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John 5:15, 16 says,
15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath.
After Jesus identified Himself to the invalid whom He had healed, the man went to the temple priests and testified to them that it was Jesus who had performed this miracle. If he believed that they would respect Jesus and perhaps even accept Him as the Messiah, he was greatly disappointed. The fact that John knew this detail suggests that the man became one of Jesus’ followers and was later part of the Jerusalem church led by Jesus’ brother, James. John 5:17, 18 continues,
17 But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” 18 For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal to God.
Did Jesus actually go to “them” and refute their charges against Him? That is not likely. John probably means to tell us that Jesus heard about their charges of Sabbath violation in the days ahead and that He answered those charges in His teaching. His heavenly Father had never really ceased to work, for the purpose of the seventh day of creation was to enjoy the fruits of His labor.
On another occasion (a Sabbath day), Jesus and His disciples picked some grain from a field as they passed by (Mark 2:23). The Pharisees criticized them for “harvesting” on a Sabbath—not for stealing grain. They knew it was within their rights to take a few grains, because it was lawful to do this, according to Deut. 23:25,
25 When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.
The religious leaders were obsessed with the Sabbath and over time had developed stringent and detailed rules about it that went far beyond God’s intent or the statements in the law. So the Pharisees had determined that no one was allowed to pluck these grains in a field on a Sabbath. Jesus refuted their view in Mark 2:27, 28,
27 Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The problem, Jesus said, was that the religious leaders did not really know the mind of God or His intent behind the law. God’s intent was not to put the people in prison one day a week by restricting their movement or by forcing anyone to go hungry rather than pick a few grains from a field on a Sabbath.
The law was meant to benefit the people. Moses himself said in Deut. 30:15, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.” The laws of God promote life and prosperity, whereas sin (violation of the law) leads to death and adversity. “So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” (Deut. 30:19).
The Apostle Paul recognized this, telling us in Rom. 7:10, “and this commandment… was to result in life.” It was only because “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) that the law was turned against us in judgment, for the law must judge sin. Yet this does not change the fact that if men had not sinned, the law would have brought them into “life and prosperity.” One cannot fault the law for setting a righteous standard or for bringing judgment when it is violated. The problem is man’s inability to keep the law perfectly.
The Sabbath law, like all of the other laws, was designed to benefit man. Only slaves must work seven days a week. In a Kingdom economy the people are given a holiday one day a week so that they may be refreshed and rejuvenated, and also that they may have time to study God’s word.
The seventh year is likewise a Sabbath year, wherein slaves are released for an entire year. Of course, if they still have more debt to pay, they must return in the beginning of the next year to continue their labor. It is only in the year of Jubilee that the release is permanent, for at that time all remaining debts are cancelled.
The Sabbath law—especially the Jubilee—is ultimately the law that sets all men free, a condition that is possible only when sin no longer enslaves them (Rom. 7:23). So it is clear that the Sabbath was indeed made for man, that is, for his benefit. When man-made rules are established which turn the Sabbath into a day of oppression, hardship, or even hunger, those rules violate the nature and intent of God Himself.
In other words, when understood correctly, the Sabbath serves mankind, not the other way around. Jesus said, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath,” because He has Creator’s Rights. A creator is always greater than his creation. The Creator has jurisdiction over the Sabbath, and, by extension, all who do the will of God enjoy the same right. The Sabbath is their servant, not their master.
The bottom line is that when Jesus healed the invalid on the Sabbath, He was exercising His rights according to the mind and heart of His heavenly Father. Jesus often healed on the Sabbath in order to show the people that its purpose was to bring life and prosperity to the people. If one must “work” to bring such life and prosperity, then so be it. “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” It is not the idea of work but its goal and purpose that is important.
We do not worship the Sabbath or make it our slave master. We worship the Lord of the Sabbath who has made the Sabbath subordinate to our jurisdiction, so that we might live and prosper in freedom and health.
The second charge that the Pharisees made against Jesus was that by referring to God as His own heavenly Father, He was “making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
The people were accustomed to thinking of themselves collectively as the children of God, for God had told Pharaoh through Moses, “Israel is My son, My first-born” (Exodus 4:22). For Jesus to claim this more personally was an offense to them. Their objection was that He was referring to God as “His own Father,” which, to them, meant that He was “making Himself equal with God.”
The difference between “our Father” (Isaiah 63:16) and “My Father” (John 5:17) is only a difference of application. One is collective, the other personal or individual. Is it possible for a nation to have a heavenly Father without the people individually also having the right to claim Him as their Father? That was the issue in Jesus’ day.
John anticipated this question earlier in John 1:12, 13, telling us how we may have the “right” to become children of God. Verse 13 gives us the basis of this God-given right:
13 who were born [or begotten] not of blood [i.e., “bloodline”], nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
The Pharisees knew nothing of a spiritual begetting or of a second birth. Rabbi Nicodemus, an esteemed teacher among them, had shown his ignorance of such things in John 3:4. The religious leaders knew only of physical birth and depended upon their bloodline back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Israel. They based their idea of collective sonship on this genealogy.
However, John’s teaching showed that sonship and the Fatherhood of God itself came through spiritual seed—the seed of the word—which, if received, had the power to beget the children of God.
Jesus could claim God as His Father, based upon the manner in which He had been begotten by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20). We too have the right to claim God as our Father, once we have received and believed the words of life and light that Jesus spoke. The question is this: Does this make us “equal with God?” That was the accusation.
Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-7,
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
Christ enjoyed “equality with God” prior to His conception while “He existed in the form of God.” However, He “emptied Himself” (divested Himself) of that equality by “taking the form of a bond-servant” here on earth. His condition changed from “the form of God” to “the form of a bond-servant.” Paul was contrasting Christ’s pre-existent position as “God” or “a God” (John 1:1) with His earthly existence as a “bond-servant.” This was how His “form” changed.
It appears that the Pharisees interpreted Jesus’ claim that God was His own Father to mean that Jesus claimed to have equal authority with the Creator God. But Jesus never claimed this. Instead, He explained His subordinate relationship throughout the rest of the chapter. John 5:19, 20 says,
19 Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly [“Amen, Amen”] I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel.”
By declaring “Amen, Amen,” Jesus was testifying under oath in the Divine Court that His words were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In other words, if He were to speak falsely or deliberately cause others to misunderstand the truth, then He would be held liable for perjury and blasphemy for taking an oath in the name of the God of heaven and then violating it.
For this reason, John takes time to include a lengthy teaching where Jesus explained His relationship to His heavenly Father. It was to set forth the whole truth in terms that we cannot misunderstand unless we read or hear His words with preconceived notions.
The main truth is that “the Son can do nothing of Himself.” The Son is a responder, not an initiator. The Son reflects the will and heart of the Father. For this reason, the Father reveals His heart, His words, and His works to the Son, so that the Son may fully respond and do the same. As long as the Son was doing the will of the Father, He was acting with “equal” authority.
What is true of Christ the Son is equally true of all who are sons of God. The only significant difference in this matter is that we, as sons of God, are yet in training. As immature sons, we often fail to respond in a perfect manner. Our ears are being opened to hear His revelation of truth, but as with many believers, our ears are yet dull of hearing (Heb. 5:11).
Yet in spite of this, we are truly the sons of God, even as we grow to maturity, and the Father loves all of His sons. Hence, not only will the Father show Christ “greater works than these” (John 5:20), but He will do the same with all of His sons, for we read later in John 14:12,
12 Truly, truly [“Amen, Amen”] I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father.
Greater works than what Jesus did?? He must really love us!