Sermon, February 28, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We have here in John this morning another fascinating passage. They really all are, of course, but when we really look at these passages in human terms, as we’ve tried to do for the last two weeks with this story, when you get into your mind the shocking nature of these confrontations and conversations, by imagining them play out in front of you, the results are exactly that, fascinating.
Today’s passage is the rest of chapter 5, and this chapter has all been a single story, a single event. Jesus’s quick weekend trip to Jerusalem where he, o by the way, declares to the Jewish leaders that he is in fact God. Such a minor thing to claim. First, we saw him heal a man by the pool of Bethesda who had been lame for 38 years, perhaps his whole life. Then last week we saw him confronted by the leaders on the issue of the Sabbath, and he brushes away that argument by saying that he is Lord of the Sabbath because he and the Father are one, and he has given all judgement to me. He answered their charge by declaring something even bigger, and that made them angry, so that they were searching for ways to kill him.
So what’s in the rest of the chapter—the big stuff is behind us, right? Well, there is more left to say, because we, Christians, sitting here, we hear Jesus say that he is God, and we nod our heads and go along with our day, but the people Jesus is talking to have scales on their eyes. They do not believe that he is the Christ. They do not believe that he is the Son of God, sovereign over the Sabbath, over life and death. There is nothing recorded about what these Jews say to Jesus after verse 30, but I imagine there a pause in the conversation. Jesus just said to them, in summary, “I am God.” And then I imagine the Jews saying, “Yeah…prove it.” And then the rest of the chapter, starting in verse 31 is exactly that, Jesus proving it. Let’s read about how Jesus does that by reading now verses 31-47 of chapter 5 in John. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. 33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. 35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. 36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
The Word of the Lord.
I jokingly said before that this is kind of a response to the unsaid challenge, “well, prove it,” but I think you’ll agree that what we have here is a little more complicated than simply that. This is a notably dense bit of scripture, and Jesus covers a lot of ground. In this discourse he both adds evidence to the assertion that he is the Son of God, and at the same time indicts the Jews he’s talking to of disbelief.
Now Jesus didn’t need to actually provide evidence that he was the Son of God to these people—he said it, so he is—but he does anyway, and it is in the process of showing on their terms, using their methods and standards of proof, that he is God, that he also proves that they are seriously lost. You want proof that I am the Son of God, that I and the Father are completely aligned in our will and purpose, in our judgement, you want proof? Well here is all the proof you need, even though you won’t listen to it, which is why you are perishing. You have all of the evidence you need right in front of you, and you still don’t see it. That’s the cliff’s notes version of what’s going on here. So let’s walk through Jesus’s argument and see how he lays out this proof.
The first thing he says is that “if I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.” This is of course not to say that Jesus is admitting to uttering an untruth or something, he’s merely saying that “I know you won’t trust the testimony of a man about himself.” And within a legal process for these Jews, that was true—if this was a legal proceeding, Jesus’s testimony about himself wouldn’t count. Even in our courts today, the accused have the right to testify on their behalf, but in many cases their lawyers advise that they should not do that, not take the stand. And it is for this same reason—the accused has more complex motivations than a bystander witness, or some other witness, and their testimony is going to be looked at with a bit of suspicion, when they testify about themselves. Jesus says, I know you won’t believe these extraordinary claims if it’s just me talking about myself, so here are some others. And those others are not new, they are all testimonies, witnesses that the Jews already have.
The first witness he cites is the Father himself, in verse 32, but he knows they’re not going to accept that. Jesus just got done explaining how inextricably linked he and the Father are, and now he says that the Father bears witness about him and he knows that testimony about him from the Father is true. This is of course the only witness that Jesus actually needs, right? The witness of the Father about his Son is the trump card, the testimony that is greater than all other testimonies combined. But Jesus knows they are blind to that, so he goes on. He will return to the Father as a witness later on, but just note that is the first witness, and actually the only one he would ever need to prove his point.
So instead he goes on to other witnesses that are lesser, but a little more on their level. Ultimately every witness that Jesus cites here is the Father working, all of them are derived from the work of the Father, but they are in more tangible forms. The first of these sub-witnesses that Jesus brings up is John the Baptist. John the Baptist, recorded earlier in this gospel, witnessed very strongly about the fact that Jesus was the Christ. First he told the committee of Jews that he was the voice crying in the wilderness that was prophesied—that made John the Baptist the one that would identify the Messiah. He told them that Jesus was someone whose sandals he was not even worthy to untie. And then, after setting that up, John twice pointed directly to Jesus and identified him as the Messiah, as the Christ, by saying “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
And with this witness of John, Jesus begins to accuse them right away. He says in verse 34, “Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved.” Basically, not that the witness of a man is something I really need, but since it might help convince you, I will provide it. And he appeals to the fact that to them, the witness of John was a pretty powerful thing, saying that they were willing to rejoice for a while in the light that John was sharing. You liked what he was saying, you reveled in his ministry along with him, but only to a point. You missed it, Jesus says, because what John was saying was the truth.
So John the Baptist is the first witness to support Jesus’s claims from before, and one that the Jews have clearly shut their minds and their eyes to. How about the second? Verse 36:
But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.
This is one that is staring them in the face, and clearly they are blind to that as well—the works that the Father has given him to accomplish. He just cured a man with withered legs and made him walk. Hello! It’s right in front of you. The works that Jesus has been doing and continues to do, right in front of them testify directly to the fact that he is not just a mere man, not just a special man, not just a prophet, they prove that he is God. That has been John’s purpose in the entire gospel, to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and it is these signs that John points to to prove that. It’s a pretty strong testimony, these signs and wonders. But they were clearly immune to that testimony as well, as we saw earlier in the chapter them focusing on the Sabbath issues, not the fact that Jesus healed the man. These were signs that should have convinced anyone who was actually looking.
How about third—we have John the Baptist, we have miracles, what’s next?
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.
Like I said before, Jesus does return to the Father as evidence that he is the Son of the Father. It’s debated exactly what the nature of this witness of the Father is, but it could very well be that he is referring to the Father literally claiming Jesus as his Son in an audible voice at Jesus’s baptism. That was a specific and clear witness. These Jews would likely know that story about the baptism. But Jesus knows that this evidence isn’t convincing to them either, because he goes on to accuse them for their lack of understanding. He says that they have never heard the Father’s voice, like Moses did, they haven’t seen his form, like Jacob did, and now they stand in front of Jesus, who is the Son of God in the flesh, and they don’t believe him.
And then fourthly, if the testimony of John the Baptist isn’t enough, and the testimony of all of the miracles, or the voice of God the Father from heaven—if those three things aren’t enough witness—Jesus then turns to one more gigantic piece of evidence, one that the Jews should know inside and out: the scriptures.
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
How many ways can scripture attest to Jesus? People have tried to count the number of prophesies from the Old Testament that are actually fulfilled in Jesus himself, and it’s over 300. One of the many study bibles we have in our collection at home is called the Gospel Transformation Study Bible, and its approach to providing notes is unique. Instead of providing general explanatory commentary on the text, its notes are all about how every passage in scripture points to Christ—forward to him in the Old Testament and back toward him in the New. It’s quite something to read, actually, because the whole story is about Christ, all of it. Which is why Jesus tells them right here that they, the scriptures themselves, they bear witness about him. And they should know that.
The rest of this passage relates to that witness, that of scripture. And at the end, Jesus really goes to the heart of it. He says I’m not accusing you of this, it is actually Moses. You who hold Moses up so high, so lofty in your minds, he wrote about me, and you don’t believe him. It was in that passage that we read for the Old Testament reading just before, when Moses says that someone greater than himself is coming, a greater prophet.
So this is the evidence that Jesus presents for why they should believe that he is the Son of God, like he just said he was. He lays this all out—first that he said the fact that I was sent by the Father and speak the words of the Father, and am intimately connected with the Father, that should be enough, but I’ll come down to your level. Don’t just believe what I say, even though that is absolutely trustworthy, believe John the Baptist, believe my miracles, believe the voice of the Father, believe Moses and the scriptures. Sounds like a pretty solid case, to me.
And for those of us whose eyes are opened and we see Jesus for who he is, it is obvious, but Jesus is not talking to people who believe. They have scales on their eyes. And he points out this amazing irony to them, that of all people, they should be the ones who see this, to understand it. But it points to something far more fundamental that is really our big lesson from all of this evidence. And that lesson is this. Faith is not the result of work. Faith is not the result of a logical exercise. Saving faith is not something that we can do more to achieve and to get.
And Jesus accuses them of trying to work out their religion in exactly that way. He says to them:
I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me.
Is there a more potent witness than the Father himself? Of course not! But they aren’t looking for someone coming from the Father, they are looking for everything coming from the inside. Jesus goes on and shows them exactly what they are looking for, and it’s not the Father, it’s them.
If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
He says you would sooner accept someone who is only testifying about himself, someone who flatters himself, that’s who you would believe. You are focused not on seeking the glory of God, but instead the glory of each other. You aren’t searching the scriptures for God, you’re searching them for your own glory. You are making pronouncements on the street corner because it gives you glory among your fellow man.
You can’t find Jesus by doing, doing, doing. You can’t work your way into a faith in him. Remember Paul making this point in Philippians 3, when talking about confidence in the flesh. He said that if the flesh counts for anything, if my own “righteousness” counted for anything, made me “deserve” favor with God, then I would be first in line! I have the right heritage, the right training, I know the scriptures inside and out, I follow all the rules, everything. If being saved was about deserving something, then Paul would be the most deserving ever, right?
So too are these Jews that Jesus is talking with right here—look at all the evidence, it’s staring you in the face, but you do not believe! Why? Because our natural state is to not believe. Our natural state is to be just like these Jews, focused on receiving glory from each other, not from God. Focused on flattery, not humility. Focused on doing things. But doing doesn’t save, believing does. And that belief is itself a gift of God.
That is the beautiful thing about the story of salvation, how it actually works. No one can see anything but themselves until God opens their eyes. The whole story of salvation is God working, not man working. All of it is always a work of God. Even though we often experience conversion as a choice, we do work to study the scriptures and to be more faithful, we are convinced of the logical arguments for Jesus too, but we do all of that because of God already working in us. We wouldn’t want to do any of it if God wasn’t already working inside, the arguments would fall flat, the evidence would not convince. Which is why Jesus can stand in front of these accusers, lay out a solid case for his deity, and they still don’t believe. Their eyes are closed.
But for us, the Christians gathered here today, we hear this story and we are not confounded, we are strengthened, and we can thank God that we don’t have to simply believe blindly. Not only has God given us the belief that this is true, that Jesus is the Son of God and he saves, not only do we believe it, God also gives us ample evidence to make our faith stronger and stronger and stronger, proving again and again that he is God and he cares for us.
And then there’s the fun part—the evidence doesn’t end here, we, here today, are also witnesses to Jesus Christ. We get the amazing opportunity to be witnesses about Christ to other people. That’s why when we share the gospel with people we call it “witnessing” to them. We have our own witness, we can attest to others, to our children, to our neighbors, to our family about what Jesus has done in our lives. And this cloud of witnesses has been growing and growing since the time of Christ, and God uses us, his witness as the instrument by which he opens up the eyes of people. That’s our job, our joyful work.
My older brother Isaiah, my mother likes to tell, when he was about 4 years old, he used to walk up to total strangers—I’m not sure who told him to do this, maybe at Sunday School or something—but he would walk up to complete strangers on the street, in the grocery store, and he would say with some intensity, “Stop! And let me tell you what the Lord has done for me!” I’m sure it was adorable, but that’s us, isn’t it? Or should be? Ready all the time to add to this great witness about Jesus to anyone and everyone. And we can witness to everyone knowing full well that when that seed of the gospel falls on soil that God has made fertile, there faith will always grow. That’s a promise. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We thank you this morning for the gift of this message. Thank you for granting us faith to believe the words of Jesus, and turning our eyes and our focus away from seeking glory in each other, and instead only seeking glory in you. That is our chief end, our primary objective, to bring you glory. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray, amen.