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John 5:16-20 (ESV):

16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.
17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.
20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.

How exactly did Jesus see the Father doing works, that he later imitated? When did the Father do those works, and how did Jesus see Him doing them? Was the word see used by Jesus literally or metaphorically?

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  • Since not addressed in any of the existing answers, I'll briefly note that there are those who believe this verse is quite literal--an immense theological superstructure would be needed to support that claim though. I'm not aware of any denomination that doctrinally accepts a literal interpretation of this passage, but I've certainly met people who do! May 3 at 3:44
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Short answer: When Jesus says,  " the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise," He is basically just saying," I must be about My Father’s business” (Luke 2:49 KJV). 

Long answer: "When reading this in  21st century English, it looks like monkey see monkey do, that is, Jesus can only do that which he literally sees the Father literally do. But, were we to give that a moment's thought we'd realize that such a notion is nonsense. For when we try to apply the reverse, whatever the son does is necessarily literally what he saw the Father do, it fails spectacularly when applied to the cross. The Father never was previously killed by Roman soldiers on a cross.

And yet, somehow, when Jesus died on the cross it was only because he saw that this was what the Father was doing. Now "do" can also mean "accomplish." And we can ask ourselves what was Jesus' act on the cross accomplishing? Was it not our very salvation? And then, is not our salvation the very thing that the Father acted to accomplish by sending us His Son (John 3:16)? So here we see that to only do what the Father is doing must mean for the son, that he acts to accomplish the very objectives that Jesus sees the Father accomplishing. He must be about his Father's business.

How, then, does Jesus see what his invisible Father is accomplishing? Well, if God gives instructions or commands to those under His authority to do something and those so authorized do it because of His word, it is the same thing as if God has done it. And when God creates something for a specific purpose and that purpose is achieved by that creation, then it is the same thing as if God has achieved it. So then Jesus may merely see and observe what the Father has created and what The Father has commanded to see what The Father is accomplishing or doing.

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I would say metaphorically since the language Jesus uses of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) elsewhere appears to be overtly metaphorical also. An example I think most relevant is when the Holy Spirit "receives" from the Son what it is that is to be revealed over time to the Church, which it "cannot now bear" (John 16:12). The only way God's own Spirit could "receive" is if the Son is of the nature of the Father Himself, and Himself God, as the first words of this Gospel affirms: "[The Son] was God [by nature]" (1:1).

John 16:14 But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself; but what things soever he shall hear, he shall speak; and the things that are to come, he shall shew you. He shall glorify me; because he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it to you. All things whatsoever the Father hath, are mine. Therefore I said, that he shall receive of mine, and shew it to you.

So God's Spirit receives from the Son what He reveals to the Church. Not from the Father, nor by the Son, but the Spirit will reveal from the Son. And this is after Jesus' departure (as it were) from this world, into heaven.

This corresponds to:

John 17:5 And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.

The same Trinitarian language.

John 8:38 I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and you do the things that you have seen with your father.

Notice in this last verse that Jesus seems to conflate speaking with doing. Just as for the Spirit to receive was to "hear" (apparently a metaphor).

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  • Good answer - many thanks, +1.
    – Dottard
    May 1 at 22:04
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Considering the Greek βλεπη is used and this could mean both to see with the physical eye and/or with the mind’s eye, as in to understand, perceive, discern, one can make several observations.

Firstly Jesus voluntarily annulled His divine attributes Phi2:7, so the only way to see the Father physically or in a vision would be to receive revelation through the Spirit.

Secondly Jesus is often quoting Scripture. We know by age 12 He had a very strong grasp on the writings in the scrolls. It would appear He dedicated Himself to reading these scrolls over and over.

Thirdly He was told about His miraculous birth and the events surrounding His birth. Especially that He came from the Father. It would have been His mission to devour the Scriptures to see where it speaks about Himself. He used the expression

“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭26:53-54‬ ‭

If Jesus was all about fulfilling Scriptures and the Scriptures speak about Him prior to incarnation, He is obviously aware that He pre-existed Creation itself John 17:5,24

Then He being the son of God had to find His Father IN the Scriptures. And In the Scriptures He could see what His Father did and how His Father operates.

In conclusion we can be certain that at a minimum Jesus saw the Father in the Scriptures, and was able to observe from the scrolls the deeds of His Father. It was His pleasure to do the same as His Father. And He set an example for us to follow.

It is in the Scriptures that we too can see what the Father did and does and we too can follow in His footsteps.

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The spiritual reality was described in John 5:17

In his defense Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working."

The intimacy continues to verse 19:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.

The phrase "truly, truly" or "amen, amen" often indicates the deeper spiritual reality.

Gill considers it as more than a metaphor:

being conversant with the original and eternal ideas of things in the divine mind, acts according to them, which he [Jesus] could not do if he was not of the same nature with, and equal to his Father. Moreover, the Son sees what the Father does by co-operating with him, and so does no other than what he sees the Father do, in conjunction with him: to which may be added, that the phrase shows, that the Son does nothing but in wisdom, and with knowledge; and that as the Father, so he does all things after the counsel of his will

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