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John 5:18-19 (ESV)

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.

According to verse 18, the Jewish leaders were full of anger and hatred toward Jesus, all they wanted was to kill him, because, in their own minds, Jesus was making himself equal with God. After this, Jesus responds with the phrase the Son can do nothing of his own according, but only what he sees the Father doing. Some interpret this as if Jesus were saying: "Look guys, calm down, I'm not equal with God, I can't do nothing by myself. I'm just doing what God tells me to do."

Question: did the Jewish leaders misunderstand when they thought that Jesus was making himself equal with God (v18), which Jesus then attempted to clarify in the next verse by denying such equality?

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    He denied separation and independence with God the Father. If you read the whole passage that shows that Son and the father are one and the same working in harmony. Also see John 10:33 similar charge against claiming to be God, he replied by saying You are called gods too. If the judges are called Gods then much more should be the Messiah. It was a rhetorical response for those bloodthirsty people eager to murder people by finding excuses.
    – Michael16
    May 13 '21 at 4:25
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If Jesus was trying to deny equality with God then He would have done it explicitly as was done in other places such as Acts 10:26, etc. Further, if Jesus is denying equality with the Father in John 5, then he is very confused:

  • V19 - For whatever the Father does, the Son also does. Jesus says He can do all things that the Father does (wow!!)
  • V21 - For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He wishes. Again, this is one of the works that Jesus does - to give life to anyone He wishes - Jesus is the divine source of life! See also V25.
  • V22 - Jesus is the great celestial Judge.
  • V23 - so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.
  • V26 - Jesus has life in Himself!

This is consistent with other such Scripture about the innate divinity of Jesus:

  • Matt 1:23, … and they will call Him Immanuel, which means, “[the] God with us”. (This declares Jesus as ὁ Θεός = ho theos.)
  • John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” (Compare Deut 6:4.)
  • John 20:28, “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (This declares Jesus as ὁ Θεός.) [Compare this statement with Ps 35:23, “Contend for me, my God and Lord.” See also V24.]

[Note: If we take the corpus of the four Gospels, Matt 1:23 and John 20:28 (& 21:19) we find that they begin and end with clear, unambiguous statements that Jesus is God, more specifically, “The God” = ὁ Θεός.]

  • Rom 9:5, “…Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
  • Phil 2:5-8, “…Jesus Christ: who, being in very nature God…”
  • 2 Thess 1:12, “…according to the grace of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  • 1 Tim 3:16, “Who was revealed in flesh …” [The antecedent of “who” is God in v15, according to NA28/UBS5, etc. The Byzantine text makes this explicit: “God was revealed in flesh …”.]
  • Titus 2:13, “…our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” [This also has, “ho theos”.]
  • Heb 1:8, “About the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last forever’”. [ho theos]
  • Heb 1:9, “therefore O God, Your God, has anointed You above Your companions with the oil of joy.” [ … also, “ho theos”]
  • 2 Peter 1:1, “…righteousness of our God [= ὁ Θεός] and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

... and so forth.

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    "If Jesus was trying to deny equality with God then He would have done it explicitly as was done in other places such as Acts 10:26" Why don't you think the response "I can do nothing by myself" is an explicit refutation of the claim to equality? Is it merely that you think it conflicts with the other verses listed, or do you have an explanation of how that verse itself isn't a claim of inequality between Jesus and the Father? May 12 '21 at 23:28
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    @OneGodtheFather - that is part of the kenosis described in Phil 2:5-8 during the incarnation.
    – Dottard
    May 12 '21 at 23:35
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    You know my answer to that - Jesus accepts worship because he's the King, just as the Magi worshipped him as the new King of Israel. :) Thanks for your clarifications, useful! May 12 '21 at 23:49
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    Dottard, you should've focused more on the immediate context of the question :Why did Jesus say he cannot do anything by himself. His answer implies that the Pharisees were charging him to be claiming to be independently separate God, equal to Yhwh. The all other references of proving his deity are quite irrelevant to the actual question.
    – Michael16
    May 13 '21 at 4:07
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    @Dottard What translation are you working from? It must indeed be heavy on the interpretation. The Greek does not say that. May 13 '21 at 22:15
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As with many of the questions that were asked of Him, Jesus didn't directly answer the question. We might say that Jesus answered the question they should have asked.

Rather than providing a discourse on equality, Jesus gives a sermon on identity.

The next 26 verses provide not a dissertation on the nature of Deity, but a description of Jesus' relationship with the Father. The colloquial statement then could be read as "look, you clearly don't understand me or my Father; let me tell you about our relationship."

Since the OP asks about what is taught in a specific setting, I'll try to limit my focus to that setting, rather than the teachings of the New Testament as a whole. In the subsequent sermon, immediately following the passage in the OP, Jesus describes His mission to do the Father's will, to give life, to judge, and so on. And throughout it all, as usual, Jesus shows deference to His Father.

Why not answer?

Why is He somewhat guarded in answering this and other questions? There may be a simple utilitarian value--it isn't time yet for Him to be arrested (and although He could send legions of angels to ward off would-be arrestors, it's worth noting that He never does). But He gives a more theological response in the same chapter:

If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. (John 5:31)

And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. (John 5:37)

--

They ask the wrong questions, He gives the right answers

Jesus' accusers are focused on the wrong things. In His sermon He takes what they are focused on and redirects them to something He can teach them about His identity.

  • Their focus: Jesus healed a mortal illness
  • What Jesus teaches about His identity: He came to heal much more than that--He came to give resurrection (verses 28-29) and offer eternal life (verse 24).

--

  • Their focus: Jesus worked on the Sabbath
  • What Jesus teaches about His identity: He is the Father's representative and is doing the Father's work (verses 17, 19)

--

  • Their focus: Jesus claimed equality with God
  • What Jesus teaches about His identity: He is not His Father (verses 32-37), but they should honor both Him and His Father (verse 23)

--

  • Their focus: it is their place to judge Him
  • What Jesus teaches about His identity: in perhaps His most incisive rebuke in this chapter, He points out that when all is said and done, it is He who will be judging them. (verses 22, 27)

Conclusion

Jesus didn't directly answer the question about equality--if I might be so bold as to read between the lines, they probably wouldn't have understood even if He had. So rather than telling them what they want to know, He tells them what they need to know.

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    Now here's a direct and to the point answer. May 13 '21 at 5:14
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Look at what Jesus said that was taken as claiming equality with God:

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17, ESV)

In 5:19 Jesus makes a very similar statement to what was taken as making himself equal with God:

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. (John 5:19, ESV)

Thus, those who took his first statement as claiming equality with God would also take his second statement as claiming equality with God. Note they said equal with God. At this point Jesus claimed a personal relationship with the Father at the same level that a son claims with a earthly father. That is what they saw as claiming equality with God.

Note only the leaders were offended by this claim, unlike the more explicit claims in John 8 that angered the Jewish public.

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  • i like this answer too! +1.
    – Dottard
    May 14 '21 at 10:43
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In the Gospel of John, Jesus denies equality with God again and again.

John 8:40 is a good example.

"But now you are trying to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God."

Jesus clearly states he is a man who has heard from God. He is not claiming equality with God but he is claiming to be God's representative.

Let's turn back to the verse in question. John 5:19 is also just one among many that fits this pattern of Jesus claiming to not be equal with the Father, i.e., God. Jesus' words, actions, power, and authority are derived from the Father.

"So Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself, unless He sees the Father doing it."

We can move a bit beyond the immediate response, and look more at the extended response to the claim of equality. He repeats the basic point again and again.

So, similarly, John 5:22

"Furthermore, the Father judges no one, but has assigned all judgment to the Son"

Jesus has power of judgment because God has assigned him it - he's not equal with God.

John 5:24

"believes Him who sent Me"

Jesus does not come of his own power - he is sent by God, not equal.

"For as the Father has life in Himself, so also He has granted the Son to have life in Himself."

God has granted the Son power. Again, not equal.

John 5:27

"And He has given Him authority to execute judgment"

Jesus himself does not have the authority - rather it comes from God. He's not equal with God.

John 5:30

"I can do nothing by Myself; I judge only as I hear. And My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me."

Reiterates the claim at John 5:18. He can do nothing by himself - he is not equal. He doesn't seek his own will, but the will of God who sent him. Why? Because they're not equal.

The Jews seem to think that claiming God is his own Father means he is claiming equality. The picture Jesus paints in this section replying to this claim of equality is very clear. He is a representative, a messenger, and one with delegated authority, all from God.

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  • Yes, it's called context, well done. The times a 'proof-text' is quoted on BH totally removed from context is astounding - esp. with Q's like this.
    – steveowen
    May 14 '21 at 7:09
  • I think this answer (like all the others to be honest) relies on an implicit definition of "equality with God". Hopefully answers to this question will make the definition explicit. May 14 '21 at 8:08
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On the contrary, Jesus not only did not deny His equality with the Father, but affirmed it most clearly, for "I cannot do anything on My own" and adding to it that "what the Father does, also the Son does likewise", and still, for a further clarification adding that the Father has given to Him the works to finish-the very works that He does-bear witness of Him, that the Father has sent Him (John 5:36) imply nothing else than that all, without exception, actions of the Father we conceive but through the actions of the Son, to the conclusion that divine action of the Father and the Son is one and the same action, for the Father cannot act but by and through the Son. That's why when Jesus says that "My Father acts until now and I act" (John 5:17) He means one and the same divine action that the Father and the Son cannot but act only together, for it is an ontological, or better, theological impossibility for the Father to act without the Son; to give a good old analogy, as it is impossible for the physical sun to enlighten anything without its rays.

Father not only does not, but cannot create universe without His Son and the Logos, and thus, both Arius and Jehowah Witnessists are in a grave error to think that Son Himself is a creature, for it is a contradiction in terms to say that Father who can create nothing without the Son co-creating, creates the Son.

The same holds with the words of the Father and the words of the Son, for there is no difference between divine words and divine actions, for all words in God are action, to the effect that we can know the Father's will only through words of Jesus Christ, and who does not believe in Jesus Christ's words, neither can please in any way the Father (cf. John 5:38).

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  • On the contrary, Jesus not only denied His equality with the Father [...] - did you mean "not only did not deny"? May 14 '21 at 8:03
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Yes, indeed, I will correct it, thanks! May 14 '21 at 8:08
  • Another excellent answer.
    – Dottard
    May 14 '21 at 10:44
  • @Dottard Thank you very much! This morning I happened to read and meditate exactly this passage and then I saw the question. My interpretation is inspired by (not plagiarized from) St John Chrysostom’s interpretation of the same passage. May 14 '21 at 12:24

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