This past Friday, I had the chance to speak on John 5:16-30 for our church’s 14-18s youth group. We’ve spent the term doing a talk series called “Four Gospels, One Jesus”, examining the different, complementary ways in which the Gospels present Christ. It was a tough talk to prepare – John 5 is one of the densest, most challenging New Testament passages on the Trinity and the incarnation. Yet there’s no way we could do a term on how the Gospels present Christ without looking at this!
I felt an added burden because, as many of us know, evangelicalism has been awakening from a kind of Trinitarian and Incarnational lethargy over the past several years, and I really want the young people I teach to be equipped to sniff out big mistakes in these areas – not so they can be theology nerds like me, or because I want to project the intra-evangelical debates about Trinity/Incarnation onto them, but so that they can, in Christ, delight in the Triune God as he really is.
Shoddy Trinitarian and Incarnational thinking has prevailed in much of evangelicalism for a long time, drastically out of step with historic Christian theology. I found, as I prepared, that reputable biblical commentary series (both those aimed at pastors and the laity) were just not up to the task of answering the kinds of Trinity and Incarnation related questions which the passage raises. And so, I leant heavily on Augustine’s Tractates on John to work through the passage (specifically Tractate 18 and Tractate 19).
Of course, channelling Augustinian Trinitarianism into an applicable 20 minute talk, for a mixed multitude of teenagers ranging from the precociously spiritually mature to those who’ve literally never been to church before, felt like it only added to the difficulty of preparation! Yet I had Augustine’s line from De Trinitate in my mind the whole time as I thought and prayed; he says of the Trinity: “in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable” (De Trinitate, Book I.3).
In the end, it was a fantastic night – God was good. We had 54 young people turn up, a new record for us. This included a growing number of unchurched kids who keep inviting their unchurched friends, including one or two first-timers.
At one end of the spectrum: Christian guys in my discussion group came straight at me with questions like “wait, so Jesus existed before he was born?“, “what makes the persons of the Trinity distinct before creation?“, and “so what does John 5:26 mean if it’s not about the incarnation?“
At the other end of the spectrum: I spent 45 minutes talking with 4 non-Christian girls (all recent attendees, one a first-timer) who wanted to grill me because I said the Trinity makes Christianity better than Islam. We talked about the Trinity, truth claims, the illusion of religious neutrality, and the evidence for the resurrection. They’ve all agreed to take a short book on the reliability of the Gospels next week.
And so, I thought I would share the manuscript of my talk here, to share my attempt at distilling the biblical wisdom of Augustine down into something accessible to, and applicable for, a wide range of young people. The Trinitarian/Incarnational wranglings within evangelicalism are all well and good. I think the EFS Debate of 2016 was, all things considered, A Very Good Thing. But those of us so-minded must ensure that the retrieval work we’re doing is for the benefit of our actual churches. This was one of my attempts.
It’s not perfect, and there are certainly some important things I simply didn’t have time to address. But I hope, in God’s mercy, that this both bedded down some essential “Trinitarian/Incarnational grammar” into the Christians in the room, and also proclaimed to both them and the non-Christians why is is good news that the Father has sent the Son into the world to give life.
John 5:16-30 – “The Son”
TEACHING POINT: Jesus is the Son of God, and so is totally equal to God the Father. God has entrusted judgement to the incarnate Jesus, so our response to him is our response to God, leading to life or death.
Well we’ve seen a lot about who Jesus is this term: in Matthew’s Gospel he was the New Israel, the New Moses, the New Prophet; in Mark he was the Christ and the Son of God; in Luke he was Good News to the Poor and the Friend of Sinners; now we’re into John, and last week Ben told us about how Jesus is the Word – the perfect revelation of who God is.
For a long time, people have acknowledged that John’s Gospel is quite different to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Remember, every Gospel has its unique, complementary, non-contradictory angle on Jesus, but John is maybe the most unique. To put it simply: the other three are more focussed on Jesus as a man, whereas John is more focussed on Jesus as God. Not exclusively – there’s plenty in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about Jesus being God. But John goes into this in way more detail; especially, he goes into what Christians call “the Trinity”. This is the belief that although there is one God, that God exists as three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In some mind boggling way, beyond what any of us can comprehend, those three distinct persons are one God.
We saw something of this last week, when Ben talked about Jesus as “the Word”. What did it say in John 1? “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So Jesus, in the beginning, was both with God, and yet was God. Crazy stuff.
Some of you will remember that my last talk was at the end of Mark, at the crucifixion, and that was about Jesus as “the Son of God”. The centurion says “surely this man was the Son of God!” when Jesus dies. And we said that was about how Jesus shows us perfectly what God is like. And I said, just very briefly at the end, that that’s true in Jesus’ life on earth, but it’s also been true forever. Before the world began, Jesus was God’s Son. And, before the world began, he was God.
What on earth does that mean, and what does it mean for us here tonight in 2022?
As the passage begins, Jesus has just healed a lame man on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders are in uproar, because to them, this counts as Jesus doing work on the Sabbath, which the Old Testament Law forbids. Never mind that a man who’s been crippled for 38 years has just been healed!
So how does Jesus defend himself: “In his defence, Jesus said to them ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’” (5:17)
His argument is this: God works on the Sabbath. We’re all meant to rest, but God is always working – he keeps the world spinning, he keeps atoms stuck together, he causes the sun to rise and set. And just like the Father works, so too does Jesus work on the Sabbath.
This isn’t him saying, like a child who’s caught a parent out, “well you did it, so I can do it too!” No, the Jewish leaders understand what he’s saying: “not only way he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (5:18).
In other words, he’s saying “I am the Son of God, so it’s okay for me to work on the Sabbath – because I am God.”
So he’s the Son, separate from the God the Father… yet he is also God. Just like in John 1: the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
But let’s stop here: when we think of sons and fathers, we don’t tend to think of them as equals.
What are fathers and sons like?
Now, what’s the relationship between a father and a son? We probably first think of the fact that fathers are greater than their sons. They’re above them in the pecking order, they tell them what to do. That’s why we would tend to get in trouble if we said to our dads “well, you’re doing it so I’ll do it too.”
But, considered another way, sons and fathers are equal because they have the same nature. They’re both human beings, because a father passes his nature onto his son when he’s born. If that father is a carpenter, he’s not equal to a table that he makes – he’s superior to it, because they’ve got different natures. But he’s not superior to his son, because they have the same nature.
And that’s what it means for Jesus to be the Son of the Father. He’s not less than him in any way, but totally equal to him.
That’s exactly his point in the next few verses: “Jesus gave them this answer: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself;he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and show him all he does.’” (5:19-20)
Now, it might seem at first that Jesus is saying he is lesser than his Father: “the Son can do nothing by himself, he can do only what he sees his Father is doing.” But what does he say next: “whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”
So Jesus is saying: whatever God does, I do too. There is nothing my Father does that I don’t do; and, therefore, I don’t do anything that he doesn’t do. It’s not just that they do the same kinds of things – sometimes the Father heals people, and sometimes the Son thinks “hey that’s neat, I’ll do the same.” No, whenever we see God doing something, it’s God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit doing it all together. So when Jesus has just healed this guy at the pool… he did it with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is totally equal to the Father – because he’s his Son. They have the same nature, and that has always been true. That doesn’t change when he becomes a man – he doesn’t stop being God, or lose any of his Godness, or any of his power. Yet because he is also a man, he is lesser than God as a man… but he’s not lesser than God as God. So he says things like “my Father is greater than I”, or “not my will, but yours be done” – those are things he says according to his human nature, and about his human will. But as God, he’s got the same nature and the same will as his Father – which we can see because they do the same things! So, simultaneously, he is lesser than the Father as a man, but equal to the Father as God. It’s mind-blowing! It’s a mystery!
But a key thing this means is that you can’t have the Father without the Son. You can’t have God without Jesus. If they are equal, then your response to the Son is your response to the Father. Your response to Jesus is your response to God.
And that’s exactly what Jesus says next!
So Jesus has established his total equality with God – he’s the Son, so has the same nature as his Father, and so they are equal. They always do the same things together.
But 5:22 says something interesting: “Moreover, the Father judges no one but has entrusted all judgement to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Whoever does hot honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”
Now, hold on: I thought the Son and the Father did everything together? So how can the Son be in charge of judgement, without the Father? Well, flick to 5:27: “And he [the Father] has given him [the Son] authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.”
Now, the Bible is very clear elsewhere that God is the judge, and the only judge. So God the Father does judge, but he does it through his Son as a man. That’s why it says the Son of God has authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. God has decided his judgement on the world will be carried out through a human being. It says in the book of Acts that God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” (17:31) – i.e. Jesus.
So God’s judgement on each of us is dependent on one thing and one thing only: our response to Jesus of Nazareth; a carpenter who lived in the Middle East 2000 years ago, didn’t speak English, was brown-skinned, probably shorter than I am. All of history, your entire life, is riding on how you respond to him.
And that’s, to be honest, quite weird! It’s so particular. You know, if this is God we’re talking about, and if God is big, then how can it be so important how I respond to this very specific person, Jesus of Nazareth?
I don’t know how many of you guys who wouldn’t call yourself Christians identify as atheists. Statistically, most of you wouldn’t. Studies show that around a third of people identify as having no religion, but of that third 6% are atheists, 6% are agnostics, and 20% are “nothing in particular”. And those “nothing in particulars” are, generally, said to be open to the idea of God or a higher power, so perhaps that’s you.
So maybe you’re open to God, or a higher power, but the idea of needing to be a Christian and respond to Jesus is just too specific. Better to keep the divine a bit vague, and to take it as I like it.
But let me tell you three quick things about a vague God or higher power:
- It cannot communicate with you
- It cannot love you
- It cannot give you life
Have you got any guarantee of those things? Think about communication: You can go and try all sorts of things – meditation, mindfulness, crystals… but how will you ever know if the divine is really getting through to you?
Likewise, that divine power does not love you. It does not care about you. How could it ever show you that? A fuzzy feeling of peace? Feelings are fickle things.
And can it give you life? Can it give you something that will last through the hardest times, and even when you die?
But Jesus, God’s Son, demonstrates that God does communicate, he does love us, and he does give us life.
We know he communicates: last week, remember, Jesus is the Word! He says all about God that needs to be said! And he’s the Son, he’s the exact same nature as his Father, and he walked into history 2000 years ago to show it.
We know he loves us: did you spot 5:20: the Father loves the Son. And he’s loved him forever, long before he made the world. So we know that God, in his very being, is love, because he’s always had a Son to love. This is the main reason why Christianity is better than Islam, because Allah, for all eternity has been alone. Totally singular. No Trinity. But the Christian God has always been love.
And we know he gives us life: look at 5:26: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” The Son gets all his life from the Father – not meaning his human life, but his “divine life”. We sometimes think of God, if we could picture him, as being very still, static, a bit dead. But here it says he is full of life! And he gives it to the Son, and the Son has it in himself.
And what does he do with that life? Look at 5:24: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
If we listen to the words of Jesus of Nazareth, this carpenter from 2000 years ago… then we will have life. God loves to give life – he’s been giving it to his Son and Spirit for all eternity; he gave it when he made the universe; and he wants to give it to us again to rescue us from the mess we’ve made of this world and the mess we make of our lives.
When we’re apart from God, it’s as if we’re in death, Jesus says. Our lives are not as God designed them to be. They’re unfulfilled and aimless, turned in on themselves, rather than looking out to God and to others. And we’re worthy of judgement for that. But God wants to give us life and rescue us!
Now, if you are a Christian, remember and rejoice in this: you’ve been rescued from judgement; but more than that, you’ve been given life – the same life that God’s been giving to his Son for all eternity. It’s good to be a Christian! We don’t say this often enough, because it’s hard to be a Christian – we get picked on, mocked, and struggle. But we have life given to us by God, the same life the Son has in himself. It’s good to be a Christian!
If you’re not a Christian, then notice this: Jesus speaks here about two times in history when you will hear his voice. The first, we’ve just read, and it’s present tense: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (5:24). So you’re hearing Jesus’ voice right now, as we open the Bible and I speak to you. And you have the choice to believe him who sent Jesus – i.e. God the Father. To believe that, as crazy as it seems, he is God, and that your response to this Jewish carpenter is your response to God. And if you believe that, you will have crossed over from death to life. Today! It’s not just something for when you die, but it starts now.
But in 5:28-29, Jesus says there will be another time when you’ll hear his voice: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
One day, after you’re dead and buried, you’ll hear Jesus’ voice again, and it will be summoning all of us to judgement. We will come out of our graves, and be faced with the Son of Man, with this Jewish carpenter. And those who believed in him will rise to live. But those who did not believe in him will be condemned. So which will you be?
Jesus is the Son of God – totally equal to his Father. And so our response to him is our response to God. He longs, with his Father, to give us life.