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John 5

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19 Jesus therefore 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."

 

Commentary Jesus, knowing the hearts of his accusers and therefore precisely what they were accusing him of, answers them with two remarkable statements.  First, he declares that He can do nothing "of himself" (that is, on his own initiative, independent of the Father), but only what He sees His Father doing.  Second, He says that whatever the Father does, He also does.  If the translation "in like manner" is correct (see Grammatical Analysis, below), the second statement becomes even more remarkable - for He not only does whatever the Father does, He does these things exactly as the Father does them.

In accusing Jesus of "making Himself equal with God," the Jews were bringing into focus the essential nature of Christ and His relationship with His Father.  We may ask how Jesus could have answered, had His true Nature been represented by a particular Christological view:

  1. If He is equal with the Father in every way, including His Person, he can assert this equality (modalism); 

  2. If He is not equal with the Father in any way, he can deny his equality (WT christology; arianism; unitarianism, etc.); 

  3. If He is essentially equal with the Father, but also distinct from and in submission to the Father, He can affirm each of these truths (trinitarianism).

Jesus speaks of "seeing the Father," which does not suggest that Father and Son are equal in the sense of being the same Person.  We may thus reject answer #1.  While some may argue that Christ being unable to act "of Himself" suggests that he cannot be equal with God, this is not the case (see Response under Jehovah's Witnesses, below), though it does suggest a submission to the Father's authority.  Further, saying that the Son does whatever the Father does suggests a functional, if not essential, equality between Father and Son.  Thus, we must not only reject answer #2, but must consider answer #3 the most likely, particularly considering that Jesus has also just equated Himself with the Father in terms of "working" on the Sabbath in the previous verse.

 

Furthermore there should be no misunderstanding with regard to the thrust of the statement "the Son can do nothing of his own accord but only..."  These words have often been understood as an expression of Jesus' modesty and sense of subordination to the Father by means of which he is said to have defended Himself against the accusation of "the Jews" that he made Himself equal with God.  Jesus does not reject equality with God, however, but the idea that he made himself equal to God.  "Of his own accord" means apart from the Father, on his own authority.  Over against this vss. 19 and 20 place all the emphasis on Jesus' fellowship and unity with the Father (Ridderbos, pp. 192-193).

 

The Greek text of verses 19-23 is structured around four gar ('for' or 'because') statements.  The first introduces the last clause of v. 19.  The thought runs like this:  It is impossible for the Son to take independent, self-determined action that would set him over against the Father as another God, for all the Son does is both coincident with and co-extensive with all that the Father does.  'Perfect Sonship involves perfect identity of will and action with the Father' (Westcott, The Gospel According to John, 1. p. 189).  It follows that separate, self-determined action would be a denial of his sonship.  But if this last clause of v. 19 takes the impossibility of the Son operating independently and grounds it in the perfection of Jesus' sonship, it also constitutes another oblique claim to deity; for the only one who could conceivably do whatever the Father does must be as great as the Father, as divine as the Father (Carson, p. 251).

Grammatical Analysis

`a gar an ekeinoV poih tauta kai`o`uioV `omoiwV poiei

 

hA GAR AN EKEINOS POI  TAUTA KAI hO hUIOS hOMOI‘S POIEI

 

For whatever things this One does, The Son likewise does.

 

AN

  • Whatever he does...Jn 5:19 (BAGD).

There is no dispute that Christ says that He does whatever the Father does.

 

hOMOI‘S

  • Likewise, equally, in the same way (Thayer).

  • In like manner" (Vine).

but contra:

  • Sometimes the idea of similarity fades into the background to such a degree that hOMOI‘S means also...this the Son also does J 5:19 (BAGD).

  • hOMOI‘S does not mean 'in the same manner' (imitation) but 'also,' 'likewise,'  'in agreement with' (Ridderbos, p. 193, n. 23).

  • Jn 5:19...hOMOI‘S should not be translated 'in like manner' (RV) but 'likewise' (AV).  (Moulton and Milligan).

While the translation "in like manner" would provide an even greater claim to equality with God, it must be noted that even if the more recent lexical evidence is accepted, Jesus is still saying the does whatever the Father does, though perhaps not specifying how.

Other Views Considered

Jehovah's Witnesses

Objection:  The Watchtower has written:

 

"But who said Jesus was making himself equal with God?  Not Jesus.  He defended himself against this false charge in the very next verse (19):  'To this accusation Jesus replied...the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing' - JB.  By this, Jesus showed the Jews that he was not equal with God and therefore could not act on his own initiative.  Can we imagine someone equal to Almighty God saying that he could 'do nothing by himself?' (SYBT, p. 24).

 

Response:  The WT says that because He's not equal with God, he "could not act on his own initiative."  But this makes no sense.  Can those who are not equal with God act on their own initiative?  I certainly can, and I suspect you can, too.  All men have free will.  All men can act on their own initiative.  It's called "sin" when we do things by our own will that are not in accord with God's will.  We can choose to follow His will or not.  But Jesus says not simply that he chooses not to do things outside the will of the Father, but that He can't.  Think through the implications of that statement for a minute.  If Jesus truly cannot act on His own initiative, and He is a creature, then He is no more than a slave to God's will.  Does the WT teach that all those that are "not equal with God" cannot act on their own initiative?  Or just the Son?

Jesus' words throughout this passage do not hint that He is a slave, but that He and the Father share a perfect love for one another.  In a real sense, if Jesus is a creature that cannot act on his own initiative, Jesus has no free will.  Yet, Jesus says later in this passage that he "gives life to whom He wills" (v. 21), certainly implying He has free will to act on His own initiative.  Now, can a person who is "equal" with God act on his own initiative?  He can, but only so long as his will perfectly matches that of God.  If he ever acted apart from God's will, he would - by definition - no longer be "equal with God."  But Jesus says that he cannot act apart from God's will.  Thus, when He says that he "can do nothing of himself, but only what he sees his Father doing," He proclaims that His will, though free, is never apart from God's will, and thus asserts a fundamental - and eternal - equality with God.

The WT is right in one sense - the Jews were indeed mistaken, but not in the way the WT teaches.  They thought Jesus was setting Himself up in rivalry to the Father - as a second God.  But Jesus answers that far from being in competition with the Father, the Son is perfectly in harmony with the Father, and the two act together to redeem and judge fallen mankind - hardly the thing to say if you're trying to deny equality with God!

Finally, since the Watchtower's New World Translation renders hOMOI‘S in this verse "in like manner," we must ask how it is that Jesus is denying equality with God when He states that not only does He do whatever the Father does, but He does these things exactly as the Father does them?

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