IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 32, August 6 to August 12, 2001

A Sermon on John 5:19-46

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

We started this exploration of the gospel of John with the theme of "rediscovering Jesus." Remember that John 1:1-18 presented Christ as the eternal Word that existed at the beginning of creation. It was a picture of a cosmic power far greater than our wildest imagination. Then John said, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among men" (John 1:14) — the fullness of God became fully human. What we've seen since that point has been a series of personal encounters with this very human Word who became flesh. We've seen personal encounters with Nathaniel, the woman at the well, and Nicodemus. We've seen him turn water into wine, heal a boy with a word, and command a man to rise and walk. In all of these pictures, Jesus has shown his authority through his humanity. But in John 5:19-46 we now have an extended discussion of Jesus' divine identity. The focus here is not on his humanity, but on his divinity.

Let's remember the context. In John 5:1-18 we saw Jesus healing a man in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders got angry with Jesus for this. In that passage we learned that when Jesus healed he was selective, he was schooling (that is, teaching), he was snubbed (by those in power), and he was sovereign (that is, he was Lord over the sabbath). In today's passage Jesus uses the concept of his sovereignty to lead into a discussion of his identity as the Son. We will see that the Father and the Son are one, that the Father gives life through the son, and that the Father provides witnesses to attest to the Son's authority.

First, the Father and the Son are one. Look at John 5:19-23. This is a pretty dense paragraph. It starts by saying that the Son does nothing in of himself, but it ends with the idea that the father has given all judgment to the Son and that all should honor the Son like the Father. The relationship between God the Father and Christ the son is a complex and mysterious relationship. Some of the language here makes it seem like the Son is less than the Father (e.g. "The Son can do nothing of himself"); other phrases imply equality (e.g. "so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father"). To help us sort this out, we need to remember the picture from the beginning of the book: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The picture here is one of equality, but not of independence. They are two persons with separate roles, but they are united in their power, purpose, and being. When you throw the Holy Spirit into the mix, you get the concept we know as the Trinity — one God in three persons. We could spend the rest of our lives trying to get our minds around this concept, but the point of the passage is not to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. The point of the passage is to show how the relationship between the Father and the Son explains Jesus' authority. Throughout the first five chapters of John's Gospel, we've seen Jesus demonstrating his authority through his miracles and proclamations. What Jesus did and what he said demonstrated his authority. Now we have come to the passage where Jesus lays out his qualifications — his pedigree if you will.

"Well Russell, what is this to me? Why should I care about this complex theological formulation? Isn't it enough that I love Jesus?" These are very good questions. On one hand, I could say that there are so many erroneous accounts about Jesus' identity that we need to be very clear about the truth. This is compelling. There are many voices out there who claim that Jesus was nothing more than a wandering religious reformer who was tragically killed by the Roman empire, and who would have disappeared from history had the church not invented the idea of his being the Son of God. So many voices want to say that Jesus was a good man, or that he was a prophet. These voices want to hold on to the ethical teaching of Christ while stripping him of the great teaching about sin, redemption, and everlasting relationship with God. To correct those voices, it is important that we assert that the Father and the Son are one.

However, I suggest to you a more personal reason why it matters to us. When you've felt his power, when you've been touched by his grace, when you have received his holy kiss upon your heart, then you want to know him better. When you have stood transfixed in awe before a sunset, when you have felt stilled before the pounding waves at the seashore, when you have drunk in the warmth of the sun on your face, you want to know him better. When you have read a passage of Scripture and felt hammered by its significance to you, when you hear a sermon and it feels like its for your ears alone, when you can't explain it but you know that God is directly involved in your life, then you want to know him better. The way to know him better is to see what he says about himself. And what he says about himself here is that it's his very makeup to be in relationship. As the Father is in relationship with the Son, he wants to be in relationship with you.

In fact, John 5:24-30 shows us that life itself comes through our relationship with the Father and the Son. Here Jesus is not just talking about mere existence. He's talking about abundant life — living with gusto, living out the purpose for which we were created. Those who believe that Jesus Christ is one with the Father are empowered to live out this abundant life not only in this present state, but for eternity.

Now, at this point we need to hold up for a minute and put ourselves back into the story. Remember that Jesus is saying all this to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Put yourself in the moment. These leaders are publicly confronting this wandering preacher and healer who caused a ruckus in the temple at the Passover feast. They're facing off against this rustic from up north who thinks he can come down to Jerusalem and upset the system. This Jesus, this carpenter, appeared to be a prophet — but then he told a man to carry his pallet on the Sabbath. When they confronted him on it, he claimed equality with God. Think for a moment — how would you respond?

It's become a stock storyline in literature and the movies. A mysterious stranger sweeps into town with bold claims and quick actions. He raises the hopes and dreams of the people, but a few people doubt him and check into his background. Present words and actions may impress, but they want to know the background. Usually in the stories, the mysterious stranger is a con man with a heart of gold. When the skeptics find out his real identity, he has to go on the run, but before he is forced out of town, the con man pulls off his fantastic claims and everyone lives happily ever after. You've seen the story a million times with different titles.

But the reality of life is that people rarely live happily ever after. The reality of life is that charlatans come through and leave wreckage behind. They whip up popular support and skip town before they get caught by authorities. It still happens today — elderly people get calls promising guaranteed returns on their investments, and they give their money over to these advising firms only to find that the money has mysteriously disappeared and the customer service number has been disconnected. If you were a Jewish leader, how would you respond to Jesus' claim of equality with the Father? How would you respond to Jesus offer of abundant life?

Jesus knew the human heart and the skepticism in the men before him. Without their even asking for it, he produced evidence: witnesses who testified on his behalf. The first was John the Baptist. Remember back to the beginning of the gospel: John repeatedly said, "I am not the Messiah," and he repeatedly pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. We looked to John as a paradigm for what to look for in Christian leadership — continual pointing to Christ.

The second witness to Jesus' authority was his works. Remember when Jesus turned the water into wine, and when he healed the son of the noble man? John called these "signs." Jesus' miracles are obvious witnesses to his authority. But bear in mind what we've seen throughout John's Gospel: Jesus' words and works cannot be separated. Indeed, one of Jesus works is the proclamation of God's kingdom. His preaching is one of his works. The authority with which he says things, and the message of redemption, reconciliation and abundant life — Jesus' preaching bears witness to his identity and authority.

The third witness is the Father himself, particularly through the Scriptures. Note Jesus condemnation here: they search the Scriptures but they don't know Christ. Luke 24:27 shows the risen Christ explaining all the Scriptures to two disciples on the road to Emmaus: "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." All the scriptures, as God's revelation to his people, point us to Christ. In the Old Testament, Christ was anticipated through the various institutions of ancient Israel, but now we have the fullness of his presence. Everything in the Scriptures anticipated Jesus Christ, but the Jewish leaders missed out on Christ because they were more concerned about rules than the ultimate reality. And because they missed out on Christ, they missed out on the only way to the Father.

Once upon a time there was a very rich man. This man had two loves in his life: great art and his only son, born by his wife who died in the boy's infancy. He loved the son immensely and taught him about art. He taught the boy about the different artistic movements, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, to the Modern art movement. When the son became old enough, the father took him on purchasing trips around the world. The boy delighted in watching his father haggle and negotiate with other art collectors. By the time the boy was in college, his father had assembled a private collection that was the envy of his peers. Then war broke out, and the boy, being a good citizen, decided to volunteer for service. The father, saddened that his son would be leaving, persuaded him to stay long enough to have a portrait made. That way, the father would have a special way to remember the son while he was gone. The son agreed, and they hired a dear friend to paint the portrait. It was a good portrait, capturing the whimsy and mirth that the father enjoyed so much in his son. And then, before he knew it, the boy was gone.

Months dragged by. The father and son exchanged letters. The father took photographs of the son's favorite paintings and sent them to his son. And then, one day, the father received a letter in a strange hand — it was from his son's commanding officer. His son had been killed in combat. The father was heartbroken. He lost all zest for life. He was an aged man now, and the blow of the loss sapped the rest of his strength. He held on for about five years, and then he too passed away.

Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the great art collection would be auctioned off. Dealers from around the world were salivating to get their hands on some of the prizes in the collection: Van Goughs, Monets, Picassos, and countless more. The day of the auction arrived, and the house was full of dealers, hoping to find a bargain. The auctioneer began with the portrait of the son. "We'll begin the bidding with 500 dollars." There was a long silence, and then a voice from the back called out, "Put that painting aside — we want to get to the treasures" The crowd began to murmur. The auctioneer said, "The will clearly stipulates that this painting must be sold first." "All right then," said the voice in back, "one dollar." A chorus of hard laughter followed.

Sitting near the front was a dear friend of the family. He wasn't wealthy, but he had come out of loyalty to his friends. The rough treatment that the son's portrait received angered him and he blurted out, "One thousand dollars!" Relieved, the auctioneer quickly said, "One thousand dollars — going once." Silence. "Going twice." Silence. "Sold." Then the auctioneer said, "Thank you very much, this auction is closed." The crowd murmured, "We're ready to bid on these masterpieces now. You must let us bid on the paintings." And the auctioneer replied, "They've already been sold." "Sold? How is that possible?" "The will clearly states that whoever purchases the portrait of the son gets the entire collection of his father." Whoever gets the son, gets the Father. You think about that. Amen.