John 5 is to me one of the highest and most mysterious passages in Scripture. It takes us back into eternity before there was anything except God, and it takes us to the last day when Christ will judge all men. It pulls back the curtain a bit and gives us a rare and touching glimpse into the Godhead so we can see a bit of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.
The chapter opens with the Lord Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, a man who'd been bed-ridden for 38 years. The Pharisees accuse Him of working on the Sabbath (which He had, in fact, done). The response of the Lord Jesus to the accusation of the Pharisees opens into an astonishing treatise on relationships in the Godhead.
The Lord Jesus' answer to the charge of working on the Sabbath is actually fairly subtle, and I have to admit I didn't really understand it until fairly recently. The argument basically boils down to this: the Son can't do anything on His own, He only does what He sees the Father do (v. 19). And the Father works on the Sabbath (v. 17), so the Son must work on the Sabbath. It's what the Father has taught Him to do.
I find it interesting that the Scripture doesn't tell us that Christ didn't really break the Sabbath. That's not the point. The Son had been told to do something by the Father, and that meant He wasn't going to keep the Sabbath. Interestingly, there is an Old Testament precedent for this in Joshua. It was a few years ago that an older brother pointed out that Joshua and the people were told to encircle Jericho once every day for six days, and seven times on the seventh. No matter how you figure it, those people broke the Sabbath. But they did it because God told them to. Similarly, Christ broke the Sabbath because He was obeying the Father.
But He goes beyond explaining His actions in vv. 19--30. He starts with an explanation of the relationship between the Father and the Son: "the Father loves the Son and shews him all things which he himself does" (v. 20). There is an interesting image here: the Father is bringing the Son into the family business. The Son doesn't do what He wants, He does what He sees His Father do. The Father deliberately shows the Son what it is He's doing.
Notice the titles Christ uses for Himself here: He mainly refers to Himself in John 5 as "the Son", but in v. 25 He's the "Son of God" and in v. 27 He's the "Son of man." Each of these titles holds a distinctive meaning. When the Lord Jesus refers to Himself in relationship with the Father, He calls Himself "Son." When He talks about raising the dead, He's "Son of God"; and when He talks about eternal judgment, He's "Son of man". In fact, it's because He's Son of man that all judgment is given to Him (v. 27).
(We should be very careful when we discuss Christ, because none of us can really understand Him: "no one knows the Son but the Father" (Matthew 11:27, JND). But I think it's worth emphasizing that when the Scripture talks about eternal relationships in the Godhead, it uses the title "Son", not "Son of God". Certainly Christ is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, but the title that conveys that isn't "Son of God," it's "Son". I say that carefully, because I've heard a lot of people insist that Christ is the "eternal Son of God". I don't think that's what Scripture teaches: He's the "eternal Son"; the title "Son of God" is different. This certainly isn't a hill I'm willing to die on--- I appreciate they're only trying to highlight Eternal Sonship--- but I think a careful reading of Scripture indicates the eternal title is "Son", rather than "Son of God". cf. Hebrews 1 & 2.)
There are several passages in Scripture that specifically outline God's purpose. For example, in John 4 the Father is seeking worshipers. Exodus 29 tells us Jehovah saved the children of Israel "out of the land of Egypt, to dwell in their midst: I am Jehovah their God" (Exodus 29:46, JND). Here in John 5 we have another purpose of God verse, v. 23. It is the Father's goal that all men should honour the Son just like they honour the Father. This verse has been very important to me over the last 15 or 20 years. It's like God's grand plan is really just for all men to honour His Son.
Now, the Lord Jesus gives us three specific similarities between the Son and the Father:
- He raises the dead (v. 21)
- He is the judge of all men (v. 22)
- He has life in Himself (v. 26)
Now, He applies this to two cases. The first is what we might call a spiritual resurrection in v. 25. The Scripture often refers to man's fallen state as a spiritual death. Christ's solution to that is to raise and quicken us. Notice Ephesians and Colossians follow this same thread, but Romans takes the opposite view. In Romans it's the lost who are alive (Romans 1--3), and the saved are dead (Romans 6).
The second application is two physical resurrections in vv. 29 & 30. One is a resurrection to life, the other a resurrection to judgment. You can't be in both groups: if you're in the resurrection to judgment, you're not in the resurrection to life. Notice this is what He insists on in v. 24. If we hear His word and believe on Him who sent Him, we have life and don't come into judgment. It's not just that we're judged and acquitted, but we're never even summoned.
This brings up an important point: judgment is always related to our physical bodies. When the dead are judged, they're raised first. And how are they judged? They're judged for what they did in their bodies.
There is no escaping the judgment of God. If you die first, He'll raise you from the dead to judge you. There's no statute of limitations, there's no way to avoid the bailiff. The only escape is to believe and pass from death into life: Christ has already been judged for those who believe. He has taken their punishment, so there's no judgment left for them.
I should think to the Pharisees at the time, certainly the next claim would be been shocking. They would have known that Abraham called God "the Judge of all the earth" (Genesis 18:25, JND), and here Christ is claiming that He is the exclusive Judge (v. 22). The Father has given all judgment to the Son. The Father won't judge anyone, the Son will judge everyone. Now certainly the Lord Jesus is God. I'm not denying that. But within the Godhead it's the Son who will judge.
I find it interesting that He is Judge because He is Son of man. This is closely echoed by Paul on Mars Hill: it's by this Man God will judge the world (Acts 17:31). Paul goes further than John 5 and tells us God has announced this publicly through the Resurrection. The message of the Resurrection, Paul says, is that God has publicly named His Judge by raising Him from the dead. But again, it's the "Man Christ Jesus" that will be Judge. Christ won't judge all men as God (although He is God), but as Man. He will judge as One who knows exactly what it's like to be a Man in a fallen world.
William Kelly says God created this world for Christ to have dominion over it:
Man is called to rule, to have dominion. God was looking on to His Son, the Son of man. For Him the habitable earth is destined. God has not made it in vain. (William Kelly, Hebrews, Chapter 2)God created the world and gave it to man to have dominion over it. But it wasn't really Adam God intended to rule; it was the Last Adam, Jesus Christ. It is as Man that He will take dominion, and it is as Man that He will judge.
The last similarity Christ reveals is "as the Father has life in himself, so he has given to the Son also to have life in himself" (v. 26, JND). I find this one of the most mysterious and difficult verses in Scripture. Here's a time when the Son pulls back the curtain and lets us see into the light unapproachable where God dwells, and we can't really understand what we see there.
I have no idea what it means that the Father has "given to the Son also to have life in himself." No clue.
But little as I understand it, this verse forms the basis of Christianity in a sense. Colossians 3 says, "When the Christ is manifested who [is] our life, then shall *ye* also be manifested with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4, JND). It's not just that Christ has life in Himself, but that He shares it with us. And it's not that He gives us a little piece of it and sends us on our way: but He Himself actually is our Life. John says it a little differently: "God has given to us eternal life; and this life is in his Son" (1 John 5:11, JND).
God has no blessing for me that's not in Christ, and He has no intention of ever taking it out of Christ to give it to me. God doesn't give me blessings per se. He gives me Christ, and in Him are all the blessings God has.
Christianity is not just that Christ has died for me. That's important, but it's not really Christianity. That's not much more than Abraham, Moses, and the prophets expected. The really amazing thing about Christianity is that the Son of God has died for us and has given us an eternal claim on Him. Christianity is not so much justification: it's the ongoing, eternal, and uninterrupted relationship we have with the Son of God. He's died for us, He also lives for us. And He is personally our Life.
We're going to spend eternity getting a better idea who Christ is. And when we get to the end of eternity (you know what I mean), we won't be done. Of course, the real goal is not to wait until we're there to get to know Him. I'm not sure I'll ever understand this chapter: I'm just a creature after all. But it's in looking at Christ that we become like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18). So maybe the point isn't understanding, but just in looking and enjoying.