self-testimony depends heavily on his character. If a man is known for lying and manipulating the facts to serve himself, you’re not going to believe him even if he really is speaking the truth. But everything that we know about Jesus points to His integrity. At His trial, the Jewish authorities couldn’t find witnesses to agree about the charges they were leveling at Him. After examining Jesus, Pilate said (18:38), “I find no guilt in Him.” The men who were closest to Jesus, who spent three years watching Him in all sorts of situations, all testify to His sinless character. So Jesus’ point in 5:30-32 is that His self-testimony is true because He never acted independently of the Father. The Father bore witness to Jesus through Jesus’ own testimony about Himself.

2. The Father bears witness to Jesus through John the Baptist (5:33-35).

John 5:33-35: “You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth. But the testimony which I receive is not from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.”

God sent John the Baptist in fulfillment of His promise (Isa. 40:3; Mal. 3:1) to bear witness of Jesus (John 1:6-8, 23). But John was not Jesus’ “key witness” in that he was human. Jesus’ main witness was the Father. But Jesus mentions John here because for a while the Jews were flocking out to hear him and Jesus wants them to be saved. If they would have believed John’s testimony that Jesus was the Lamb of God, sent to take away the sins of the world (1:29), they would have been saved. John was a lamp, not the light, but he bore witness to the Light.

So God had given illumination through John, but the Jews had rejected it. Jesus hits the main problem with the Jews and John with the phrase, “for a while.” John was probably now in prison, so his ministry was over. There was a window of opportunity for the Jews to believe John, but now that window had closed. The Jewish leaders were interested in John when he was popular, but they never took his message to heart. They were like a bunch of moths who hovered near the lamp while it was burning, but flitted back into the darkness after it was extinguished. They should have followed the One to whom John had pointed. The lesson is: Don’t miss the opportunity to be saved when God is speaking His truth to you through His messenger! Today is the day of salvation!

3. The Father bears witness to Jesus through Jesus’ works (5:36).

John 5:36: “But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me.”

By His “works,” Jesus mainly meant the miracles that He did. His miracles were unique signs that He had been sent by the Father. When the Jews said to Jesus (10:24b), “If You are the Christ, tell us plainly,” He answered (10:25), “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.” Later, He said (15:24), “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” Jesus’ miracles gave abundant testimony that He is the Christ, the Son of God.

J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:308) points out five distinctive features of Jesus’ miracles:

(1) Their number: they were not a few only but very many indeed. (2) Their greatness: they were not little but mighty interferences with the ordinary course of nature. (3) Their publicity: they were generally not done in a corner but in open day, and before many witness and often before enemies. (4) Their character: they were almost always works of love, mercy, and compassion, helpful and beneficial to man and not mere barren exhibitions of power. (5) Their direct appeal to men’s senses: they were visible and would bear any examination.

Ryle also points out that the Jews never attempted to deny that these miracles had occurred. Rather, they tried to attribute them to Satan (Matt. 12:22-30). Many skeptics today would deny the possibility of miracles because they have never seen one. I just read a Reader’s Digest cover story on “amazing facts” about the human body. The story uses words like “incredible” and “magical” to describe the way the body works. But it never alludes to the Creator. The evidence for miracles is literally right under their noses, but they’re blind to see it!

Thus the Father bears witness to Jesus through Jesus’ testimony to Himself, through John the Baptist’s testimony, and through Jesus’ works.

4. The Father bears witness to Jesus through the Scriptures (5:37-40).

John 5:37-40: “And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

Jesus continues this point through verse 47, but we only have time to work through verse 40 today. Scholars debate (in 5:37) exactly how the Father had testified of Jesus. It may be a reference to the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17), but John does not record that event. The Father also testified of Jesus as His Son on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), but again that’s not recorded in John. I think that the answer is in the following context, where Jesus mentions God’s Word and indicts them for studying the Scriptures but missing Jesus as the promised Christ. All of the Father’s revelation from the beginning of Creation had pointed to Christ and that revelation is contained in Scripture.

Just after Adam and Eve fell into sin, God promised that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). God killed an animal and clothed Adam and Eve, giving an object lesson of how the Lamb of God would be slain to cover their sins. God promised Abraham that in his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). The sacrificial system that was instituted in the Law of Moses pointed ahead to Jesus, the complete and final sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-14). Many of the Psalms, such as Psalm 22 and Psalm 110, point to Jesus. Isaiah 53 specifically predicts Jesus’ death on behalf of His people at the hands of sinners. As Luke 24:27 describes Jesus’ conversation with the two dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” How I wish that that conversation had been recorded for us! But the Lord leaves us to dig out those treasures for ourselves as we study the Bible.

Jesus indicts the Jews for three things (Morris, p. 329): (1) “You have [not] heard His voice at any time” (5:37). Moses had heard God’s voice (Exod. 33:11), but Jesus’ hearers were not true followers of Moses (5:46). If they had been true followers of Moses, they would have recognized God’s voice in Jesus (3:34; 17:8). (2) You have not “seen His form” (5:37b). Jacob saw “the face of God” when he wrestled with the angel (Jesus in preincarnate form), but the Jews were not true sons of Jacob or they would have seen God’s form in Jesus (1:18; 14:9). (3) “You do not have His word abiding in you” (5:38). Although they studied the Word (5:39) and many of the rabbis had memorized most of the Word, they had studied it wrongly, because their study had not pointed them to the Word who took on human flesh and dwelt among them (1:1, 14).

Jesus’ last phrase in 5:38, “for you do not believe Him whom He sent,” may be either the evidence for Jesus’ threefold indictment or the cause of it, or both. The reason they did not hear God’s voice or see God’s form or have His Word abiding in them was that they did not believe in Jesus, who was sent by the Father. And their unbelief was evidence that Jesus’ indictment was correct.

Jesus’ words in 5:39-40 show that it is possible to study the Scriptures in the wrong way. If you approach the Scriptures from an academic perspective only, it can lead to tragic results. It can fill you with intellectual pride about how you know more than others. It can lead you to the false hope that you have eternal life because of your great knowledge. The Jews thought that in their knowledge of Scripture they had eternal life. But they missed Jesus! The point of the entire Bible is to lead us directly to Jesus, who alone can impart eternal life (5:21). That leads to the last point:

5. The reason for the Father’s witness to Jesus is so that we may come to Jesus and have life (5:40).

Tragically, Jesus says of the Jews (5:40b), “You are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” C. H. Spurgeon has two sermons on John 5:40, which I encourage you to read (online at In the first one, preached when he was only 21 years-old (“Free Will a Slave,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 1:395-402), he develops four points: (1) Men by nature are dead. (2) In Christ Jesus there is life. (3) Eternal life is given to all who come for it. (4) By nature, no man will come to Christ, because they are unwilling. On this last point, he explains that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). He argues that no true Christian will say that he came to Christ of his own free will apart from God’s first seeking him and drawing him to the Savior.

Don’t miss Jesus’ point in this discourse (5:34): “I say these things so that you may be saved.” Are you saved? Do you have eternal life? If not, search the Scriptures and look for Christ. Come to Jesus and He will give you eternal life.


I know a man who used to profess to believe the gospel. He was a good Bible teacher. He went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard. He is a far more brilliant and accomplished scholar than I am. He is now a professor of New Testament at a liberal graduate school of theology. But in reading the descriptions of his three scholarly books on, I seriously question whether he knows Jesus in a saving way. Like these Jews, he has studied the Scriptures, but he missed coming to Christ so that he may have life.

Don’t be like that! The testimony of the witnesses to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is solid. Jesus spoke these words so that “you may be saved” (5:34). Come to Him so that you may have eternal life.

Application Questions

  1. Why must our faith ultimately rest on objective testimony, not on subjective experiences or feelings? Is there a legitimate place for such experiences and feelings? If so, what?
  2. Why is it important when witnessing to aim at seeing people saved rather than at winning an argument (John 5:34)? What can we learn about witnessing from Jesus’ example here?
  3. I have heard some use texts like John 5:39-40 to belittle theological education. What are the dangers in such studies? What are the advantages? How can the dangers be avoided?
  4. A skeptic scoffs to you, “I’ve never seen a miracle. If I saw one I’d believe, but I don’t believe that they exist.” How would you respond?

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

Related Topics: Apologetics, Christology, Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 30: What Keeps People from Christ (John 5:39-47)

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October 13, 2013

What keeps people from believing in Christ? Why would anyone not want to have his or her sins forgiven and to have eternal life as a free gift so that they do not come into judgment? There are many reasons. For example, many Muslims reject Christ because they have misconceptions about who He is and what He claimed. Also, if they were to believe in Him, it would bring shame on their family, resulting in their family disowning them. Even worse, they could be targeted for death. So the social pressure against believing in Christ is tremendous.

Others reject Christ because they have been wounded by professing Christians or by the church. Maybe a priest or minister abused them, causing them to conclude that Christianity is a sham. Perhaps their parents professed to be Christians and yet were abusive and didn’t live out the faith at home. Or, the parents were overly strict and tried to force the child into believing. Others get into college and their faith is undermined by atheistic professors. We could multiply many more reasons why people do not believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

In John 3:19-21 we saw that people reject Christ because they love their sin and they hate having it exposed by God’s light. Now Jesus directly confronts the religious Jews who were opposing Him, who were unwilling to come to Him for eternal life (5:40). He asks them rhetorically (5:44), “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Evangelistic Sermons [Banner of Truth], pp. 39-51) points out how Jesus saved many unlikely and notorious sinners, but these guys were hard cases! He despairs about these religious Jews. He asks (5:44), “How can you believe …?” The Greek verb points to their inability to believe.

He has just given them adequate witnesses to back up His claim to be equal with God, so they didn’t lack evidence. They were zealous students of Scripture, so they didn’t lack knowledge. What was their problem? What kept them from believing in Christ? Why did they eventually murder the Savior whom the Father had sent? I think that we can boil down Jesus’ indictment of their unbelief to one root cause: the pride of outward religiosity:

The pride of outward religiosity as opposed to seeking inward reality with God will keep you from believing in Christ.

Pride is the root sin of all sins. Pride makes us think that we know what’s best for us so that we rebel against God and His ways. Pride deceives us into thinking that we can be good enough to get into heaven. Pride causes us to put up a good outward front to impress others, while we hide the way that we really are in our hearts. It was pride that kept these Jewish religious leaders from believing in Jesus as their Messiah and eventually led to their murdering Him. Their pride comes through in four ways in these verses:

1. Using the Bible to impress others rather than to grow in humility and love for God will keep you from faith in Christ (5:39-42).

John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

The Jewish rabbis were legendary in their study of the Scriptures. They memorized large portions (sometimes all) of the Hebrew Bible. They copied it with extreme care, for which we can be thankful. Many of them counted the words and letters and could tell you the middle letter of a book or even of the entire Bible!

But the problem was, they took pride in their great learning. We can see this in John 9, with the man born blind, whose eyes Jesus opened. He argued with the Jewish leaders that if Jesus were not from God, He could not do such a miracle. Their response was (9:34), “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” That statement reeks of pride! They knew the Bible, but they missed Jesus because they had used their great knowledge to feed their pride.

Jesus confronts their pride here when He adds (5:41-42), “I do not receive glory from men; but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves.” The transition between verse 40 and verse 41 is puzzling unless you see that Jesus is contrasting His humility with their pride. When He says, “I do not receive glory from man,” He means that He is not a man-pleaser, seeking everyone’s praise so as to build up His image (as they were). Rather, Jesus always lived to please the Father and do His will (5:19, 30). While He was on earth, He always sought to glorify the Father (17:4). But these Jewish leaders were using their knowledge of Scripture to impress others, not to glorify God.

Note Jesus’ words, “I know you.” He could rightly judge their inner thoughts and motives. He knew that they were studying the Scriptures to increase their own glory, not to grow in love for God. When He says, “You do not have the love of God in yourselves,” He means that they did not love God. The connection with receiving glory from men is, “If you loved God, you would seek His glory, as I do. As it is, you love yourselves; you’re seeking your own glory.” They were breaking the first great commandment, to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5).

These verses bring out some reality checks for us. First, are you studying the Scriptures at all? Jesus didn’t need to rebuke these Jews for not studying the Scriptures, but rather because they studied them wrongly. But He might rebuke many modern Christians because they don’t study the Bible much at all!

Second, are you studying the Scriptures to reveal Jesus Christ to your soul? There is nothing wrong and everything right with sound academic knowledge of the Bible. Without it, you’ll be tossed around by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). Sound biblical scholarship is crucial. But, the ultimate point of Bible study should be to reveal more and more of who Christ is and what He has done for you.

If someone set a fresh peach pie in front of you and you proceeded to run a chemical analysis on the crust and the peaches, you would be missing the point! Taste it! Or, if you went to a lodge that had a magnificent picture window looking out on a spectacular scene and you spent your time analyzing what company made the glass and how it was installed, you’d be missing the point. Enjoy the view! The point of the Bible is to reveal the beauty of Christ to your soul.

Third, is your study of the Bible leading you to greater humility or to greater pride? Studying the Bible properly will show you how great your sin is and how holy God is. It will show you His majesty and His great power. It will humble you as you realize His amazing grace. But if you start thinking that you’re better than other Christians because you know theology and you delight in proving that you’re right and others are wrong, look out! I’ve been around guys who use their knowledge of the Bible like a club. They try to dominate others through their scholarship. Studying the Bible rightly will lead to more humility and graciousness, not to pride.

Fourth, is your study of the Bible causing you to love God more and more? Jesus hits these Jews because they did not love God. They were not seeking His glory and living to please Him. Proper study of the Bible will show you more of His grace. It will reveal His great love in sending His own Son to die for your sins. It will cause you to love Him more and more. But the pride of using the Bible to impress others will keep you from faith in Christ.

2. Making God to be what you want Him to be rather than submitting to Him as He is will keep you from faith in Christ (5:43).

John 5:43: “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him.” Jesus came in His Father’s name, which means that He came in the Father’s authority and He proclaimed who the Father is. He never pulled His punches to please the crowd. He didn’t use the Scriptures to flatter His hearers or to make them think that God was pleased with them if He was not. As the Light, He exposed their sins. Jesus gave them the truth without sugar-coating it.

Also, Jesus never played to the crowds by being the kind of Messiah that He knew they wanted. They wanted a political Messiah who could deliver them from Rome and provide peace and prosperity. If He had pandered to their tastes, Jesus could have been a popular Messiah. After He fed the multitude, He knew that they wanted to come and take Him by force to make Him king. But rather than accept that superficial allegiance, Jesus withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone (John 6:15). He could have ridden that wave of popularity, but He refused. Jesus would not falsely convey who God is or who He is to gain a following.

Keep in mind that Jesus is here addressing a group of Israel’s religious leaders. They knew the Scriptures well. They were devoted to their religion. Yet Jesus is warning them that their rejection of Him made them susceptible to follow false Messiahs who come in their own name. In Deuteronomy 13:3, God told Israel that He permitted false teachers to test their love for Him. Elsewhere, as Jesus spoke about the end times, He warned of false prophets who will arise and lead many astray. Accompanying this deception will be that people’s love for God will grow cold (Matt. 24:11-12).

Why were these religious leaders prone to follow false teachers? It’s because people will follow false teachers who tell them what they want to hear but avoid telling them who God really is. People will follow a man who doesn’t confront sin and who tells them that they’re okay just as they are. Jeremiah (6:14) confronted the false prophets of his day who healed the brokenness of God’s people superficially, saying “‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.” After telling Timothy to preach the Word, which included reproving, rebuking, and exhorting, Paul warned (2 Tim. 4:3-4), “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” We see the same thing today: Focus on the positive, never confront sin, and you’ll have a large congregation.

When you’re reading the Bible, make sure you read all of it, not just the parts you like! If you only read the parts about God’s love, but skip the parts about His holiness, His judgment, or His sovereignty, you’ll fall into error. Or when you’re looking for a church to attend, look for a pastor who teaches all that the Bible teaches about God and Christ. If he goes along with popular cultural trends, you can fall into pride that your church is “with it.” But the question is, is your church faithfully representing the name (the authority and the character) of the Father? Does the teaching promote godliness on the heart level?

3. Using religion to try to impress others outwardly rather than seeking to please God on the heart level will keep you from faith in Christ (5:44).

John 5:44: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” As I said, the word can refers to inability. Jesus was saying that as long as they sought glory from one another, rather than seeking God’s approval, it was impossible for them to believe in Him. Later John (12:42-43) mentions that some of these Jewish leaders “believed,” but their faith was not genuine for reasons similar to the problem that Jesus uncovers here: “Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.”

In Matthew 23:5-7, Jesus also unmasks these religious hypocrites: “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” He charges (Matt. 23:25), “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.” Their religion was an outward show to impress others and to gain recognition. But the Lord was not fooled. He knew their hearts. Inside these religious men were full of self-indulgence.

The pride that is innate in all of us lures us into religious hypocrisy. We want others to think that we’re better than we know ourselves to be. So we focus on appearances. We’re concerned about what others may think of us and we forget that the most important thing is what God thinks of us. Many pastors fall into this sort of thing. They want the church to think that they have a perfect family. Maybe they’ve just had a major blow-up at home on Sunday morning, but they put on their happy faces as they drive into the church parking lot. And their kids can smell the hypocrisy. When they’re old enough, they walk away from the faith.

I’m not suggesting that we hang our dirty laundry out for all to see, but I am saying that we need reality with God and the humility to be genuine about our failures and shortcomings. I don’t quote William Barclay without a disclaimer, since he was heretical on some major issues. But on this point, he is right on. He writes (The Gospel of John, The Daily Study Bible [Westminster Press], rev. ed., 1:199-200):

So long as a man measures himself against his fellow men he will be well content. But the point is not: “Am I as good as my neighbor?” The point is: “Am I as good as God? What do I look like to him?” So long as we judge ourselves by human comparisons there is plenty of room for self-satisfaction, and that kills faith, for faith is born of the sense of need. But when we compare ourselves with Jesus Christ, we are humbled to the dust, and then faith is born, for there is nothing left to do but trust to the mercy of God.

The antidote to the deadly sin of hypocrisy is to deal with God every day on the heart level. Don’t harbor secret sins, as if God doesn’t see them. He knows our every thought (Ps. 139). Don’t put on false spirituality to try to impress others. If you’re struggling, be honest enough to ask for prayer. If you’re angry, don’t pretend that you’re not. Go before God and deal with it before it conquers you (Gen. 4:5-7). If you’re depressed, tell God about it and ask Him to restore your joy (Ps. 42 & 43). If you’ve sinned, confess it to God and ask forgiveness of any that you’ve wronged (Ps. 51, 1 John 1:9; Matt. 5:23-24). If you’ve lied, go to the one you lied to and ask forgiveness. If you’ve yelled at your kids or hit them in anger, humble yourself, ask their forgiveness, and ask God for self-control. In other words, in every area of life deal with God and others so that you can say with Paul (Acts 24:16), “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Don’t use religion to try to impress others. Do business with God on the heart level.

Thus, the pride of outward religiosity as opposed to inward reality with God will keep you from faith in Jesus. This may involve using the Bible to impress others, rather than growing in humility and love for God. It can stem from making God what you want Him to be rather than submitting to Him as He is. It can take the form of using religion to try to impress others outwardly, rather than seeking to please God on the heart level. Finally,

3. Taking pride in your outward religious performance rather than letting God’s law drive you to Christ will keep you from faith in Christ (5:45-47).

John 5:45-47: “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (By the way, note that Jesus, unlike many liberal Old Testament scholars, believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch [Genesis-Deuteronomy]! To attack the Old Testament is to attack Jesus, because it all points to Him.)

Ironically, these Jews claimed to believe in Moses and they studied Moses extensively, but they missed what Moses was writing about! Jesus says that Moses wrote about Him (see John 1:45; Luke 24:27, 44). As we saw last time, God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head was about Jesus conquering Satan at the cross. God’s clothing Adam and Eve with animal skins was a picture God covering our sins through the death of His Lamb. God’s promise to Abraham that in his seed, all the nations would be blessed, was about Christ. His command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then providing the ram was a picture of God sacrificing His own Son as our atonement. The Passover was about Christ. The tabernacle is an elaborate picture of Christ. The rock that provided water in the wilderness and the manna for food were pictures of Christ (1 Cor. 10:3-4; John 6:31-35). We could go on and on.

The Law of Moses, in which these Jews professed to believe, should have convicted them of their sins and caused them to long for the Savior who would be pierced through for their transgressions and crushed for their iniquities (Isa. 53:5). It should have served as a tutor to lead them to faith in Christ (Gal. 3:24). As Paul wrote (Rom. 10:4): “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” But because they focused on their outward performance of only certain aspects of the law rather than on the essence of the law, which was to love God from the heart, they missed Jesus. The very Law, which was one of their greatest privileges (Rom. 9:4) and in which they took great pride, became the source of their condemnation at the judgment.

If you take pride in your Christian performance, rather than glorying in Christ Jesus and putting no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3), you will miss faith in Christ. John Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 222): “He who in reality presents himself before God as his Judge, must, of necessity, fall down humbled and dismayed, and finding nothing in himself on which he can place reliance.” All our hope must be in Christ, not in our religious performance.


I don’t know your heart, but God does. I do know that the sin of pride resides in us all and it often seeks to contaminate the spiritual life. So, as Paul put it (2 Cor. 13:5), “Test yourself to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” Here are four tests:

  • Examine how you use the Bible: Is it to impress others or is it causing you to grow in humility and in love for God?
  • Do you gladly embrace who God is as revealed in all of Scripture, rather than who you may want Him to be?
  • Ask yourself whether you’re seeking glory from others as opposed to seeking to please God on the heart level.
  • And, examine whether you take pride in your outward religious performance rather than boasting in Christ and the cross.

All of these things can keep us from genuine faith in Christ.

Application Questions

  1. I have heard some argue that studying theology leads to spiritual deadness. Is there any validity to this? Why/why not?
  2. Why is it important to read and reread the whole Bible and not just your favorite parts (see Ps. 119:160)? What errors have you encountered from Christians who avoid reading all the Bible?
  3. How honest should we be in sharing our spiritual struggles? Are we being hypocrites if we restrict sharing our problems to certain trusted friends or mentors and not to everyone?
  4. What are some subtle ways that we can take pride in our religious performance (Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, etc.)? What does it mean to boast in the cross (Gal. 6:14)?

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

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 4: Personal Spiritual Growth

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The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience. ― Oswald Chambers


There is a Chinese Proverb that says, “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials” The Apostle Paul stated: “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).” Paul assures us as Christians that what God started in us he will finish. It will be perfected or matured until the Lord Jesus returns. But how does a disciple of Jesus grow in his or her Christian life? What does it take to mature in the faith? What is God doing in the process? What is our role and what does a well-balanced Christian life look like? How can I make the decisions that God wants me to make? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer. The purpose of this lesson is to encourage us along the path of spiritual maturity.

There are seven aspects of personal spiritual growth that need to be understood as one goes through the process of growing in an intimate relationship with God and others. They are: 1) the cost of discipleship; 2) the larger picture of what God is doing and being Spirit filled; 3) the role of trials and rewards in spiritual growth; 4) basic Christian disciplines in our relationships with God and people, 5) the importance of good works in growth, 6) biblical decision making, and 7) having an eternal perspective.

The Cost of Discipleship

We can start with the definition of a disciple. A disciple is a learner; a disciple of Jesus is one who learns and lives from the teachings of Jesus himself and those whom Jesus directly taught (the apostles). One discipleship ministry called the Navigators gives this definition: “A disciple continues in the Word, loves others, bears fruit, and puts Christ first.”1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German pastor who ministered in Germany during the difficult days of Adolf Hitler. His ministry and resistance of the Nazi regime eventually led to his execution toward the very end of the European portion of the war. In his work the Cost of Discipleship he writes, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth . . . . The disciple places himself at the Master’s disposal, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. But then discipleship is no longer discipleship, but a program of our own to be arranged to suit ourselves.”2 The call to spiritual growth is the call to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s a call to be more like Jesus. It’s a call to submit ourselves to the lordship of Jesus. Jesus summarized the cost of discipleship with a vivid metaphor: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24). This leads us to the importance of understanding what God has done and is doing in our life.

What is God doing with a disciple’s life? When considering this, one must understand God’s purpose or goal, that he is moving all Christians towards Christlikeness. Paul explains God’s plan: “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”
(Rom 8:29). God is chipping away at the stuff in a Christian’s life that is not like Christ to bring forth an image that is. He is molding us into a perfect piece of pottery so to speak. God is promising every believer in Jesus Christ that he will get him or her to this goal. The theological term for this is sanctification. Sometimes when God chips away and molds his grooves we feel the impact of it. God is using at least three means to propel believers in this direction: 1) the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, 2) trials, and 3) rewards.

The Role of the Holy Spirit. One way that God is conforming believers into the image of Christ is through the work and empowerment or filling of the Holy Spirit. When we were saved we received the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit at which time we were indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 12:13). This occurs one time. The indwelling Spirit gives us the inner spiritual resources to overcome sin. He gives us the desires and abilities to resist temptation and overcome it. As we submit to God’s commands following the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are “filled” with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). This is a continuous process in which we allow the Spirit to direct and control our actions. On the other hand when we sin we stifle the blessing of the Spirit’s activity in our lives. Paul states, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19; NASB) and again, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30).

The Role of Trials. God uses trials to produce spiritual growth in our lives. James writes: “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (Jas 1:2-4). How can one possibly be joyful in difficulties? It’s because God is testing our faith and using the trial to bring us to maturity. We can rejoice not at the painful experience of the trial but at the opportunity for growth. One of my mentors once well said that trials can make us better or bitter.

The Role of Rewards. The Bible uses rewards as a motivation for our obedience. Paul writes, “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. . . For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:8-15). Each one of us has two piles of types of work. One pile is the precious metals and stones; these represent the good works we do that God will reward. The other pile is the pile of materials that is burnable. It represents things we do that are not rewardable, not necessarily bad things but things that God does not give us a reward for. So the question we have to ask ourselves as we live our life is what pile are we building on? Are we building on the pile God rewards or the one that will be burned up in the end?

Basic Christian Disciplines

Dawson Trotman was the founder of the discipleship ministry called the Navigators. One illustration that he developed and this group has long used to explain the disciplines of Christian growth is called the Wheel Illustration.

The Wheel Illustration

At the center or hub of the wheel is Christ. He represents what is powering the wheel. For the wheel to roll the hub must supply the power. For the wheel to run smoothly balance is needed between the spokes. The vertical spokes on the wheel represent our relationship with God through prayer and the Word. The horizontal spokes represent our relationship with people by witnessing to nonchristians and fellowship with Christians. As the Christian is obedient to God’s commands and maintains balance in these Christian disciplines, while relying on the power of Christ, the wheel will roll.

Let’s develop the four Christian disciplines related to this illustration a little more. One of the disciplines related to our relationship with God is the absolutely necessary of the Bible. The Word of God is a catalyst for Christian growth. Peter writes, “And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation” (2 Peter 2:2). The spiritual milk that Peter is talking about is God’s word. How can we get the Word of God more involved in our lives? The more we feed on it, the more we will grow. There are many ways to do this and all of us should be involved in more than one: Quiet time (Just a few minutes each day in the Word and prayer can help us make that personal connection with God), Bible memorization, Bible reading, Bible study, listening to good expository preaching (Sunday morning church, internet posted sermons, Christian radio, etc). D. L. Moody, the 19th century American evangelist once stated, “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”

The second Christian discipline related to our relationship with God is prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to God. Paul states, “constantly pray” (1 Thess 5:17). What kind of prayers should we pray: 1) praising God for who he is, 2) praising and thanking God for what he has done, 3) confessing our sins, 4) praying for others in authority or in our circles of relationship, 5) lastly, making requests for ourselves including God’s guidance. One missionary friend of mine was working in a difficult area to share the gospel. He had a plaque over his desk which stated, “Prayer Changes Things.” It was a reminder and encouragement for him to pray every day. E. M. Bounds, Civil War chaplain, pastor, and author summarized the importance of prayer, “Prayer succeeds when all else fails.”

The third Christian discipline, which is related to people, is witnessing or evangelism. We need to share the good news of salvation with others. Paul explains, “I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Thus I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:14-16). Family, friends, fellow workmates are all people that God has brought into our lives and many of them need exposure to the gospel. Think of the person who shared the gospel with you. Aren’t you glad that they did? Billy Graham stated his goal in life, “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.”3

The fourth Christian discipline, also related to people, is fellowship. We need to make a commitment to fellowship with other Christians committed to living out God’s commands. The author of Hebrews emphasizes this. He writes, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). We need to all be involved with a local church. If the church is large, we especially need to be in a small group with a spiritual emphasis.

In one exchange with the Pharisees Jesus was once asked, “What is the most important commandment?” What is interesting is that when Jesus was asked for one commandment he gave them two. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40).4 These two commandments are inseparable. You cannot obey one without the other. We love God by growing in our relationship with him though the Word and prayer. We love our neighbor as ourselves when we share the gospel with the lost and fellowship and grow with other Christians.

The Importance of Good Works

Good works have sometimes been downplayed by Protestant evangelicals due to teachings that have tried to make them as the basis or condition of salvation. While this concern is valid, one should not downplay them in the context of the Christian life, rather they need to be emphasized. While we are not saved by good works we are saved for good works. Paul writes, “We are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them” (Eph 2:10). James adds to this concept pointing out that there is a relationship between faith and works in that good works mature our faith. “You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works . . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead”
(Jas 2:22, 26). Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding an international convention and their founder, General William Booth, could not attend because of physical weakness. He cabled his convention message to them. It was one word: “OTHERS.” When we shift our focus of life from our self to others, good works will naturally flow out of a life empowered by God.

Biblical Decision Making

How do I make decisions in my Christian life? Josh McDowell has a helpful pattern for us to follow which can be referred to as the four Cs.5 The first C is 1) Consider the choice. What is right and wrong and who determines this? God is the one who determines what is right and wrong. The Old Testament prophet Micah states, “He [God] has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you” (Micah 6:8). Other people may give advice, some of it good and some of it bad, but we have to come to grips with the fact that God alone has the ultimate authority of what is the right course to take. The second C is 2) Compare it to Gods Word. What does the Scripture have to say about what God want you to do? Since the Scripture is God’s revelation to man it is the message that God wants us to follow. In the Psalms we read, “Your word is a lamp to walk by, and a light to illumine my path” (Ps 119:105). The third C is 3) Choose the biblical way. Make a commitment that you will follow the biblical way as the way that God wants you to go. “Who is the man who fears the LORD? He will instruct him in the way he should choose” (Ps 25:12). The fourth and last C is 4) Count on God for protection and provision. As we follow God’s path, we can trust him for the outcome and blessing that he wants for us. Moses wrote, “All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut 28:2).

Concluding Eternal Perspective

Lastly, Christians need to be able to see beyond the here and now to the reality of what lies ahead. We need to be able to live in view of the light at the end of the tunnel. If we have an eternal perspective, understand what God is doing with us and where we are heading, we will be in a good position to grow in the grace that God has given us being conformed to the image of his Son. Paul writes, “Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).

Discussion Questions

  1. In its historical context, why do you think Jesus used the concept of “taking up the cross” as a metaphor for discipleship (Matt 16:24)?
  2. Should we as Christians obey out of love only or is the concept of rewards a good motivation to serve God as well?
  3. What has worked for you and what has not worked in trying to have a quiet time?
  4. What has worked for you and what has not worked in trying to have a prayer life?
  5. Why don’t some Christians go to church?
  6. In sharing the gospel, have did you ever have a really good experience doing it? Explain or share.
  7. In sharing the gospel, have you ever have a really bad experience doing it? Explain or share.
  8. How does focusing on eternity help us in this present life?

1 Church Discipleship, Vol 11, No 1, the Navigators.

2 Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 64, 66.

3 Billy Graham, (Date accessed November 27, 2012).

4 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Matt 22:34-40).

5 Adapted from the 4 C’s from Josh McDowell, “Setting You Free to Make the Right Choices,” Leaders Guide, 9-10.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Discipline, Fellowship, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution