John 5:19 is the start of Jesus’ response to an accusation from a hostile crowd of Judeans. At 5:18, the
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.
Full, independent equality with the Father. (A competing, equal God.)
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.)
Partial, independent equality with the Father. (A competing, but lesser, god.)
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.)
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
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 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.