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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
John 5

 

 

Other Authors
Introduction

Verse 1

(1) A feast of the Jews.—The writer does not tell us what feast this was, and we must be content to remain without certain knowledge. There is, perhaps, no Jewish feast with which it has not been identified, and it has been even proclaimed confidently that it must have been the Day of Atonement! (Caspari, Chron. and Geogr., Introd., Eng. Trans., p. 130). Our reading is to be regarded as the better one, though not a few authorities insert the article, and interpret “the Feast” to mean the Feast of Passover.

The time-limits are John 4:35, which was in Tebeth (January), and John 6:4, which bring us to the next Passover in Nisan (April), i.e., an interval of four months, the year being an intercalary one with the month VeAdar (and Adar) added, or, as we should say, with two months of March. The only feast which falls in this interval is the Feast of Purim, and it is with this that the best modern opinion identifies the feast of our text. It was kept on the 14th of Adar (March), in commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the plots of Haman, and took its name from the lots cast by him (Esther 3:7; Esther 9:24 et seq.). It was one of the most popular feasts (Jos. Ant. xi. 6, § 13), and was characterised by festive rejoicings, presents, and gifts to the poor. At the same time it was not one of the great feasts, and while the writer names the Passover (John 2:13; John 6:4; John 13:1), the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2), and even that of the Dedication (John x 22), this has no further importance in the narrative than to account for the fact of Jesus being again in Jerusalem. (Comp. Introduction: Chronological Harmony of the Gospels, p. 35)


Verse 2

(2) Now there is at Jerusalem.—We have no certain knowledge of the time referred to in the last, nor of the place referred to in this, verse. For “sheep-market,” we should read with the margin, sheep-gate (Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 3:32; Nehemiah 12:39). This gate was known well enough to fix the locality of the pool, but is itself now unknown. St. Stephen’s Gate, which has been the traditional identification, did not exist until the time of Agrippa. There is something tempting in the interpretation of the Vulgate adopted by some modern travellers and commentators, which supplies the substantive from the immediate context, and reads “sheep-pool.” But the fact that the Greek adjective for “sheep,” is used here only in the New Testament, and in the Old Testament only in the passages of Nehemiah referred to above, seems to fix the meaning beyond doubt.

Bethesda means “house of mercy.” The “Hebrew tongue” is the then current Hebrew, what we ordinarily call Aramaic, or Syro-Chaldaic. The spot is pointed out traditionally as Birket Israil, near the fort of Antonia, but since Dr. Robinson’s rejection of this, it has been generally abandoned. He himself adopted the “Fountain of the Virgin,” which is intermittent. He saw the water rise to the height of a foot in five minutes, and was told that this occurs sometimes two or three times a day. The fountain is connected with the pool of Siloam, and probably with the fountain under the Grand Mosque. The seventh edition of Alford’s Commentary contains, an interesting letter, pointing out that Siloam itself was probably the pool of Bethesda, and that the remains of four columns in the east wall of the pool, with four others in the centre, show that there was a structure half covering it, which resting upon four columns would give five spaces or porches. The fact that this pool is called Siloam in John 9:7 does not oppose this view. The word “called” here, is more exactly surnamed, and “House of Mercy” may well have been given to the structure, and thus extended to the pool in addition to its own name. But to pass from the uncertain, it is established beyond doubt, (1) that there are, and then were, on the east of Jerusalem mineral springs; (2) that these are, and then were, intermittent; and (3) that such springs are resorted to in the East just as they are in Europe.


Verse 3

(3) In these lay a great multitude.—The word “great” before multitude, and the latter clause of the verse “waiting for the moving of the water,” and the whole of John 5:4, is omitted by most of the oldest MSS., including the Sinaitic and the Vatican, and is judged to be no part of the original text by a consensus of modern editors, including Tischendorf, Tregelles, Alford, and Westcott and Hort. It is interesting to note how a gloss like this has found its way into the narrative, and, for ninety-nine out of every hundred readers, is now regarded as an integral part of St. John’s Gospel. We meet with it very early. It is found in the Alexandrian MS., and in the Latin and early Syrian versions. Tertullian refers to it. This points to a wide acceptance from the second century downwards, and points doubtless to the popular interpretation of that day. It explains the man’s own view in John 5:7, and the fact of the multitude assembled round the pool (John 5:3). The bubbling water moving as it were with life, and in its healing power seeming to convey new energy to blind and halt and lame, was to them as the presence of a living messenger of God. They knew not its constituent elements, and could not trace the law of its action, but they knew the Source of all good, who gave intellect to man and healing influence to matter, effect to the remedy and skill to the physician, and they accepted the gift as direct from Him. Scientists of the present century will smile at these Christians of the second century. The Biblical critic is glad that he can remove these words from the record, and cannot be called upon to explain them. But it may be fairly asked, which is most truly scientific—to grasp the Ultimate Cause of all, even without the knowledge of intermediate links; or to trace these links, and express them in so-called laws, and make these abstract laws lifeless representatives of the living God? There is a via media which, here as elsewhere, wisdom will seek rather than either extreme. All true theology must be, in the best sense, scientific; and all true science must be, in the best sense, religious.


Verse 5

(5) Thirty and eight years.—The period expresses, not his age on the one hand, nor the time of his being at Bethesda on the other, but the time during which he had suffered from the infirmity. Helpless and friendless, having spent half the lot of human life in that condition, he appeals without an uttered word to the Mercy which is present in the House of Mercy; and to him alone of those He healed does Christ of His own accord address the first question. The infirmity was in some way connected with youthful sin (John 5:14), and the sufferer and his history would be well known to those at Jerusalem. The exact knowledge of the writer tells us that for thirty-eight years he had paid sin’s. penalty.


Verse 6

(6) And now Jesus sees him lying there among the throng of sufferers, and every ache of every limb, and. every sorrow of every heart told of the perfection of life marred by the curse of sin; but this man’s own sin had left its mark upon him, which men may read and condemn, though within the whited fairness of their own outer deeds, the soul’s life was by sin palsied to its very core. But he hears, in tones that went to the heart as he listened to them, the strange question, stranger indeed than “Wilt thou. . . .,” “Wiliest thou to be made whole?”


Verse 7

(7) What does the question mean? Will this Stranger, whom he has never seen before, do for him what none of those who often saw him had ever done? Will he watch for the bubbling water, and place him first in it? Is there one being in all the world who regards his state as calling for loving pity, rather than scornful loathing?

I have no man.—There is an eloquence of helplessness more powerful than that of words. Day by day he has watched, listened for the first sound, caught the first movement in the bath, summoned the feeble vestiges of strength to an action on which all depended, and hoping each succeeding time, in spite of despair in which last time’s hope has been engulfed, has been coming, when “another goeth down before.” “I have no man” is to-day the helpless, unspoken cry of thousands imaged here.


Verse 8

(8) Jesus saith unto him.—There is no formal demand, or formal statement of faith as preceding the healing. (Comp., e.g., Notes on Matthew 13:58; Mark 9:24.) Men have often wondered at this. If faith is an expression in words or anything outside man, then there is room for wonder; but if it be a living principle, the “seeing Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27), then surely we may seek in vain for a more striking instance of its power than in this man; who in all, and through all, and in spite of all, trusted in, and looked for, the mercy of God, and had faith to be healed.

Jesus sees in him this receptive power, which in his very helplessness is strength, and calls it forth. He who could barely move is told to rise! he who had for eight-and-thirty years lain on his bed is to carry that bed and walk!


Verse 9

(9) The man was made whole.—The sufferer was known; the healing is in the striking form that none could gainsay.


Verse 10

(10) The Jews therefore said unto him.—But what they cannot deny they can cavil at. One might have expected from human hearts wonder and thankfulness that the man could walk at all. We find from the formalism which had bound the letter round men until it had well nigh crushed all heart out of them, the murmur that the carrying of his bed was not lawful on the Sabbath. This is not the only place in this Gospel where the words and works of Christ clashed with the current views of the sanctity of the Sabbath day. (Comp. John 7:23; John 9:14.) The general question has been treated in Notes on Matthew 12:10-12. Here it will be sufficient to note that the bearing of burdens was specially forbidden in the Prophecy of Jeremiah: “Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day” (Jeremiah 17:21; comp. Nehemiah 13:15 et seq.), and that the Rabbis pressed this to include a burden of any kind. They said, for example, “If any man on the Sabbath bring in or take out anything on the Sabbath from a public to a private place, if thoughtlessly he hath done this he shall sacrifice for his sin; but if wilfully, he shall be cut off and shall be stoned.”


Verse 11

(11) He that made me whole.—The man bases the use of his power upon the will of Him who had given it. That has been the one divine voice he has heard, and it cannot be wrong for him to obey it.


Verse 12

(12) What man is that which said unto thee . . .?—They pass over the giving of the power, and quote only the command which comes under their technical prohibition. The life and strength of once-palsied limb is as nothing; the fact that this man was breaking their tradition is secondary. The real motive is a charge against Him whose power the body of the Jewish people was feeling as a life-current, quickening deadened energies, and rousing men to a sense of God’s presence in their midst. Aye, and these Jews of Judaism feel the thrill of this current all around them, though their will tries to isolate them by the coldness of unbelief from a power which they have not directed, and which they refuse to be directed by. Men and women who have been all their lives lying in moral helplessness, waiting and looking for God, yet never helped by God’s priests and rulers, are now standing and moving in the strength that their new Teacher gives. They cannot deny it, but can they prevent it? This spirit is life, but there is still the letter which killeth. It cuts them to the heart to see His power in their midst, but there is the body of Rabbinic precept and oral law. He has now crossed that. They will apply it to stamp out His work and kill Him.

Take up thy bed, and walk.—Omit “thy bed,” with the best MSS. It is inserted from the previous verse. Their passionate question expresses itself in the fewest words.


Verse 13

(13) For Jesus had conveyed himself away.—The second clause of this verse, as is shown by the marginal rendering, was not intended by our translators to convey the impression that a crowd had assembled round the scene of the miracle, and that to avoid this Jesus passed away from the place. In that case the man must have known who He was. Still the English does probably convey this meaning to most readers, and it would be better to give a freer rendering—For Jesus disappeared among the multitude which was in the place. The presence of the multitude is not given as the reason for His going away, but as explaining the fact that He passed on with them after having spoken to the man, and was thus unknown to him.


Verse 14

(14) Afterward.—There is no mark of time. Probably it was on the same day. Perhaps the first use of his restored power was to go to the Temple and pay his thank-offering to God.

Sin no more.—These words connect his past sufferings with individual sin. He has been freed from the effects, but if they have been truly remedial he has been freed from the cause too. He is in God’s house. Let him accept restored powers as God’s gift, and let their devotion be the true thank-offering. The imperative is present, and points to a permanent condition of life—“Be not any more a sinner.”

A worse thing.—There is, then, something worse than a life of unmoving helplessness. There is a sadness of tone even as He says, “Behold, thou art made whole;” just as there is a sigh when He says, “Ephphatha: Be opened!” (Mark 7:34). There are men for whom it had been good never to have been born (Matthew 26:24). There are limbs that had better never have moved. There are lives that had better have sunk in the negative inaction of death, than have cursed themselves and others in positive deed and speech and thought of life. The power of existence is of infinite grandeur, but it is also of infinite responsibility. It has within its reach the highest good for self and for mankind; but if the God-given power is sacrificed to sin there is within its reach an unutterable depth of woe.


Verse 15

(15) The man departed, and told the Jews.—We are not told what reason underlay his report to the Jews. It is natural that he should give the answer which he could not give before (John 5:13), and that he should wish to secure himself from the charge of Sabbath-breaking by supplying his authority. The narrative does not suggest that he did this in a tone of defiance, which has been found here from a remembrance of John 9, still less that he used his new strength immediately to bring a charge against the Giver of it. The impression is rather, that he felt that this power came from a prophet sent by God, and that he told this to those who were God’s representatives to the nation, supposing that they would recognise Him too.


Verse 16

(16) The words, “and sought to slay Him,” should be omitted. They have been inserted in some MSS. to explain the first clause of John 5:18. For “He had done,” read He was doing. The word is in the imperfect tense, expressing continuance or custom. It is either that from this one instance they generalise a law of practice to justify their persecution, or that some of the earlier unrecorded miracles were also performed on the Sabbath. (Comp. Luke 6:1-11.)


Verse 17

(17) My Father worketh hitherto (or, up to this moment).—They charge Him with breaking the law of God. His answer to this charge is that His action was the result of His Sonship and unity with that God. The very idea of God implied action. This was familiar to the thought of the day. Comp., e.g., in the contemporary Philo, “God never ceases working; but as to burn is the property of fire, and to be cold is the property of snow, thus also to work is the property of God, and much the more, inasmuch as He is the origin of action for all others” (Legis Allegor. i. 3. See the whole section. The English reader will find it in Bohn’s Ed., vol i., p. 53). The rest on the seventh day was the completion of the works of creation (see this stated emphatically in Genesis 2:2-3). It was not, it could not be, a cessation in divine work, or in the flow of divine energy. That knew nor day nor night, nor summer nor winter, nor Sabbath nor Jubilee. For man, and animal, and tree, and field, this alternation of a time of production and a time of reception was needed, but God was the ever-constant source of energy and life for all in heaven and earth and sea. The power going forth to heal that sufferer was the same power which sustained them in well-being. The strength which passed through his half-dead frame, and bade it live, was the same which every Sabbath morning awoke them from death’s image, sleep, and would awake from death itself (John 5:21). The sun shone, and fruitful showers fell, and flower burst its bud, and harvest ripened, and they themselves, in energy of life, had grown on every day alike. God ever worketh up to this present moment. That God is also Father. The Son, therefore, worketh in the same way. This poor sufferer, lying helpless, is of the same human nature with the Son of God. He has in faith and hope made himself receptive of the divine energy, and that energy which can know no Sabbath, but is ever going forth to every heart that can receive it, hath made him whole.


Verse 18

(18) For “had broken,” read did He break, and for “His Father,” His own Father. They recognise as beyond doubt what He means by the term “My Father,” and the attribute of ceaseless energy. It was a claim which none other had ever made, that God was in a peculiar sense His own Father. They feel it is a claim to divinity, a “making Himself equal with God.”

The more to kill him.—This implies what is included in the persecution of John 5:16. (Comp. Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6; Luke 6:7-11.)


Verse 19

(19) The Son can do nothing of himself.—The key to this and the following verses is in the relation of Father and Son, from which they start. The Jews saw in this equality with God blasphemy, and sought to kill Him. Men have since seen and now see in it inferiority, and a proof that Christ did not claim for Himself the glory which the Apostle claims for Him in the prologue (John 1:1-18), and which the Church has ever in reverent adoration placed as a crown upon His brow. The words “Son,” “Father,” are the answer to both. Did they accuse Him of blasphemy? He is a Son. The very essence of blasphemy was independence of, and rivalry with, God. He claimed no such position, but was as a Son subject to His Father’s will, was as a Son morally unable to do anything of Himself, and did whatever He saw the Father do. Yea, more. He thought not His equality with God a thing to be seized, but emptied Himself and became, as they then saw Him, in the form of a servant, and in the likeness of men. (Comp. Notes on Philippians 2:6 et seq.)


Verse 20

(20) For the Father loveth the Son.—Do men deny His divinity? God is His Father. There is, therefore, oneness of essence. The unity of His work with God’s work has for its basis the Eternal Love, which showeth to the Son all that the Father doeth. As the relation of Son implies moral inability to do anything apart from the Father, so the relation of Father implies moral necessity to impart all to the Son.

Greater works than these.—The works which He had done could only be explained by the unity of His work with that of the Father; but in the development of His own human nature and His mediatorial work, there will be shown to Him, and He will show to man by doing them in their midst, works of which these are but as the first signs. The “ye” is emphatic, and the word “marvel” should also be noticed. “Ye who seek to kill Me shall yourselves see works which, against your will, shall be wonders to you; but against your will they cannot be signs. Ye will marvel, but ye will not believe!”


Verse 21

(21) The following verses (John 5:21-29) show what these greater works are. They are the Resurrection and the judgment; but these are regarded as spiritual as well as physical, as present as well as future. Once again the background of the thought is to be found in John 5:17. Resurrection and Judgment were the work of the Father—“My Father worketh hitherto;” but the manifestation in limits of space and time is the work of the Son—“and I work.”

For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them.—The “them” after “quickeneth” is better omitted. The words are purposely general. Raising the dead and making alive are attributes of God. “He kills and He makes alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39). “He bringeth down to the underworld and bringeth up” (1 Samuel 2:6; Tobit 13:2). “He has the power of life and death” (Wisdom of Solomon 16:13). These the Son seeth the Father doing, and these also He doeth in like manner. He, too, has the power to quicken whom He will, and He useth that power. Deadened souls have felt it, and are living in the new-born life. There is in His word, for the man who hears it and believes it, a moral change which is nothing other than an actual passing out of death into life (John 5:24).


Verse 22

(22) For the Father judgeth no man.—Better, For not even doth the Father judge any man; and if not the Father, to whom judgment belongs, then none other but the Son to whom He hath committed all judgment. To judge (comp. John 5:29) is the opposite of to quicken in the previous verse. The fact that the Son hath power to judge is correlative with His power to quicken whom He will. The spiritual life given to, and received by, some (John 5:24), is a separation from, and a judgment of, others. The eternal life which shall be given to some, shall be the eternal separation from, and exclusion of, others. The reason why judgment is committed to the Son is given in John 5:27 as resulting from His humanity. It is stated here as resulting from His divinity. It is that this power, like the quickening power of John 5:21, should lead all to give to the Son honour equal to that which they render to the Father. Again, this relation is urged against those who professed to honour God, and as a proof of it were seeking to kill His Son. That Sonship, expressing at once subordination and unity, necessarily involved the Fatherhood. To reject Him was to reject the Father who sent Him. (Comp. John 5:24; John 5:30; John 5:36-37.)


Verse 24

(24) Verily, verily, I say unto you.—(Comp. John 5:19; John 5:25, and Note on John 1:51.) For “shall not come into condemnation,” read doth not come into judgment. (Comp. Note on John 3:18.)

The repeated “verily” introduces, as elsewhere, one of the deeper spiritual truths which He came to teach. This truth explains the “whom He willeth” of John 5:21 to have no limit but that of human receptivity. It again brings out the unity of Father and Son. The Son’s word is the revelation of the Father. He that hears this word believes not on Him only, but on Him that sent Him (comp. John 12:44). It asserts that eternal life is not of the future only, but is already in germ possessed by the man who is thus brought into communion with the source of life. (Comp. 1 John 1:2.) This man comes not into judgment. There can be for him no separation from God, no condemnation. He has already passed from the state of death to that of life. What remains for him is the development of life.

Believeth on him that sent me.—Better, believeth Him that sent Me.


Verse 25

(25) The hour is coming.—The same solemn words repeat in another form the same great truth. The reference here, as in the whole of this paragraph (John 5:21-27), is to the spiritually dead. This is shown by the “now is,” which cannot be applied to the physical resurrection (comp. John 5:28), and cannot be explained by the instances of physical restoration to life during the earthly ministry of our Lord; and also by the last clause, where “live” must mean the higher spiritual life, as it does in the whole context. It is shown too by the parallelism of the clauses with those of the previous verse:—

“He that heareth”. . . . “the dead shall hear”

“My word”. . . .“the voice of the Son of God,”

“Hath eternal life”. . . . “they that hear shall live.” The world is as a vast moral graveyard where men lie dead in sin,—sense-bound hand and foot, with spirits buried in bodies which should be holy temples, but have become as unclean tombs; but the voice of the Son of God speaks, and spirit, love, life, passes through the chambers of death, quickening souls whose death is as yet but a sleep, and those who hear and obey come forth into new life.


Verse 26

(26) Hath he given to the Son.—Better, gave He to the Son also.

Life in himself.—The Son has spoken of the dead hearing His voice and living, but this giving of life to others can only be by one who has in himself an original source of life. This the Father has, and this the Son also has. To the Son in His pre-existent state it was natural, as being equal with the Father. To the Son who had emptied Himself of the exercise of the attributes which constituted the glory of that state (comp. again Philippians 2:6 et seq.), it was part of the Father’s gift by which He exalted Him exceedingly, and gave Him the name which is above every name. It was, then, a gift in time to One who had possessed it before all time, and for the purposes of the mediatorial work had relinquished it. It was a gift, not to the Eternal Son, but to the Incarnate Word.


Verse 27

(27) Hath given.—As above, gave. The “also” after judgment should be omitted. In these verses, as before, the two relations of Father—Son, Life—Judgment, are emphatic. Both Life and Judgment can belong to God only, but both are the Father’s gift to the Son.

The Son of man.—Render, a son of man. The term differs by the striking omission of articles from the usual term for the Messiah, and occurs again in Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14. It is here in contrast to the “Son of God” in John 5:25. The explanation is, once more, to be found in the thought of the Incarnation as an emptying Himself of the attributes which are the glories of the divine nature. It is not because He is Messiah (the Son of Man), but human (a son of man), that the Father gave Him the power to have life in Himself, and the authority to execute judgment. (See Note on John 5:26.) Still His humanity is not here dwelt upon as a qualification for the office of judge, because it is of the same nature as that of those He judges. This thought and the thoughts which flow from it (comp. Acts 17:31) are full of beauty and truth, but the side of truth prominent in this verse, and all those which follow John 5:17, is not His relation to man, but His relation to God. All are a sermon on the text, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.”


Verse 28

(28) Marvel not at this—i.e., that He has Himself a source of life and authority to judge. There shall follow from this “greater works,” at which they shall marvel. There is an hour coming (here not with the addition “and now is,” verse .25) when the victory over physical death shall also make manifest this life, for “all that are in the graves” shall hear His voice, and the final judgment shall declare to the universe His authority to judge.


Verse 29

(29) Damnation.—Better, judgment. See Note on John 3:20. On “done good” and “done (practised) evil,” see Notes on John 3:20-21. It is remarkable that these are the only instances where the words here and there used for “practice” and for “evil” occur in St. John. This double opposition, and the use of words which He does not use again, support the distinction in the earlier Note. The passages are comments on each other. The law of the spiritual resurrection now is the law of that which shall be hereafter. Those who, working out the truth, come to the light now, that their deeds may be manifested, because they are wrought in God, shall in the final testing, when the secrets of every heart shall be revealed, rise unto the resurrection of life, to dwell in eternal light. Those who, practising evil, choose the darkness now, shall in that final testing, when whatsoever has been spoken in the darkness shall be heard in the light, rise unto the resurrection of condemnation (Acts 24:15), bound in chains of darkness, and be cast into outer darkness. (Comp. Notes on Matthew 8:12; Matthew 25:46 and 1 Corinthians 3:13 et seq.)


Verse 30

(30) For “the will of the Father which hath sent Me,” in the last clause, read, with nearly all the best MSS., the will of Him that sent Me. (Comp. John 5:36-37.)

The verse is the expression, once again, but now with special reference to judgment, of the thought with which the discourse opened, and which runs as a current through the whole. (Comp. Notes on John 5:19; John 5:22). As in all His works (John 5:19), so in the greater works of life-giving (John 5:26) and of judgment, the Son cannot act apart from the Father. The judgment must be just, because it is not one of an isolated will, but one in accord with the eternal will of God. He seeth the Father’s works (John 5:19), and in like manner doeth them; He heareth the Father’s will, and that alone He seeketh.

The tenses in this verse are present, and the judgment is therefore to be interpreted without limitation of time. It is one which He is evermore passing on every act and word and thought. (Comp. John 9:39.)


Verse 31

(31) If I bear witness of myself.—This verse is the link between the thoughts of Christ’s person (John 5:17-30) and the witness to Him (John 5:32-40). He can do nothing of Himself (John 5:30), and does not even bear witness of Himself. If He did, it would be on technical grounds not to be credited. He meets the objection then doubtless in their minds, and soon expressed in their words. (Comp. Notes on John 8:13-18.)


Verse 32

(32) There is another . . .—i.e., the Father. The reference to the Baptist is excluded by the words which follow. The difficulty which has been seen in this indirect reference to the Father is removed if we connect the words closely with those preceding them. The point is in the fact that another, different in personality from Himself, bore witness of Him. (Comp. John 8:50; Matthew 10:28, et al.)

I know . . .—This has seemed to have a natural meaning if it is the authority given to John’s witness, but to be less fitting if applied to the Father’s. In two of the oldest MSS., and some of the earliest versions, we read “ye know,” and this has been adopted by some modern editors; but the origin of this reading is obvious, and there is no sufficient reason for departing from the common text. Its meaning is quite in harmony with the relation of the Son to the Father, which has been dwelt upon. The Father beareth witness, is bearing witness (comp. John 5:37), in the unity of work which Son and Father alike work (John 5:17; John 5:19-20; John 5:30), and the Son knows that His power to do this work can come from no other source. His own nature responds to the Father’s voice; He knows it to be true. (Comp. John 3:33.)


Verse 33

(33) Ye sent . . .—Both verbs are perfects. Better, therefore, Ye have sent; He hath borne witness. The pronoun “ye” is emphatically opposed to the “I” of the following verse. They sought human witness. He had witness which was divine. The object of John’s mission was to bear witness of the Light (John 1:7), and this he did to them (John 1:19 et seq.)


Verse 34

(34) But I receive not testimony . . .—There is no reason for changing the word. The substantive, and verbs from John 5:31, have been rendered by “witness,” and it is better to keep it here. The English also fails to give the article, and is therefore misleading. He did receive witness from men—had received witness from John—but this was not the witness upon which all was based. Its purpose was to lead them to Christ Himself, and He now refers to it, to show them its true position, that that purpose might be fulfilled.

But these things I say, that ye might be saved.—The emphasis of the clause should be placed upon the pronoun “ye.” The thought is, that our Lord does not refer to John’s witness for His own sake, but in order that they might be saved. He had a greater witness than that of John, but this they were not yet prepared to receive. They had received John for a season, and had rejoiced in his light. He refers to him now that that light may lead them to the true Source of Light. Some of those who had sent to the Baptist may now understand his words in a deeper sense than any which had come to them before, and may find in them words leading to salvation.


Verse 35

(35) He was a burning and a shining light.—Better, He was the lamp that is lighted and (then) giveth light. The statement of the Prologue, “He was not the Light, but came to bear witness of the Light” (John 1:8), shows how important this change is. The word rendered “light” occurs again in Matthew 5:15; Matthew 6:22; Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16; Luke 11:33-34; Luke 11:36; Luke 12:35; Luke 15:8; 2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 18:23; Revelation 21:23; Revelation 22:5. The reader who will take the trouble to com pare these passages, will see clearly the difference in the Greek words. It should be lamp in all these instances. The article in “the lamp” is to be explained from a reference to the one lamp of every home. (Comp. Notes on Matthew 5:15 and Mark 4:21.) The term was in common use to denote a distinguished hero or teacher. The Rabbis were often called “Lamps of the Law,” and David was “The Lamp of Israel” (2 Samuel 21:17). Comp. the remarkable parallel spoken of the Baptist’s great prototype, “Then stood up Elias the prophet, as fire, and his word was kindled like a lamp” (Sirach 48:1). Others explain the words here of the promised lamp which was to appear, or of the torchbearer who lights the bridegroom’s path.

Ye were willing . . .—John’s work came to them as light in darkness. It attracted them. They went to it. They were willing to find a source of joy in it. They sent to ask him questions, but they heeded not his answers. But the light came to them not to amuse them, but to lead them. He gave light because he had been kindled at the Source of all Light. He came to bear witness to them of the true Light, from which his was derived. (Comp. Note on John 1:23.) Their action with regard to John was part of the negatively evil, unreal character condemned in John 3:20. They professed to be men, and teachers of other men; but when speaking of this John, our Lord found a similitude of their generation in the changing moods of little children playing in the market-place (Matthew 11:16).


Verse 36

(36) For “hath given Me” read, with the better MSS., gave Me. The pronouns in “But I have” and in “that I do,” are emphatic.

In this verse He returns to the thought of John 5:32. The parenthesis in John 5:33-35 show that John was not the other there spoken of, and this verse shows that the special form of witness which He referred to was that of the works, which works He was then doing, and the voice of which they ought to have heard.

These “works” are not confined to what we speak of as miracles, but include the several parts of His Messianic work, which it was His food to finish (John 4:34), and which He speaks of as finished (John 17:4; see Note there). There is a special reference here to the power to quicken and authority to judge, in John 5:21-22.


Verse 37

(37) Hath borne witness of me.—The marginal reference interprets this testimony of the Father by the voices from heaven spoken at the Baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration Both are indeed illustrations, and are naturally suggested by the imagery of voice and shape in the latter half of the verse; but one was at this moment in the future, and the other was a definite event which would have required a more definite reference. The Greek, indeed, distinguishes between the Incarnation at a definite point in time and the witness which was continued—And the Father Himself which sent Me (not “hath sent Me”) hath borne witness of Me.

“His voice” and “His shape” are both general, and the “at any time” extends over the whole duration of previous revelation. Literally the clause is, Voice of Him ye have not at any time heard, nor shape of Him have ye seen. The reference to the revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures is, moreover, demanded by the immediate context, while the voice at the Baptism and the Transfiguration are not only absent from the present circle of thoughts, but also from St. John’s Gospel. Jesus is answering a charge of breaking God’s law, and of making Himself equal with God because he has claimed God’s fatherhood in word for Himself, and has manifested it in life-power for man. That charge was but an example of their unreceptive spirit. Through the whole history of the nation. He had been revealing Himself to them. Through the chief knowledge-giving senses, eye and ear, they should have learnt in that past history to see God in the act of mercy, to hear Him in the word of love. They jealous for God’s honour! Ah! it was then as it had been ever. Voice of God they could not hear. Vision of God they could not see.


Verse 38

(38) Abiding in you.—This striking thought of the word taking up its abode in the mind, and forming the mind in which it dwells, meets us only in St. John. (Comp. John 15:7; 1 John 2:14; 1 John 2:24; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 3:17; and Note on John 6:36.) They had, indeed, the word of God, but they had it not as a power ever living in them. They locked it up with sacred care in ark and synagogue, but it found no home in their inmost life, and had no real power on their practice. They could take it up and put it down. It was something outside themselves. Had it been in them, it would have produced in them a moral consciousness, which would have accepted, as of the same nature with itself, every fuller revelation from God. Their own spirits, moulded by the word of God dwelling in them, would have received the Word of God now among them. (Comp. Excursus A: Doctrine of the Word.) The fact that they believed not Him whom God sent (not “hath sent”) was itself the proof that they had not the abiding word.


Verse 39

(39) Search the scriptures.—Better, Ye search the Scriptures. The question whether the mood is imperative or indicative, whether we have here a commandment to examine the writings of the Old Testament canon, or a reference to their habit of doing so, is one which has been discussed through the whole history of New Testament exposition, and one on which the opinion of those best qualified to judge has been, and is, almost equally divided. It is not a question of the form of the Greek word, for it may certainly be either. The English reader therefore is in a position to form his own opinion, and is in possession of almost all the evidence. He should observe that all the parallel verbs in the context are in the indicative—“Ye have neither heard” . . . “nor have seen” (John 5:37); “Ye have not His Word . . . ye believe not” (John 5:38); “Ye think that . . . ye have” (John 5:39); “Ye will not . . ye might have” (John 5:40). Why should there be a sudden change of construction in this instance only?

We find, then, this order of thought. (1) God has in the Old Testament witnessed of Me, but ye, with unreceptive hearts, have never heard a voice nor seen a shape of God (John 5:37). (2) Ye have not His word dwelling in you, or it would have witnessed of Me (John 5:38). (3) Instead of receiving the Scriptures as a living power within you, ye search and explain the letter of them from without (John 5:39). (4) Ye think they contain eternal life, and hence your reverence for them (John 5:39). (5) They really are witnesses of Me, and yet you; seeking in them eternal life, are not willing to come to Me that ye may have this life.

It is believed that this is the most natural interpretation of the words, and that it gives a fuller meaning than any other to the teaching of Christ.

The only objection to it of weight is that the Greek word for “search” ( ἐρευνᾶτε) is one which would not have implied blame. It means to search after, track, inquire after (comp. John 7:52); but, surely, this is just the expression for the literal spirit in which the Rabbis treated their Scriptures. Moreover, it is not the searching which is matter for blame, but the fact of the searching and not finding, which is matter for wonder.

Here, too, as elsewhere, the argument from the meaning of a Greek word must be pressed only within strict limits when we remember that it represents in translation a late Hebrew original. The Hebrew language had a word which just at that time was frequent on every Rabbi’s lips, and which exactly corresponds to it. As early as the Book of Chronicles we find mention of the Midrashim, or Commentaries in the sense in which this word is used, e.g., in “Cæsar’s Commentaries.” The rest of the Acts of Abijah are “written in the Midrash of the prophet Iddo” (2 Chronicles 13:22). More than we now know of the history of Joash is “written in the Midrash of the Book of Kings” (2 Chronicles 24:27). In both cases our Authorised version renders the word by “story;” but this was at a time when its connection with “history” as involving “inquiry” was not forgotten. (Comp. The Translators to the Reader:—“This will be easily granted by as many as know story, or have any experience.”) These Midrashim sprang up after the Captivity, when the people had lost the older language of the Law and the Prophets; and paraphrases, expositions, and homilies, became at first indeed necessary, but grew into a vast and intricate system with “Secrets” and “Precepts,” and “Fences” and “Traditions of Elders” (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3), which gave abundant room for the learning and pride of men, but made the word of God of none effect (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:13). Now, the period of the arrangement of the Midrashim of the Law commenced half a century before the ministry of Christ. Hillel the First succeeded to the presidency of the Sanhedrin, B.C. 30, and Akiba, his successor in the compilation of the Mishna, was a boy when these words were spoken. The influence of the former was all-powerful among those who now accused Jesus of breaking what the Law did not contain but the Midrash did. Those who now listened to Christ were disciples or assistants of the great Rabbi whose school of a thousand pupils left eighty names of note.

May it not be, then, that the true meaning of these words is to be found in their bearing upon these Rabbinic lives and works?—“Ye make your Midrashim on the Scriptures; ye explain, and comment, and seek for hidden mystic meaning; ye do all this because ye think they contain eternal life; their true meaning is not hidden; they tell of life, and ye who seek it do not hear them, and will not come unto Me that ye might have life.”


Verse 40

(40) And ye will not come to me.—The real hindrance is once more traced to the will. (See Note on John 3:9.) It is moral, not intellectual. The result of a true willingness to know the truth is certain, not problematic. “Ye search because ye think ye have: if ye were willing to come, ye should really have.”

The lesson is wide in its bearing. The Rabbinic spirit is not confined to Rabbis, nor is the merely literal study of the Scriptures limited to those of Judæa. Dictionaries, and grammars, and commentaries, are tools; but the precious ore is in the mine, and is to be extracted by every man for himself. He who wisely uses the best means will know most of God and His truth; but this knowledge no man can purchase, and the essentials of it none need lack. It is to be learned in the closet, rather than in the library; in action and trust, rather than in scholarship and thought. Religion is not philosophy, and the world by knowledge has never known God. For every humble heart that willeth to be a scholar, God Himself willeth to be the Teacher.


Verse 41

(41) I receive not honour.—The word is better rendered glory here, and in John 5:44. Jesus continues to dwell, in the remainder of the discourse (John 5:41-47), on the true cause of their incredulity. “Ye will not come to Me,” is the central thought. But were they, then, to follow this young Teacher, while they themselves had schools and disciples who held their teaching sacred, and their persons in honour, and addressed them as “Rabbi?” No! this is not the true coming to Him. They seek glory from men. He does not receive it (John 5:34).


Verse 42

(42) Ye have not the love of God.—The principle which excludes the seeking honour from men, is the love of God. They were, they said, jealous for God’s honour. The first precept of the Law, and the foundation of the Theocracy, was the love of God. This every Jew professed, and bound round brow and arm the holy texts which declared it (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21). The Pharisees made broad the phylacteries which contained these words (Matthew 23:5). They had them without, but they had not the principle within. There were sure marks which He had read in the heart as plain as the letters worn on the body, and therefore knew that they had not the love of God in them.


Verse 43

(43) I am come in my Father’s name.—So far from self-assertion or honour-seeking, He came in the name of, as representing, the Father, guided only by His will, doing only His work (John 4:34). Had they loved the Father, they must have received and reverenced His Son (John 8:42; Matthew 21:37 et seq.). The absence of love is at the root of the rejection. The true Israelite became the true Christian (John 1:47), but these were not true members of the Old Covenant, and could not therefore pass into the New.

If another shall come in his own name.—Comp. the direct prophecy of false Christs and prophets in Matthew 24:24, and see Note there. The word “come” in this clause links the meaning with that of the “come” in the previous clause, and is to be understood of a false Messianic claim in opposition to the true. Sixty-four false Christs have been enumerated as appearing after the true Christ, and these words are often taken as a prophecy of one of the most famous of these, as Bar-Kochba. Not a few of the Fathers have understood the words of Antichrist. Perhaps the only definite reference is to the mental condition of the Jews. They would receive any other who came in his own authority, and seeking his own glory. There would be no higher principle to which everything must yield. The seeker of power would fulfil their carnal interpretation of Messianic hopes. He would flatter and honour them, and therefore they would receive him.


Verse 44

(44) How can ye believe . . .?—The emphasis is again on the pronoun. It is not possible that ye should believe in Me, as our whole position is entirely different. Ye receive glory from men. I do not (John 5:41). I am come in My Father’s name (John 5:43). Ye do not seek the glory which is from God. We are, then, in wholly distinct spheres of life, and action, and thought. To believe would be to give up your whole present life. While ye are what ye are, it cannot be.

The marginal reference compares the parallel thought of John 12:43. This is obscured in the English version by a difference of words for the same Greek word. Here, as in John 5:41, it would be more exact to read glory for “honour,” and in John 12:43, glory for “praise.”

From God only.—Better, from the only God. Comp. Romans 16:27; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Timothy 6:15-16; Jude 1:25. The article before “glory” should be noted. They received glory one of another. They sought not the glory, which was a divine attribute, (Comp. John 1:14.) Their charge against Him was that He made Himself equal with God. Thinking themselves monotheists, they were really idolaters. Each man, receiving glory from another, was in the place of a god to that other. Each man giving this glory to another, was rendering to a fellow man that which belonged to God only. They, not He, were robbing God of His glory.


Verse 45

(45) Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father.—His words were words of direct accusation, which must have cut to the very quick. He had come from the Father, and it might have seemed to follow from what He said, that He would accuse them to the Father. He guards against this misinterpretation. Love cannot accuse; He cannot be an accuser. He is ever a judge, only because love must judge hatred, and light must judge darkness, by revealing it. (Comp. Note on John 3:19.) And yet the very revelation of love and light condemns hatred and darkness. The heart, then, needs no accuser, for it accuses itself; it needs no sentence, for it condemns itself. There is no penalty so fearful as that of the soul which is awakened to its own sin, and cannot itself forgive that sin, and, therefore, cannot receive the forgiveness of the Infinite Love, which always forgives. Their accusation was their rejection of light and love in the past, and Moses was their accuser. This is the thought of the following verses.


Verse 46

(46) For had ye believed Moses.—The present incredulity springs from that of the past. If they had really believed Moses, they would have seen in the whole spirit of the Pentateuch a manifestation of God, which would have led them to the fuller manifestation in Christ. Worship, and sacrifice, and offering, and priesthood, were all meant to teach. Their very name for “law” (Thorah) meant “instruction.” But they accepted what the senses could know, and never went down beneath this surface to its true significance—i.e., they never believed Moses. We have here, in another form, the thought of John 5:39-40.

For he wrote of me.—See the marginal references; but the thought is not to be confined to these passages.


Verse 47

(47) The emphasis of the contrast here is not between “writings” and “words,” but between “his” and “My.” It is a repetition of the thought of the previous verse, with an advance in time. They had not believed Moses, and therefore had not believed Him. They do not believe, for they do not read the spiritual meaning of the writings of Moses even now. What ground of hope is left? His words, revealing the deeper truths of the kingdom of God, will fall upon their ears as so many unmeaning sounds. (Comp. Note on John 3:12.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on John 5:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/john-5.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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