John 5:21-29 (EHV)
Jesus said: 21 “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to those he wishes.
22 “In fact, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Amen, Amen, I tell you: Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He is not going to come into judgment but has crossed over from death to life.
25 “Amen, Amen, I tell you: A time is coming and is here now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who listen will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted the Son to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.
28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and will come out. Those who have done good will rise to live, but those who have practiced evil will rise to be condemned.
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may hear your word, believe in you, and do good, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Most people want to be ‘good’. We want to do the ‘good’ thing and be known as ‘good’ people.
Because we want to be good, it usually makes sense most people don’t want to get into trouble or make life difficult for anyone. If we get into trouble or make trouble, then we wouldn’t be good. This means we’ll be tempted to defend our goodness if anyone suggests we’re not as good as we thought we were.
We not only want to be good ourselves, but we also expect everyone else to be good, or at least, to be good according to our own standards of goodness. This means we’ll get angry when those around us aren’t as good as we expect them to be, especially if they hurt us. We’ll also take pride in our own goodness and feel justified in pointing out how bad other people are, after all, we often think we’re better than others because we reckon we’re good.
This is common for most people, whether they’re Christian or not.
But for Christians, this is even more important because we hear Jesus tell us today: ‘those who have done good will rise to live, but those who practiced evil will rise to be condemned.’ (John 5:29)
Therefore, it’s not just important for us to be good or have a good reputation, but it seems our eternal life is dependant on us being good enough!
It would make sense then that Christians of all people are always striving to be good people. We need to be good and feel burdened by this impossible expectation. We have to be good and fear people pointing out any lack of goodness we might have, which might threaten our eternal future. You see, if we’re not good, we figure we’re in deep trouble on the Last Day! We don’t want to rise from death only to be condemned!
However, if this is how we’re interpreting this text, we have it wrong!
This is because Scripture also tells us we all fall short of the glory of God, which means none of us will ever be good enough. We can’t be good enough. It’s impossible for us to be good enough. Our Lutheran Confessions confirm that, on the basis of Scripture alone, we’re saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and not by our own goodness or good works!
So how do we handle what Jesus says when he tells us the good will rise to live?
Well, we need to consider what he means by what it is to be good, and Jesus himself tells us what is the good thing that we’re supposed to do which leads to life eternal.
You see, if we go back to the previous chapter in the gospel according to St John, we hear Jesus talk to the crowds who followed him after he fed the 5,000. He told them they were following him because of the miraculous sign of multiplying the bread to feed such a crowd. He also told them to no longer work for food that spoils, but they were to work for the food which endures to eternal life.
They then asked him, “What should we do to carry out the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.” John 6:26-29
Therefore, the good work required of us is to believe.
What are we to believe?
We’re to believe in the words of Jesus, which means we’re to listen to his words so that we might believe them.
Over 90 times the word ‘believe’ is mentioned in St John’s account of the gospel, including John 20:30-31, which reads: ‘Jesus, in the presence of his disciples, did many other miraculous signs that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
It’s also consistent with what Jesus says earlier in today’s text, where he said: “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He is not going to come into judgment but has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24
This means we’re also to believe who sent him, which means we’re to believe God the Father sent his Son Jesus into this world to die for the forgiveness of our sins so that we may be reconciled to God the Father.
As a result of this saving faith in Jesus, who was sent by the Father, we listen to Jesus and believe we’ve already received eternal life. We believe Jesus is the Son of God who was to come into this world. We believe God the Father sent him to redeem us. We believe everything Jesus did for us on the cross reconciled us to the Father. We believe we’ve been forgiven for all our sins by the suffering and death of Jesus. We believe eternal life is our present possession because we’ve already died and have been raised again in Christ. We believe we receive forgiveness, life and salvation through faith in Jesus through his means of grace such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We believe Scripture alone tells us we’re saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, which gives us joyful hope and a peaceful conscience.
Unfortunately, it can be tempting to shift our faith focus away from Christ alone to something or someone else.
The greatest temptation is for us to stop listening and believe it’s still up to us, as if we can somehow still make ourselves good enough.
We still want to be the best person we can be, thinking this pleases God. We still try hard and burden ourselves with the unrealistic expectation we can still be good enough. We still think we have power to change ourselves and make ourselves right and good and holy. We berate and beat ourselves up when we let people or God down.
This means we often feel like failures and try to make up for our wrongs instead of accepting the forgiveness and peace which is ours through faith. We wallow in misery as we take our eyes off the grace and mercy which is ours in Christ and instead moan about our own faults, or groan about the hurts we feel when others fail us.
What we unconsciously keep doing is we don’t always listen for, and trust in, the words and work of Jesus which would grant us joy and peace and hope, no matter how many times we let God down, but we all too often listen to ourselves, and place our trust in our own words and works, which only leads to disappointment and despair.
Do you realise there’s no limit to God’s love for you, no matter how many times you hurt him or fail him? Do you realise he doesn’t keep a record of how many times you need his forgiveness? Do you realise the greatest way to honour him isn’t to show how much you don’t need him (because you think you can be good on your own), but the greatest way to honour him is to desire and accept his help and forgiveness and mercy and peace, again and again?
This is what it means to trust in him alone. It means you’re out of the picture. It’s him alone. It’s his grace alone. It’s his love alone. It’s his forgiveness alone. It’s not meant to be him…plus whatever you’re able to do!
Those who listen to, and believe, in Jesus, and whom he sent, who believe Jesus and what he did for us through his vicarious death and glorious resurrection, believe we have everything we need as a gift. We can’t earn it or deserve it. We receive it through faith. We rejoice in the gifts God sends us, including the gift of life eternal.
But you might be wondering…where does our own good works come in? Don’t we still need to keep God’s commands or live as his obedient children?
Well, yes, we do, but our works flow from faith!
This means, if we’re placing faith in ourselves being good enough, we’ll forever be burdened with the knowledge we can never be good enough. We’ll always need to defend or deny or justify ourselves when we let God or each other down. We’ll won’t want to repent and receive forgiveness as a gift, because we still think we have to earn it. We’ll instead berate and kick ourselves for our failures.
We might try to be patient and loving and willing to serve under our own power, but it never lasts very long because it’s all too often based on our own levels of love and grace, or it’s dependent on how much we reckon others deserve it.
It also means we’ll continue to place burdens on each other because we’ll expect everyone else to be good enough. We’ll be critical of others when they show they’re not good. We’ll quickly judge and condemn and punish each other because they keep proving they’re not good enough for us or God. We won’t want to forgive because we figure they’re not good enough for our forgiveness.
On the other hand, those who keep listening to, and keep believing in the words and works of Jesus, and who believe God the Father, out of love for us, sent his dearly beloved Son to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins, and to raise him again to give us hope in the resurrection of the dead and life eternal, will live a life of repentance and faith.
A life of repentance is a life which is totally dependent on the divine grace, mercy and peace which God desires to lavish on us again and again.
Because we believe God desires to forgive us, we honour him through our confession of sin and we gladly and constantly receive his forgiveness, which gives us peace and joy.
We accept our life of faith isn’t about being good enough, but about repetitively listening to God so that we receive his goodness and holiness and purity.
Because we believe Jesus is loving and merciful and gracious, we’re thankful people who are grateful for all the blessings God gives us, even when they come packaged through trouble and difficulty, which only leads us to rely on him more greatly.
It also means we live out our faith of love, forgiveness, and service to those around us. Because we’ve never deserved, and can never deserve God’s forgiveness, we know those around us can never deserve it either. But we forgive as we believe we’ve been forgiven by Christ.
Therefore, we pass on the love and forgiveness we’ve graciously received from Christ through faith. We live out our faith in Jesus by forgiving those who hurt us, even though they’ll probably hurt us again.
Those fruits of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, flow from this faith in Christ alone and the gifts he gives us by grace.
This is the difference between living under the Law, which always expects, always condemns, and always burdens us, and living in the Gospel, which always frees us to live and love in peace and joy.
This is the difference between living under the burden of impossible expectations, and the freedom of knowing we’re loved and forgiven, again and again.
This is the difference between the fear of not rising to life eternal because we’re not good enough, and the joy of knowing life eternal is given to us as a gift because we listen to, and believe, in the words and work of Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you don’t have to be good, but you’re made good when you believe Jesus Christ and his words. You also believe his promise that he will raise those who listen to him from your graves and graciously receive all those who believe in him into life eternal with him in heaven, so that…
…peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.