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Lesson 3: The Study of God

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To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement. ― Church Father, Augustine


The Triqueta shown above is an ancient Celtic symbol that Christians used to try to communicate the concept of the Trinity: three persons but one God symbolized by three separate ovals that are linked into one shape. Where does the doctrine of the Trinity come from? The word Trinity itself never occurs in the Bible but the teaching has been a part of the Christian church since the early centuries of its existence.

The word theology means the study of God and that is in essence what this lesson is about in an introductory way. Sometimes this area of study is called theology proper. Theology may seem intimidating, but anytime we form an opinion about God or make an assertion about him or look to him for anything we are in essence doing theology. If we say God is good, that is a theological proposition. If someone curses God, they are saying God is bad. If we say a prayer to God, we are implying that he not only exists, but that he acts in our lives in a personal way. Therefore, most of us are theologians whether we think we are or not. This lesson will be divided into four separate sections: 1) sources of knowledge about God, 2) the basic names of God, 3) the attributes/perfections of God, and 4) the evidence and explanation of the Trinity.

Sources of Knowledge of God: Natural Revelation

The source of all knowledge about God comes from God himself and this can be divided into two areas: natural revelation (i.e., the creation itself) and special revelation (primarily, God’s words recorded in the Bible and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ).

There are at least five passages the Bible that speak of the natural revelation that God gives through his creation. The first is in Psalm 19. It reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon” (Ps 19:1-4). This passage says that every day people can see the glory and magnificence of God. Everyone day and night 24-7 can understand the greatness of God.

The second passage occurs in Romans 1. It reads, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20). Here Paul states that another thing we can learn from creation is how powerful God is. A vaguer expression relates to the divine nature of God, which is seen as well.

Thirdly, in Matthew, Jesus makes a statement that relates to this topic. He states, “But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:44-45). In arguing that disciples of Jesus need to love their enemies, Jesus mentions that the blessings of the sun and rain go to all people whether they are righteous or unrighteous. This would imply that God’s love toward all is seen in these blessings, which is sometimes referred to as common grace. In a similar passage, Paul addresses the topic of God’s goodness as witnessed in the blessings he gives to all people. Luke records the speech: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, yet he did not leave himself without a witness by doing good, by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:16-17).

The last passage is from Genesis 1. “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Since God is a spirit and man is created in God’s image, there must be something about the immaterial nature of man that is reflected in God. The question though is: what part of God’s image is there? Both God and man are personal, relational, moral, and rational. These seem to be some of the inferred characteristics that both God and man share.

So what can we understand about God through natural revelation? The following characteristics are evident: 1) God is glorious; 2) God is powerful; 3) God loves all; 4) God is good to all and; 5) God is a personal, relational, moral and rational being. One must also notice what is not understood though natural revelation, which is God’s plan of salvation.

Sources of Knowledge of God: Special Revelation

As good as natural revelation is, special revelation was needed to communicate more specific truths about God and his plan of salvation for man. Paul states regarding the gospel that it needs to be preached and heard: “And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them (Rom 10:14).” This suggests that no one is going to understand God’s plan of salvation by looking at a star. Even understanding what natural revelation communicates comes from special revelation found in the Bible. Special revelation is God speaking to man through signs, dreams, visions, manifestations of God, inspired verbal messages, inspired written messages and also the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The focus of special revelation centers on two areas: the written word of God (the Bible) and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The Bible speaks about God and is inspired by God. Every scripture is inspired by God as Paul states (2 Tim 3:16). Over and over in the Old Testament the prophets speak: “This is what the Lord says.” The Bible speaks about who God is and what God does and what he wants people to do. For example, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Apart from such statements, mankind would be very much in a fog of knowledge about God and his actions.

The second major area of special revelation is God the Father revealed by the Logos (translated as “Word”) who is his son Jesus Christ. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. . . . Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory . . . . No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known (John 1:1, 2, 14, 18). Later Jesus stated, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). The author of Hebrews states that God has spoken by his Son, who is the exact representation of God (Heb 1:1-3).

The Names of God

One good way to start to understand God is through the names of God as recorded in the Bible. Names have meaning attached to them and the names of God are no exception. The meanings of God’s names give us instruction as to who God is and what he is like. The first reference to God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word Elohim (Gen 1:1). Sometimes this fuller name is abbreviated to El. The root meaning of this Hebrew word is to “Be strong.”1 The Greek translation of the Old Testament normally translates these Hebrews words as theos, which is the basic Greek word for God Elohim is used 2,310 times for the true God in the Old Testament.2 One interesting point about this name is that it is a plural word in Hebrew. A common explanation for this is that it is a plural of majesty indicating the manifold greatness of God. It has also been suggested that it allows for the later revelation of the Trinity.

There are also compound names for God with Elohim: 1) El-Shaddai means God Almighty, which indicates God’s omnipotence (Gen 17:1); 2) El-Elyon means God Most High (Gen 14:19), which stresses God’s supremacy and sovereignty; El-Olam means The Everlasting God
(Gen 21:33), which communicates his timelessness or eternality; El-Roi means The God who Sees (Gen 16:13), which is an indication of his omniscience.3

The personal name for God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew YHWH (יהוה) or Yahweh. The four consonants are sometimes referred to as the tetragrammaton. The first occurrence of YHWH is in Gen 2:4 and it occurs about 5321 times in the Old Testament.4 This name is probably related to a Hebrew word which means “to be or exist.” The name Yahweh was considered so sacred in Israel one was not allowed to speak it. As a substitute when the Old Testament was read, Adonai was spoken. Adonai is the Hebrew word for Lord. The Jewish people had other ways of referring to God that avoided verbalizing God’s name. For example, instead of saying Yahweh will bless you, one could say the Lord or heaven will bless you. One could also put a statement in the passive voice “you will be blessed” with Yahweh as the understood agent of the blessing. Following this respect for God’s personal name, the Greek in the Old and New Testaments translated the divine personal name as kurios, which means lord in Greek as Adonai did in Hebrew.

A key passage regarding God’s personal name is found in Exodus 3. There Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ – what should I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ And he said, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [Yahweh] ( – the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation’” (Exod 3:13-15). One thing to notice in this passages is that Moses was instructed by God to verbalize God’s name = Yahweh to Israel. Saying the name itself was even commanded by God so that people would know what his name was.

As with the name El, there are also compound names for God with Yahweh. Yahweh Jireh means, The Lord Will Provide (Gen 22:14); Abraham named God this after God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac who was one altar and about to be offered as a sacrifice. Yahweh Nissi means, The Lord is my Banner (Exod 17:15); Moses named God this after a defeat of one of Israel’s enemies. Yahweh Shalom means, The Lord is Peace (Judges 6:24). Yahweh Sabbaoth means The Lord of Hosts or Armies (1 Sam 1:3). Yahweh Maccaddeshsem means The Lord your Sanctifier (Ex 31:13). Yahweh Roi means The Lord my Shepherd (Ps 23:1). Yahweh Tsidkenu means The Lord our Righteousness (Jer 23:6). Yahweh Shammah means The Lord is There
(Ezek 48:35).5 These names indicate the greatness of God and how he concerns himself in meeting our needs in various situations we face. Someone once well said, “God is the answer now what is the question.”

The Attributes/Perfections of God

What is God like? The names of God start to address this question but there is much more. God is the subject but what is the predicate? God is . . . . . what? What are the characteristics or attributes of God. Some like to refer to these attributes as perfections since God has the full or perfect expression of them. For example someone might be a loving person but is that person perfectly loving with no flaw? God is perfectly loving with no flaw. God is the fullest or perfect expression of all his characteristics. Also, one must be careful when studying the attributes of God as these attributes relate to each other. As Enns points out, “In the study of God’s attributes it is important not to exalt one attribute over another; when that is done it presents a caricature of God. It is all the attributes of God taken together that provide and understanding of the nature and person of God.”6 The following is only a survey of some of God’s attributes or perfections and the implications of these for us.

God is all powerful, that is omnipotent. Jeremiah states, “After I had given the copies of the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, ‘Oh, Lord God, you did indeed make heaven and earth by your mighty power and great strength. Nothing is too hard for you!’” (Jer 32:17 cf. Job 42:2). The New Testament echoes that with God all things are possible. This should give us Christians comfort that nothing is out of God’s reach and ability; it’s only a matter of his will. A philosophical question is sometimes asked: “can God create a rock so big he cannot move it?” God’s omnipotence extends to the things that are logically possible and not logically impossible. It also only extends things that are consistent with God’s nature, not to things inconsistent with his nature. Can God be unjust? The answer is no because it’s not consistent with his nature.

God is everywhere, that is omnipresent. A very good passage on the omnipresence of God as it relates to us is found in Psalm 139. It reads, “Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be. If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn, and settle down on the other side of the sea, even there your hand would guide me, your right hand would grab hold of me” (Ps 139:7-10). No matter where we are, God is there for us, in any place in any circumstance.

God is all knowing and in control, that is omniscient and sovereign. Isaiah writes, “Truly I am God, I have no peer; I am God, and there is none like me, who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred, who says, ‘My plan will be realized, I will accomplish what I desire’”(Is 46:9-10). Nothing catches God by surprise as he knows everything before it will happen. While we might be surprised at certain events, we also have to realize that God has a plan and he will accomplish what he desires.

God is unchanging, that is immutable. James explains, “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change” (Jas 1:17). God will always act consistent with his nature. We do not have to be concerned that God will be good one day and then bad the next or that he will only sometimes be just or merciful.

God is eternal, that is without beginning or end. The Psalmist states, “even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God” (Ps 90:2). This means that God always was, always is, and always will be. God is not here today and gone tomorrow. God does not die, he only lives. For us as Christians, he will always be there for us. Revelation 1:8 confirms this with the statement, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God – the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come – the All-Powerful!”

God is just/righteous. “Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps 89:14). Society is consistently crying out for justice in the world. Human abuses of justice are everywhere. But what many of them do not realize is that God is a just God in his nature and his actions are always just. They are just by his perfect standards. It is true that justice does not always come right away but it will come in God’s timing of things. He will right every wrong, bring evil acts to judgments, and righteous acts in his name will be rewarded.

God is holy. John states, “Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful” (Rev 4:8; cf. Is 6:3). The holiness of God is mentioned three times in this passage to emphasize that absolute holiness and purity of God, that he is the Most Holy.

God is good. “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”
(Mark 10:18). When hard times and trials come sometimes we are tempted to think that God is bad. After all, why is God doing this or at least allowing it to happen? We know from the Bible that God is using the hard times for his purposes including bringing maturity to our faith
(Jas 1:2-4).

God is true. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Conversely, the author of Hebrews states that it is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18). This would mean that we can count on all that God says including his promises. It would mean God is trustworthy. If God says it, we can “take it to the bank” so to speak.

God is merciful. Paul describes nature of God’s mercy. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4). As Christians we deserved death but God gave us life. We deserved curse but God gave us blessing. We deserved judgment but God gave us mercy. Not only is God merciful but as Ephesians says here he is “rich” in mercy; it overflows; it is plentiful and abundant.

God is love. “The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love”
(1 John 4:8). When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered by giving two: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). Paul stated that the greatest Christian virtue is love and that even if he gave everything he owned or his body to the flames but did not have love he was nothing (1 Cor 13).

There are many more attributes that could be given. What is interesting about all of God’s attributes is that man in a very dim way is to reflect God’s nature by becoming more godly in character. Peter reminds us of the command: “Be holy for I am holy (1 Pet 1:16).” Paul states that we as Christians are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). As we study what God is like, we learn more what we should be like. As people experience God in a greater way they grow to be more like him.

The Trinity

The Trinity is probably the most important doctrine in the Christian faith that defines who God is. The word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible but it is a theological formulation of truths that are taught in the Bible. A concise definition of the Trinity is this: One God in three persons the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This theological concept could also be referred to as “Triunity”7 a term which emphasizes the “three in oneness” of God. But how is this teaching communicated in the Scripture?

First, the Bible teaches there is one God. “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”
(Deut 6:4). And in the New Testament, “For there is one God . . .” (1 Tim 2:5). Second, the Bible teaches the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God and they all have the characteristics that are unique to God. To make this point, one supporting verse for each member of the Trinity will be given. For the Father: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Rom 1:7). For the Son: “But of the Son he says, Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”
(Heb 1:8). For the Holy Spirit: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? . . You have not lied to people but to God!’” (Acts 5:3-4). The Great Commission illustrates the “three in oneness” by using the singular word “name” with all three members of the Trinity. There Matthew states, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).8

There is no perfect illustration for the Trinity. But some analogies have been used to try and communicate the concept.9 It is reported that Saint Patrick used the three leaf clover as an object lesson in teaching about the Trinity. Three leaves in one clover equals the concept of one God in three persons, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. One might wonder what he would have done though if he picked up a four leaf clover!

Conclusion and Summary

God is a great and awesome God. He is the answer to life’s questions and needs. He has communicated himself to mankind through his creation and special revelation he has given. John Piper states, “People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow.”10

Discussion Questions

  1. How much can a person learn about God just from looking at creation?
  2. Which name of God has meant something to you? Explain.
  3. Is one attribute of God more important than another, for example God’s love or God’s justice?
  4. How does the doctrine of the Trinity affect how we define other religions or cults?
  5. Can someone be a Christian and not believe in the Trinity?
  6. How does or should our theology affect how we live?

1 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (2nd ed; Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 201.

2 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 45.

3 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 46.

4 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47.

5 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47, Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 201-202.

6 Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 192.

7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.

8 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.

9 For example, there is the egg that has three parts shell, white and yolk but is one egg. Or the sun that has light, heat and mass but is one sun. 

10 John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 13-14.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Character of God, Christology, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Revelation, Theology Proper (God)

Lesson 19: A Lesson in Humility (John 3:22-30)

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July 14, 2013

In a “Peanuts” cartoon, Linus tells Charlie Brown, “When I get big, I’m going to be a humble little country doctor. I’ll live in the city, see, and every morning I’ll get up, climb into my sports car, and zoom into the country! Then I’ll start healing people… I’ll heal people for miles around!” In the last frame, he exclaims, “I’ll be a world famous humble little country doctor!”

Charles Schultz, the cartoonist, was poking fun at how difficult it is for us to be humble. We may start out with the goal of being a humble little whatever, but before we know it, we’re into being a world-famous, humble little whatever!

Pride is arguably the most deadly and evil of all sins because it’s at the root of all other sins. Pride was probably Satan’s original sin, when he said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14, assuming that this in some sense is describing Satan). Pride was the bait Satan used to tempt Eve, when he set aside what God had said and assured her that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would be like God (Gen. 3:1-6). Whenever I sin, I am arrogantly asserting that I know better than God knows what is best for me. Thus, as Christians we must constantly battle pride and grow in humility. And if you think you’ve attained any measure of humility, you’ve got to be on guard against being proud of your humility!

If anyone easily could have fallen into the trap of pride, it would have been John the Baptist. Who else in human history (apart from Jesus Himself) could claim to have been filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15)! No one else in human history had the important role of being the forerunner of Messiah (Luke 1:17, 76). John enjoyed immediate popular success, as all Jerusalem, Judea, and those from surrounding areas were going out to him in the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized (Matt. 3:5-6). Even Jesus testified of John that he was the greatest man in human history (Matt. 11:11). All these things could have fed the pride of this young prophet, barely in his thirties.

Yet in our text John gives his disciples and us a basic lesson in humility. In the face of Jesus’ growing popularity and his own waning popularity, John gives us a one-liner to live by (John 3:30): “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Those words are a convenient outline in reverse of John 3:22-36: “I must decrease” sums up 3:22-30; “He must increase” sums up 3:31-36. To the extent that John’s motto is true of us, we are growing in humility.

The story begins by describing two thriving ministries that were taking place close to one another. We don’t know the exact location of Jesus and John as described here, but both were somewhere along the Jordan River, which they were using for baptisms. As John clarifies in 4:2, Jesus was not actually performing the baptisms, but His disciples were. These were not Christian baptisms at this point, but rather public confessions of sin followed by immersion in water, which symbolized cleansing from sin. It’s interesting that even John Calvin, who practiced baptism as sprinkling, admits that the reference to “much water” indicates that Jesus and John were “plunging the whole body beneath the water” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 130)!

The apostle added the comment (3:24) that John had not yet been thrown into prison because he knew that his readers would have read Mark’s gospel, which makes it seem that Jesus’ ministry began after John the Baptist was arrested (Mark 1:14). The apostle John wants us to know that the events recorded here happened before John the Baptist’s imprisonment.

At this juncture (“therefore” in 3:25 is better translated “now” or “then,” indicating a transition to something new), John reports that a dispute or discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew (some early manuscripts read “the Jews,” but the singular is probably original) about purification. The apostle does not give us any further clarification, so we can only guess at the nature of the discussion. Probably it had to do with whether John’s baptism was superior to the Jewish rites of purification. John mentioned those Jewish rites with the water pots at the wedding where Jesus turned the water into wine (2:6). In the present context, Jesus is the bridegroom (3:29). He comes to bring people into a joyous relationship with Himself, not to haggle over Jewish ceremonies. It’s not outward Jewish ceremonies that purify one’s heart, but rather, the new birth from above. So John may want us to see here that Jesus’ ministry went beyond the ceremonial legalism of Judaism.

At any rate, the debate between John’s disciples and this Jew may have included the Jew’s comment that the Baptist’s ministry was being eclipsed by Jesus’ growing ministry. This led John’s disciples to come to him with their concern (3:26), “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” Their exaggeration, “all are coming to Him,” was no doubt spawned by resentment or jealousy (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 210). They were jealous on John’s behalf against Jesus’ growing ministry. This sets the stage for John the Baptist’s reply (3:27-30), which is a great lesson in humility. We learn:

Humility stems from understanding who God is and who we are.

John the Baptist clearly understood God’s sovereignty, who Jesus is, and who he (John) was. Thus he didn’t have inflated views of himself. He wasn’t out to build his self-esteem or to promote his own ministry or reputation. His aim was to exalt Jesus. He found great joy in his role of handing off the bride to the bridegroom.

1. Humility stems from understanding who God is.

We see this both with reference to John’s view of the Father and his view of Jesus Christ:

A. Humility stems from understanding that God is absolutely sovereign (3:27).

John replies to his disciples’ worried report (3:27), “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” That truth applies to all spiritual matters, including our salvation (Luke 10:21-22). As Jesus emphasizes (John 6:65), “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” But here it has special reference to our ministries and the relative fruitfulness of those ministries. He is saying that his role as the forerunner was given to him by God, and he must stay within that role. His words also apply to Jesus: Any popularity or success that He enjoyed in ministry came from the Father.

Paul applies this to us as gifted members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-6): “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” He adds (12:11), “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” In other words, God gives different spiritual gifts, ministries, and results according to His sovereign will. Humility stems from recognizing that this is God’s prerogative as God and bowing before His sovereign will.

B. Humility stems from understanding that Jesus is the Lord and Christ (3:28-29).

In 3:28, John reminds his disciples that he has said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent ahead of Him.” Clearly, John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah. Then in 3:29, John uses an illustration from a Jewish wedding: “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full.” John knew that Jesus was the promised bridegroom and that the bride belongs to Him. John’s role was that of the friend of the bridegroom, sort of like our “best man.” His role was to take the bride to the bridegroom and then get out of the way. The focus of the wedding was not on the best man, but on the bridegroom and bride.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh is often pictured as the bridegroom (or husband) and Israel as His bride. For example, in Isaiah 54:5, the Lord tells Israel, “For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah 62:5b declares, “And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” In Hosea 2:16, the Lord tells Israel that in the future, they will call the Lord, “My husband.” He promises (Hos. 2:19), “I will betroth you to Me forever….” Jesus used this analogy of Himself when He explained to some of John’s disciples why Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Matt. 9:15): “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” The same analogy carries over to the New Testament epistles, where Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is His bride (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7; 21:2; 22:17).

Now, if Yahweh is Israel’s bridegroom in the Old Testament and John the Baptist proclaims Jesus as Israel’s bridegroom here, then it’s an affirmation that Jesus is Yahweh. Jesus is God. Whether or not John the Baptist put the two halves of this equation together, it is evident that the apostle John through the Holy Spirit wants us to put them together: If God is the bridegroom and Jesus is the bridegroom, then Jesus is God. (James Boice makes this point, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], one-volume edition, p. 223.)

The lesson in humility for us is: humility stems from knowing who God is. The clearer our vision of His majesty and greatness and power and glory, the more we will be humbled in His presence. As I’ve said before, this is one of the main lessons that I came away with the first time I read Calvin’s Institutes [Westminster Press]. He presents such an exalted view of God, whom he often calls “the Majesty,” that you just bow yourself in the dust before Him. In Calvin’s words (1.1.3), “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.” You realize how little you are in His holy presence. That’s the second lesson that John the Baptist teaches us:

2. Humility stems from understanding who we are in God’s presence.

Calvin begins The Institutes (1.1.1) with the profound sentence, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” John McNeill, the editor, explains (p. 36, note 3), “These decisive words set the limits of Calvin’s theology and condition every subsequent statement.” Calvin expounds on our knowledge of ourselves (1.1.2): “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” He goes on to say that pride is innate in us all and cannot be dealt with until we look to the Lord.

In our text, we see that John was clear about who he was in the presence of Christ:

A. Humility stems from understanding that I am not the Christ.

People were wondering if John was the Christ, which he emphatically denied (1:20), “I am not the Christ.” Now he reminds his disciples of what he has repeatedly said (3:28), “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’”

You may think, “Well, there’s not much danger that I’m going to start thinking that I’m the Christ.” But as I’ve often said, one of the most basic lessons that we all have to learn—and learn again and again—is that God is God; I am not God. When things don’t go the way I’d prefer, I have to learn to bow and acknowledge, “God, You’re God; I’m not God.” Also, although I’ve never had to deal with it (and probably never will), when your ministry is popular and you’ve got crowds of people thronging to hear you speak, you need to keep in mind, “I’m not the Christ; I’m just His lowly slave, sent to point people to Him.”

B. Humility stems from understanding that everything I am and have has been entrusted to me by God to be used for His purpose and glory.

This lesson stems from John’s comment (3:27), “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” John recognized that his unique role in history was not something that he had achieved by his own brilliance or hard work. Rather, God had graciously given it to him so that he could point people to Jesus. It had nothing to do with anything good in John. It had everything to do with God’s sovereign, gracious purpose for John.

The apostle Paul reminded the arrogant Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” When Pilate, frustrated that Jesus would not answer him, told Jesus that he had authority either to release Him or crucify Him, Jesus replied (John 19:11), “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above ….”

This is such an important lesson to keep in mind at all times: All of my gifts, abilities, and opportunities come from God by grace alone. Everything! Do I have a sound mind? That came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. Do I have money? That came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. Do I have a ministry or place of service? That, too, came from God, who wants me to use it for His purpose and glory. John knew that he was the forerunner of the Messiah, and he sought to fulfill that ministry which God had given him.

A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, online at points out that John continued preaching and baptizing, even as he saw his influence waning in comparison with Jesus’ ministry. The point is that humility does not mean that we slack off and then blame our lack of results on God’s sovereignty. We should seek to use to the fullest what God has entrusted to us to the best of our ability, giving all glory for any results to Him.

C. Humility is maintained by having a proper definition of success in ministry.

There are two things here:

(1). Success in ministry does not necessarily mean having the largest following.

John’s disciples were concerned because the numbers in his following were going down, while the numbers following Jesus were going up. And John didn’t seem to be doing anything to correct the situation. But when they talk to John about their concerns, he explains that their cause for concern was his cause for great joy. John wasn’t trying to build a following for John, but rather a following for Jesus.

Sometimes a man’s disciples are more zealous for his reputation than he is. On one occasion when the Spirit came on two young men in the camp of Israel so that they prophesied, Joshua, who was Moses’ helper, said (Num. 11:28), “Moses, my lord, restrain them.” But Moses replied (11:29), “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” A similar thing happened when the apostle John saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and tried to prevent him, because he wasn’t part of their group. But Jesus replied (Mark 9:39), “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.”

The lesson is, we aren’t in competition with other churches or other ministries. If they’re preaching the gospel and teaching God’s Word, then we’re on the same team. We can rejoice that the Lord’s work is prospering, even if our work is not as large as the other work. Our responsibility is to be faithful with what the Lord has given us to do.

(2). Success in ministry is to exalt Christ and bring others to do the same.

John’s aim and his joy was to bring the bride to the bridegroom. By the way, you probably don’t think of John the Baptist as a joyful man. He was the austere prophet who thundered (Matt. 3:7), “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He was angry when the religious hypocrites did not follow Jesus. But he was full of joy when he heard the bridegroom’s voice and could bring the bride to Him. If people followed after Jesus, John’s purpose had been fulfilled. His joy was full.

Under the glass on my desk I have this quote from Robert Murray McCheyne: “I see a man cannot be a faithful minister, until he preaches Christ for Christ’s sake—until he gives up striving to attract people to himself and seeks only to attract them to Christ.” We always need to keep in mind that it’s all about the bridegroom and not at all about the best man. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Finally,

D. Humility recognizes that I am expendable and my role in God’s program is temporary.

This is implicit in John’s motto, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Like the morning star, John was fading from view as the sun rose in the sky. John’s being expendable also implicit in the parenthetical comment (3:24), “For John had not yet been thrown into prison.” When you get thrown into prison, it’s easy to wonder about God’s sovereignty and about your role in His plan. John himself began to wonder as he sat in prison, “Was I mistaken? Is Jesus really the Christ?” He sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus (Matt. 11:3), “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” In other words, “If You’re the Messiah, why don’t You get Your forerunner out of this miserable jail?” Jesus replied (Matt. 11:4-6), “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”

It’s important to remember that being a faithful servant of the Lord does not guarantee a trouble-free life. John the Baptist was the faithful, God-appointed forerunner of Messiah, but he got thrown into prison and had his head cut off in his early thirties. We aren’t guaranteed long lives or impressive results in our ministries. The Lord could take me out of the picture today and His work would go right on according to His plan. He owes us nothing. It is our great joy if He uses us in some way to exalt Christ and to bring others to exalt Him, too.


Andrew Murray (Humility: The Beauty of Holiness [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 12) writes,

Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of things, the first duty and the highest virtue of the creature, and the root of every virtue. And so pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil.

Are you working at growing in humility and pouring contempt on all your pride (to use Isaac Watt’s line, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”)? If I’m growing in humility, Christ is increasing and I’m decreasing. If I’m growing in pride, self is increasing and Christ is decreasing.

I recommend three short books: Andrew Murray, Humility (75 pages); C. J. Mahaney, Humility ([Multnomah], 172 pages); and, Stuart Scott, From Pride to Humility ([Focus Publications], 31 pages, which is a chapter from his book, The Exemplary Husband.) Or, if you’re up for it, read Calvin’s Institutes ([Westminster Press], the first three books, which are the most spiritually rich, are 1008 pages). He favorably quotes (2.2.11) Augustine, who cited a public speaker who said the chief rule in eloquence is “Delivery.” The second rule is, “Delivery.” The third rule is, “Delivery.” So Augustine said, the three precepts of Christianity are first, second, and third, “Humility.” Make John the Baptist’s motto yours: “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease.”

Application Questions

  1. For the past 40 years, Christian authors have promoted the need to build your self-esteem. Is this supported in the Bible? Isn’t self-esteem directly opposed to biblical humility?
  2. Discuss the implications of the truth that pride is at the root of all sins. How does this truth help us fight selfishness, greed, lust, anger, jealousy, and other deeds of the flesh?
  3. John the Baptist was bold as a lion and yet humble. He was no Caspar Milquetoast! How does boldness fit with humility?
  4. Andrew Murray (Humility [CLC], pp. 40, 43) states, “The chief mark of counterfeit holiness is its lack of humility…. There is no pride so dangerous, because none so subtle and insidious, as the pride of holiness.” Discuss these statements.

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, Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Sanctification, Spiritual Life

Lesson 20: Once More: Why Believe in Jesus? (John 3:31-36)

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July 21, 2013

I’ve been grieved lately to hear of several young adults who formerly were a part of this church, who professed faith in Christ and in some cases served in this church, but now do not go to any church. I’ve heard that some of them have renounced their faith in Christ. One of them that I recently had lunch with now claims to be an atheist.

What a tragedy! Why does it happen? The reasons are probably as varied as the individuals who fall away. Behind it all is the enemy of our souls, who prowls about as a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8; Luke 8:12). Sometimes the person believed in Jesus for superficial reasons: he hoped that Jesus would give easy relief from some problem, but it didn’t happen. In the parable of the sower, Jesus told about those who believed and found sudden joy, but they didn’t have roots, so that when the hot sun of trials came out, they wilted and died. Others, He said, seem to grow for a while, but the thorns of worries and riches and the pleasures of this life choked them out (Luke 8:13-14).

I think that there are also two common problems behind those who make a profession of faith and then fall away. First, they have a shallow understanding of their true moral guilt before the holy God. They don’t understand that as sinners they are under His wrath and that their good deeds will not erase or ease His judgment against their sins. So they don’t see their desperate need for salvation. Second, they don’t understand who Jesus is and what He did for them on the cross. As I’ve often said, the entire Christian faith rests on the correct answer to Jesus’ question (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” If you get that question right, everything else is secondary. If Jesus is who the Bible proclaims Him to be, then you must believe in Him as your Savior and Lord or you will face judgment. Either Christ died for your sins and is risen from the dead or not. If He is not who He claimed to be, then you’re wasting your time being a Christian (1 Cor. 15:13-19).

John is clear about why he wrote his Gospel (20:31): “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in His name.” I titled an earlier message from John 1:15-18, “Why You Should Believe in Jesus.” In our text, John hits it once more (and it won’t be the last time!): Why believe in Jesus?

Because Jesus is God’s Son from heaven who testifies to God’s truth, your eternal destiny hinges on believing in Him.

As I said last time, these verses expound on the first half of John the Baptist’s motto, “He must increase.” Although some Bible scholars think that verses 31-36 continue the words of John the Baptist, I’m inclined to side with those who argue that they are the words of John the apostle. The original text did not have quotation marks. As we saw earlier in this chapter, probably Jesus’ words end at 3:15 and John’s comments follow in 3:16-21.

A couple of things point us in this direction here. First, the Christology (view of Christ) seems to be more in line with later, more developed understanding than with that which John the Baptist would have had. Also, these verses are clearly Trinitarian. It would be highly unusual for a Jew like John the Baptist at this point in history to have had such well-defined views.

But, whether these are the words of John the Baptist or John the apostle, they are equally inspired by God, given for our spiritual profit. John makes four main points to show why we should believe in Jesus:

1. Jesus has a heavenly origin and is above all (3:31).

John 3:31: “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.”

John seems to be commenting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus (3:11-13): “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”

John is repeating the point that Jesus’ existence did not begin when He was born to the virgin Mary. The eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus came to this earth from heaven, where He dwelt eternally with the Father. Through the virgin birth Jesus took on human flesh so that He could bear the penalty for our sins. But now He is again exalted on high, “above all,” a point that John repeats twice for emphasis (some manuscripts omit the second repetition, but it is probably original).

John is not the only apostle to affirm that Jesus is now above all. In Ephesians 1:20-22a, Paul says that after God raised Jesus from the dead, He seated Him “at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet ….” The apostle Peter affirms (1 Pet. 3:22) that Jesus “is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” And, the author of Hebrews spends the entire first chapter of that letter asserting that Jesus, the Creator of all things, is over all the angels.

In our text (3:31) John contrasts Jesus with John the Baptist, “who is of the earth, is from the earth and speaks of the earth.” He is not nullifying the testimony of John, but rather pointing out its limitations by contrasting it with the superior testimony of Jesus. While John the Baptist was a faithful witness of all that God entrusted to him, he was nonetheless human. He only had a limited understanding of the things of God, as all humans do to one extent or another. But Jesus dwelt eternally with the Father (17:5). Because Jesus came to earth from heaven and is now back in heaven, exalted above all others, we must believe everything that He has told us about God and heavenly things.

2. Jesus has a heavenly message (3:32-34).

John 3:32-34: “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” John affirms three things in these verses:

A. Jesus’ testimony regarding heavenly matters is true because it is eyewitness testimony (3:32a).

John 3:32a: “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies ….” We hear stories these days of people who supposedly went to heaven, came back, and wrote a book about it. A lot of what they write contradicts what the Bible says about heaven, but people buy their books and receive it as true because the authors claim to have eyewitness testimony. It’s interesting that none of the people in the Bible who were raised from the dead wrote books or set up speaking tours to tell everyone what they saw up there! The apostle Paul had a vision of heaven (some think it may have been when he was stoned and left for dead), but he only spoke about it hesitantly 14 years after it happened (2 Cor. 12:1-10). And he adds that because of the surpassing greatness of that revelation, God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. Paul missed a huge opportunity to cash in with a best-selling story about what heaven is like!

But John’s point in our text is that Jesus can testify truthfully about heaven because He is telling us what He has seen and heard. He wasn’t speculating or philosophizing about heaven. He was speaking the very words of God, telling us what the Father is like and how we can have eternal life. His witness is reliable and certain.

This isn’t the only time that John asserts this. In John 7:16, Jesus said, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me.” In John 8:28, He said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me.” In John 14:10, after telling Philip that if he has seen Jesus, he has seen the Father, Jesus adds, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.”

D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apol­los], p. 213) sums it up: “Jesus so completely says and does all that God says and does, and only what God says and does … that to believe Jesus is to believe God.” The converse is also true: To reject Jesus’ testimony about God is to reject God (see John 12:44-50). Even worse, to reject God’s testimony about Jesus is to call God a liar (1 John 5:10): “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” So it’s a very serious matter to set aside Jesus’ testimony as recorded in the Bible!

B. You can’t judge the truthfulness of Jesus’ testimony by taking a poll (3:32b-33).

John 3:32b-33: “and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true.” Obviously, in context, the first half of that statement is a generalization, because the second half indicates that some do receive Jesus’ testimony. It’s similar to what we saw in 1:11-12: “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” The general response to Jesus when He came to this earth was rejection. John 3:19, “Men loved darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” But, by God’s grace alone, there have always been some who have responded by believing. These affirm (“set their seal to this”) “that God is true.”

It’s interesting to contrast John’s statement in 3:32, that “no one receives His testimony,” with the report of John the Baptist’s disciples (3:26) that “all are coming to Him.” Jesus had a large popular following because He healed people and they found His teaching fascinating. They enjoyed His stories. They liked the fact that He spoke with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 7:29). But, the same fickle crowd that shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday on Friday shouted, “Crucify Him!” Their views about Jesus changed with the popular tide of opinion.

The point for us is: the reason we should put our trust in Jesus is because we have come to the firm conclusion, based on the apostolic witness, that God is true and that Jesus spoke the words of God. He is who He claimed to be. He is the Christ, the Son of God, sent from heaven to redeem us from our sins. By setting your seal to this, John means that you fix in your mind and heart that Jesus is the promised Redeemer, your personal Savior and Lord. Even if all others forsake Him, you will be faithful even unto death.

The truth is, it’s easy to ride on the coattails of your parents’ faith or your friends’ faith or of popular opinion. Perhaps you went to an evangelistic meeting and all of your friends went forward at the altar call as the congregation sang an emotional hymn and the preacher pled for everyone to come forward. Under a flurry of emotion, you went forward. You felt great about it at the time and even shed tears of joy as the counselor shared with you that you now have eternal life and that it can’t be taken from you.

But, then a few weeks or months later, the glow faded. Stubborn problems reared their ugly head. Rather than answering your prayers for deliverance, things got worse than they were before you went forward. Meanwhile, a lot of your friends who are not religious are saying, “I told you it wouldn’t work!” An atheistic professor gave a lecture ridiculing Christianity. If your faith rests on popular opinion, it will crumble in time.

I grew up in a Christian home and made a profession of faith at a young age. But I remember that when I got to college, I realized that there are a lot of other options out there on what to believe. As I thought it through, I realized that if my faith was going to endure, it had to be my faith, not my parents’ faith and not my friends’ faith. It had to be based on the truth about Jesus.

C. Jesus’ testimony regarding heavenly matters is true because God sent Jesus and gave Him a full measure of the Holy Spirit (3:34).

John 3:34: “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” The truth that God sent Jesus to this earth is repeated about 39 times in John’s Gospel, which affirms His deity and His heavenly origin (Ed Blum, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck [Victor Books], 2:283). It also underscores Jesus’ authority, which John emphasizes in the next verse (3:35).

“For He gives the Spirit without measure” explains why Jesus spoke the words of God: During Jesus’ earthly ministry, God the Father gave Him the full measure of the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1; Luke 4:18). As John the Baptist testified (John 1:32), “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.” This brings out the full humanity of Jesus. As a man, He had to rely constantly on the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26), which enabled Him to speak the true words of God. In this, He modeled for us how we are to live in dependence on God’s Spirit.

There are two applications for us in this verse. First, while only Jesus could infallibly speak the very words of God, every pastor and Bible teacher should strive to be faithful to the Word of God. My aim in every sermon is that when I’m done, you should be able to look at the biblical text and understand what it means and how it applies to your life. This means that sometimes I have to teach some difficult truths (as I will do in a moment when we get to the subject of God’s wrath in 3:36). If I water down or dodge the difficult truths, as many pastors do, I am not being faithful to God. And if you sit for very long under a pastor who waters down the Word, you won’t be faithful to God.

Second, while Jesus is unique in having the complete fullness of God’s Spirit, we all should repeatedly ask God for more and more of the fullness of the Spirit. Early in my Christian life, I was taught that I could claim the filling of the Holy Spirit by faith. The implication was that either the Spirit fully controlled my life or I was in control. But the reality is, we grow in our capacity to be filled with the Spirit and in this lifetime, we never will experience the complete fullness of the Spirit that Jesus experienced. While the fruit of the Spirit can be evident in our lives, there is always room for more love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more goodness, more faithfulness, more gentleness, and more self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Thus I need constantly to entreat God for more fullness of His Spirit.

Thus, Jesus has a heavenly origin and a heavenly message.

3. Jesus has heavenly authority (3:35).

John 3:35: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand.” The love between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is eternal and perfect. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended on Him and the Father proclaimed (Matt. 3:17), “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Because the Father loves the Son, He has given all things into His hand. Jesus affirmed (Matt. 11:27), “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Just before He ascended into heaven, as He gave the Great Commission, He again affirmed (Matt. 28:18), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”

That’s an astounding claim! If any mere man said such things, we would know that he was crazy. But Jesus could make such a claim with full credibility, because of who He is. This means that as we proclaim the gospel, we can appeal to Jesus to open blind eyes and reveal the truth to those who are lost. He alone has the sovereign authority to fulfill His Word with power. Finally,

4. Therefore, your eternal destiny hinges on believing in Jesus (3:36).

John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” There are two and only two options: Believe in Jesus and have eternal life; or, do not obey Jesus and be under God’s perpetual wrath. Both options are present realities that extend into eternity. Right now, you either have eternal life or you are under God’s wrath. Whatever state you are in when you die continues forever after you die (Matt. 25:46).

You might expect that John would say that whoever believes in Christ has eternal life, but the one who doesn’t believe is under God’s judgment. But instead, he uses a different word, saying, “he who does not obey the Son will not see life.” He does this for two reasons. First, not to believe in Jesus is to disobey God, who calls on all to repent and believe. Second, genuine saving faith is obedient faith, whereas false faith claims to believe, but denies that claim by disobedience (Matt. 7:21; Luke 6:46; Titus 1:16; James 2:18-24; 1 John 2:3). Of course, none of us can obey God perfectly, but the overall direction of our lives should be that of obedience to Christ.

This is the only mention of God’s wrath in John’s Gospel, but it’s a frequent theme in his Revelation (6:16-17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15). God’s wrath is His settled, holy hatred and opposition to all sin. All sin must be punished, or God would not be holy and just. As Jonathan Edwards argued so forcefully in “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:669), sin against an infinitely holy God is infinitely heinous and thus worthy of infinite punishment. Those who refuse to believe in Christ are presently under the curse of sin and death. If they die unbelieving, they will experience the fullness of God’s wrath throughout eternity. Thus our eternal destiny hinges on believing in Christ or disobeying Him.


I am greatly concerned that all of you believe in Jesus for the right reasons: Because He has a heavenly origin—He came from above and is above all; because He has a heavenly message—He testifies of the Father; and, because He has heavenly authority—the Father has given all things into His hand. Because of who Jesus is, your eternal destiny hinges on believing in Him.

I close with this quote from J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:172), which sums up why we should believe in Jesus: “We can never make too much of Christ…. We can never have too high thoughts about Christ, can never love Him too much, trust Him too implicitly, lay too much weight upon Him, and speak too highly in His praise. He is worthy of all the honor that we can give Him. He will be all in heaven. Let us see to it, that He is all in our hearts on earth.”

Application Questions

  1. Have you known people who professed faith in Christ and later fell away? What were the causes of their spiritual failure?
  2. Why is it important to base our faith in Christ on who He is and not just on what He can do for us?
  3. How can we know that the apostles faithfully reported the life and words of Jesus? How would you answer someone who claimed that they just made up the story?
  4. As difficult as the doctrine is, why must we believe in God’s wrath? Consider Leon Morris’ words (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 250): “Unless we are saved from real peril there is no meaning in salvation.”

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: Christology, Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 21: Living Water for a Thirsty Woman (John 4:1-14)

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July 28, 2013

One of the wonderful things about the good news that Jesus brings is that it meets the basic need that all people have. You can go to the highest halls of learning and talk with a man with multiple Ph.D.’s. Although he is highly educated, the message he needs to hear is that Christ died for his sins and was raised from the dead, and that he can trust in Christ and receive eternal life as a free gift. Take the message to the most primitive, illiterate tribesman in some remote jungle and he needs to hear the same good news. Since all people are sinners who need to be reconciled to the holy God, the same gospel applies to all: Jesus saves sinners who trust in Him.

John 3 gives the account of Jesus’ interview with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. As a religious leader and a moral man, he was no doubt shocked by Jesus’ opening words (3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus’ religion was not sufficient. He needed the new birth. John 4 gives the account of Jesus’ encounter with the immoral Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus skillfully shows her that she needs the living water that He can give. It’s the same basic message with a different metaphor.

Nicodemus and the unnamed Samaritan woman are as different as they could be. He was a Jewish man; she was a Samaritan woman. He was educated and orthodox in the Jewish faith; she was uneducated and heterodox. He was an influential leader; she was a nobody. He was upper middle class; she was lower class. He was morally upright; she was immoral. He sought out Jesus because he recognized His merits; she had no idea who the stranger at the well was, who sought her out. He came to Jesus at night; Jesus and the woman met at noon. Nicodemus responded slowly and rationally; she responded quickly and emotionally. But Jesus loved both of them. He came to seek and to save all types of people.

In 2010, I did two messages from John 4 from the perspective of how Jesus teaches us to witness, which you can access online if it would be helpful. But in this and the next few messages, I’m going to work through the text section by section, trying to bring out whatever lessons are there. In John 4:1-14, we learn that…

Jesus is the Savior who can give living water to all thirsty sinners.

Background: In 4:1-3, John gives us the reason why Jesus left Judea and headed toward Galilee, namely, to avoid any conflict with the Pharisees, who were closely monitoring the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus was never one to avoid conflict if it was in the Father’s will, but He knew that the time was not yet right for direct conflict, so He left (the Greek word means “abandoned”) Judea in the south and headed north toward Galilee until He knew that it was the hour for the cross.

John 4:2 clarifies that Jesus was not actually baptizing people, but His disciples were. This baptism was based on repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as practiced by John the Baptist. Frederick Godet (Commentary on the Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1:418) observes, “By baptizing, He attested the unity of His work with that of the forerunner. By not Himself baptizing, He made the superiority of His position above that of John the Baptist to be felt.” Also, perhaps Jesus knew that if He actually did the baptizing, people would later boast, “I was baptized by Jesus Himself!” So He let His disciples do the actual “dunking.”

We can draw three main lessons from John 4:4-14:

1. Jesus seeks sinners who aren’t even seeking Him.

John 4:4: “And He had to pass through Samaria.” This was the shortest route from Judea to Galilee that many Jews used, but it wasn’t the only route. Some strict Jews, who didn’t want any contact with the despised Samaritans, would take a longer route, crossing the Jordan River to the east, traveling north, and then going back west into Galilee. Since Jesus was probably already at the Jordan River, where they were baptizing, He could have taken that route, but He didn’t. So the word translated “had to” probably indicates more than geographic necessity: Jesus had a divine appointment in Samaria. (John uses the word of Jesus’ divine mission in 3:14; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9.)

Sychar was located about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, approximately half-way between Jerusalem and Nazareth, at the base of Mount Gerazim, the Samaritans’ “holy mountain.” Jacob’s well was about a half mile outside the village. John mentions that Jesus was weary from His journey, so He was sitting by the well at about the sixth hour. The disciples had gone into the city to buy food. The distance from where Jesus had been baptizing to Sychar was about 40 miles by road. Jesus and the disciples had walked a full day and a half to arrive there about noon (Colin Kruse, John [IVP], p. 129). Some scholars, to avoid a chronological problem in John 19:14, argue that John followed Roman time, which began at midnight. But there is scant evidence for that view. We’ll wrestle with the chronological problem when we get to chapter 19. But here, John almost certainly means noon, not 6 p.m.

The hostilities between the Jews and the Samaritans went back centuries. After the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., they deported most of the Jews and replaced them with foreigners, who intermarried with the remaining Jews. Their religion was a mixture of their foreign gods with Judaism (2 Kings 17:24-41). When the exiles from the Southern Kingdom of Judah returned from Babylon, the Samaritans offered to help them rebuild their temple, but the Jews viewed them as foreign enemies and refused their offer (Ezra 4:1-5). The same thing happened later when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 4:1-3).

Then, in about 400 B. C., the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerazim. The Jewish leader John Hyrcanus burned it down in 128 B.C., which didn’t improve relations between the two groups! Also, the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses), not all of the Jewish Scriptures. So the Jews viewed the Samaritans as biological and religious half-breeds. All of these events and factors had led to intense hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews by Jesus’ day. We can’t properly understand this story unless we keep this hostile history in mind.

The normal time for women to get water was either early morning or later in the afternoon, when it was cooler. The well was a place where women gathered to talk as they filled their water pots. We can’t say for sure why this woman came to the well at noon, but it may be that because of her immoral life, she was not liked by the other women. She wanted to come when she would be alone. But she encounters this Jewish man, who has the audacity to ask her for a drink of water. It would be like a white man in the South years ago, where they had separate drinking fountains for whites and “coloreds,” asking a black woman if he could have a drink from her canteen! Add to this that it wasn’t socially acceptable for a Jewish man, much less a rabbi, to speak to any woman in public. The rabbis thought that even Jewish women should not be taught the Scriptures. So for Jesus to go beyond asking for a drink, which was shocking enough, and direct the conversation into spiritual things with this Samaritan woman was off the charts (4:27)!

It wasn’t that this woman said, “Sir, you look like a Jewish rabbi. I’m hungry to know your God. Can you tell me how to do that?” She was just going about her daily chores, minding her own business, when this stranger asked her for a drink and then steered the conversation into spiritual matters. She wasn’t seeking to know God. Her guilt over her current live-in boyfriend and her five marriages, which had probably ended because of her multiple adulteries, caused her to keep her distance from God. The only explanation for this story is that Jesus was seeking a sinner who wasn’t even seeking Him.

The application for those of us who know Christ is: If we want to be like our Savior, we should be seeking out unlikely candidates for salvation and try to turn the conversation to spiritual matters so that they can come to know the Savior. I confess that all too often, I size up someone who seems to be far from the Lord and think, “He wouldn’t be interested in spiritual things.” So I don’t attempt to steer the conversation to the place where I can tell him the good news.

But maybe I’m speaking to someone who has a notoriously sinful past and right now is living in sin. The application for you is that Jesus seeks after just such people as you to be His disciples. Jesus said (Luke 19:10) that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” He saved the thief on the cross. He saved the chief of sinners who was persecuting the church. He saved this immoral Samaritan woman. He wants to save you!

2. Jesus offers all sinners the gift of living water.

Note three things here:

A. The living water that Jesus gives is a gift, not something that you must earn or qualify for.

Note the emphasis on gift or give here (my italics): John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” John 4:14: “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.” It’s a gift, not a reward!

One of the most common spiritual errors is that we get into heaven by our good works. Every religion, except for biblical Christianity, operates on the principle that you must work for or earn salvation. This is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (in the Councils of Trent): “If anyone says, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema.” (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112; English updated.)

In total contrast, the Bible states (Rom. 4:4-5): “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The gospel is not good news if it requires that you must do penance, reform your life, keep a bunch of rules, do an unspecified number of good deeds, and hope that someday God might let you into heaven on that basis. But it is wonderfully good news if God offers it to you as a free gift, which He does!

But, maybe you’re thinking, “Because of my many sins, which I’d be embarrassed to make known, I’m not worthy of such a gift.” True, you’re not worthy. No one is. But …

B. No sinner is excluded from the offer of this gift.

In the eyes of most Jews, including the disciples at this point, this woman was not worthy of Jesus’ time. Just being a Samaritan excluded her. Being a woman was strike two. But being an immoral Samaritan woman struck her out: “Jesus, why don’t we move on to more important, better qualified, people who have more potential?” But Jesus took the time and the initiative to talk with this sinful woman about living water. He didn’t exclude her from offering her this gift. And He doesn’t exclude you, either!

Actually, it’s often good, religious people who exclude themselves from receiving this gift. They’re proud of their accomplishments and want some reward for what they’ve done. They don’t want to associate with people like this sinful woman or admit that they need living water from Jesus just as much as she did. But the gift is freely offered to notorious sinners and to self-righteous religious sinners. Both equally need the gift.

C. The gift of living water that Jesus offers satisfies the thirsty soul for time and eternity.

Jesus tells this woman (4:14): “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.” By “living water,” Jesus is referring to the eternal life that the Holy Spirit gives. As Jesus said (John 7:37-39a), “‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit….” “Living water” is the same thing as the “new birth,” but just a different analogy. In that hot desert climate, water was essential for life. It was always welcome and refreshing. “Living” water referred to water flowing from a spring or fountain, as opposed to that which was collected in a cistern.

Jews familiar with the Scriptures knew that the Lord Himself is the spiritual fountain of living water. In Jeremiah 2:13, the Lord rebukes His sinning people: “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Or (Jer. 17:13), “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.” (See, also, Isa. 12:3; 44:3; 49:10.)

Jesus told this woman that the water that He gives “will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” In him shows that true Christianity is not primarily a matter of rituals and ceremonies, but rather an inward, personal relationship with the living God. It must be in each person’s heart. The picture of this living water springing up points to the continual source of life that the indwelling Holy Spirit supplies to believers. It’s active and always flowing. There may be times of greater and lesser flow, but it never dries up, as so many Arizona rivers do.

When Jesus says that “whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never thirst,” He means that we who have drunk this living water are satisfied with Him in the sense that we know that He has rescued us from sin and judgment (Rom. 8:1). He has given us eternal life and that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:31-39). We’re His children, under His loving care in every situation (1 John 3:1). He has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). We have His Word, which is like water to our soul.

Jesus does not mean that our thirst is forever quenched in the sense that we cease to long for more and more of Him. We still hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Our hearts still pant after God like the thirsty deer for the water brook (Ps. 42:1). We still pray (Ps. 63:1), “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” John Calvin sums up both sides of this (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 151): “Although we thirst throughout our whole life, yet it is certain that we have not received the Holy Spirit for a single day, or for any short period, but as a perennial fountain, which will never fail us.”

So, how do we get this living water of salvation that Jesus freely offers to all?

3. To receive this gift of living water, you must know who Jesus is and what He offers, and you must ask for it.

John 4:10: “Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” These words would have provoked her curiosity about three things: (1) What is this gift of God? (2) Who is it who is talking to me? (3) Maybe I should ask Him for this living water.

A. To receive this gift of God, you need to know what it is.

We’ve already seen that the gift of living water is the salvation that the Holy Spirit imparts. It is the Lord Himself, dwelling in believers. To Nicodemus, Jesus spoke about being born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8). At the Feast of the Tabernacles, He invited the crowds to come to Him and drink, which John explains was a reference to the Spirit (7:37-39). Here, He invites this sinful woman to ask Him to give her this living water that will forever quench her spiritual thirst. Again, it’s important to know that salvation is not a matter of keeping rules and rituals, but rather of new life through the Spirit that brings us into a relationship with the living God. And it’s important to know, as Jesus emphasizes, that it’s a gift.

B. To receive this gift of God, you must know who Jesus is.

The woman needed to know something about this one who claimed that He would give her living water. This underscores the fact that faith is not a blind leap in the dark. Faith is only as good as its object. To have faith in an airplane, you need to know that it has flown recently and that it seems to be trustworthy. To have faith in Christ, you need to know something about who He is. This doesn’t require a seminary degree, but it does require basic information. In this story…

The fact that Jesus was tired and thirsty shows that He is human. Jesus didn’t perform a miracle to quench His thirst, although He had that power. As a man, He can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). He asked this woman for a drink. By being willing to drink out of her container, He was putting Himself on her level. He didn’t make her feel that He was superior as a Jew. He didn’t put her down as a woman, as many Jewish men would have done. He came across to her as He truly was, a tired, thirsty man.

The fact that Jesus is able to give living water to thirsty sinners shows that He is God. The woman asked (4:11) how Jesus could get this living water out of the well, since it was deep (over 100 feet) and He had nothing to draw with. Then she challenged Him (4:12), “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You …?” The answer, of course, is, yes, He is much greater than Jacob! He is probably the angel of God who wrestled all night with Jacob! And the answer to where He can get the living water is, He has it within His own divine nature to supply it to as many sinners as ask for it. He has an endless supply of grace for all. Finally,

C. To receive this gift of living water, just ask for it.

Jesus says (4:10), “If you would have asked, I would have given it to you.” To ask, you have to recognize that you’re thirsty and that you can never satisfy that thirst by yourself. But if you come to Jesus and ask, He will give it. All you have to do is drink and drink of Him until you’re satisfied. But the only condition that Jesus states is, “Ask.” If you ask, He will give you an endless supply of living water.


So, have you asked Jesus for the living water of eternal life? Do you have the evidence of being satisfied with Jesus? You can continually drink from the world’s sources, but you’ll thirst again (4:13). But one drink from Jesus and you’ll never thirst again. So, why don’t you ask?

Application Questions

  1. Do you know an “unlikely” convert that you think would not be interested in the gospel? How could you approach him/her?
  2. Jesus was willing to violate cultural taboos to talk with this sinful Samaritan woman. What cultural taboos do we face that may keep us from talking with sinners about Christ?
  3. How much about Jesus does a person need to understand to be saved? Can a person who holds heretical views about Jesus come to salvation?
  4. Why is it essential to understand that salvation is a free gift? Should we welcome as fellow Christians those who say we must add our works to faith to be saved? See Gal. 1:6-9.

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)

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