As soon as the impotent man discovered who it was that had given him strength, he informed the authorities, either from sheer thoughtlessness, or because he considered that they had a right to know, or because he judged that, like himself, they would rather admire the miracle than take exception to the Sabbath-breaking. If this last was his idea, he had not gauged the obtuseness and self-righteous spite of honest and pious literalism. "For this cause did the Jews persecute Jesus, because He did these things on the Sabbath." In what particular form the charge of Sabbath-breaking was brought against our Lord, whether formal or conversational and tentative, John does not say. He is more concerned to give us in full the substance of His apology. For the first time our Lord now gave in public an explanation of His claims; and this five minutes' talk with the Jews contains probably the most important truth ever uttered upon earth.
The passage embodies the four following assertions: that the healing of the incurable on the Sabbath resulted from and exhibited His perfect unison with the Father; that this giving of life to an impotent man was an illustration or sign of His power to quicken whom He would, to communicate life Divine and eternal to all in whatsoever stage of spiritual or physical deadness they were; that His claim to possess this supreme power was not mere idle assertion, but was both guaranteed by this miracle, and otherwise was amply attested; and that the real root of their rejection of Him and His claims was to be found, not in their superior knowledge of God and regard for His will, but in their worldly craving for the applause of men.
1. Our Lord's reply to the charge of Sabbath-breaking is, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." He did not make any comment on the Sabbath law. He did not defend Himself by showing that works of mercy such as He had done Were admissible. On other occasions He adopted this line of defence, but now He took higher ground. The rest of God is not inactivity. God does not on the Sabbath cease to communicate life to all things. He does not refrain from blessing men till the sun of the Sabbath is set. The tides rise and fall; the plants grow; the sun completes his circuit on the Sabbath as on other days. "Why does not God keep the Sabbath?" a caviller asked of a Jew. "Is it not lawful," was the answer, "for a man to move about in his own house on the Sabbath? The house of God is the whole realm above and the whole realm below." For God the Sabbath has no existence; it is a boon He has given to His creatures because they need it. His untiring beneficence is needful for the upholding and for the happiness of all. And it is the same superiority to the Sabbath which Jesus claims for Himself. He claims that His unceasing work is as necessary to the world as the Father's -- or rather, that He and the Father are together carrying out one work, and that in this miracle the Jews find fault with He has merely acted as the Father's agent.
From this statement the Jews concluded that He made Himself equal with God. And they were justified in so concluding. It is only on this understanding of His words that the defence of Jesus was relevant. If He meant only to say that He imitated God, and that because God did not rest on the Sabbath, therefore He, a holy Jew, might work on the Sabbath, His defence was absurd. Our Lord did not mean that He was imitating the Father, but that His work was as indispensable as the Father's, was the Father's. My Father from the beginning up till now worketh, giving life to all; and I work in the same sphere, giving life as His agent and almoner to men. The work of quickening the impotent man was the Father's work. In charging Him with breaking the Sabbath they were charging the Father with breaking it.
But this gives Jesus an opportunity of more clearly describing His relation to God. He declares He is in such perfect harmony with God that it is impossible for Him to do either that miracle or any other work at His own instigation. "The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father doing." "I can of myself do nothing." He had power to do it, but no will. He had life in Himself, and could give it to whom He pleased; but so perfect was His sympathy with God, that it was impossible for Him to act where God would not have Him act. So trained was He to perceive the Divine purpose, so habituated to submit Himself to it, that He could neither mistake His Father's will nor oppose it. As a conscientious man when pressed to do a wrong thing says, No, really I cannot do it; as a son who might happen to be challenged for injuring His father's business would indignantly repudiate the possibility of such a thing. "What do I live for," he would say, "but to further my father's views? My father's interests and mine are identical, our views and purposes are identical. I cannot do anything antagonistic to him." So Jesus had from the first recognised God as His Father, and had so true and deep a filial feeling that really it was the joy of His life to do His will.
This, then, was the idea the Lord sought to impress on the people on the first occasion on which He had a good opportunity of speaking in public. He cannot do anything save what is suggested to Him by consideration of God's will. Even as a boy He had begun to have this filial feeling. "Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business?" That in Him which is most conspicuous and which He wishes to be most conspicuous is perfect sonship; filial trust and duty carried to its perfect height. It is this perfect filial unanimity with the Father which makes His life valuable, significant, different from all other lives. It is this which makes Him the perfect representative of the Father; which enables Him to be God's perfect messenger to men, doing always and only the will of God in men's sight. He is in the world not for the sake of fulfilling any private schemes of His own, but having it as His sole motive and aim to do the Father's will.
This perfect filial feeling had no doubt its root in the eternal relation of the Son to the Father. It was the continuance, upon earth and under new conditions, of the life He already had enjoyed with the Father. Having assumed human nature, He could reveal Himself only so far as that nature allowed Him. His revelation, for example, was not universal, but local, confined to one place; His human nature being necessarily confined to one place. He did not assert superiority to all human law; He paid taxes; He recognised lawful authority; He did not convince men of His Divinity by superiority to all human infirmities; He ate, slept, died as ordinary men. But through all this He maintained a perfect harmony with the Divine will. It was this which differentiated Him from ordinary men, that He maintained throughout His life an attitude of undoubting trust in the Father and devotion to Him. It was through the human will of the Lord that the Divine will of the Eternal Son uniformly worked and used the whole of His human nature.
It is in this perfect Sonship of Christ we first learn what a son should be. It is by His perfect loyalty to the Father's will, by His uniform adoption of it as the best, the only, thing He can do, that we begin to understand our connection with God, and to recognise that in His will alone is our blessedness. Naturally we resent the rule of any will but our own; we have not by nature such love for God as would put His will first. To our reason it becomes manifest that there is nothing higher or happier for us than to sink ourselves in God; we see that there is nothing more elevating, nothing more essential to a hopeful life than that we make God's purposes in the world our own, and do that very thing which He sees to be worth doing and which He desires to do. Yet we find that the actual adoption of this filial attitude, natural, rational, and inviting as it seems, is just the most difficult of all difficulties, is indeed the battle of life. Who among us can say that we do nothing of ourselves, nothing at our own instance, that our life is entirely at God's disposal?
To this filial disposition on the part of the Son the Father responds: "The Father loveth the Son, and showeth Him all things that Himself doeth" (ver.20). If we ask how Jesus saw the Father's works, or how, for example, He saw that the Father wished Him to heal the impotent man, the answer must be that it is by inward sympathy the Son apprehends what the Father wills. We in our measure can see what God is doing in the world, and can forward God's work. But not by mere observation of what God had done and was doing through others did Jesus see what the Father did, but rather by His own inward perception of the Father's will. By His own purity, love, and goodness He knew what the Father's goodness willed. But the Father was not passive in the matter, merely allowing the Son to discover what He could of His will. Godet illustrates this active revelation on the Father's part by the simile of the father in the carpenter's shop at Nazareth showing the son the things he made and the method of making them. This simile, however, being external, is apt to misdirect the mind. It was by a wholly inward and spiritual process the Father made known to the Son His purposes and mind.
2. This quickening of the impotent man was meant to be an object lesson, a sign of the power of Jesus to communicate life, Divine and eternal, to whom He would. "Greater works" than this of curing the paralytic "will the Father show to the Son, that ye may marvel" (ver.20). As through His word vigour had been imparted to the impotent man, so all who listen to His word will receive everlasting life (ver.24). As the impotent man, after thirty-eight years of deadness, found life on the moment by believing Christ's word, so every one who listens to that same voice as the word of God receives life eternal. Through that word he connects himself with the source of life. He becomes obedient to the life-giving will of God.
The question, How can the spiritually dead hear and believe? is the question. How could the impotent man rise in response to Christ's word? Psychologically inexplicable it may be, but happily it is practically possible. And here, as elsewhere, theory must wait upon fact. One thing is plain: that faith is the link between the Divine life and human weakness. Had the impotent man not believed, he would not have risen. Christ quickens "whom He will;" that is to say, there is no limit to His life-giving power; but He cannot quicken those who will not have life or who do not believe He can give it. Hence necessarily "the Father hath committed all judgement unto the Son." To the impotent man Jesus put the question, "Wilt thou be made whole?" and by that question the man was judged. By the answer he gave to it he determined whether he would remain dead or receive life. Had he not on the moment believed, he would have doomed himself to permanent and hopeless imbecility. Christ's question judged him.
Precisely so, says Jesus, are all men judged by My presence among them, and My offer of life to them. For the Father has not only given to the Son to have life in Himself, that He may thus communicate it (ver.26), but "He hath given Him authority to execute judgement also, because He is a Son of man." For these words do not mean that Jesus will be Judge because men should be judged by one who shares their nature, or because they must be judged by the holiest and most loving of men -- as if God Himself were not sufficiently loving -- but, as the object-lesson shows us, Jesus is necessarily Judge by appearing as God's messenger, and by offering to men life everlasting. By becoming a son of man, by living in human form as the embodied love and life of God, and by making intelligible God's good-will and His invitation to life, Christ necessarily sifts men and separates them into two classes. Every one who hears the word of Jesus is judged. He either accepts quickening and passes into life, or he rejects it and abides in death. This human appearance, Jesus seems to say, which stumbles you, and makes you think that My pretensions of judging all men are absurd, is the very qualification which makes judgment one of My necessary functions.
And this explains why we find Christ uttering apparent contradictions: at one time saying, "For judgment came I into this world," and at another time saying, "I came not to judge the world." The object of His coming into the world was to give life, not to condemn men, not to cut them off finally from life and from God, but to open a way to the Father, and to be their life. But this very coming of Christ and the offers He makes to men constitute the critical test of every soul that is brought into contact with them. Judgment is the necessary accompaniment of salvation. Man's will being free, it must be so. And this judgment, determined in this life, will one day appear in final, irreversible, manifested result. "The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."
3. But naturally the Jews would say: "These are extraordinary and apparently extravagant claims to make. It is not easily credible that this voice which now so quietly speaks to us is one day to wake the dead. It is not easily credible that one whom we can carry before our courts is to judge all men." To which thoughts Jesus replies: "I do not expect you to take My word for these things, but there are three guarantees of My truth to which I point you. There is first of all (1) the testimony of John -- a man in whose prophetic gift you for a while prided yourselves, rejoicing that God had sent you so powerful and enlightening a messenger. His whole function was to testify of Me. This lamp, in the light of which you rejoiced, was lit solely for the purpose of making quite visible to you that which you now say you cannot see. But this is not the best witness I have, although those of you who cannot see for themselves might be saved if only you would believe John's testimony. But (2) I have greater witness than that of John. John said that I should come as the Father's agent. Well, if you cannot believe John's words, can you not believe the things you see? This impotent man raised to health, is this not a little hint of the Divine power that is in your midst? And are not all the works I do the Father's works, done by His power and for His purposes? Is not My whole career its own best evidence? But besides, (3) the Father Himself has borne witness to Me. He has not appeared to you. You have not heard His voice nor seen His shape, but His word, His own sufficient account of His nature and connection with you, you have. You search the Scriptures, and rightly, for they are they which testify of Me. They are the Father's word which, had you listened to, you would have known Me as sent by Him. Had you not mumbled only the husk of Scripture, counting its letters and wearing it on your foreheads, but had you, through God's law, entered into sympathy with His purpose on earth, had you, through all that Scripture tells you of Him, learned His nature, and learned to love Him, you would at once have recognised Me as His messenger. "Ye have not His word abiding in you;" ye have not let it lie in your minds and colour them; ye have not chewed, and digested, and assimilated the very quintessence of it, for had you done so you would have learned to know God and seen Him in Me. But "whom He sent, Him ye believe not."
The very Scriptures which had been given to guide them to Christ they used as a veil to blind themselves to His presence. Jesus points out where their mistake lay. "You search the Scriptures, because you suppose that in them, a mere book, you have eternal life; the truth being that life is in Me. The Scriptures do not give life, they lead to the Life-giver. The Scriptures, by your superstitiously reverent and shallow use of them, actually prevent you from finding the life they were meant to point you to. You think you have life in them, and therefore will not come to Me." So may a book, lifted out of its subordinate place, be entirely perverted from its use, and actually hinder the purpose it was given to promote. To worship the Bible as if it were Christ is to mistake a finger-post for a house of shelter. It is possible to have a great zeal for the Bible and yet quite to misapprehend its object; and to misapprehend its object is to make it both useless and dangerous. To set it on a level with Christ is to do both it, Him, and ourselves the gravest injustice. Many who seem to exalt the Scriptures degrade them; and those who give them a subordinate place truly exalt them. God speaks in Scripture, as this passage shows, but He speaks for a definite purpose, to reveal Christ; and this fact is the key to all difficulties about the Bible and inspiration.
4. The unbelief of the Jews is traced by Jesus to a moral root. They seemed very zealous for God's law, but beneath this superficial and ostentatious championing of God there was detected a deep-seated alienation from God which unfitted them for knowing either Him or His messenger. "Glory from men I do not receive (ver.41). But the reason of this is that ye have not the love of God in you, and cannot appreciate Divine glory or recognise it when you see it. How can you believe, when your hearts crave the glory you can give to one another, your ambition rising no higher than to be spoken of by ignorant people as the upholders of religion? You have taught yourselves to measure men by a wholly spurious standard, and cannot believe in one who is a transparency through which the glory of God shines upon you." Had some one come in his own name, seeking a glory the Jews could give him, adapting himself to their poor conceptions, him they would have received. But Jesus being sent by God had that glory which consisted in being a perfect medium of the Father's will, doing the Father's work and never seeking His own glory.
This, then, was the reason why the Jews could not believe in Jesus. Their idea of glory was earthly, and they were unfitted to see and appreciate such glory as He showed in deeds of kindness. And those sayings of Jesus penetrate deeply into the permanent roots of unbelief.
It was certainly a great demand on their faith which Jesus made. He asked them to believe that the most Divine of prerogatives, life-giving and judging, belonged to Him. But He gave them evidence. He only asks them to believe what they have seen exemplified. He does not as yet even ask them to draw inferences. He does not blame them for not seeing what is implied regarding His eternal relation to the Father. He adduces evidence "that they may be saved;" that they may be induced to partake of the life He dispenses; and He laments that they will not believe that He is commissioned by God to speak words of life to men, although He has given them demonstration of His commission and power to give life.
To us also He speaks -- for plainly such powers as He here claims are not such as can be capriciously given and withdrawn, rendered accessible to one age but not to another, exhibited on earth once but never more to be exercised. They are not powers that could be given to more than one messenger of God. To suppose more than one source of spiritual life or more than one seat of judgment is against reason.
 Similarly in the Synoptical Gospels the hostility of the Jews is traced to His apparent breach of the Sabbath law.
 The following division of the former part of this Apology may help the reader to follow the sequence of thought. In vv.19, 20, Jesus enounces the general features of His relation to the Father. In vv.21-23 the works dictated by this relation and resulting from it are spoken of generally as "quickening" and "judging." These works are in vv.24-27 exhibited in the spiritual sphere, and in vv.28, 29, in the physical sphere. The first part of the defence is closed in ver.30 with a re-affirmation of His absolute unison with the Father.
 It is very doubtful whether ver.32 refers to John. I think it refers to the Father. Still Jesus, in vv.33-35, refers the Jews to the testimony of John, although for His own part He depends on higher testimony.
 The same idea is resumed in vv.45-47. If you have not understood the writings of Moses which you have heard from Sabbath to Sabbath, and have not received the knowledge of God they were meant to give you, how shall ye believe the once heard words of Him whose coming was meant to be prepared for, and His identification made easy by all that Moses wrote and by the institutions he established.