“Holy Days, or Holy Hearts?”

15 August 2004

Texts: John 5:17-30, Hebrews 3:1-3, 4:14-5:10


            Sometimes the redeemed prefer holy days to holy hearts---just like the Jews who, out of fear and ignorance, opposed the Lord Jesus in His day.  This unhappy tendency is a residue of our fallen condition, of our common past when we preferred, due to spiritual deadness, anything but God to God[1].  We tend to fall into “external religion,” or religiosity if they are not careful---externalizing means seeking to look holy, or to act “Christian“ rather than to sincerely and humbly be Christian.   Jesus describes it as cleaning the outside of the cup and ignoring the heart condition, or the filth within. Just so, the Jews were concerned in the Sabbath healing controversy more than with religious observance (keeping the Sabbath), than they were with genuine holiness, truth, or even simple mercy.  This made them both judgmental and hypocritical.  How may we avoid falling into the same trap and damaging our Christian witness by a like judgmentalism and hypocrisy?  The prescription for spiritual health is:  choose to honor Christ for His work, the new creation .  Remember to celebrate daily that Christ died to bring honor to the Father by fulfilling the work of redemption.  Choose to honor Christ by courageously walking in a manner worthy of your faith.  We’re going to learn today:  the truth about Jesus, the new creation and personal holiness.  First three clarifying questions and then exposition of John 5:17-30.


            Question:  How do we know that the Jews preferred holy days to holy hearts?


            Answer:  We know on the basis of their accusations.  They accused Jesus of being a Sabbath breaker and they took offense at His declaration of equality with God the Father.  True, they did want to prevent the Sabbath from being profaned---but their approach was very much the letter without the Spirit.  This was in keeping with rule-driven religiosity.  This is an externalization of religion rooted in spiritual fearfulness.  Their murderous intent was based on fears.  They saw Jesus as so threatening that they not only persecuted Him, they wanted to kill Him.


            Question:  Do you mean that legalism expresses a fearful religiosity?


            Answer:  Yes.  I mean that fear of the unknown can lead to an externalization of religion.  I would argue that the Jewish understanding of the Sabbath then had become an empty husk, a shell, or old wineskin.  Furthermore, I would argue that the inadequacy of the Law---its inability to save anyone---was staring them in the face.  Particularly, it was the potency of Christ’s work in their midst, exposing the futility of the Law, that stirred fears of inadequacy in them.  Christ was working miracles.  People were being delivered and healed even as the truth was being declared in the public square.  The latter aggravated the religious leadership.  They responded with envy and fear: “John 11:47  Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, "What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. John 11:48  "If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."  


The reality is that the Law, which carried some remnant of blessing in it for the Jews, required some strength on the part of the paralytic for him to gain by it.  But such effort was beyond him---he was hindered by his weakened condition, unable to avail himself of the grace which presented itself from time to time (the angel stirring up the waters with healing virtues).  The pool of Bethseda supposed a power in man, but the healing by Jesus located the power of salvation in the Son of God alone.  There are many who have the desire to be saved, but not the strength.  With Jesus, and the new covenant, that necessary strength is imparted.  The Law was good news for those who could help themselves, but the gospel is better news, because it is good news for those who can’t help themselves at all!  (Of the Law it could be said that God helps those who help themselves---but of the gospel it may be said, that God’s mercy stoops even to those who cannot help themselves.) 

            As for the Sabbath controversy, we may note the following:  After the work of Creation, while it was all still good, God rested on the seventh day.  After the Fall the Law unable to communicate God’s rest to sinful man.  So there could not be a true Sabbath for either the Father or the Son.  Not in the midst of sin.  The power of a new life was needed.  AND this is precisely what the Son had come for.  Because a just God must either destroy the guilty race (as with the wicked generation of Noah‘s day), or begin a work of redemption by atoning for sin some other way; therefore, the Father sent the Son.[2]  To properly understand the Sabbath, then we need to grasp that while God originally rested from the work of Creation, He has never rested from the on-going work of governing, provisioning or ruling over His Creation--else all would die and cease to exist.  We enter our “best” by faith in Christ now--in Him we keep an everlasting Sabbath.


            Question: Does this Sabbath teaching relate directly to the sermon Christ preached in John 5: 17-30?


            Answer:  Absolutely.  As I said before, spiritual health, as manifested in holy hearts, is obtained by choosing to honor Christ for who He truly is.  He had declared in Mat 12:8  "For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."  If you know who He is and honor Him as Lord of the Sabbath, then you will understand better who He isn’t why He did what He did at the pool of Bethseda.  The proper response to accusations is the truth about Jesus and the more truth the better.  So Jesus lays down true doctrine about Himself.


            With these questions out of the way, let’s begin to expand our understanding of who He is through John 5.  We begin with the claim that God is His Father in a particular and unique way.  This is Christ’s doctrine of patera idion, as the Greek puts it.  We find it in verse 17, implicit in the assertion that as the Father works, He works.  We have already established that the work in view here is upholding existence, as we know it.  From this work there is, as yet, no Sabbath rest.  This identity of function implies an identity of essence.  In verse 19, Jesus solemnly declares (“Verily, verily.. . .”) that He does nothing of Himself--nothing He does is motivated by independent self-will.  All He does is an act of conformity and of submission--this is His perfect obedience.  He does the same things the Father does, in the same manner that the Father does them.  For this obedience, the Father loves and rewards Him with honor, power and authority.  All this occurs because the two, Father and Son, communicate out of love.  There is, as it were, an ongoing demonstration in the heavenlies of the Father’s loving will.  For instance, Jesus promises greater works yet to come--which have the purpose of causing mankind to wonder.


            Greater works?  Yes, greater works than the healing of the paralytic man at Bethseda pool---such as raising the dead.  Again we have to understand that there are different kinds of resurrection, so there is a range of meaning suggested here.  There are the instances of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter and the son of the widow of Nain as well as of Lazarus---all works occasioned by the verbal command of the Lord Jesus.  We should note that while Elijah and Elisha raised the dead, they did so by praying to the Lord God, the Lord of life and death, and that same Lord raised up the dead.  But this is probably not the primary reference here.  And neither is Jesus‘ own resurrection from the dead, because Jesus’ resurrection refers primarily to His own commission and the vindication of His life work.  What is in view here is the quickening of the spiritual dead.  Verse 25 refers to a resurrection from the death of sin to a life of righteousness--from hearts of stone to holy hearts (hence the title of this sermon!).  Jesus is alluding here to the power of His gospel and the coming of God’s Kingdom as a marvel of resurrection.  Greater works indeed.  To be sure, Jesus has authority over life and death and the grave (Rev. 1:18: "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, Rev 1:18  and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.)  And write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens,).  Then, at the end of all time, in the greatest of works, greatest and most marvelous, Christ will command the opening of the graves so that all who have ever lived may appear before His throne of judgment--some, those with holy hearts, will be sentenced to eternal reward and others will be consigned to Hell and eternal torment--body and soul together.[3]


            Furthermore, we are to understand, God gave Jesus the authority to set aside ceremonial law, or observances, so that He might institute the ordinances of a new covenant, a covenant both long promised and familiar to the Jews who familiarized themselves with Scripture.  I want to underscore the importance of this last qualification: for many are fearful out of ignorance.  Because they do not know the word of God they seize upon inferior things (rules and regulations, external religiosity) and substitute these for the real thing. 


The source and nature of Jesus’ authority resided with His identity as the eternal Son of the Father.  This latter point answers the concern of Muslims that it is not in keeping with God’s (Allah) character for Him to have a Son because this suggests some form of reproduction, or generation.  However, because Jesus is the eternal Son, that difficulty is resolved--there’s no need to generate someone who always was.


            Whenever Jesus acts, we learn He acts from His divine nature.  His nature supplies the necessity.  No one else, for instance, has ever seen all the Father is doing.  All the Father does, the Son does.  Therefore, Jesus as Christ shares in all the divine attributes of godhead (omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. . .almighty, holy, pure. . .indeed infinite in all perfections).  There are no mysteries to Him as Christ--there are only mysteries as He relates the things of God to us!  As the Father raises up, quickens, so shall the Son.  He acts with the same power and authority.  The Son is to judge the quick and the dead because He has a commission from the Father (v. 22) and this is done, yes, so that we may marvel, but it is also done so that all men should honor the Son. (v. 23)  Everyone who ever lived will eventually meet the Master.  And they shall do this at the judgment seat of Christ where He presides as “Your Honor.”  Could there be a clearer statement of identity than this: but He has given all judgment to the Son, John 5:23  in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him?  I think not.


            Jesus next presents Himself as the divinely commissioned Mediator.  He reaches back an incorporates verse 19-21 so that we are reminded that all that He does is founded upon first hand knowledge, patterned after what He has observed the Father doing and saying.  But verse 24: John 5:24  "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life establishes Him in the role of Mediator.  Whoever hears my word as well as he who believes in God the Father that person has eternal life here and now--that person will not come into the judgment of condemnation.  Oh, yes, that person will see Jesus in His role as judge, but he will experience the judgment of Christ as mercy.  Jesus is able to communicate life, regeneration, to whomever He will--and that designation aligns itself with those whom the Father has given unto Him.  Verse 27 confirms Christ’s authority to do what He is fully able to do.  And what is the basis of that authorization?  It is that Jesus is indeed the Son of Man, or Messiah--the divinely appointed Mediator.  At this point Jesus moves everyone’s attention to the scene of the Last Judgment.  That’s the meaning of all that are in the grave shall hear His voice (v.28) and shall come forth.  Then Jesus will execute His moral authority to separated between those who have done good, from those who have done evil. (v.29).  We can rest assured that these judgments will be impartial, fair, true and just because I can of my own self do nothing.  Jesus has no selfish interest in the matter at all.  Rather as I hear (from the father) I judge. (v.30)  That He only does His Father’s will exonerates Him of all bias and partiality.  There is much more, but this is sufficient.


            At EWBC we define ourselves by covenant--not in terms of what we have got to have in order “to be a real church.”  We do lots of things in Christian liberty--a camp, VBS, a raspberry festival and Sunday School, a coffee house out of the honor it conveys to Christ and the new creation alive in us.  We have trusted God with our finances over the years rejoicing in His Faithfulness.  We participate in many, many Christian activities inviting others to join us in celebrating what it means to be alive in Christ.  For years we have positioned ourselves to be a spiritual ER.  We may be unique in the openness we have to minister to the troubled and distressed.  One consequence is that many more people pass through our doors than remain here--many have gone on building on their gains here, their healing to become fruitful branches in other fellowships.  We honor Christ by courageous love, we risk caring and even being misunderstood because we know that’s how Christ Himself loved.  We feed the hungry on an ongoing basis and ministry flows.  We have clothed people and even refurbished homes and helped with house and car payments. . .all to the glory of God.  The way to holy hearts and pure lives is clear.  Love the Lord with all we’ve got.  We love Him for Who He is above what He does for us.  That makes us His people and that makes every day a holy day.


[1]  There are many senses to “The dead” in New Testament usage.  Adam Clarke helpfully delineates three of them thus:  natural death refers to the separation of body and soul, spiritual death refers to the separation of soul and God (our pre-salvation condition!) and eternal death which entails the separation of body and soul together from God eternally.

[2]   One of the most powerful arguments for Sunday worship (instead of Saturday, or seventh day observances) is that by His resurrection Jesus Christ established, as Lord of the Sabbath, a new Sabbath, Sunday.  This is Resurrection Day and it comes at the conclusion of the second Creation and the beginning of the age of spiritual regeneration.  And this, spiritual regeneration, is to be the chief characteristic of the age of the church, our own age.

[3]  It is necessary to point out that this communication between Jesus and His accusers was very clear.  They knew exactly what Christ was saying (that He was God) and their offense at this saying substantiates the claim here.  Some have tried to gloss over the self-disclosure of Jesus as the Son of God, fully divine and this out of His own mouth because it either complicates their developmental bias (“Jesus evolved in His self-understanding”) or because they have no intention of honoring the Son (preferring some form of Unitarian heresy--which includes such diverse groups as Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses--all of whom deny the divinity of Jesus purportedly to reserve honor for God the Father).  For the Jews then, Jesus calling Himself the Son of God, or calling God His Father was a declaration of equality with God.  Jesus did not correct them which suggests that this is precisely what He wanted to have understood.