It is always interesting to compare John with the Synoptics, and in the case of John 5, the comparison and the contrast are important. Even among the minimalists and deconstructionists, there are a handful of things that no one argues about when it comes to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. One of those is that this particular rabbi had a beef with Sabbath as the Jews of his day were practicing it. Some evidence for that is born out in John 5, as yet another healing turns into a Sabbath dispute. In fairness to Jesus, it seems that his opponents were actually the ones with the beef; in fairness to his opponents, Jesus seems to have been a salt-on-wound kind of guy, though I’m sure he had the right of it. In any case, there was a fight over Sabbath that contributed to the plot against Jesus, and all of the Evangelists thought to put it in writing.
The contrast is important, though: “he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” That is an especially Johannine view of things that only snowballs in subsequent verses.
- “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”
- “just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes”
- “that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father”
It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of such statements on Jesus’s lips, the last in particular. John’s Christology remains high, Jesus claims for himself straightforward. For many Bible readers, that doesn’t mean much, either because John and the other Gospels must be harmonious, no questions asked, or because the contrast doesn’t affect the final conclusion, so the details along the way are practically irrelevant. For my part, I can’t help feeling that an issue like Jesus’s relation to the Father, hotly debated as it has been across millennia, merits scrutiny when the biblical authors take such distinct tacks.
Our problem is that we tend to want to answer our questions. In this case, too many of our questions have to do with some very old phrasing in the context of some very trenchant advocacy of those phrases. I’ll be direct: I’m not interested in those, at least not here. Not to say that the claims don’t have implications for the ontological kinds of questions that get the most press. I just don’t think John is interested in them (or Jesus for that matter). So what is their concern?
The thought sequence suggests that there is some justification offered for calling God his own father and some affirmation of the Jews’ understanding of the implications (note: this is an important point if only because there are other places where one can easily interpret Jesus’s use of “Father” in less drastic terms; John clues us in to something more than a mere messianic claim in the Jewish perspective—a redefinition of Messiah in retrospect).
It is where the discussion is headed that gives us more insight, however. Jesus is not trying to explain exactly how the relationship works or the nature of his being. He is driving at a point that John has already been pounding: revelation. Notice the switch that Jesus’s explanation allows him to make.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life . . .”
Because of who he is in relation to the Father, to hear Jesus’ message and believe it is in fact to believe the Father. Jesus doesn’t care whether people believe him, per se. The end he is driving toward is that they believe the Father. Incidentally, to hear Jesus is to hear the Father, to see Jesus is to see the Father, and to put trust in Jesus is to put trust in the Father. That is Jesus’s saving function.
The rest of the chapter is indicative of the section’s revelatory shtick, listing off a number of heavy-hitting bits of revelation: the Baptizer, the Father himself (through Jesus’ miracles), the Scriptures, and Moses in particular. The point: How are you not getting this?!
I often ask myself that same question.