July 19, 2015 Seventh Sunday After Trinity
That You May Be Saved
St. John 5:31-47
You’ll recall that some years back the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement blossomed. “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets sprouted like dandelions as Christians proclaimed their intention – nay, their determination – to follow the precepts of their Lord.
I don’t recall any particular reason the movement died out and the purveyors of bracelets were required to gin up other catchy slogans. But along the way one or two armchair theologians did point out that, if our goal is to penetrate the mind of Christ and discern His thoughts, a better approach would be “What Did Jesus Do?”
Why guess when we can open God’s word and divine the divine thoughts? What did Jesus say?
This text brings to mind another slogan, one that, more recently, has festooned bumper stickers: “God Said It. I Believe It. That’s the End of It.”
Well, not quite. We do not judge God’s word. God’s Word judges us. So whether or not we believe it, that’s the end of it. And one other point: Jesus did not approach the matter in so abrupt a fashion. Being God, He could have simply said, “Like it or lump it.”
He might have proclaimed, “I say I’m God and because I’m God you must believe Me and that’s the end of it.” But He didn’t. In His incomparable mercy, in His overflowing grace, He offered four witnesses to His divinity. He presented them to the Jerusalem elite 2,000 years ago and to us here this morning.
Why? From verse 34: “I say these things that you may be saved.”
Since we left Jesus at His encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria, He has performed two miraculous healings. Returning to Cana in Galilee, the site of His first sign, or miracle, He enacts another. Without leaving Cana, He heals a nobleman’s son who is in Capernaum.
John reports that the Lord next returns to Jerusalem for “a feast of the Jews,” presumably a Passover. At the Pool of Bethesda, He heals a man who had been lame for 38 years. This act enrages the Jewish leaders who, perverse as ever, react as they do because Jesus performed it on the Sabbath.
Rather than celebrating a poor wretch restored to life more abundant, they rail against One who would violate a rule. This particular rule, it is true, is not one of the myriad statutes they concocted but one ordained by God: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
And so the plot thickens. We find a delicious dilemma that operates on two levels. On the first, does restoring the use of a man’s legs constitute profaning the Sabbath? As the Lord will say elsewhere, if your ox fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would you not pull it out? But that’s too easy.
On the second level, we get to the good stuff. Jesus responds, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (5:17). And those Jewish leaders are in no doubt as to what He means: He is making Himself equal to God. Infamy!
If He is equal to God, if He is God indeed, He is Lord of the Sabbath. If He is, He is the eternal Sabbath, in whom weary sinners find rest. If He is, He can declare, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
The Jewish leaders are fairly frothing by now. Watch the smoke ascend from their nostrils. Jesus, we may trust, is not unprepared for their reaction. What He has to say is what they must hear, what you must hear and I must hear . . . if we are to attain to eternal life.
So it is that our Lord turns up the heat. In the end, He will pronounce judgment on the quick and the dead. It is He who, God-like, will promote some to everlasting glory and condemn some to eternal damnation. The passage before our text for today concludes with these words:
“I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (5:30).
If He had left the tiniest crack before, He seals it tight as a tick on a hound now: He is the Son, the perfect representation of the Father in the world. And so we arrive at the witness sermon.
“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.”
Do not suppose He is calling Himself a liar. This statement follows upon what has preceded it. Jesus has been identifying Himself and all that He does and says with His Father. His entire reason for being in the human state, His rationale for stepping into the creation, is to reveal God by His flawless fidelity to His Father.
And so it must be the Father to whom He refers when He says, “There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know the witness which He witnesses is true.” How has the Father witnessed of Him? We’ll see directly; let’s not get ahead of the story.
The point here is not – as it will be elsewhere – that the Father is validating the Son and His ministry in the world for the benefit of others. No, it may not go too far to say that the point here is that the Son is the form into which the Father has poured the content, which is Himself.
If you know the Son, you know the Father. Yes, it’s as simple as that.
The second witness is John the Baptist. He came to testify that this Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, is indeed the promised Messiah, the Light of the world. He delivered his testimony to the delegation sent to seek his opinion on the matter.
And when he baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, when he watched as the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, he proclaimed Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The Lord does not require the testimony of a man to certify His divinity for Himself. After invoking His Father’s witness, He scarcely requires human affirmation of it. But it was the Father’s very purpose in sending John as the herald who would prepare the way of the Lord that John’s hearers, then and now, should believe his words.
And so Jesus offers John’s witness “that you may be saved.”
At John’s appearance, a stirring of excitement quickened the nation of Israel. His proclamation of the soon-coming Messiah and the new kingdom He would usher in sent a surge of joy through the Jews.
Confronted now with that promise realized in the flesh, says He who wears that flesh, believe in John’s words and believe that I am the fulfillment of the messianic promise.
While John’s witness is both true and appreciated, however, Jesus can produce a greater one. He points to the works He has performed already. He harks back here to His identification with the Father He has already remarked on.
Because His works are those the Father gave Him, because only He can perform them, they demonstrate His divinity. These works encompass all of His ministry, including those “signs” He has done. They point like a throbbing, neon arrow to His greater signs to come, His resurrection and exaltation.
He is not, as Nicodemus concluded, merely a prophet, a super-duper kind of guy. Only God could produce such works.
More than that, the Father offers direct testimony of the Son’s divinity. Unfortunately, the Lord does not specify what it is. Some scholars take it to be the voice that thundered from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
A difficulty with this view is that nowhere in his gospel does John report these words. If Jesus is referring to them here, John is relying on his readers’ knowledge of them from the synoptic gospels. This is a possibility, but hardly a certainty.
So perhaps our Lord is referring not to a single event but to the sum of the Father’s revelation of the Son – in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the declaration at His baptism, in the pulsating light of the Holy Spirit that infuses those who come to saving faith.
The leaders of Israel, however, have denied this witness, which is ultimately that of the Father the Son represents. In consequence, Jesus lodges a three-pronged indictment against them.
Regardless of your level of scholarship, you have not invited God’s word into your hearts. Recall your ancestor Joshua, who said:
"This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (1:8-9).
Hark back to the thoughts of the Psalmist: “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You!” (119:1).
If God’s word does not abide within you, you have no claim on His blessings. And what is God’s Word par excellence? “In the beginning was the Word . . .” Jesus is God’s Word par excellence.
As the author of the Book of Hebrews will report, God “at various times and in various ways spoke in times past by the prophets to the fathers” (1:1). It is now by the Son “whom He appointed heir of all things” (1:2) that He reveals Himself.
You who refuse the Son reject the One who sent Him. You who receive not God’s word will not enjoy God’s blessings with Joshua and the Psalmist.
Oh, your problem is not a lack of diligence in study. No, “You search the Scriptures.” You suppose you can find eternal life in them. The great first-century rabbi Hillel decreed that the more one studied the law the more life came to him, even into the world to come.
But Jesus, who has come to redefine religion, cautions that God gives no merit badges for poring over the Scriptures if those words do not penetrate your heart and permeate your soul. The very purpose of what we call today the Old Testament is to reveal the coming Savior of the world.
Jesus says so plainly: “. . . these are they which testify of Me.”
And elsewhere in the gospels He says both the laws and the prophets declare Him until John and that He has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. In Him is life and the power to impart life. If the Jews are searching the Scriptures and missing the Christ they are reading wrongly.
They are not searching for God in them but for material to buttress their arguments. They are fascinated not with God but with their ideas about God.
Cast a look out your window and you will discover that many gentiles have joined them. They delve into the Scriptures and shun the Lord of life, choosing the culture of death. Pastors and churches and entire denominations line up to applaud and assert the trendy cultural values of the day while missing the Lord who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
When a nation redefines marriage it redefines the family. When it redefines the family it shatters the family, the basic building block of a society.
The new definition inevitably accommodates the culture of death – same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia. Yet God is sovereign over governments and courts, and His judgment is ultimate. When a nation tries to assert man’s will over God’s will, it invites death, both temporal and eternal. That is the tragedy of the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision.
Jesus will not tailor His message to win the acclaim of men. The Jews of the first century wanted a political and military messiah, one who would liberate them from the rule of Rome. Jesus does not receive “honor” from men. The Greek word is doxa, usually translated “glory.”
In the eternal last day, He will garner glory from men, but His mission in His first advent was to win glory from His Father through His perfect submission to the Father’s will.
Those who reject the authentic Messiah make of themselves easy prey for false messiahs. Indeed, the historian Josephus notices a succession of pretenders who gained followings in the decades leading up to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70.
Early in the second century, Bar Kochba led a revolt. The great rabbi Akiba christened him the “star out of Jacob” whom Balaam predicted in the Book of Numbers (24:17). This particular star faded abruptly when the Romans annihilated him and his followers.
The tragic mistake is seeking honor – doxa again – from man, in prizing it more highly than the honor God bestows on those who seek Him and serve Him. Beware the groundswell of public opinion. It rises on the voices of those who traffic in the fashionable opinions of the day out of a yearning to curry favor with their fellows.
Beware the charismatic leader who takes the public’s temperature and shapes his message to the public taste. If it’s God’s favor you desire, you may begin by acknowledging His Son as your Savior and your Lord. And asking, what did Jesus do?
The Lord’s final word on the subject – for now – is addressed to the Jews of the time of His earthly ministry. They look to Moses as their mediator. Some of them appear to have believed in him in that role in a literal sense – continuing to argue their case before the Father as he had in the matter of the golden calf.
Others lifted him up more generally as the one by whom God delivered the law to Israel. Their error is that they regard the law as the vehicle by which God will deliver His covenant people, refusing to see that the law saves no one but rather points to Messiah, He who has come to fulfill the law.
John Calvin wrote, “Without Christ the law is empty and feeble.”
If the covenant people misuse the law of Moses, it is an irate Moses who rises to accuse them. Moses, along with Joseph and David and others, was an Old Testament type of Christ. His inspired writings testified of the Messiah, the Christ, God would send.
In that sense, and to that degree, Moses and Jesus are linked. Jesus contradicts nothing Moses said. If the people believed Moses, they would believe the One of whom he prophesied.
And so here are the witnesses to the divinity of Jesus. Our Lord need not have produced them, but He did. Why? “That you may be saved.” And that’s the end of it. Amen.