Thoughts on John 5

I’m sure I’ve read John 5 many times in the past. I’ve sometimes stopped to look more closely at the story of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic by the pool near the Sheep Gate. There’s the question of whether verses 3b and 4 (regarding the angel of the Lord coming down to stir the waters and the first person into the pool after that being healed) were in the original manuscript or were added later. (The Bible I’m looking at right now says that “some less important manuscripts” include those verses.)

Sometimes I’ve wondered at Jesus’ question “Do you want to get well?” Preaching on this passage sometimes points out that in some ways life might get more difficult for the man after his healing, because he would no longer receive handouts but would have to do work. This is generally given as a reminder that when we ask God to change us, we have to be willing to go through the discomfort involved in growth, giving up our old, comfortable but sinful ways of doing things.

I haven’t generally spent as much time thinking about the rest of the chapter. Jesus talks about himself and his relationship with his Father, the authority he has from the Father, how perfectly he does his Father’s will, and the significance of whether people hear his word and accept it as coming from the Father.

I might wonder sometimes whether Jesus said those exact words on that particular occasion or whether the Gospel writer compiled this from various encounters Jesus had with his Jewish opponents. But the content of his teaching seemed plain enough, however outrageous it might have seemed to his hearers at the time.

Yesterday morning I read this passage (verses 19 to29), because it happened to be part of a daily email I receive, giving the day’s Scripture passages from the Book of Common Prayer Daily Office Lectionary. (I don’t general read all the passages, usually either the first Psalm or the Gospel passage.) I was interrupted in the middle of reading it, and didn’t get back to finish reading until much later.

In the meantime, as I was driving, I tried to remember what I had read and to reflect on it. I got as far as “he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (I have a particularly good memory so I can review a passage in my head even if I haven’t completely memorized it). That word “sees” jumped out at me – what exactly did Jesus see his Father doing?

Jesus the man physically saw the same kind of things other people saw. Was this an indication of his spiritual insight, that he saw the significance of seemingly ordinary events as the work of his Father? But if that were the case, it would apply to other people of spiritual maturity also (Simeon comes to mind, in Luke 2). Yet this passage seems to link his seeing what his Father does and doing the same, as a characteristic unique to Jesus as the Son of God.

Or was Jesus not referring to anything he could see with his physical eyes, but to knowledge he alone (among humans) had as the incarnate Son of God? Being God, he would of course know what God was doing. Yet in that case, the link between seeing what the Father does and doing the same would not be very meaningful, because he would be as much the doer as the observer of what God was doing.

I decided to check some commentaries (a fairly easy thing to do, with so many offered online). Some do not even take note of the verb “see” but simply pointed to it as (in the words of one writer) “Christ’s proclamation of His equality with God.” That’s what I had always seen in that verse, but now I thought there was more to see.

I was pleased to find others, however, that examined more closely what Jesus meant in verse 19. American theologian Albert Barnes (1798 – 1870) says:

What he seeth the Father do. In the works of creation and providence, in making laws, and in the government of the universe. There is a peculiar force in the word seeth here. No man can see God acting in his works; but the word here implies that the Son sees him act, as we see our fellow-men act, and that he has a knowledge of him, therefore, which no mere mortal could possess.

The IVP New Testament Commentary on John explains further:

Therefore, when Jesus says the Son sees what his Father is doing he is not saying that he makes rational deductions regarding God’s activity from what he can observe in Scripture or history or nature. Rather, since Jesus is in the bosom of the Father (1:18), totally at one with the Father (10:30), he sees God differently than anyone else ever has (1:18; 6:46). While he is referring to his human experience, as the next verse makes clear, he has a sensitivity beyond human experience to God’s voice, because his intimacy with God is unclouded by sin. This sight, then, refers to his constant communion with his Father, and thus the actions he refers to are not some special signs done now and then to illustrate what the Father is like. Rather, Jesus’ whole life, everything he does, is reflective of what he sees the Father doing. According to this verse, such is all he, the Son, can do.

So, it appears, it is not any particular actions of God – or of Jesus – that he is referring to here, but the totality of it. Everything that God does reflects his character (which according to Exodus 34 is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving sin, but also punishing the guilty), and likewise everything that Jesus does reflects God’s character, which is also his own.
One commentary links this passage back to the miracle of healing in the earlier part of the chapter. The argument with “the Jews” had arisen because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, an action he justifies because “My Father is always at his work to this very day.” Apparently the rabbis did acknowledge that God was at work on the Sabbath, despite it having been originally instituted as a day of rest because on the seventh day God had rested after creation.

Divine providence remained active on the Sabbath, otherwise, all nature and life would cease to exist. As regards men, divine activity was visible in two ways: men were born and men died on the Sabbath. Since only God could give life and only God could deal with the fate of the dead in judgment, this meant God was active on the Sabbath.

The commentary goes on to explain:

  • (5:21) Jesus grants life (just as the Father grants life) on the Sabbath. But as the Father gives physical life on the Sabbath, so the Son grants spiritual life (note the “greater things” mentioned in verse 20).
  • (5:22-23) Jesus judges (determines the fate of men) on the Sabbath, just as the Father judges those who die on the Sabbath, because the Father has granted authority to the Son to judge.)

I’m not sure why these explanations leave me somewhat dissatisfied. Is it because they come right back to the point I knew when I started, that Jesus was proclaiming his equality with God? Or is it that, if that is what Jesus was proclaiming, it seems he could have stated it more clearly, rather than talking of “seeing” what his Father was doing?

I find it interesting that, as I read different materials on the internet, I find this same passage used by both trinitarians and unitarians (by “small-u” unitarians I refer not to the Unitarian Universalist association but to those who believe that Jesus is not divine – though some of these do believe in him as Lord and Savior) to justify their completely opposite views.

I know that many Christians see the Bible as teaching very clearly the traditional Christian doctrines, but I have long thought that, if I were left to only my own reading and interpretation of the Bible, I could easily choose the unitarian perspective. Perhaps that is why I find myself attracted particularly to those churches that emphasize the importance of Scripture as traditionally understood by the larger Church, more than the individual believer seeking guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Whatever Jesus meant when he said that he saw what the Father did, I take comfort in his words in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” I don’t need to understand exactly in what sense he saw the Father; what I need to do is see Jesus, and through him I know – and am known by – the Father.

One Response to Thoughts on John 5

  1. cindyinsd says:

    Wow, Pauline

    I’ve never heard such a thorough expostulation of this verse. Especially the part about the Jewish views of God working on the Sabbath in the manifestation of birth and death. It’s amazing how a little bit of cultural knowledge can open up the scriptures. Good job–you really know a lot about this.

    Of course, scripture can mean more than one thing at a time, and I’d suspect that all the commentaries have at least a germ of truth, if not more. The way I would see this is in part an explanation of why Jesus didn’t heal everyone there, as was more commonly reported of Him–that in His time alone with the Father, the Father showed Him that this man should be healed and then He should move on. So Jesus did what the Father showed Him.

    It’s comforting to me to see that Jesus emptied Himself of His divine powers and walked as a second, sinless Adam on the earth with nothing to His advantage save the infilling of the Holy Spirit. In other words, though He is and was fully divine, He didn’t use any resources in His ministry that He hasn’t now provided to us. So that we, when we have reached that state of being fully submitted to Him, as He was to the Father, can do the works that He did, and even greater works since He was going to the Father. Now that’s a turn on.

    I think the time is near for that prophecy to come true in its fullness for this last generation. Jesus is restoring the church and getting it ready for the reaping of the precious fruits of the earth. I want to be ready–I can’t wait! 😆

    God bless, Cindy

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