Series: Face to face with Jesus (John’s gospel).
By Rosie Moore.
“Jesus claimed to be worthy of the honour due God. For one simple reason. He was. Surely only a fool would make such a claim…and yet, Jesus walked on water…calmed the wind and waves…healed the lepers…and sent demons scurrying. Could anyone but God do so?” (Josh McDowell).
And yet, John tells us that most of the Pharisees refused to come to Jesus to have life in his name (John 5:40). Tragically, despite all the evidence presented to them, they didn’t have saving faith, because they refused to honour the Son of God. Instead, they accused him of blasphemy. In John chapter 5, Jesus describes two obstacles to their salvation:
- They did not cherish God or His Word within their hearts. In fact, they didn’t love God at all (John 5:42).
- They did not seek God’s glory, only their own. They loved man’s praise, instead of the approval of God (John 5:42, 44). Like typical politicians, they were bent on prominence.
In his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus highlighted the great contrast between Himself and them:
“I do not receive glory from people…(John 5:41)
How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Politicians in priestly robes.
In spite of their outward displays of virtue and vast Scriptural knowledge, Jesus saw the Pharisees’ hearts. He saw how they schemed together to kill him (John 5:18). He saw straight through their public prayers, conspicuous giving and showy acts of humility. And He accused them of doing their ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, ‘to be seen’. Concerned only for optics, the Pharisees announced their generosity “to be honoured by men” (Matt 6:1-2). And so, Jesus called these original “virtue signalers” hypocrites (Matt 6:5) and “blind guides” (Matt 15:14).
Although Christ demonstrated his absolute authority with meekness and compassion, the Pharisees resented his pure goodness and humility. They refused to bow down to Him as Lord of all, because they were all about their own glory. Let’s look at a small section of what Jesus said to these Pharisees after healing the man by the pool of Siloam and declaring Himself as God’s Son:
“You do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:38-47).
Blinded to the great body of evidence.
Self promotion blinded the Pharisees to the vast body of evidence that demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.
First, there were His miraculous works:
Hadn’t they just witnessed the supernatural healing of the paralyzed man, or at very least, heard him testify that his life had been truly and completely transformed by Jesus? (John 4:11). His functioning body was there for all to prod and poke at. Yet, all the Pharisees could see was a carpenter from Nazareth, who threatened their power (John 5:18). They completely discounted the man’s true life testimony.
Second, they ignored Christ’s own testimony, backed up by clear evidence: The Pharisees weren’t wrong when they said that Jesus “was even calling God his own father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). He had just deliberately broken their man-made rules to demonstrate that He was Lord of the Sabbath, as God is: “Jesus said to them “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17). The Pharisees knew that only Yahweh works around the clock to sustain the world and deliver his people (Ps 121:3-4).
In John chapter 5, Jesus speaks uninterrupted from verse 19 to 47. Without ego or pride, He makes some of the most astounding statements about Himself and God the Father. If this were a mere man, the Pharisees had every right to accuse him of blasphemy, as it would be idolatry to pay a man the honour that is due only to God. But they would need to ignore the facts right before their eyes. So, it was a wilful blindness and suppression of the truth, because Jesus performed acts that only God could do.
There’s no shadow of doubt that Jesus identified Himself as being one with the Father, with authority to give eternal life (John 5:24); to judge sin (John 5:27); to do whatever the Father does (John 5:19); to be in an intimate, loving relationship with the Father (John 5:20); even to resurrect the dead (John 5:25-26). He claimed to be the source of all life (John 5:26) and to have the power to give spiritual life to people that the Father has chosen (John 5:21). Most offensive of all, Jesus claimed that He was worthy of the same honour as God the Father, and that those who fail to honour Him, cannot claim to honour God. Alford fleshes this out:
“All must honour Him with equal honour to that which they pay to the Father– and whoever does not, however he may imagine that he honours or approaches God, does not honour Him at all, because He can only be known or honoured by us as “the Father who sent His Son”.
These remain the most offensive claims of the Christian faith today. Increasingly, it is seen as bigoted, un-inclusive, intolerant, and an act of oppression and aggression to claim that Jesus is the only way to know and honour God. Equally offensive is the claim that Christ has divine authority to judge humanity. Yet, unapologetically, this what Jesus claimed about Himself:
“For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him… 30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:22-23).
There are many sceptics who deny that Jesus’ claimed to be God, saying that his followers only started worshipping him centuries later. But if the gospels are primary sources, then this cannot be true. The people who rubbed shoulders with Jesus in his own lifetime were certain that He claimed deity. They were willing to die for this belief. “No one ever spoke like this man!” was the verdict of the guards of the chief priests and Pharisees (John 7:46). Who would you rather believe? A primary source and many eye witnesses? Or a secondary source written in an academic institution, thousands of years after the fact?
There are also others who claim that God the Father emphasizes judgment, whereas God the Son focuses on love. Jesus does not give us this option. He claimed to be inseparable from Yahweh. If these claims are true, there can be no rivalry between Jesus and the Father, who says, “I, the Lord, do not change” (Mal 3:6). In fact, if we scroll through John’s gospel, we see that people who came face-to-face with Jesus, encountered a judge who saw into their hearts, and a merciful Saviour who extended a love they did not deserve.
Third, the Pharisees chose to selectively remember their Old Testament Scriptures. They refused to see that these Scriptures pointed to Jesus as the promised Messiah, the One who would fulfill the Torah perfectly (John 5:39; 46). They searched the Scriptures zealously and cherished their own man-made rules, but were blind to the shadows of Jesus in the testimony of Moses (John 5:45-46).
And so, they missed the Saviour when he came to earth, and even made his dwelling in their own home town, “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Fourth, they ignored the witness of John the Baptist, who said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world…I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29; 34),
And so, because of their craving for self promotion, the Pharisees were blind to the great body of evidence given to them. They were blind to the display of life-giving power right before their eyes. And they flatly refused to acknowledge that Jesus was God incarnate, because they were bent on pleasing themselves. Instead of hearing and believing the word of Jesus, they bullied the man who testified to his healing. And as a result, they never crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). It’s tragic to think that these were the men who should have seen Jesus with clear eyes and welcomed the Saviour with open hearts.
But hang on a moment! That’s not actually true of all Pharisees and prominent Jewish rulers of Jesus’s day. Many believed and were saved.
What was the problem with the Pharisees?
In recent years, I’ve heard people attempt to direct Jesus’s accusations against the Pharisees towards a group of people collectively known as ‘oppressors’ on the ladder of disadvantage and intersectionality: Wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, white men are usually prime targets, accused of being modern day Pharisees. However, the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees was their hearts, not their group membership. There was nothing inherently wrong with being a Pharisee.
In fact, we are told of a prominent Pharisee called Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night (John 3:1). This Pharisee became a true disciple. In fact, he helped Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’s body off the cross and place it in the tomb (John 19:38-42). We also know that the apostle Paul was once Saul, “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee”, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6; Phil 3:5). Actually, Paul’s knowledge of the Scriptures uniquely positioned him to become a prolific author of the New Testament and an eminent theologian of the early church. God appointed a Pharisee for that task.
Reading through the book of Acts, I was struck by how many synagogue leaders and prominent Jews became followers of Christ, like Crispus in Corinth, whose whole family believed and were baptized (Acts 18:8). After Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Jerusalem, five thousand Jews were saved, among whom there must have been some Pharisees (Acts 2:41; Acts 3:4). In Pisidion Antioch, many devout Jews followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43), and the name of Barnabas was actually “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus” (Acts 4:36). Levites were from the Priestly tribe. Apollos, one of the most influential evangelists in the early Church, was also “a learned Jew, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures (Acts 18:24). He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
And so, it’s quite clear that the problem with the Pharisees was not their knowledge of Scripture, nor their social/ religious group, nor a form of collective guilt. Through the myriad encounters with Jesus in the gospels, we see that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
But in John 5:40, Jesus sees into the proud hearts of the Pharisees and says, “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” What a sad indictment and a warning that we should still apply to our own hearts today. Just as Jesus saw into the Pharisees’ hearts, He says to us too, “I know you.” (John 5:42). No one except the Lord has the ability to judge the motives of another’s heart.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)
“Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Jesus knew that the Pharisees loved prominence more than God or his Word. That is why they would not believe and receive him as Lord (John 5:44).
But the love of prominence is a universal temptation that each of us faces, whether great or lowly. Every human heart is bent towards self-promotion, even if we are not the scheming, political types. We can do it in many more subtle ways. It’s a matter of misguided glory, because Jesus is the only man who could honestly say, “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me…I do not accept praise from men” (John 5:30b, 41). Only Jesus deserves the glory due to God, as only He could please His Father perfectly.
But by nature, each of us craves the approval, credit and sympathy of people much more than we love to please God. What’s more, in a culture obsessed with optics, it’s especially tempting to create an ‘image’ for the world to see and applaud. And social media is a perfect platform for this form of ‘virtue signaling’, which was the great sin of the Pharisees.
In our generation, we face a constant temptation to look good. We are apt to share photos and videos to prove to the world that we are truly virtuous, caring people. We still seek the best seat at the table and our hearts still long for prominence and significance (Luke 14:7). But this need for self promotion is a serious obstacle to sincere faith in Christ.
As Christians and as a Church, we must spur each other on to good deeds (Heb 10:24). But may we simply give, without our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3-4). When we pray, may we simply pray from our heart to our Father, who is unseen (Matt 6:6). And may we catch ourselves whenever we try to impress people with our ‘holiness’ or false humility (Matt 6:17). True humility is simply coming to Christ the Son, and allowing Him to reveal to us who God is, and who we are.
What blessed assurance it is to know that if we have put our trust in Christ, we will never be condemned, for we have crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). That is a crossing that can never be reversed, for Christ has finished the work that the Father sent Him to do (John 5:36; John 19:30). It is a one-way, fully paid ticket. It is done.
Listen to this beautiful old hymn, ‘Blessed Assurance’, sung by Carrie Underwood.