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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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  • 1
    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, 2021 at 4:25

5 Answers 5

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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, 2021 at 23:28
  • 2
    @OneGodtheFather - that is part of the kenosis described in Phil 2:5-8 during the incarnation.
    – Dottard
    May 12, 2021 at 23:35
  • 3
    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, 2021 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, 2021 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, 2021 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, 2021 at 5:14
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John 5:19 is the start of Jesus’ response to an accusation from a hostile crowd of Judeans. At 5:18, the narrator recounts

Because of this, the Jews tried all the harder to kill Him. Not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.

(All quotations from the Berean Study Bible.)

Jesus’ reply runs from 5:19-47. Does Jesus deny that He was “making himself equal with God” in an attempt to clarify a misunderstanding of the Jews who wanted to kill him? Or does he affirm the charge?

To start with, there are two separate issues here. The first is what the crowd was thinking. The second is what Jesus says in response.

For the former, the first thing to note with the crowd is that it is a crowd. There may not be any specific thought or theory beyond an intuitive reaction to what Jesus says immediately prior, at John 5:17.

But Jesus answered them, “To this very day My Father is at His work, and I too am working.”

Although already upset, this gets them more upset. John at 5:18 characterizes the prevalent sentiment of the crowd as a charge that Jesus is "making himself equal with God" and ties this to calling God "his own Father." Because it is a crowd, there might not be any one specific thing they are claiming when they say Jesus is “making himself equal.”

The second thing to note is that it is not clear whether John 5:18 is John's own views being articulated (“making Himself equal with God”), or just the crowd's. Although it is said by the narrator, it could also be a summary description. After this summary, it says "Jesus replied" (John 5:19), indicating an implied statement by the crowd.

If one believes it is the narrator making the claim that Jesus was “making Himself equal with God,” it seems one would also have to hold that Jesus indeed “broke” the Sabbath (said in the same sentence, “Not only was He breaking the Sabbath”). If Jesus is sinless, it seems this can't be right, or is at least misleading in translation. Is it a legal breaking of the Sabbath? perhaps because He's God He's allowed to break the Sabbath? Perhaps the term used is meant in a softer sense and would more accurately be translated as “loosening,” say? However one takes it, if the general position that the narrator himself is claiming this is correct then the narrator does not indicate that “breaking” the Sabbath is also fine for Jesus to do, which one might expect if the narrator intended for the claim to be taken as true.

The treatment here will not rely on speculation about what the crowd meant, exactly, in their charge or whether the narrator intended to be seconding the claims of the crowd. Instead, it is Jesus' immediate response, which runs from 5:19-30 (and extends to 5:47), which can better inform our understanding of in what, if any, sense Jesus intends to be claiming equality. So whatever the crowd meant, we have a long response to clarify in what sense there might be merit to the accusation, and in what sense there might not be.

There are 5 major options in terms of how Jesus might be claiming equality here.

  1. Full, independent equality with the Father. (A competing, equal God.)

  2. Full, dependent equality with the Father. (Some Trinitarians would hold this view. Equal in a strong sense. Jesus is claiming to be God Almighty, albeit in a (temporarily?) dependent sense.)

  3. Partial, independent equality with the Father. (A competing, but lesser, god.)

  4. Partial, dependent equality with the Father. (Some Trinitarians would hold this view, also Unitarians. Not claiming to be God Almighty here (although perhaps what he claims is compatible with that claim), but claiming equality in a sense. Also compatible with early church Logos theorists.)

  5. No equality with the Father beyond what another man might have. (Total repudiation of the charge against him of equality.)

Let's evaluate them in turn.

1. Full, independent equality with the Father. This is clearly ruled out by Jesus' response. He is not independent. He immediately states his dependency, and emphasizes it.

Truly, truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself, unless He sees the Father doing it." (John 5:19)

He then states this again at John 5:30, so it begins and completes his immediate response before He switches to the testimonies section of his response at John 5:31. Jesus is very clearly saying he is not independent.

Noting the first part of John 5:19 is important, because otherwise you might misunderstand the second part, which is

"For whatever the Father does, the Son also does."

Having already established a clear line of dependence (Father -> Son), Jesus then says that whatever the Father does, the Son also does. This is why when the Father works, the Son also works, which is what upset the Jews just prior (John 5:17). This is very clearly not a claim to independent omnipotence. Rather, it is an explanation of why Jesus was working on the Sabbath. The Father works, and so Jesus works because He does what the Father shows him.

In case this in itself isn't clear enough, we can note various other language in Jesus' immediate response which indicates He is not acting independently. The Father “assigns” judgment to Jesus (John 5:22), “sends” Jesus (5:23, 24), has “granted” life to Jesus (5:26), “given” authority (5:27), and Jesus “does not seek his own will” but instead the Father's (5:30).

So if the crowd meant option 1. (full, independent equality), Jesus quickly corrects them.

3. Partial, independent equality with the Father. This option can be disposed of for largely the same reasons as 1. Jesus is not claiming to be independent here.

2. Full, dependent equality with the Father. It is important here to note the question for our purposes isn’t whether this is in fact the case (for example, whether Trinitarianism is true) but whether Jesus is claiming this here.

There is a question about the coherency of such a position at all. How can Jesus be claiming full equality with the Father here if He has just stated all the ways He is subordinate? It doesn't seem to make much sense. How could there be full equality that is also dependent?

Typically, Trinitarians accommodate these sorts of claims of subordination or dependency while also themselves asserting co-equality by saying Jesus is speaking from his human nature (so saying things from a human perspective), and this is often combined with the idea of kenosis – that Jesus emptied himself of his divine form and humbled himself for his earthly ministry temporarily.

This might be so, but the question is whether Jesus is making this sort of claim here, at John:19-30. We’ve already gone over some of the claims to dependency in addressing 1. Let’s look more closely at the claims of equality, of which there are 6.

19b “For whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” The Son is equal in doing in some sense.

20 “The Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does.” The Son is equal in knowledge in some sense.

21 “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He wishes.” The Son is equal in giving life in some sense.

22 “the Father judges no one, but has assigned all judgment to the Son” and 27 “And He has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.” The Son is equal in judging in some sense.

23a “so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” The Son deserves equal honor in some sense.

26 “For as the Father has life in Himself, so also He has granted the Son to have life in Himself.” The Son is equal in having life in Himself in some sense.

It is easy then to see how someone might jump to the conclusion that Jesus is asserting full equality here. After all, He does assert various forms of equality, at least in certain senses. Don’t these, taken together, point towards full equality, albeit in a conditionally (speaking in his human nature) or temporarily (kenosis) dependent sense – but that this is indeed conditional or temporary and He is actually co-equal?

The problem is we find scant evidence Jesus is asserting this dependency simply as a function of him speaking in his human nature, or temporarily, in his response in John 5. We can break the types of possible assertions down to 3 categories. a) Language indicating there will be a change in his subordination. b) Language indicating He has a dual-nature. c) Language of him being “sent.”

a) We have some claims indicating temporal change.

20b “And to your amazement, [the Father] will show [Jesus] even greater works than these.”

Although this suggests temporal change, it is all couched in terms of being shown. Jesus will simply be shown more, not assume co-equality.

25 “Truly, truly, I tell you, the hour is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

The first problem here is that it also says “has now come.” If Jesus is already doing these things, then it’s not clear why him doing more of it in the future indicates a change in status to co-equality.

28 “Do not be amazed at this, for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice”

Again, there is talk of a future event, but this is immediately proceeded at 27 by the Father having given this authority to Jesus. There is no statement that the authority will therefore be Jesus’ in his own right.

b) What of things indicating He is speaking from a dual-nature? The closest we have is also in 27.

27 “And He has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.”

Perhaps Jesus could be understood here to be claiming that He is given authority only in the sense that He is speaking from his human nature? Perhaps, but if so, it is not very clear.

c) Finally, we have the language of being “sent,” which is used 6 times in Jesus’ response. Being sent might suggest something like kenosis – Jesus starts out in heaven with full equality, then descends to earth and humbles himself, then goes back to heaven and resumes his full divine prerogatives. The problem is that similar language is used of John the Baptist at John 1:6-7.

“There came a man who was sent from God. His name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through him everyone might believe.”

Would Jews in the 1st century have understood John 1:6-7 to be a claim about John the Baptist being co-equal to God in heaven because he was sent by God? Did John the narrator intend that? It seems implausible. So would Jesus have intended that at John 5:19-47? That seems implausible.

Also note that, even if Jesus had been trying to explain “full equality, albeit dependent” in John 5:19-47, it is not clear how the Judeans would have understood it, as the conceptual development which led to Trinitarian theories of dual-natures and kenosis was hundreds of years in the making. It would be puzzling if Jesus was indeed trying to justify his statement at John 5:17 (“To this very day My Father is at His work, and I too am working.”) in terms of dual-nature or kenosis theology at this particular moment, even if what He’s saying is compatible with it.

So 2. is suspect. Note this doesn’t rule out a Trinitarian view, as it isn't saying Jesus cannot therefore be co-equal albeit in a dual-nature or temporarily dependent sense, but just that he isn't claiming that here. See discussion on 4. below.

5. No equality with the Father beyond what another man might have. This option is clearly not right. Jesus is due honor, has life in himself, and has judgment, beyond other men, as noted in the discussion of 2. above. Also note Jesus could easily have stated this in his response. “No, you misunderstand. I have no more equality with God than anyone else does.” He does not say something like that.

That leaves us with

4. In his response, whatever the Jews meant by their accusation, Jesus explains that He has partial, dependent equality with the Father. Putting together our discussions of 1. and 2. above, his answer is that He denies equality in a sense while asserting it in another sense.

As noted in discussing 2. above, many Trinitarians can agree with this, either because Jesus can be understood to be speaking from his human nature here, and or because He is functionally dependent during his earthly ministry (along the lines of kenosis). It also fits with various subordinationist Christologies which hold Jesus is the Logos, but that the Logos is not co-equal with the Father. It also fits with Unitarian views of Jesus as the unique, sinless man who is the Christ, the Son of God and then becomes elevated to God's right hand.

In summary, the picture Jesus paints in this section replying to the crowd’s claim of equality is that He He can do nothing by himself (5:19 and 5:30, the first claim and the last claim in his immediate response), and although He has authority and power equal to the Father in certain senses, it is delegated authority and power from the Father (5:19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27), and in his authority to judge He does the Father’s will (5:30). He does not claim to be the source of the authority and power He claims.

Also note that whatever the Jews meant by the charge of “making Himself equal with God,” immediately after Jesus' response there is no further “attempting to seize him,” “picking up stones,” or even hostile dialogue. Jesus' response that He has partial, dependent equality with the Father beyond other men sets the hostile crowd back for the time being. Instead, John 6:1-2 picks up with a large, sympathetic crowd following him. Why would this be? A plausible answer is that He is articulating his role as the Christ, the Son of God in his response, and the crowd understands this. The connection between life-giving (featured in Jesus’ response at 5:21, 24, 25, 28, 29) and being the Christ, the Son of God is seen clearly in his discussion with Martha at John 11:26-27 and in John’s summary of the purpose of his Gospel at 20:31, for examples. John 7 then, logically enough, depicts the public debating whether He is indeed the Christ.

So the most plausible interpretation of what Jesus was articulating with his response at John 5:19-47 is that He has partial, dependent equality with the Father beyond other men, and him explaining his position as the Christ, the Son of God fits this interpretation and the context of John.

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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, 2021 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, 2021 at 8:08
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Updated this after more consideration of the topic. Jun 9 at 14:55
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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, 2021 at 10:43
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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, 2021 at 8:03
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Yes, indeed, I will correct it, thanks! May 14, 2021 at 8:08
  • Another excellent answer.
    – Dottard
    May 14, 2021 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, 2021 at 12:24

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