Again in this chapter, we see the arbitrary nature of the chapter divisions of the New Testament. In all honesty, I’d argue that the chapter divisions, except for the Psalms, are useful only for locating material. They have no actual meaning—and sometimes are filled with disparate ideas.
With this, we turn to John 5. Where do we go in this chapter? Should we take a look at the healing at Bethesda? Perhaps dip into how we once even called the National Naval Hospital here in the United States the Bethesda Naval Hospital, but politics consolidated it into the Walter Reed Army Hospital and thus we froze out the name?
Should we take a look at our old friends the Pharisees and other religious zealots, who are more concerned with a man carrying a mat than with him having not walked for 38 years? How they have not given two hoots for him as he lay, near healing and near exhaustion, just around the corner, but now worry about his “sin” of carrying a mat?
There are a great many ways to consider the story that occupies the first half of this chapter. I think we could learn a lot from considering what our preoccupation is: healing and the work of God or self-preservation and rule-keeping? I’m all for people sitting still and listening to sermons, but that’s not the most important thing every time. Sometimes, it’s more important to feed the truth over the chaos than to spend time eliminating the chaos.
And if someone were saved and delivered from addiction problems, who are we to trouble them about wearing shoes to church instead of flip-flops? Does that really matter?
Beyond this, though, I think the higher point of John 5 is the second half of the chapter. Jesus, as He answers the charges regarding His working on the Sabbath, makes the central claim of His purpose. John 5:17-19 record that Jesus called Himself equal with God. This was not a matter taken lightly by the religious establishment of Israel.
Jesus goes on through the rest of the chapter to speak of the witnesses to this fact. He does this, not because He needs proof of who He is, but to show just how clear God had made the Truth. There is the witness of John, the witness of the works Jesus did, the witness in those works of the Father’s approval, and the witness found in Scripture.
Dear reader, that’s a lot of witness to the Truth. The Law required two witnesses to establish something, and Jesus gives twice that number. These four provided are of different characters, and they all provide different forms of testimony. This is one of my favorite parts of the Gospel:
Jesus does not leave us with just one point of information. It is true that our current, primary source of information is the Bible, but that records multiple streams of information. Additionally, there should be a few other witnesses that we live alongside the Word of God. Our works should also witness the truth of Jesus Christ.
Further, looking at the four witnesses of John 5, we see differing witnesses that will resonate with different types of people. The activist sees Jesus’ works, the spiritual person sees the Father’s witness, the non-conformist sees John the Baptist’s testimony, and the bookworm searches the Scriptures. Across this spectrum, it is hard to not see the one group that rejects Jesus: the religious traditionalist.
We have to be careful with this. People have been following Jesus for two millennia. That’s a long time. Every generation adds traditions while pruning others, every culture adjusts for itself. These are not all bad, but we must be careful that these traditions are not taken to be more important than the idea behind them: that we follow Jesus with all we are.
That is where the Pharisees had gone wrong in the first half of John 5. Rather than remembering the Word of God or seeing the witness of the works of Jesus, they only saw tradition violated. Their reaction is troubling, but we cannot change theirs. We can only watch out for ours.
Are we doing so?
Today’s Nerd Notes:
1. Grab a good reference work on textual criticism (or a good commentary) and check out the background on why most modern translations bracket or footnote John 5:3-4. I’m not going to track that whole discussion here, but I do find it worth contemplating. It is less important how the man was not healed, the story is about how he was healed.
2. It is not uncommon to encounter the argument that Jesus never claimed to be God. How that survives this chapter is a mystery to me. The Jewish leaders are angry because He claims to be equal with God. Rather than say “No, that’s not what I meant,” He says “Indeed, and here’s the proof.” Seems good to know.
3. John 5:39 is a little fun in the Greek. The verse could be translated as the KJV does: “Search the Scriptures,” or as the NASB does “You search the Scriptures.” It could be a command or an observation on their behaviors. I’m inclined to think the ambiguity is actually correct. Jesus could be affirming their diligent searching of the Scriptures while also commanding they go look again. Of course, many make the argument that all of the dialogue would have been originally in Aramaic, so Greek nuances take on different questions.