The Apprentice - John 5:16-30
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
This is a true story. The primary school nativity play was in full swing and seemed to be going well as the shepherds trundled into the stable wearing makeshift headgear made out of tea towels. And as they huddled as a group around the manger one of the young dears decided to ad lib- always a dangerous thing in school plays! The shepherd looked at the baby Jesus, then he looked at Joseph, then looked back intently at the baby and exclaimed- ‘Ee, doesn’t he take after his Dad.’ That is why they say, never work with children and animals!
Well, without knowing it that primary school pupil was both right and wrong. He was wrong in thinking that Joseph was the father of Jesus and so the baby was like him. The Bible’s teaching about the Virgin Birth clearly rules that out. But at a far more profound level he was, of course absolutely right, Jesus does take after his Father, perfectly, that is his heavenly Father-God. Think of two pieces of glass- one is a window, the other a mirror. In his Gospel, John contends that Jesus of Nazareth is like both of these in his relation to God. He is like a window into the very heart and being of God. God who is infinite is brought near to us in Jesus. His concerns are God’s concerns, his passions, God’s passions. If you want to know, as far as any human being can know, the eternal nature of God, it is to Jesus you clear must look says John. But Jesus is also like a mirror, reflecting indirectly to us the glory and majesty of the one true God who cannot be seen by the human eye. It is a glory clothed in human tissue, a majesty wrapped in meekness- but nonetheless perfectly reflecting the character of the God who made us and sustains the entire universe by his word of command. Now I said Jesus is ‘like’ a piece of glass in giving us knowledge of God. It is an illustration. But like all illustrations regarding God it can be misleading if used wrongly. The problem with speaking of Jesus as a window or mirror can give the impression that he is a being somehow one stepped removed from God, like a mirror is distinct from the object it is reflecting. But that is not how we are to think of Jesus. He is one with God the Father in that he too is God, but at the same time he is distinct in that he is not the Father, but the Son. And yet because he is the Son he perfectly presents to us the character of the Father- as we say, ‘like Father, like Son’. And what we are going to do tonight is to listen to Jesus’ own explanation of the nature of this special relationship- a relationship so unique that whoever comes to know Jesus does not just come to know something about God, they actually come to know God. So let’s turn to John chapter 5.
Jesus has just healed a man who for 38 years has been paralysed, unable even to twitch. That you would think is a large enough of a miracle to make the main news in Jerusalem. But that is not what happens. The BIG story and - scandal- as far as the religious rulers are concerned, is that Jesus not only healed this man on the Sabbath- the Jewish day of rest- but got the man to carry his bed roll on the Sabbath -v16 ‘So, because Jesus was doing these things-not simply healing, but telling people to carry mats-on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him.’ Now notice that Jesus does not to defend his actions by questioning the sanctity of the Sabbath day- he takes it for granted that it is a special day. Nor does he have a go at the Jewish leaders for their perverted application of the ‘rest’ principle. Instead he uses it as an opportunity to teach five things about himself. So if you want to get it clear who Jesus really is and his significance for all time then listen very carefully to what he has to say.
He begins by justifying his actions in a most astonishing way in v 17: ‘Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too, am working.’ Now what is Jesus getting at? Well, it is something very profound and startling. In the OT Law of Moses, it is made quite clear the Jew was not to do any work on the seventh day he would normally do on the other six days. So if your job was, say, delivering milk, that was fine so long as you didn't do that on the seventh day, you were meant to a break from your regular job. But this fellow who had just been healed didn’t carry mats for a living. So why are they getting so upset? Well, you see by the time of Jesus, the Jews had categorised work which was prohibited on the Sabbath into 39 groups, one of which was, ‘You shall not carry an object from one domicile- house -to another.’ And it was this regulation not found in Scripture that this poor fellow was breaking. But Jesus doesn’t tackle the matter at that level, instead he implicitly draws on a debate which the Jewish theologians were having in order to point to his own divinity, and the debate centred on this question: Does God obey the Sabbath law? Or is it the case that God works on the seventh day? Some reasoned that he must do, because if he didn’t work at sustaining everything then the universe would simply fly apart. Someone has to keep it going and who else is that someone but God? But others said, while it is true that God exercises his providential care on the Sabbath day, since the whole universe is his we can think of it as being his ‘home’, so he can move pieces around his world like a man might move pieces of furniture around his house and so not break the Sabbath law. The point is this: whichever side of the debate you came down on, it was agreed that God must be doing something on the Sabbath. Now Jesus is saying something like this: ‘Yes, we are all agreed that God is working all the time- even on a Sabbath Day- but since God is at work, and God is uniquely my Father, I too as his Son must also be at work-even on the Sabbath.’ In other words, he is claiming for himself the same exemption from the law as God. And the Jews see the point-v18 ‘For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him, not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.’
Now no ordinary Jew would have put forward this sort of argument. It is true some Jews in the first century did call God ‘Father’, but not to the extent that they would claim for themselves the prerogatives reserved for God. But that is exactly what Jesus is doing. Just who does he think he is? Well, the Jews think he is claiming equality with God in that they interpret it as Jesus arguing he is some second god alongside the one they worship. And it is this misunderstanding which Jesus goes on to correct-not by denying that he is in some sense God, but pointing them in the right direction for a deeper understanding of how God is to be thought of. And he does by using ‘four for’s’- four reasons for his action which explain more subtly just how he is to be understood as the Son of God and so to be worshipped as such.
First he is the apprentice Son -v19 Jesus gave them this answer " I tell you the truth, 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.’ Jesus-God the Son, though equal with God the Father in terms of his deity or godness if you like, nonetheless does not act independently of his heavenly Father. In fact as the Son he willingly subordinates himself to his Father with the result that they work in perfect harmony together. And how this might be understood is illustrated by the picture which lies behind this saying of Jesus, that the Son only does what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. You see, in this agrarian society trades where passed on from generation to generation. Sons by and large did what their father’s did. So if your father was a carpenter, chances are that is what you would be and what your son would be and his son after him and on and on down the line. So what the father craftsman would do would be to pass on the secrets of the trade by showing the son all that he does, and the son would carefully watch how his father works and imitate him, so by bit by bit over time he could do exactly what the father did. The result? The Father Master craftsman produces a son master craftsman.
Now can you begin to appreciate the outrageous claim Jesus is making? He does what God does- and by definition only God can do what God does- QED- Jesus is God. Do you see?
Now let this sink in and then tell me that Christianity is like all the other religions. This 30 year old, callous handed Jewish artisan from the North is claiming and substantiating by what he does-the healings- that whatever God does, he does. Whatever God says, he says. That there is a perfect mirroring of the Father’s deeds and words, such that the deeds and words of Jesus are nothing less than the deeds and words of God. What is more, if Jesus does all that the Father does, it means that this person was involved in bringing the universe into being at the dawn of time. That this person was responsible for the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy of which we are a part. That this person while lying in a feeding trough as a baby which could only gurgle and cry nonetheless, as the eternal Logos, the Word, was holding the other 150 billion other galaxies in the universe in being for, ‘whatever the Father does the Son also does.’ Now, doesn’t that simply take your breath away? Doesn’t that make you want to go, ‘Wow’?
Now, why is this? Why does he have the same power and prerogatives as God the Father?
Let’s look at the first ‘ for’-v20- the beloved Son ‘For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he does.’. Now it may or may not be the case that all of my sons will follow me into the ministry, but even at the level of making model ships and planes with them when they were younger, I was teaching them what I used to do when I was a boy. Why? Well, because I loved them and wanted them to share in and experience the same excitement and interests that I had when I was a boy. You see it in the park- the Dad kicking a ball with his son, you see it in the playroom- the Dad and son messing around with the train set, the older one showing the younger one what to do and doing it together simply because they love their children. That is the picture here but on a much higher plane. The eternal Father loves his eternal Son so exhaustively, so intensely, so deeply that he shows him everything he does and withholds nothing from him- how can he? He loves him.
But there is even more to it than this. We tend to think of our salvation solely in terms of God’s love for us. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.’ And that is wonderfully true of course. But in the first instance our salvation turns not on God’s love for us, but his love for his Son. As we shall see in a moment it is because of the Father’s love for the Son that he wants everyone to honour the Son. And in turn, Jesus is determined to be obedient to the Father because he loves him-even to the point of going to a cross for the sake of his sheep-hence John 14 ‘The world must learn that I love the Father.’ How? By watching him go to the cross. Now this is something very important to grasp, especially when as a Christian you feel you have failed God, and maybe that you have failed him big time. That is when you are prone to think- ‘I have blown it, God can never love me now because of what I have done.’ But what we are to think is this- God the Father can never stop loving Jesus, and because I belong to Jesus he will never stop loving me- for Jesus sake.
Which brings us the second ‘for’ in v21- and the life-imparting Son, ‘For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.’ Giving life is within God’s gift alone. In the OT the prophet Elijah could only raise the dead by God’s power, he never claimed it for himself-but here that is exactly what the Jesus is claiming. Jesus gives life to the dead by virtue of the innate power he has within himself which he shares with God the Father. But this is not ‘life’ simply at the biological level, though it includes that- but life at the spiritual level, zoe, not just bios-that is the word used. Where there is spiritual darkness, Jesus brings light. Where there is spiritual unresponsiveness Jesus animates. And he does exactly the same today. So let me tell you about Mary Ambler’s experience when she first arrived at university. This is what she says, ‘I used to think there were two types of Christians, one with a small ‘c’ and one with a big ‘C’. I believed it was enough to live according to the Christian values of mere social convention. I was in the small ‘c’ category. Being a Christian with a big ‘C’ was, in my opinion, unnecessary- a lot of praying and singing in church for no apparent reason. When I began as a student, I quickly got stuck in with a rowdy crowd of friends. We were the dedicated party types. I was an unashamed hedonist and I loved it. In my 4th year most of my good friends had left and the pressure of Finals loomed. It was at this stage that I began to have real doubts about my life; about what gave it meaning. I felt frustrated, let down and afraid. I was challenged by Christianity at this time, much to my alarm. As I got to know a Christian friend, I found out that I wasn’t even a Christian with a small ‘c’ because Jesus Christ was not the centre of my life. I also found that Christianity held the answers to the baffling philosophical issues spinning around in my head. Over the ensuing months of investigation I found that the historical evidence for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was convincing. I wanted to respond to the earth shattering fact that Christ died for my sins on the cross. Handing the helm over to him was utter relief.’ Now listen to this, ‘Jesus Christ is at the centre now, and my priority is to get to know him better, and to live for him as he gave his life for me. This has transformed my perspective on life, and my friendships. It also makes a real difference to how I deal with a pressurised job and to my ultimate ambitions at work.’ You see, Mary has come to know the life Jesus gives. And if the truth be known, maybe that is something you lack. If so then there is only one you are to come to and ask- and here he is- the life giving Son.
And so we come to the third ‘for’- the judging Son,v22, ‘For’ - that is what the original says, ‘the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son’ and this is further amplified later in v 27f ‘And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. "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 good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.’ One of the objections people raise against God’s judgment goes something like this: ‘How can God know? It’s all right for him to make judgments cocooned in the bliss of heaven. But how can he understand and so make right judgments about what it is like to live a life on earth? He hasn’t a clue and so has no right to judge’ The answer to that objection lies in what Jesus says in v 27 ‘And he (God the Father) has given him (Jesus) authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.’ The original does not have a ‘the’ in front of Son of man, it is just ‘Son of man’ and so is a way of speaking about Jesus’ humanity. So we can translate it- ‘he has given Jesus authority to judge because he is human.’ Jesus is fully divine but also fully human. In other words, Jesus is one of us. Artists should judge fellow artists. Teachers are to assess pupils. And Simon Cowell isn’t fit to judge anyone! Who, then, should judge human beings? Ideally the answer is -a fellow human being, someone who has walked this weary war-torn world of ours and has known the pull of temptation, the disappointment of love betrayed, and the grief of loved ones lost. What is needed is someone who has experienced the whole gamut of human emotions, its troughs as well as its peaks, and has had to wrestle with all the struggles common to humanity and triumphed, for only then would they be in a position to say ‘I understand exactly your situation, for I have been there too’. However, a human judge, no matter how virtuous, is not sufficient as mankind’s judge. Not only is experiential knowledge required whereby the person can fully identify with us, but divine knowledge is also needed so that he can fully assess us. This, too, we have in Jesus-for he shares divine omniscience. As such, his knowledge is infallible, his judgements impeccable and his wisdom inscrutable. He knows everything about us. If we have any mitigating circumstances he is fully aware of them and will take them into account on the judgement day. Therefore, can you think of anyone better qualified to judge you and me than a person like that? And here he is, someone who, in one person, combines fully the divine and human natures – all-knowing, all-wise, all-just. That is Jesus the judging Son.
But in order for people to be judged at the end of time they must be raised from the dead. And no prizes for guessing who is going to do that- the fourth ‘for’, the resurrecting Son-v 26. ‘For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. "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 good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.’
From all eternity the Father has had life-in-himself, that is, he is self existent, no one stands behind him, no one made him. That is why it is a nonsense question to ask: ‘Who made God?’ So it is with the Son. The Son has been given life- in- himself, not at some moment in time, otherwise it would be rendered that the Father has given the Son life. No, this is an eternal life giving, if I can put it like that, an eternal generation of the Son by the Father. Before the first supernova exploded, before the first planet spun on its axis ,before the first angel sung his song, the glorious Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was pulsating with life- in- themselves- on fire with inexhaustible love-for ever burning but never consuming. Did you notice the certainty of v 25? The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God?’ Herein lies the confidence that Christians have of a certain future after death. Jesus will give it to them.
But what is the point of all of this? Why this long, sustained argument of Jesus? Well, the point lies right in the middle of the passage in v 23- ‘that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.’ Literally everything turns on this-our response to Jesus. When we die and are ushered into the holy presence of God-there is only one question which will matter and will decide our fate and it is this: ‘What did you make of God’s Son?’ ‘I used to go to church’-no, what did you make of the Son? ‘I never did any one any harm-’What did you make of the Son?’ ‘I tried to be a good parent’- ‘What did you make of the Son?’ You see, to believe in God is not enough-for if we do not honour Jesus-that is worship him as God, then we do not honour the Father and so show that we simply do not know God. This is why to be a good Muslim is not enough. To be a good Hindu is not enough. To be a good Jew is not enough. Or even a good Anglican in terms of simply identifying with the church is not enough. If on the judgement day we say we do not know Jesus, then God will pronounce that he does not know us. That is how serious all of this is. Our eternal well being depends upon it.
When you think about it, many of the key significant events in our lives turn on our meeting certain people- that teacher who inspires us, that friend who supports us, that man or woman who eventually becomes our spouse- relationships are often revolutionary-turning us around. And so we should not be surprised that the most significant thing in our lives turns out to be a personal encounter- a meeting with God in Jesus. Everything has been entrusted to the Son as the object of the Father’s love, and if he is the object of God’s love he cannot be any less the object of ours.
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