Jesus on Trial — John 5:31-40

This week we’ve been looking at Jesus on trial in John chapter 5. Jesus gets himself into trouble by healing a lame man on the Sabbath, and then telling him to pick up and carry his mat – both of which were prohibited on the day of rest. In his defence, he says “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” This gets him into more hot water, adding the even more serious charge of blasphemy. Yesterday, we saw Jesus outline his defence: he’s not setting himself up as a rival god. On the contrary, he’s learned alongside the Father like a son learning the family business, and has come as his authorised representative to do his work.

Now this is a big claim Jesus makes, but can he prove it? This is what today’s part of the trial is all about.

Did you know that I was recently voted the number one most attractive man in the world… by me. I got a record 100% of the vote!

A meaningless claim, is it not, if I make it about myself? That’s how Jesus introduces the ‘evidence section’ of his speech:

5:31 ‘If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid’

That is, anyone can claim to be God, but where’s the evidence? There are a few witnesses who’ve been cooling their heels for a while outside the courtroom – let’s bring them in now.

John the Baptist

The first witness Jesus calls to the stand is John the Baptist, whose ministry many of the Jews had accepted.

5:32-34 ‘There is another who testifies in my favour, and I know that his testimony about me is valid. You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept [OR need to take for myself] human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved.’

In fact, John had earlier testified as to Jesus’ identity:

1:29b ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’
1:34 ‘I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.’

So Jesus reminds them of John’s testimony, as his opening argument. In some ways it’s a bit like our own testimony to what God has done in our lives.

Life-giving miracles

But he moves on to something even more compelling than human testimony – whether it be John the Baptist’s or ours:

5:35-36 ‘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.’

That is, don’t just take the word of another person – look at what I’m doing! The life-giving work of the Father, doesn’t that in itself testify?

Jesus is presumably referring to the miracles he’s been performing, and continues to perform throughout the gospel of John. John depicts these miracles as increasing in intensity and significance. He kicks off by turning water into wine. And then he starts healing people – like the lame man at the start of this chapter. Mini ‘resurrections’ where Jesus brings life and wholeness to people who are physically broken and spiritually dead.

And as John’s gospel continues, we see in the next chapter Jesus feed five thousand with just a few loaves of bread, before claiming to be the bread of life. A little later,  Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead – in full view of a crowd of witnesses and explicitly so that people will come to believe who Jesus is:

11:41-43 So they took away the stone [on Lazarus’ tomb]. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ [and he did]

And then, of course, there’s the climactic miracle of Jesus’ own resurrection, proving once and for all that he was who he claimed to be.

So whenever people are confronted by the claims of Jesus, and ask us “why should I accept what Jesus says?” the answer we can give is this: not only did he claim to be God’s authorized representative – I mean, anyone can say that. But the miracle of his resurrection is the proof. So  don’t just think you can dismiss him as one alternative viewpoint among many that you can choose from. Either he’s right or he’s wrong. Either he’s from God or he’s not. Investigate the evidence for yourself.

Jesus’ work – of bringing life to the dead – testifies to his identity as the one sent by God.

The Father himself

And if that weren’t enough, Jesus goes on to claim one more witness, God the Father himself:

5:37a ‘And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me.’

Exactly what Jesus means by this isn’t completely clear. How does the Father testify about him? Is it still referring to the miracles? Maybe. Or less likely, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism – which isn’t actually recorded in John’s gospel. I think more likely, given the past tense, it’s referring to the witness of the Scriptures, the OT which point to Jesus. This is what Jesus is referring to verses later:

5:39-40 ‘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.’

That is, the Jews should have recognized Jesus because their own holy writings pointed toward him. They were in a privileged position, having the plan of God revealed to them. Yet they ended up worshipping the plan instead of God himself. They placed their faith in possessing the word of God, rather than actually responding to it. And when God himself did turn up, they didn’t recognize him. They were so busy dissecting his word that they didn’t have time for God. He didn’t fit their preconceived idea of what God would look like.

Back when I used to work in the shipping industry, our company had just merged with another global giant, and I’d been moved into a new department staffed entirely by people from the other company. One day I saw a guy hanging around in casual clothes chatting – he seemed to know everyone there, but me. I asked someone in my less-than-tactful style, “Who is that guy with the bad taste in Hawaiian shirts walking around like he owns the place?” Turned out he was the number two in the global IT division, visiting from the London office.

Six months later, I was at the London head office and was formally introduced to him – by now he was the head of global IT. He said, “Tim, I’ve heard a lot about you. So, do you prefer my taste in business shirts?” It couldn’t get any worse, so I said, ‘That’s fine, but what were you thinking with that tie?

I didn’t recognise our IT director when he turned up unexpectedly in a Hawaiian shirt. It wasn’t what I thought an important person would look like. Most of the Jewish leadership didn’t recognise God when he turned up unexpectedly in the form of a human being – breaking Sabbath laws and turning things upside down.

To think about

Now before we jump too quickly to their culpability in the matter, let’s apply the warning to ourselves. How much are we in danger of merely possessing the gospel message, without having any sort of relationship with its author? Of having the words of eternal life that remain for us only on the page and don’t find their way into our hearts, into our minds, into our behaviour? Having a Bible and studying it diligently, knowing the gospel, being able to explain the atonement – that doesn’t save us. We only ‘have life’ if we truly come to the one to whom the Scriptures testify.

The Jewish leaders didn’t get this, which is why they now stand accused. And that’s what the final part of the trial is about, tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Jesus on Trial — John 5:31-40

  1. Tim,

    Would you like to comment on the degree to which “Yet they ended up worshipping the plan instead of God himself. They placed their faith in possessing the word of God, rather than actually responding to it.” applies to ordinary Jewish believers in Jesus time.

    We know that large numbers came out to hear him speak (although many, perhaps others perhaps not also called for his death). The Bible records examples of ordinary Jewish folks being “righteous” (eg Joseph is righteous and so intends to quietly divorce Mary rather than disgrace her Mt 1:19). The apostles follow Jesus willingly, even though they don’t get it at first.

    Was the whole of Israel in Jesus day worshipping the plan, or was it a case of bad leadership leading many astray, or do we see the bad leaders in sharp focus in the Gospels and there might have been quite good leaders as well that don’t get a rebuke from Jesus and as a result don’t make it into the Gospel narrative. Someone must have taught Mary and Joseph to be righteous. Nazareth might have had a Godly rabbi around 20 BC?


    1. That’s a whole field of study in itself. Some of the leadership tended to do that; some of the leadership didn’t. Others were somewhere in between. Same goes for your average Judean at the time – there was a spectrum. It had been going on at least since the days of e.g. Amos, where God accused Israel (but particularly the leadership) of simply trusting in their identity as God’s people – the ones who possessed God’s word – rather than actually obeying it. And let’s face it, sometimes we do that, too.

Post responses and questions

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s