A Study of John 5.18
Jesus had just healed someone who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. I am not certain that he was born without working legs or that something crippled him. Whichever is the case, it is certain from what we are told in the Scriptures that for the last thirty-eight years this man could not walk. Unlike the disabled in America in the twenty-first century, at that time there were no government assistance programs, no wheelchairs, no handicapped parking spots, no mandatory wheelchair accessibility for public buildings, no prosthetics, and no advanced surgical procedures. Furthermore, there were social stigmas attached to being infirmed in their society. Quite often people would think that the person had sinned, and so the lameness was divine retribution. In addition, the man would likely have been reduced to begging on the street just to make ends meet. No doubt, this man had great need.
Jesus came upon this man by the Sheep Gate Pool in Jerusalem. There were a multitude of blind, lame, and paralyzed people who were lying about under the five roofed colonnades. He asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?” “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” replied the lame man, “While I am going, another steps down before me.” Apparently, the sick and disabled believed that if they could enter the pool at just the right time, healing would occur. Just imagine the pitiful scene: dozens of paralyzed and lame people crawling along, inching towards this “magical” pool. Then perhaps the blind would hear the commotion and step over the immobilized to reach the waters first. This lame man had tried to get in the pool before, but each time, his heartfelt efforts were frustrated when someone else got in just before he could pull his limp body over the edge into the healing waters. When Jesus asked him if he would like to be healed, his response was, “Yeah, I need someone to drag me into the pool.” But of course, that is not what Jesus had in mind.
Some people believe that this particular practice was part of the worship of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Others believe that the shrine to Asclepius was not built until the next century when Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman city. Whether this was an idolatrous shrine or just Jewish superstition, Jesus effectively sent a message to this particular man by ignoring his request. Jesus did not affirm this man’s suggested strategy for healing, rather he said to him, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk.” I suppose two options were available at this moment: (1) the disabled man could have remained lying there thinking, “What audacity! Who commands a lame person to walk?” or (2) he could simply obey the command, despite the fact that every time prior to this that his brain had sent the signal to his legs to get up and walk, nothing had happened. Miraculously, he chose the latter and was suddenly able to stand up and even walk! I imagine at this point there must have been no small commotion as the sick and disabled around him observed this man’s new found mobility. There were probably shouts of amazement, cries of joy, and tears of joy. Perhaps a crowd gathered around the man of interviewers asking him how he had suddenly been healed. We aren’t told, but one thing is certain: somehow Jesus slipped away and waited until later to meet up with him again.
In between the healing and Jesus’ second meeting with the man, some of the Jews berated the healed man with the words, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” To this calloused critique the accused responded, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” This provoked a desire to find out who this Sabbath breaking healer was. Later that day when Jesus found the healed man in the Temple he further instructed him saying, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” After finding out that his healer was Jesus, the man betrayed this information to the Jews who were persecuting Jesus. Consequently, they found Jesus and confronted him. He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” The logic works something like this: (1) God is the one by whose empowered Jesus to heal people (2) Jesus commanded the man to get up and walk (3) God backed up Jesus’ words by miraculously healing him (4) Thus, there was a partnership in which God and Jesus both “worked” on the Sabbath. On other occasions Jesus explained that it was well within his rights to rescue someone on the Sabbath, just like any one of them wouldn’t hesitate to pull their child out of a well on the holy day (Matthew 12.11-12; Luke 13.15-16; 14.5). Even so, Jesus’ interlocutors were aggravated rather than satisfied with Jesus’ response, and now we arrive out our “difficult text”:
John 5:18 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 with God.
If I had a quarter for every time I heard someone arguing for the deity of Jesus using this verse, I could probably by a feast at the local fast food joint. I am astounded at how frequently this verse is bent out of shape to prove Jesus’ divinity. Yet, there are two major reasons why John 5.18 should not be looked at as a proof-text for proving that Jesus is equal with God: (1) Jesus clarified who he was in the next verse (John 5.19), and (2) it is absurd to take the misunderstanding of Jesus’ hostile enemies as a basis for any belief.
(1) Shockingly, the next verse is often withheld when John 5.18 is quoted by zealous orthodox defenders of Jesus’ Godhood:
John 5:19-20 19 Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, 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 the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel.
This is one of several times Jesus confesses unequivocally that he is not able to do anything on his own. He is completely dependent on the Father. The Father loves the Son so he shows him all things that he is doing. God and his servant Jesus shared an inseparably intimate relationship, the perfect union of God with a human, whose interactions were totally untainted by sin. There was nothing which came between Jesus and his God. This enabled him to walk with his Father in a way so unfamiliar to us that we postulate in unbelief, “He must be God! No man could ever enjoy such oneness with the Almighty.” But, isn’t that what the destiny is for all of God’s people? Aren’t we all longing for the intimacy with God that we can only catch glimpses of in this life? Didn’t Jesus himself prophesy, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God?”
Jesus was not God, but he was utterly submitted to God’s desires, to such a degree that not only his miraculous deeds, but even his very words were dripping with divine authority and truth. To oppose Jesus was to oppose God, because God was in him reconciling the world unto himself (2 Corinthians 5.19). Consider these verses which provide for us a small window into how Jesus perceived his own capability in relation to his Father:
John 4:34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.
John 5:30 “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
John 6:38 “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
John 8:28-29 28 So Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me. 29 “And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.”
John 8:42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.
John 8:54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’;
John 12:49-50 49 “For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. 50 “I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.”
John 14:10 “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works.
John 14:28 “You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.
John 5.19 clearly fits into this theme. Jesus is not the one calling the shots. His very food is to do the will of God, to say the words his Father has given him, to do the works of his Lord, and to receive the glory God has reserved for him. If someone desires to use John 5.18 to prove that Jesus was equal with God, he must also reckon with the next verse (John 5.19) and with all of these that we have just quoted. Apparently, Jesus did not think of himself as God’s equal, but rather his humble and obedient Son.
(2) The second reason why John 5.18 should not be used to prove that Jesus was equal with God is because the statement was made by Jesus’ enemies who frequently misunderstood Jesus (especially in the Gospel of John). Take a moment to think back to the context of this event. A lame man had been healed so that he could now roll up his mat and walk home. Rather than rejoicing at the obvious act of God that had just occurred, these people instead took issue with the guy for caring his mat on the Sabbath. This is a perfect example of when religion goes wrong and serves to blind rather than illumine people’s eyes, to harden hearts rather than soften them, to produce self-righteousness instead of compassion. These criticizers were more concerned about their scruples than the life which had just been touched in the most amazing way. The healed man could now work a job rather than being reduced to begging. Many people probably thought he was cursed by God for being ill so long; now that stigma had been lifted. A whole new life was available to him. Perhaps he could now marry and start a family, or travel, or jog a marathon. Yet, rather than rejoicing with him, the religious leaders criticized the man. It was as if their discernment compass was permanently frozen on “clueless.”
In light of the fact that these people were obviously lacking in their ability to understand what was happening, perhaps it would not be a good idea to use their statement about Jesus as a proof-text. Besides isn’t it most effective to use words spoken by the person to determine who they are, rather than the words of his or her enemies?
Not only in this instance, but quite frequently throughout the Gospel of John, the unbelieving Jews misunderstood Jesus. We could even say that this is one of the themes of this Gospel. What’s more, Jesus doesn’t always scratch them where they itch; sometimes he will allow them to continue in their blindness without correcting them or he will respond to their misunderstanding in such a way that further befuddles them. Here are some examples:
- In John 2.13-22, after cleansing the Temple Jesus says to them “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews misunderstood Jesus to be talking about the Herod’s Temple but he was really talking about the temple of his body. There is no indication that Jesus ever cleared up this misunderstanding (especially considering the fact that they used this against him at his trial).
- Nicodemus thought Jesus was suggesting that someone should “enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born” when Jesus talks about being born again (John 3.4). In this case Jesus clarifies his statement to Nicodemus, though even in this instance it is hard to grasp what exactly Jesus is saying.
- The Samaritan woman at the well thinks Jesus is talking about well water when Jesus tells her that he has living water which permanently quenches thirst (John 4.10-15). Again, in this case, since the woman sincerely wanted to know, Jesus explained to her what he was talking about.
- In response to the people who asked him, “what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you?…Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness,” Jesus responded by telling them that he is the bread of life from heaven which they must eat. If that wasn’t enough he also told them that they must “eat his flesh and drink his blood” in order to be resurrected on the last day. A Number of the people responded by saying, “This is a hard saying, who can hear it.” In addition, quite a number of disciples turned back and no longer walked with him (John 6.35-66).
- At the Feast of Booths Jesus told the Pharisees that he would be there for a little while longer, and then he was going to the one who sent him. He went on to say, “You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” The people understood Jesus to be saying that he would leave Palestine and go minister to the people living in the other parts of the Mediterranean world (John 7.32-36). Jesus did not correct their misunderstanding.
More examples could be given, but by now the point should be crystal clear: it is frequently the case that Jesus’ audience misunderstood him (especially those who didn’t really want to know). We can easily see how John 5.18 fits into this motif. This is just another case of the people misunderstanding Jesus’ actions and words. Thus, we would do well if we did not use this text as the cornerstone of our Christology. Rather, we need to understand John 5.18 in light of the next verse, the prior context of the healing of the lame man, and within themes of the Gospel of John as a whole. When we do this we find over and again that texts commonly used to support the Trinity vanish like fog in the heat of the sun.