Picture this: you’re reading the Bible, and you come across a verse that sounds really familiar. You look back a few sentences and discover that the verse sounds almost exactly like a previous verse you just read!
One of the reasons that verses sometimes tend to “mirror” one another is that the author may be structuring the passage in what’s known as a “chiasm” (the word comes from the Greek letter X). A chiasm is a literary passage shaped like an X, or a sideways pyramid, with the first and last elements mirroring each other, the second and second-to-last elements mirroring each other, and so on. It looks sort of like this:
Reading John 5:19-30, a lot of verses sound alike. There appears to be a chiasm in the way Jesus speaks about His authority to resurrect and judge (I am indebted to Carson, John, 250 for this insight). The chiasm looks something like this:
A. 5:19 – The Son can do nothing apart from the Father
B. 5:20 – We will marvel at the Son’s works
C. 5:21 – The Father grants the Son to give life
D. 5:22-23 – The Father gives the Son authority to judge
E. 5:24 – Truly, truly, hearing the Son’s words leads to life
E1. 5:25 – Truly, truly, hearing the Son’s words leads to life
D1. 5:27 – The Father gives the Son authority to judge
C1. 5:26 – The Father grants the Son to give life
B1. 5:28-29 – Do not marvel at the power of resurrection
A1. 5:30 – The Son can do nothing apart from the Father
As far as chiasms go, this one is pretty tight. Sometimes you see scholars trying to “find” chiasms in places where they probably don’t exist. They try to balance one verse against five or ten, and the supposed connections between verses are loose at best. But this particular case looks strong.
Verses 19 and 30 both begin with Jesus stating that He “can do nothing” on His own. These two statements bookend the entire section. Verse 30 also functions as a transition into the next part of the discourse.
Verses 20 and 28-29 both use the word “marvel” to describe the reaction to the Father’s works accomplished through the Son. In verse 20, the purpose of those “greater works” is so that the people might marvel. Contrastively, in verse 28, the people are told not to marvel at “this.” The “this” probably refers to all that was said in verses 25-27, that the time for resurrected life is here in the authority of the Son. So there’s one sense in which the works of Christ should cause us to marvel, and another sense in which it shouldn’t surprise us that God in human flesh has resurrection power.
We would expect verse 21 to contrast with verse 27, but this seems to be the only part of the chiasm that is “imperfect” (though this isn’t necessarily unusual for these types of literary features). But verse 21 balances well with verse 26: both verses note that the Son’s life-giving power comes directly from the Father’s life-giving power. Verse 26 is perhaps a bit more emphatic in that the Father grants the Son to have life “in Himself.”
Verses 22-23 and 27 focus on judgment. The Father does not do the judging, but has granted that authority to the Son. Verse 23 gives the reason, “that all may honor the Son,” and this is perhaps the closest thing we get in this chiasm to an unparalleled verse. But it is actually connected tightly to verse 22 in Greek, so I didn’t find that I could rightly separate it away.
Finally, verses 24 and 25 both begin with “Truly, truly, I say to you” and focus on the need to “hear” the Son’s word in order to enjoy “life.” Oftentimes the middle part of the chiasm’s X is the focus, or the most important part. This holds true for this passage. Jesus tries to get the Jewish leaders to recognize that eternal life can be found in Him alone, and that life comes not from their pious works but from hearing and believing the word of Christ.
It’s an important message with eternal consequences, and Jesus chose a creative way to express it that would highlight His main points.