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The Life of Jesus - Series 3: Episode 13

Who is Jesus? – a heated debate

| Martin Charlesworth
John 5:16-47

There are several explicit statements of Jesus' identity. Five pieces of evidence are given for believing in Jesus and his divine nature.

There are several explicit statements of Jesus' identity. Five pieces of evidence are given for believing in Jesus and his divine nature.


Hello and welcome to Series 3 and Episode 13. This is a discussion that takes place between Jesus and religious leaders in Jerusalem and I've entitled it ‘Who is Jesus? - a heated debate.’ We're in John 5 and we're going to discuss, a long conversation that followed a dramatic event.

Introduction and Recap

The dramatic event was Jesus arriving in Jerusalem, privately and secretly, without revealing his identity to anyone, and going to a place called the Pool of Bethesda which was a ritual cleansing pool where sick people also gathered and where they hoped to be healed by the water. They believed it had some special power, particularly when it was stirred (probably by a spring underneath the pool). He went to the pool and identified a man who was disabled and had been an invalid for 38 years and healed him immediately and surprisingly. The man went to the Temple, and told the religious leaders what happened. Then Jesus came to the Temple and spoke to the man. This event became well-known in the city of Jerusalem, during this festival. These events took place on the Jewish Sabbath day and, as we discussed in the last episode and as we have mentioned and will continue to mention on quite a few occasions during our series on the whole life of Jesus, the issue of the Sabbath is a point of controversy and difficulty in Jesus' relationship with the religious leaders.

Very quickly, let me remind you of the reasons for this. The Jewish Sabbath was a covenant signed between God and the Jews. It was a special day of rest that indicated God's covenant relationship with them through the Law of Moses. The pattern of resting one in seven days appears to have been first developed by the Jewish people in the ancient world and then other cultures followed. On this day, people rested from all their working activities, and focused on worship, home, family and rest. The rules surrounding the Sabbath were very simple and straightforward in the Old Testament Law of Moses. Over the many centuries that followed, Jewish tradition - developed by various different religious leaders and groups - sought to define exactly what was right or wrong to do on the Sabbath. They came up with hundreds of very detailed regulations about what constituted work and what didn't, how far you could travel and for what reason you could go, and so on. These were way beyond what had been described and commanded in the Law of Moses and so these traditions, as they were known, became a source of controversy with Jesus, who ignored them and considered that they didn't have any authority and were not commanded by God.

This is the background, and when the man was healed on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were critical of him because he was carrying his mat on the Sabbath - which broke one of their detailed commands. It didn't break any of God's commands; he'd just been healed and he got up and Jesus said, ‘“Take your mat and walk,”’ and that's exactly what he did - a pretty obvious thing to do, you might think, but it provoked a controversy. Obviously, the religious leaders had been watching Jesus for some time: they'd heard about his activities in Galilee and they'd sent people to observe him. We discussed some of this in previous episodes: Jesus had sent a man who'd been cured of leprosy up to Jerusalem to show himself to the priests, which was what the Law of Moses commanded to be done, to demonstrate whether he was healed or not, whether he could be re-admitted into society. There were lots of things they knew about Jesus, but now he was amongst them. He didn't come up to Jerusalem very often; it's only John who describes these events during the three years of Jesus' ministry, right until the last year.

We're going to look now at the controversy and the discussion. It's a very illuminating discussion that takes place; we learn a lot of things. We're going to do this in two parts: the passage we're looking at today, the overall passage, is John 5:16 - 47.  We're going to read it in two parts because there are two different major topics of conversation. The first part is John 5: 16 - 30, which we're going to read now:

‘So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. 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 shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. 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. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. “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. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also 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 what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is 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.’

John 5:16-30, NIV
Jesus' Statements About Himself

This is a very dramatic series of statements by Jesus. He is explaining a great number of things about himself, about his mission and about his relationship with God the Father, and he's responding to a situation where the Jews are very hostile to him - it even says they were trying to find a way of killing him! This is pretty early in his ministry and the religious authorities are so threatened that they already consider that they need to remove him - this thought remains in their minds right the way through until the end.

This passage opens with a dramatic statement in John 5: 17: ‘“My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”’ When he describes God as ‘my Father,’ he is using a description that the Jews would be very uncomfortable with. They understood God as Father in the rather general sense, as the Father of the nation, but not in a personal sense. ‘My Father,’ it was a unique relationship that Jesus was asserting and he's saying, “God the Father works on any day of the week." He's working today to heal this man. He's working on every day because he made the Sabbath. He's God and he rules over these ‘institutions’ and, therefore, Jesus does as well - because he's working with his Father.

This passage goes on to make a number of very explicit statements about Jesus' identity. This will be interesting to you, specifically, if you are not yet a committed Christian and you're looking to find out who Jesus is; or if you've been taught that he is a guru, or a prophet, or a teacher and no more than that; or if you think he's just a good man and a good adviser, or an interesting historical figure. The claims here are very clear and very dramatic. This isn't the only place that these types of statements are made by Jesus about himself, but it is a very clear statement. He speaks about a unique relationship with his Father and this is a very important foundation. Christians understand God to have revealed himself as three persons in one God: three persons who are all equally God but their personal identity is unique and individual. One, the Father, the other, the Son and the third, the Holy Spirit. The relationship here that's being described is the Father-Son relationship. It doesn't mean the Son was created later; it was an eternal relationship that existed before time, between the Father and the Son. Jesus takes the title the Son, or the Son of God, here, as he has done in a number of other places but he sees the Father as having the ultimate initiative - it's the Father who leads him: ‘the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing,’ in 5:19. The Son has been given tremendous authority and responsibility by the Father; he is the gateway to salvation and his message is authoritative. For example, verse 24: ‘whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but (will cross) over from death to life.’ He is the authorised messenger of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to mankind; he is one authorised to communicate to us and give us the message of salvation and, also, he's been authorised to carry out the final judgement. Verse 27: ‘he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man’ - the Father gives the Son the authority to judge as the Son of Man. You and I are accountable to Jesus Christ, to God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) but to Jesus particularly, because he will be the person within the Godhead who is authorised to judge mankind at the final judgement. He also has the authority and power to forgive us our sins and to take us away from the possibility of final condemnation at that judgement - he's both saviour and judge - and these things are implied by this passage.

The title the Son of God and the title the Son of Man are both used here and they are two important titles of Jesus. They indicate his deity and his humanity; he's God and man in one person, mysteriously, as John points out in a number of places (particularly at the beginning of his Gospel). This is a remarkable passage and it forces us to think about our own assumptions about who Jesus is and to think, “are they accurate or have we actually underestimated who he is?” We'll come back to that as we bring this episode to an end in a few minutes, but let's move on to the second part of this statement by Jesus.

Five Reasons to Believe Jesus

It's a long statement and he goes on to identify the question that we might ask: why should we believe what Jesus claims? This is an interesting point isn't it? He actually gives five different reasons to believe, five different testimonies about Jesus, five different other bits of evidence - or people in authority making statements - that point to the authenticity and the truthfulness of Jesus and so he's addressing his critics and saying that there are five reasons that they should believe in him. We're going to read John 5: 31 - 47:

‘“If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is true. “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention (this) that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. “I do not accept glory from human beings, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

John 5:31-47, NIV

This is quite a confrontational passage, as you can see, and it goes into the details of Judaism, the Old Testament and the work of John the Baptist in a way that we need to explain in a few words. What I'm proposing to you, is that in this passage there are five different forms of evidence that point to the truthfulness of Jesus' identity and his words and his explanation about who he is.

First of all, he mentions John, and he's meaning here John the Baptist: ‘John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light,’ verse 35. He says that John's words, are authoritative and they point to Jesus. What did John say and why is this significant? First of all, let's remind ourselves of the fact that John the Baptist was baptising in a place called Bethany beyond the Jordan, which is reasonably close to Jerusalem. It's about as near as you can get to Jerusalem, anywhere on the River Jordan. It's in the southern part of the River Jordan. It was relatively easy for people from Jerusalem to get to see, and to meet, and to hear John the Baptist or, indeed, to be baptised by him. Crowds came from Jerusalem (we read this in the other Gospels). What John said was important and was known to these religious leaders. Some of them would have actually gone in person to see John, others would have heard what he said. What sort of things did he say? He said, ‘“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”’ when he saw Jesus, for example, and he said that someone mightier than he is coming after him, who won't baptise with water but he'll baptise ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ John, with statements like this, is identifying very clearly the fact that he is just the forerunner, the prophet, the one who is introducing Jesus. When Jesus comes, he will be the Messiah: he'll save people; he'll baptise people with the Holy Spirit; and he'll launch a new spiritual movement. John's statements about Jesus are unambiguous and the religious leaders knew about them and Jesus said, “Here is the first witness, John the Baptist, but you chose not to believe him.”

The second evidence is Jesus' own miracles, or works. Verse 36: ‘the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me.’ They've got John the Baptist, but they've also got his miracles. One of those miracles had just taken place (the healing of the disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda) but John 2 points out to us that Jesus performed signs, or miracles, when he was in Jerusalem on a previous occasion which clearly demonstrated his power. They've obviously heard about other miracles he's performed in Galilee. We mentioned the example of a leper who would have come up to Jerusalem and reported his healing to the priests, but the reputation of Jesus as a healer was pretty well-known in Israel and the Pharisees and religious leaders had sent their group of investigators who'd actually seen some of the miracles, such as the healing of the paralysed man who came down through the roof. They'd actually seen it. They would have reported that back to them. The miracles of Jesus were pretty well known to them and that's the second line of evidence.

The third evidence is the Father himself. It says, in verse 37: ‘And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me.’ What's that a reference to? It could be a number of different things, but one thing I'm pretty certain it is, is that the voice of the Father was heard at Jesus' baptism; there was an audible voice that came from heaven saying, ‘“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”’ There was actually a voice, that no one could identify as a human voice, that came, as it were, from the heavens at the very moment that Jesus came up out of the water from baptism; at the very moment also the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. This is a sign of the divinity of Christ and the voice of the Father is actually heard on that occasion and would have been reported back to them.

Then, in verse 39, he goes on and says, ‘“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”’ The Scriptures here meaning the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, which were well formed and well studied by these very learned religious leaders. He's basically saying, “The Old Testament Scriptures point towards me.” This is a particular reference to Old Testament prophecy. We've looked at one or two examples already and there'll be quite a few more that we'll look at in our studies, but the example that we looked at very recently, in series 3, on two different occasions, is the example of the prophecies of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah chapters 42, 49, 50, 52 and 53 and 61. These are prophecies that are fulfilled in the life of Jesus, there are many other examples. The next thing that points towards Jesus is the Old Testament itself and, in particular, Jesus highlights Moses, verse 45: ‘“Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe (in) me, (because) he wrote about me.”’ There's a prophetic dimension even to the writings of Moses, which are the first five books of the Bible. Even in the Law of Moses (in Deuteronomy 18: 15 and 18), we have Moses himself predicting that a prophet greater than him is going to come, who the people really need to listen to - and there was really no greater prophet in the history of Israel because of the amazing greatness of Moses' prophecies; he saw God face to face and heard him speak to him many times - a reference to Jesus.

The argument that Jesus is making in this section is, there are five different forms of evidence, or witness, or testimony to Jesus available to the religious leaders. Number one, the words of John the Baptist. Number two, the miracles of Jesus. Number three, the testimony of God the Father, particularly his audible voice at the baptism site. Number four, the prophetic content of the Old Testament Scriptures. Number five, Moses' predictions. This is a lot of evidence and he's basically saying, “There's plenty of evidence that what I'm saying today isn't something I've made up about my identity and my relationship with the Father, it's actually true.”


What are our concluding reflections, having studied this quite detailed explanation and teaching and challenge of Jesus? Three things that I want to say in conclusion. Number one, the divine nature of Jesus is very clearly explained in this passage. It's one of the clearest explanations we get in the whole of the Gospels and so it helps us to know and to understand that Jesus isn't a prophet only, isn't a healer only, isn't a teacher only, isn't just the one who formed a new religion. No, he's the divine Son of God. He is a unique human being, unlike any other human religious prophet who's ever lived, before or since. He is, literally, the unique one and only Son of God, who existed with his Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity and came to earth as a man, at this particular time in history, in order to bring the message of salvation to you and to me. Jesus' divine nature is decisively explained.

Secondly, Jesus identifies the importance of his dependence on God the Father. God the Father is the initiator within the Trinity of all the acts of salvation (the Son and Holy Spirit work with him at his initiation) and Jesus is saying that he depends on the leading and the guiding of his Father. How much more is that true of us, mere mortals, who are believers! That's why when we pray ‘Our Father in heaven,’ we are coming and expressing our dependence on our heavenly Father, which should characterise all our lives.

My final point is this: if there were five things that testify to Jesus, five points of evidence of his identity and his mission, available to the religious leaders of his day, what evidence is available to you and to me? Well, all those five points are now available to us in the text of the Bible and in the text of the New Testament. The words of John the Baptist, the account of Jesus' miracles, the account of God the Father's voice, the Old Testament Scriptures and Moses' predictions; they're all in the Scriptures for us. If you want to find out who Jesus is, our most reliable evidence is the Scriptures themselves that capture all these things for us, are written down for us and help us. If you're not sure Jesus is the Son of God, if you think of him in some other way, can I encourage you to read the Scriptures carefully? Particularly the Gospels and particularly passages like this, where Jesus, himself, explains who he is in unambiguous terms and we become clear as we follow this that he really is the Son of God.

We have the Scriptures available to us as one form of evidence. The second is the work of the Holy Spirit, who leads us and guides us, and sometimes inside us we have this sense that we're looking for some greater reality. We're looking to work out who Jesus is and the Holy Spirit gives us a conviction of the truthfulness of the Scriptures and then we can put our trust in them. Thank you for reading and I look forward to the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Who is Jesus? How would you answer this question?
    2. Jesus gives 5 reasons for the Jewish people to believe in him, in John 5: 31 - 47. Pick out these statements. Do you believe in him?
  • Discipleship
    1. What would it look like if we were dependent on God in the way that Jesus was?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to study Jesus' relationship with God his Father.
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