Please read John 5:16-30 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
From a weblist called “Ten Most Inspirational Stories. ”A gentleman was walking through a circus, and he spotted that the elephants weren’t being kept in cages or held by the use of chains. All that was held them back from escaping was a small piece of rope tied to one of their legs. The man became curious as to why the elephants didn’t use their strength to break the rope and escape. He presumed they could easily have done so, but instead, they didn’t try to at all.
“Wanting to know the answer, he asked a trainer nearby why the elephants were just standing there and never tried to escape. The trainer replied, ‘When they are very young and much smaller we use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.’
“The only reason that the elephants weren’t breaking free and escaping from the camp was that over time they adopted the belief that it just wasn’t possible.”
This story could easily be used by our secular culture to justify its emphasis on the idol of psychology, with its pathology of blaming others and seeing mere information as salvation. Instead, I want to look at it from a Christian perspective, to use it to illustrate our passage this morning.
The rope is a symbol of beliefs that bind us and keep us from seeing Jesus as He is and having faith in Him. The list of alternative beliefs is virtually endless, but they all end in death. In damnation.
There is only one choice that frees us from the power of sin, the tie that binds us to the earth. That choice is Jesus Christ, the sole means of salvation. In this passage Jesus develops one reason we can believe in Him and trust Him to provide eternal life: He and the Father are one. He is God enrobed in flesh. As such, eternal life is a gift He gives to all who will believe in Him.
Eternal life is a gift of God we must receive before it will save us.
CONTEXT: Jesus miraculously healing a lame man caused the religious leaders to have greater antagonism for Jesus. V. 16 = The JEWISH LEADERS BEGAN HARASSING JESUS FOR BREAKING THE SABBATH RULES. The RULES in this case were not from Scripture, but from traditions created to apply the Scripture. Unfortunately, the traditions were less flexible and harder to keep than the biblical commands. V. 18 = They TRIED HARDER TO FIND A WAY TO KILL HIM for HE CALLED GOD HIS FATHER, MAKING HIMSELF EQUAL WITH GOD. Jesus’ public violation of Sabbath laws embarrassed the JEWISH LEADERS and made them angry enough to harass Him. However, His claiming to be equal with God made them angrier still, mad enough to want to KILL Jesus. Its ironic Jesus’ critics understood His claim to sonship while His disciples didn’t always get it.
1. What Jesus taught us about God.
First, God is always WORKING (v. 17) = “MY FATHER IS ALWAYS WORKING AND SO AM I.” In other words, “We don’t stop working on the Sabbath. That rule is for you, not us.” On a deeper level, Jesus identified His activities with the Father’s. They were two sides of the same coin.
Two, God is always consistent (v. 19) = The Son can only do what the Father does. This is a sign of Jesus’ submission to the Father, but it is also a sign of His equality with the Father: they share the same method and mission. It may sound like a limitation, but it is exactly the right thing to do what God does.
Three = The Father loves the Son and shows it by empowering the Son to do EVEN GREATER WORKS than healing the lame man (v. 20). LOVE is the motive force that binds Father and Son together as equals and is the reason they have the same methods and mission. LOVE empowers the Son to do GREATER WORKS. Love causes things, especially people, to grow, mature, and improve.
Four = In vs. 22-23, 27, 30 we are told repeatedly the Father has given the Son the honor of final judgment. Interestingly, judgment is one thing the Father and Son do NOT share (22-23). All the authority has been invested in the Son. The explanation for this is SO EVERYONE WILL HONOR THE SON, JUST AS THEY HONOR THE FATHER.
And it came with a warning: ANYONE WHO IS NOT HONORING THE SON IS NOT HONORING THE FATHER WHO SENT HIM. This emphasizes the unity between God the Father and God the Son. It is a warning because failure to honor the Father is the same as the sin of unbelief and we know that ends with eternal damnation.
Verse 27 explains why the Father endowed the Son with the authority to judge: BECAUSE HE IS THE SON OF MAN. We need to understand that title. The title SON OF MAN first appears in the book of Ezekiel, where it is used 90 time to refer to the prophet. (In comparison, in the New Testament, the title is used to refer to Jesus 88 times.) In Daniel 7:13-14 the prophet envisioned SOMEONE LIKE A SON OF MAN coming out of the CLOUDS OF HEAVEN and approaching the ANCIENT ONE, he received AUTHORITY, HONOR, AND SOVEREIGNTY to rule over the world eternally. In the Gospels, this is the title Jesus used most often to refer to Himself. Put this evidence together and the title Son of Man refers to a visionary like Ezekiel who has come from heaven to receive power from God. That sounds like a very apt description of Jesus Christ doesn’t it?
Here in John the title is an explanation of how Jesus was worthy of having the AUTHORITY TO JUDGE. He is worthy because He is the SON OF MAN, the recipient of prophetic power and divine authority.
We’ve seen how Jesus’ JUDGMENT is authoritative. Verse 30 explains that Jesus’ JUDGMENT can be trusted to be just or fair. Jesus is just because He does not judge on His own initiative. He follows the Father’s instructions and God is the standard of justice. Jesus is just because His aim is to carry out the Father’s will. God’s will is that justice should prevail on the earth. Later, after His resurrection, Jesus would delegate this authority and share His divine mission with His followers.
Five = As vs. 21 + 26 = God has the power to give LIFE. One of the things the Father and the Son share is the power to give life, to raise people from the dead (21). Notice the Son’s authority is complete; He gives LIFE TO ANYONE HE WANTS (21). Verse 26 notes another kind of sharing between the Father and the Son: the power to give LIFE. The Father, as Creator, held LIFE in Himself until He GRANTED that power to the Son. (Was that at creation, at the cross, in the empty tomb?)
2. What Jesus taught us about eternal life for God’s people.
Verse 21 = The Father and Son give LIFE to the people HE RAISES FROM THE DEAD. This is a reversal of the usual process of the material world where death is the end of physical life.
Verses 24-25, 28-29 detail how we can receive ETERNAL LIFE. We must LISTEN to Jesus’ MESSAGE (24+25). LISTEN means more than to receive the message, more than giving intellectual agreement; it is confirming it with commitment and life-long obedience.
We must BELIEVE God who sent Jesus (24). That is, believe the two are one. Our language is insufficient for the task of describing the unity of the Trinity, but we must believe it to be saved.
We can trust God that those who LISTEN and BELIEVE are not condemned (24). ALREADY PASSED indicates salvation has already been received. NEVER BE CONDEMNED shows us assures us our salvation will not be lost or ignored. We have received salvation in the present: we have ALREADY PASSED FROM DEATH TO LIFE (24). We will fully receive it in the future: THE TIME IS COMING (25).
In the future we will not hear the earthly voice of the carpenter of Galilee; it will be the thundering voice of the glorious Son of God. He will be literally loud enough to wake the dead! It bears repeating, so again in v. 25 as in v. 24, the promise is, THOSE WHO LISTEN WILL LIVE.
Jesus urged them not to be SURPRISED by the fact He is the SON OF MAN found in Daniel and Ezekiel (28). There are two things that will happen that are more surprising (28-29). First, ALL THE DEAD IN THEIR GRAVES WILL HEAR THE VOICE OF GOD’S SON (28). What will they hear? They will hear His summons to assemble for judgment. Second, in response to His summons, the dead will RISE AGAIN (29). We will experience a general resurrection to facilitate judgment bringing about an eternal division between good and evil people (29).
- THOSE WHO HAVE DONE GOOD WILL RISE TO EXPERIENCE ETERNAL LIFE. GOOD refers to the faith that saves and the good deeds that accompany a saving faith. This isn’t “salvation by works.”
- THOSE WHO HAVE CONTINUED IN EVIL WILL RISE TO EXPERIENCE JUDGMENT. EVIL here includes the sin of unbelief and all the unforgiven sins that would have been covered by God’s forgiveness. JUDGMENT here is a synonym for “wrath” or “punishment.” All the dead will be judged; that’s when God separates the good from the evil.
Eternal life is a gift of God we must receive before it will save us.
Earlier I referred to the modern idol of psychology. A more common idol, one that has been in existence for virtually all human history is the idolatry of self. An “idol” is anything that takes God’s place in your life. It doesn’t take a raging egomaniac to make self into something more than God. It can be very subtle and it can even be disguised by church attendance and mouthing biblical slogans.
Here’s what I’ve learned recently about the idolatry of self: at its foundation is a desire for control. Any time we labor under the illusion we are in control we are bowing to the idol of self. People who are saved put themselves in God’s control and entirely trust in Him.
Ironically, what inevitably happens is that life gets out of control. Even the best planner, the most willful and self-controlled person will at some point find themselves in a situation that is totally and obviously outside their control. Usually, this is a tragic circumstance. At that moment, what we want most is for someone more powerful to be in control. We want to be rescued by the very God whom we have rejected by replacing Him with self.
This gets back to our observation last week: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When the illusion of self-sufficiency is shattered, a natural urgency for belief takes over.
Jesus’ point is simply this: don’t wait to put God where He belongs. True life, eternal life, is only available from God. To receive life, receive God’s Son.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, John, Merrill C. Tenney.