“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” – Jesus
The Crossing (John 5:20-30)
Today, we celebrate the biggest – and best – thing that ever happened. Its impact far exceeds that made by the invention of the wheel or writing. The discovery of the new world cannot compare. We are celebrating the victory of God, the salvation of humanity, and the conquest of death! Today, we remember the pioneer who blazed the trail out of the grave. He laid his life down of his own accord, entered the realm of the dead, and then broke out.
That changed everything. Jesus made it possible for the rest of us to go into death unafraid, knowing that death will not have the last word. He can infuse his kind of life into us, the life over which death has no power. Through Christ, God has rolled the stone from all our graves!
But we must have the kind of life that outlives death. We must receive it. A little later, we will give you a chance to do just that, but first, I will do my best to explain what the Bible says about this kind of life and how we come into possession of it. Then we will ask you, if you haven’t done so already, to accept God’s unique gift of life. And if that resonates with you, if that is what you want, we will ask you to get out of your seat and cross the room from wherever you are, and come to the front, as a symbol of crossing into a new life.
A new life. What does that mean? What does it have to do with Jesus? What will happen to me if I open myself up to it? Those are all good questions. We’re going to look at John 5 to find some answers.
But first, let me give you a little background, and for that, we need to go back to the beginning, to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. It is not just their story; it is our story, too, and we want to try to understand it. God created Adam and Eve to live with him and serve as his regents on earth. But he also designed them to be choosing creatures. They could choose to live with him as their God or set out to be their own gods. They chose the latter.
God had warned them: “On the day you eat that fruit – the day you choose against me – you will surely die.” You remember the story: They ate the fruit and kept living. They were exiled from the Garden, but they didn’t die. In fact, they had children; they propagated the race. So how could God say that they would die? Was that just an empty threat? Did he lie?
No. When our parents ate the fruit, they cut off their connection to God, and the spiritual part of them, which is as essential to humanity as the physical part, died. Their relationship with God, each other, and the world was spoilt. Jealousy, competitiveness, hatred, and selfishness became part of life. The humans were disjointed. The biological, animal part survived, but the spiritual part withered. The biological part still needed nourishment, which it got from plants and now, animals. But the spiritual part, which was sustained by a connection to God, was no longer capable of receiving nourishment.
The story of the human race has been the long, sad story of something missing. Sometimes the feeling is unmistakable and inescapable. At other times it is drowned out by the noise and busyness of everyday life, but it is always there, day in and day out, through all the seasons of life. We try to find a substitute for what is missing in pleasures and possessions, in houses and cars, or in spouses and kids. But no matter how many of these things we obtain, something is still missing. Or rather, it is not a thing that is missing; it is us. We are missing in action, missing a part of ourselves – the spiritual part – and we need it to be whole.
Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead so that we could be whole. God sent his Son to give us what we were missing, or as St. John puts it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” We are born missing the kind of life that died in Adam. But he can have what Adam lost—because of Jesus.
Now let us look at our passage. Verse 20: “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so, the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.” He gives the kind of life that Adam lost; there is no other place to find it.
The Greek New Testament has two words for life: bios and zoe. Bios is the life we are familiar with; it is biological life (that is where the word comes from). It is a life of pulse rates and heartbeats, and brain waves. After Adam sinned, he and Eve retained biological life for a while. Their hearts went on beating. Their brains went on conducting electrical currents.
The other word for life, zoe, is the kind that Adam and Eve lost. It is the word Jesus uses here. It is the word used in John 3:16, “But have everlasting zoe.” Bios wears out in about seventy or eighty years. Zoe never wears out. The heart stops, brain waves cease, and bios is gone, but zoe keeps going. You and I were made for both bios and zoe.
In verse 21, Jesus says that the Son (he is speaking about himself) “gives life (zoe) to whom he is pleased to give it.” There are a couple of words here that we must not miss. The first is the word “gives.” Throughout the Bible, the message is the same: zoe – the eternal kind of life – is a gift. You cannot earn it, buy it, or generate it. If God doesn’t give it to you, you can do nothing to obtain it.
St. Paul says that it is God who will “give eternal life,” and that “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus says, “I give them eternal life.” St. Peter says, “He has given us everything we need for life (for zoe).”
Right here lies the difference between so much religion on the one hand and the relationship God wants to have with us on the other. Religion tries to pay for eternal life. Go to church, give money, sacrifice the things you want, pray enough, do a sufficient number of good deeds, and maybe – just maybe – you will earn a place. But the kind of life we need isn’t earned; it’s given.
But if God must give this kind of life, and we can do nothing to earn or deserve it, isn’t that a little scary? If it is not in our power, how can we be sure of obtaining it? That question brings us to the second word in this verse we must consider: the word pleased. “The Son gives life to whom he is pleased (or wills) to give it” (John 5:21). But if the Son of God only gives this zoe life to those to whom he is pleased to give it, where does that leave me? I cannot earn it. I am entirely dependent upon God to provide it. And I have done some bad things in my life. What if he is not pleased to give it to me?
But he is pleased to give it—that is the point; it is why Jesus died. The Bible describes God as “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved…” (1 Tim. 2:4). “He is not willing,” says St. Peter, “for any to perish” (2 Peter 3:9) – and that includes you. “Our God is in heaven,” sings the Psalmist. “He does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:3). What pleased him was to give his only Son for us so that we would not perish but have everlasting life.
That sounds great. Now, what is the catch? There is no catch, but there are conditions. Now, please don’t misunderstand. Everything about this eternal kind of life is good. It is what we are made for. It fulfills us and makes us whom we were created to be. But some people still don’t want it. Why?
Why would anybody not want this kind of life, the kind that goes on forever? I’ll be candid: they don’t want it because there is no way to postpone its onset. Eternal life doesn’t start at the grave. You cannot purchase it on the layaway plan (sounds like a mortician’s joke). Some people wish they could. But when you accept the eternal kind of life (zoe), it begins immediately. Not everyone wants that.
Take St. Augustine. He prayed earnestly, “Lord give me chastity” – make me sexually pure – “but not yet.”
Years ago, I talked to a friend about trusting Jesus and receiving this life, but he said, “Look, when I’m old and done having fun, then I’ll look into religion. But not yet.” He did not want to change his life. Now that he is old, I wonder if there is anything still in him that wants to “look into religion”? Perhaps that interest died years ago – that happens to people like my friend.
Someone once asked the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler why he had never become a Christian when he admitted to believing that Jesus was the Son of God. His answer was blunt: “I don’t want to have to change my life.”
Those men realized something you need to know. If you receive the eternal kind of life, it will change you, and the change starts now, not when you die, not at some far-off date in the future. Jesus said in verse 24, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” He has it. Present tense. Eternal life starts when we hear and believe, not when we die.
You may be thinking, “But you said, ‘There is nothing we can do to earn it – going to church, giving money, and all that religious stuff.” Exactly. We cannot earn it, buy it, or delay it; but we must receive it. We must hear – and people can be very good at not hearing what they don’t want to hear – and believe. But if we do, it will change us.
Imagine that I offer you a pup from the litter of last year’s American Kennel Club’s Grand National Champion English Mastiff. Some people would pay thousands of dollars for a pup like that, but I will give it to you for free. But you need to know that pup is going to grow into a dog the size of Rhode Island. It is going to eat you out of house and home. Is it free? Yes. But it is not cheap.
It is that way with the eternal kind of life. When you accept God’s gift of life, it starts small. But it grows. And as it grows, it begins to change you. It seeks nourishment. (That means taking time to read the Bible and pray.) It wants to be around others with the same life. (That means church and Christian friends.) It wants to please God. (That means getting rid of selfish habits.) It loves. (That means vulnerability and self-sacrifice.) It changes you, and if a person does not want to change – like my friend – then the last thing he’ll want to do is let this eternal kind of life get into him. He’ll be sure not to listen for Jesus’s voice and will fill his life with noise to drown it out.
So, you need to ask yourself: is my life so fine that I don’t want to change? I’m not talking about circumstances – everyone wants to change those at times; I am talking about you, about your life. If you are satisfied with yourself, you probably won’t feel the need to move toward God. But before you conclude that you don’t need this life, there are other factors to consider. One of those is represented by the word “death.” “He has,” verse 24, “crossed over from death to life.”
The word translated “crossed over” is the same word used elsewhere for moving from one house to another. Although we have biological life in our fallen state, we live in the house of spiritual death. St. Paul puts it this way: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…” (Eph. 2:1). Transgressions and sins grow like weeds in the decomposition that accompanies spiritual death. What’s worse: when the spirit is not alive, we cannot connect to God. We are dead to him. Nietzsche famously said that God was dead, but he was mistaken. He was, as usual, confusing himself with God.
Another factor to consider: without this zoe life, we are also dead to heaven. People frequently object to the doctrine of hell on the grounds that a loving God would never send anyone there, but they are looking at the thing upside-down. If God could put a person whose spirit is not alive in heaven (and I don’t know if that is even possible), it would still be hell to him. He would not appreciate it, understand it, or feel it. He is spiritually dead. You might as well seat a corpse at your table for Easter dinner. He wouldn’t enjoy it any more than someone without zoe life would enjoy heaven.
We accept the fact that when a person experiences biological death, something needs to be done with the corpse. The dinner table is not a suitable place for it, so we bury or cremate them. Well, heaven is not a suitable place for the spiritually dead – for those not alive to God. If you choose to be dead to God, you cannot choose to be alive to heaven. You cannot have it both ways. And if you won’t have heaven, there is only one alternative.
There is another factor to be considered. Jesus goes on to say that everyone who has ever been biologically alive will eventually face judgment: Verse 28: “… he [the Father] has given him [Jesus] authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
The last book of the Bible speaks about this judgment. In Revelation chapter 20, verse 11, we read: “I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life (zoe). The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Everyone will be judged according to what they have done, but no one will be condemned on that basis. Only those whose names are not found in the book of life are condemned. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Cremated.
Do you see? In the judgment, God is looking for life, for zoe. Whoever has it will be received into heaven. But if someone doesn’t have it – how would putting that person in heaven help him? It is like seating the corpse at the dinner table: unhelpful to him and unpleasant to everyone else.
People sometimes turn to God because they want to go to heaven when they die; I did, and that is a sensible motive. But I am inviting you to turn to God so you can get heaven into you while you live. I am inviting you to a different kind of life, which just happens to be forever. So, if you are ready to change, if you are prepared to begin a new life, today is the day.
Notice what Jesus says in verse 24: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me…” Does that describe you? Have you heard the voice of Jesus speaking to your soul, saying: This is your time? Come to me. Believe in me. If so, I will ask you to make a definite response by slipping out of your row and coming to the front at the close of this service.
If you have already moved toward God – you have believed in Jesus – but you haven’t been living out of your connection with God – perhaps you don’t know how – you come, too.
2 Peter 1:4