First-century Jews differed in their views of the Jews’ proper relationship to the Roman government, the place of oral tradition in Jewish practice, and other issues. Nevertheless, Pharisees, Sadducees, and other Jewish sects held some essential theological beliefs in common. All Jews affirmed that the Lord is the author of all life because of texts such as Genesis 2:7, which says He made Adam a “living creature” by breathing into him the breath of life. Another text, Psalm 90:2, proclaims that the God of Israel is “from everlasting to everlasting.” Only He has the power of life in Himself. He is inherently alive and is incapable, in His divine nature, of death. He has always been and ever will be. As life itself, He grants life to those whom He will.
With that in mind, Jesus’ words in John 5:25–29 are further evidence of His deity. He says that the Father, who has life in Himself, has granted the Son to have life in Himself (v. 26). Here we have insight regarding how the Trinitarian persons possess identical divine attributes while also being distinct from one another. To have life in oneself is to be truly divine, for only God is self-existent and inherently alive. Both the Father and the Son have such life in themselves, but as theologians have noted, each person possesses that same life in a manner appropriate to His personal distinction or property. The Son eternally has life in Himself, yet He has this life as the Father’s eternally begotten Son; thus, this life in Himself, which He has always had, is from the Father. Augustine writes, “The Father has life in himself, which none gave him, while the Son has life in himself which the Father gave him.” The life in Himself that the Father possesses is no different from the life in Himself that the Son possesses, but this life is a gift from Father to Son, not from Son to Father. Nevertheless, both Father and Son have always existed.
Because He possesses the same life as the Father, the Son can likewise grant life (v. 21). In fact, the eternal life that the Son grants begins even now, through faith (v. 24). And at the last day, to those who have done good, the Son will grant the resurrection of life—they will receive new physical bodies that will be preserved forever (vv. 28–29). But note that they do not receive this life because of their works, for Jesus says in John 5:24 that such life comes through belief in Him. Thus, John Calvin comments on verses 28–29 that “Christ does not now treat of the cause of salvation, but merely distinguishes the elect from the reprobate by their own mark; and he does so in order to invite and exhort his own people to a holy and blameless life.”
John Calvin continues his comments on today’s passage: “Indeed we do not deny that the faith which justifies us is accompanied by an earnest desire to live well and righteously; but we only maintain that our confidence cannot rest on any thing else than on the mercy of God alone.” We receive eternal life from the Son only through trusting in Him, but the authenticity of our trust is proven by our service to God and neighbor.