“You search the scriptures” – Addressing the subtle twisting of John 5:39-40

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

It has become somewhat commonplace today for some “deeper-life” inclined believers to misapply and twist John 5:39-40 (whether intentional or unintentional).   Sometimes it is used in response to another believer who has a high regard for scripture as the written word of God and is providing scriptural balance or correction to a deeper-life doctrine.  Sometimes it used as a way to avoid having to apply or submit to a biblical command or exhortation from the New Testament.  And in its worst form, this verse is twisted to imply that a believer who is advocating for the submission to the New Testament scriptures is doing so at the expense of coming to Christ who is the Living Word.

First, let’s look at this verse in it’s context and proper application:

  • In John 5, Jesus was speaking to the Jews who were trying to kill him, the Pharisees, for breaking the Sabbath and calling God His Father (John 5:18)
  • Earlier in chapter 5, Jesus begins to establish who He was and His equality with the Father. He then begins to list out all of the different testimonies that have been presented to the Jews in regards to who He was:
    • John the Baptist testified of who Christ was (v33-35)
    • The works and miracles that the Father gave Jesus to perform also testified that He was the Christ (v36)
    • The Father Himself testified of who Christ was (v37-38)
    • And finally, the scriptures themselves testified of who Christ was (v39-47)
  • The scriptures Jesus was referring to were obviously the Old Testament – especially the writings of Moses (v45-47). The religious Jews took much pride in their knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures, especially the Mosaic law. They believed that they were saved and righteous before the Lord by their outward, self-righteousness appearance and knowledge of the law, however Christ rebuked them for being hypocritical, white-washed tombs who looked beautiful on the outside but inside were dead and unclean (Matt 23:27-28)
  • When Jesus admonished them in v39-40, it was due to their failure to acknowledge and recognize Christ as the promised Messiah sent from the Father in accordance with Old Testament prophecies and scripture that all spoke and testified of Him. In their arrogance in believing that they had superior knowledge of the Old Testament, they failed to receive the One whom the Scriptures testified of. As a result, they rejected and failed to come Christ who is the Eternal Life of God and instead believed that they had eternal life through their supposed knowledge of Old Testament scripture.
  • Continuing this theme, after the ascension of Christ, the Apostle Paul was in Thessalonica presenting to the Jews in the synagogues over 3 separate Sabbaths that scripture has testified that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and Christ, and that he had to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 17:1-9). There were “some” of the Jews who believed, along with many Greeks, but many of the Jews became jealous and formed a mob to persecute Paul and Silas. Immediately following this account, Paul was sent to Berea and began to preach to the Jews in the synagogues there. Scripture tells us that “many” of the Jews in Berea believed, and they were commended in scripture as being more “noble-minded” than the Jews in Thessalonica because “they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:10-12). Note that the difference here is that those who were noble-minded were so based on 1) their eagerness to receive the word and teaching about Christ 2) the fact that they searched the Old Testament scriptures to see if these things were so, and 3) their belief in Jesus as a result. The issue was not that the Pharisees searched the Old Testament scriptures, but rather that they did not submit to the testimony of the scriptures on who Jesus was and did not believe upon Him as God in the flesh and the way of salvation.
  • Given the proper context and application of this verse in John 5, it is completely inaccurate to apply this verse to Christians who have already come to Christ as the only source of eternal life through faith in Him and His finished work on the cross. In addition, this inaccuracy is magnified when this verse is used to somehow argue that Christians who value and esteem the authority of God’s written Word in scripture, especially the New Testament revelation and commands of Christ and His apostles, are doing this at the expense of or in exchange of Christ who is our Life. Jesus Himself says that if we love Him, we will obey His commands (John 14:15), and this is echoed many, many times throughout scripture. Peter makes it clear that his apostolic epistles were written to stir up the saints as a way of reminder of the words and commandments of our Lord (2 Peter 3:1-2, 1:12-15), and those saints who revere and treasure the written Word of God in order to better know their Lord and His commands should be commended, not dismissed as legalistic Pharisees who are somehow rejecting Christ as the only source of Eternal Life.

In addition, some will use John 5:39-40 to conclude that any thought, truth, or verse in scripture, including the New Testament, can only be understood in the light of what it says regarding the person of Jesus. In other words, how that verse specifically “testifies” of Him. Here are some of the errors with that type of hermeneutic:

  • It mis-interprets the context and target of Christ’s statement in John. As we have outlined above, the context was rebuking the Pharisees for refusing to accept Him as the Messiah of whom the Old Testament scriptures testified of. As a result, they failed to come to Him who was the eternal Life of God.  While this passage could be stretched to apply to someone who studies and quotes the New Testament but has no saving knowledge, belief, and relationship with Jesus, this is not the original context and meaning of the passage.
  • It prevents New Testament scripture from being understood objectively as a propositional truth by a believer in Christ. Instead, scripture is completely dependent on what one “discerns” it is revealing and testifying about the person of Christ, even if that negates the clear reading of the scripture itself. The objective becomes subjective and is limited to one’s “discernment” of what it reveals about the person of Christ, even though the person of Christ, through the Holy Sprit, breathed the scripture that was written by the apostles. An example – if a King wrote a letter to his subjects of specific things that he wanted them to do and to understand while he was away, should his subjects read and obey and heed the words of the King? Or should the subjects take the commands and words of the King and re-interpret them based on what they think best describes the King’s character, according to their own limited understanding?
  • It prevents the church from coming to the unity of the faith, as each person can claim that the Holy Spirit is revealing something specific to them that may be independent or contradictory to what is already revealed in the Word of God.

Finally, below are some of the ways that the objective Word of God can be undermined by those who want to subjectively determine whether or not they should submit to it:

  • “Is this verse what the Life is saying?”
  • “Is following this verse eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or eating from the tree of life?”
  • “Is this verse revealing the person of Christ?”
  • “Only the Holy Spirit has the authority to reveal to me what the scriptures are saying to me – no man has the right or authority to interpret what the scriptures are saying to me.”
  • “Is this verse what the Holy Spirit is saying or communicating to THIS church?”
  • “Jesus’s words and commands do not apply to the church as that was only for the Jews in relation to the kingdom.”
  • “I only need and listen to Christ’s words – not Paul or any of the other apostles”.
  • “Before I adopt or apply any new testament teaching, I first have to find whether or not this teaching was displayed in the life of Christ (as portrayed in the gospels)”

The following research paper provides an excellent overview of the Neo-Orthodox view of scripture and some of its errors: The Neo-Orthodox View of Revelation.  While knowing the Lord and having a relationship with Him is vital to Christianity, Neo-orthodoxy has pushed the pendulum too far by undermining the objective authority of scripture as God’s eternal Word to us today.