Who are “the Dead,” in John 5:25-29?
© 2022 C. O. Bishop
Some of the passages we have read in the Gospel of John have required some thought, and even some “digging into the rest of God’s Word,” to arrive at a reasonable level of understanding. Some are very straightforward and clear. (John 5:24, which we read last week, is one of the “very clear” variety: No one need have any question about his or her eternal destiny, or how to have assurance of Eternal life.) But: the next five verses do give cause for some careful thought and for asking some questions:
25 Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. 26 For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; 27 And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. 28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, 29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
What is happening, here?
Taken as a whole, that passage could be pretty confusing: It rather sounds as though Jesus is planning a “preaching tour among the graves,” that some of the dead would hear him and live, that ALL would hear and exit the tombs and that the “good people” would have eternal life, and the “bad people” would have eternal condemnation.
There are several problems with that assumption:
- Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is given unto man once to die, and after this, the judgment.”
- (That pretty much excludes a “second chance.”)
- Luke 16:19-31 tells of a man who clearly “believed” from the tomb, and it did him no good at all! There was no “second chance.”
- Romans 3:12 says “there is none that doeth good: no, not one!”So, whatever we think about “good and bad” people means very little.
- Luke 23:42, 43 tells of a man who definitely did evil with his life, and was in the process of being executed for his crimes. But he placed his trust in the living Christ, and was given eternal life, as a gift.
- Ephesians 2:8, 9 says we are not saved by good works: that it is always a gift, and
- Galatians 2:21 says, if it were possible to be justified (declared righteous) by works, then Jesus died for nothing!
So, perhaps there is more than one type of “dead” in this passage. Perhaps the preaching is not done “among the tombs,” but among the “dead.” That alone would make the last verse easier to understand, but there is still a problem with the “Works” issue. So, let’s examine the passage:
Who are the Dead?
The first question we really need to answer, then is “Who are the dead, to whom Jesus was calling at that time (and to whom He still is calling today?) The best place to find answers about questions in God’s Word is in God’s Word! So, let’s see what we can find out about the “dead” to whom Jesus is “calling:”
- Ephesians 2:1, speaking to the Gentile believers at Ephesus (and us!), says “You hath He quickened (brought to life) who were dead in trespasses and sin.”
- They were dead in sin (spiritually separated from God. (Ephesians 2:11, 12)
- Jesus brought them to life.
- They were living believers when Paul’s letter reached them.
- Colossians 2:13, speaking to another Gentile church, says, “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
- They once were dead, but now were alive, through the forgiveness of all sins.
- And we already saw that Ephesians 2:8, 9 says it was by Grace, through Faith.
So, from these passages, what answer can I give to the question, “Who are the Dead to whom Jesus called?”
25 Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.
We Were Dead in our Sins
The “dead” to whom Jesus calls are the unbelieving people of the whole world. We were all dead in sins until we heard the Gospel: we somehow heard the call of Jesus, over the noise of this dying world, and we placed our faith in Him, at whatever level of understanding we then had.
The Example of the Thief on the Cross:
The thief on the Cross was surrounded by the howling, mocking crowd, and filled with his own agony, as well, but he somehow saw the Holiness of Jesus and His Forgiveness and Love, and he repented of his earlier arrogance against God. He cast Himself upon the Mercy of the Living Christ. He died a short time later, just after Jesus did, and he entered Paradise with His Savior.
He was (literally) dead in his sins, and being executed for his crimes! He was dying as a condemned criminal. But: he heard the voice of Jesus, and lived! The only sense in which his condition differs from each of ours is the degree of immediacy: he knew he was dying and he had no hope of respite or reprieve. He was looking at Jesus face-to-face. He cast his only, desperate hope on someone he had only moments before been mocking along with the crowd. So, how does that compare with my own experience?
My Own Example:
- Had I seen Jesus face-to-face? (Nope!)
- Did I know for sure when I was going to die? (No, but I was pretty sure that I would die.)
- Was I aware of my sin and the consequences of sin? (Theoretically, yes, but certainly not to the same degree as that man was. I had a growing conviction that I was a condemned sinner, and unable to please God.)
- Did I know what Jesus could do for me? (In some ways I knew more than the thief on the Cross, but not much more: I knew that I was lost, and that Jesus was my only hope.)
How Did Jesus Call us to Himself?
Our individual stories vary a little, from person to person, but really only in the “details.”
For example, Abraham believed God and God declared him righteous (Genesis 15:6.) That is the core truth: God speaks, we place our faith in Him, and He declares us righteous.
In the New Testament, the believers heard the Gospel (the good news of the substitutionary sacrifice Jesus made for us: His death, and burial and resurrection,) and they believed God, that He was the true Savior, promised from the beginning of the world. And they were not only declared righteous (“justified,”) but were assigned a permanent position in the Body of Christ.
The only thing God names as His power to save us, the sinners, the spiritually dead of this world, is the Gospel of Christ. Romans 1:16 says “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the Power of God to save them that believe!” And it is the only thing so described in Scripture. He offers no other hope.
How does He call?
In Abraham’s case, He evidently called in an audible voice. (Abraham never saw a Bible.) In other biblical cases, He sometimes called in a vision, sometimes in person, face to face.(None of those people had a Bible, either, though some had seen the Torah scrolls.)
But after the apostolic age, increasingly, the primary way has been through the written Word of God. The epistles circulated widely during the first century, and there were tens of thousands of copies made, during the first few centuries. Each was laboriously hand-copied onto Papyrus sheets. Some of the copies were pretty poor quality, as the people who painstakingly wrote them out were only barely literate. But they valued the written Word enough to risk their lives for it, so they certainly were trying to be very careful. And, overall, the record is very good, partly because of the many thousands of surviving copies still extant today.
How did He call You?
So…in your case; did you hear the Gospel from a friend? Perhaps from a neighbor, or a family member? They were quoting (or at least referring to) the authoritative Word of God. They were not “making things up as they went.” Perhaps you believed on the spot: perhaps you required dozens of repeated contacts (as I did,) before you changed your mind (that’s called “repentance“) regarding who Jesus is and was.
Regardless of how the message came to me, it was through the Word of God. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” And, of course, when we began this study in the Gospel of John, in the very first verses we found that Jesus is the Word! He is the Living Word. And, how you respond to the Written Word reveals the reality of how you respond to the Living Word.
How do we Respond?
Pastor Richard Banham once attempted to share Christ with an older woman, but she angrily replied, “I don’t care what the Bible says! I have my experience!” Her response to the Written Word was utter rejection. Specifically, she utterly rejected the Gospel of Christ.
And God says that the Gospel, being believed in, is His only power to save sinners. Jesus calls, and they who “hear His voice” shall live. What does it mean to “hear his voice?” In John 15:3 Jesus told the eleven remaining disciples (Judas had already left) “Now ye are clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you.” But two chapters earlier, in John 13:10, 11, He had said they were not all clean, and it says he was referring to Judas Iscariot.
Judas “heard” all the same words the other disciples had heard: why was he not clean? Because he rejected what he was “hearing.” He heard the sound and understood the words, but he rejected the message. The other eleven “heard Him,” and received what He said as being from God. Jesus had “called to the spiritually dead” and some had responded in faith. Those who responded in faith were made alive. Those who did not believe, simply remained dead, unless (as in my own case) they later repented (changed their mind) and believed.
The Authority of Life and Judgment
26 For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; 27 And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.
Philippians 2:5-8 shows us that Jesus was the eternal God: He was God the Son, but He did not cling to that position with all its privileges. He was born into our world as a baby, grew up as a man, and lived out a perfect life before God. But, through all that experience, He never set aside His Holiness as God, nor did He set aside His wisdom.
He mostly chose not to use His limitless power, but He occasionally revealed it through the incredible miracles He performed. Though I am usually most impressed by His stopping the storm, the greatest miracle, of course, was when He raised the dead. He physically raised the dead on several occasions. The most exciting example was Lazarus, in John 11. In all these things he proved the truth of this verse. He has the authority of life, and of Judgment. He is specifically our Judge, because of His Humanity. We are being judged by a righteous God who has lived with all the restrictions of a human life, and has been victorious. But He also is our Savior, offering a free pass through the judgment, by His Grace, through Faith.
But, What about the Graves?
Remember, He also mentioned “those in the Graves:” What about them? He said, “28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, 29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”
So, all those in the graves when Jesus gives that final call, will come out! We can read in the book of the Revelation how that will happen: the call will first involve the righteous dead. The Old Testament saints are already with Jesus, today, but at that time, their old physical bodies will be raised, perfect and incorruptible.
The same goes for all the New Testament believers as well: their bodies are currently wherever they ended up. Some were buried, and were consumed by various creatures of the earth. Some were lost at sea, and digested by various types of marine life, large or small. Some were burned, and their ashes were blown away by the wind. But God will bring all of them back to life, to face eternity!
Job knew all about this!
In Job 19:25, Job said that he knew that “after his death, though worms would consume his old body, yet he would see his Redeemer face-to-face, with his own eyes and not another.” The fact is, at the resurrection, ALL those who are physically dead WILL come out to face Jesus, either as their Savior or as their Judge. All their bodies will be restored, regardless of what had become of them, and regardless of whether they are saved or lost. There are no exceptions.
But, the resurrection of the unrighteous dead is described in Revelation 20:12-15 They will receive their old body, eternally renewed, just in time to spend eternity separated from God! Jesus spent a fair amount of time and effort warning about this resurrection. In fact, He spent more time warning about the coming Judgment and the Lake of Fire, than He did telling us about what Heaven will be like.
(Christian preachers are often accused of “spending too much time preaching about Hell.” But, if they want to follow Jesus’s example, they will do it more, not less!) The Good News of the Gospel would not be good news at all, if it were not for the bad news of human sin and the coming judgment. (What do you think we are being saved from?)
But, What about the “good deeds?”
Jesus did say, “…they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” What “doing good” was he referring to?
In John 6:28, 29, the people asked Jesus, “What shall we do that we might work the works of God?” He answered, “This is the Work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.”
That is the only “good work” that results in salvation: placing your faith in His Sacrifice: Jesus’s finished work at the Cross. In John 3:18, Jesus said, “He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Don’t We Need Good Works?
Are there “Good Works” subsequent to salvation, which might apply, here? In a way, yes! Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are His workmanship, created unto good works which He hast before ordained that we should walk in them.”
As long as we recognize that the only “good work” which can result in salvation, or affect it in any way, is the work which Jesus did for us at the Cross, then we can talk about the eternal rewards God promises for our obedience to Him after we are born again. But those rewards are not a gift: they are rewards. Salvation is truly a gift, given freely by Jesus.
We will talk about rewards at a later time. For now, I think it is enough that we understand that we were the “dead, who heard the voice of the Savior and responded in faith.” As we share the Gospel with others who also are dead in their sins, Jesus continues to call them, through His Word, inviting them to eternal life and to peace, and to joy.
And, eventually, (if the Lord’s return does not come first) we all will be among “those in the graves,” who answer the call to the resurrection of the just: to see our Redeemer face to face! We have that Blessed Hope, by His Promise!
Lord Jesus, fill us with Your Joy, as we contemplate the absolute security we have in You. Fill us with the knowledge that you have called us to be your voice, on earth. We are to call to the spiritually dead, and to offer them eternal life. Fill us with Your compassion for the lost, and send us to do Your will.