When You Study the Scriptures, Don’t Miss Eternal Life (John 5:39-40)
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. —John 5:39-40
The Jews Jesus is talking to in this passage thought they had eternal life because of their devotion to reading and studying—searching—the Scriptures. They thought their ritualistic reading of the sacred writings would merit eternal life: do this and be saved. They read and re-read, likely memorizing large chunks of the text, but not for understanding. They knew what the Scriptures said, but they missed the meaning.
For all their searching, Jesus tells them they refuse to do what is required to have life: to come to Him. The One they thought they were looking for is standing before them telling them the truth. But they don’t recognize Him. They don’t know Him. They don’t believe Him. Even when He tells them He is the One. That enrages them to the point that they want to kill Him (John 5:18).
This is not the first time this has happened.
When Herod caught wind of a baby “born king of the Jews,” he called together the chief priests and scribes and asked them “where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew). Herod looked to the learned group who had spent their lives searching the Scriptures in order to get intel on the arrival of the Messiah. And they knew the answer: “In Bethlehem of Judea.” They told him matter-of-factly, “for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2-4).
Even living under the iron fist of the pretender King Herod, who was well-known for his paranoia and cruelty, the religious leaders were unmoved by the substance of a prophecy about a ruler who would shepherd God’s people. The chief priests and scribes who should have been longing for such a loving ruler did not seem interested in the prophecy beyond giving the information to Herod as if it were an entry in an encyclopedia.
For all their study of the Scriptures, they were blind and deaf like Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 5:21). The Jews had the Scriptures that told about Jesus and they did not believe. They had the Son of God standing in front of them—the subject and object of the Scriptures—and they did not believe. This is a warning to us.
In verse 24, Jesus tells the Jews that want to kill him what the path to eternal life is: “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life …” Read and believe. Set your hope in God.
Timothy was reading the same Scriptures the Pharisees were searching, but to very different effect. The Scriptures gave him wisdom for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). The Scriptures did not give the Pharisees what they were looking for because they were not looking for Jesus.
They were hearers but not doers. Like chemists analyzing a gourmet meal for caloric content and the number of grams of sugar and protein—measuring, dissecting, and weighing every morsel, but never actually tasting it, never experiencing the meal. Knowing all about it—more even than those coming to the banquet, but never entering into the enjoyment and nourishment of it.
A cookbook will not satisfy your hunger. Only making the recipe and eating the food will do that. So too, the Bible. A year of daily reading—365 checked boxes —will not save you. But eating God’s words by taking them into your mind and heart and putting your hope and trust in the One they testify of will save you. The Book will not save you; it is the One about whom the Book speaks who saves.
Do you tend to skip over the genealogies, obscure prophecies, and numerical registries in the Old Testament that seem boring or hard to understand?
Do you ever find yourself arriving at the end of a long passage or whole chapter of Scripture but unable to recall what you just read?
When you read passages about sin, do you find yourself thinking about people in your life who really need that conviction?