Jesus Is Equal to God in His Person
But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” 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. (5:17–18)
As noted in the previous chapter of this volume, the Sabbath observance was at the heart of Jewish worship in Jesus’ day. The Lord’s reply to those who challenged Him for violating it (5:16), “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working,” implies that the Sabbath was not instituted for God’s benefit but for man’s (Mark 2:27). In other words, the Sabbath restriction on working did not apply to God; He was not required to rest on every seventh day. It is true that at the end of creation week, He “rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (Gen. 2:2). That, however, was not because He was tired or received some benefit, for “the Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired” (Isa. 40:28). Instead, it was to set a divine example for man to rest one day out of each week (Ex. 20:9–11). (For a discussion of the New Testament believer’s relationship to the Old Testament Sabbath, see John MacArthur, Colossians and Philemon, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 118–19.)
The significance of the seventh day is underscored by the three references to it in Genesis 2:1–3. According to verse 3, God “sanctified” (“set apart”; “separated”) that day to distinguish it from the first six, none of which are so designated. Three verbs in the passage, each of them associated with the work of God, reveal why He uniquely set apart the seventh day.
“Completed” (v. 1) stresses that the entire work of God in creation was finished by the end of the sixth day. In contrast to the theory of evolution (whether atheistic or theistic), the Bible denies that the creative process is still ongoing.
Since His work of creation was completed, God “rested” (vv. 2–3). As noted above, that does not imply any weariness on His part (Isa. 40:28); the verb merely indicates that by the seventh day God had ceased to do the work of creation (cf. Ex. 20:11).
Finally, God “blessed” the seventh day (v. 3); that is, He set it aside as a memorial. Every Saturday of every week serves as a reminder that God created the entire universe in six days, and then rested from His creative activity.
But as even the rabbis themselves acknowledged, God’s Sabbath rest (cf. Heb. 4:9–10) from His creative work does not obviate His unceasing providential work of sustaining the universe (Heb. 1:3). Jesus’ statement that He worked on the Sabbath just like the Father was nothing less than a claim to full deity and equality with God, that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). His words also served as a subtle rebuke to the Jewish legalistic system, under which He had been indicted for doing good and showing mercy on the Sabbath. After all, God Himself does good and shows mercy on the Sabbath. Jesus, therefore, maintained that it is right to do good on the Sabbath, since God does. Ironically, even the unbelieving Jews performed acts of mercy on the Sabbath (cf. 7:23; Luke 14:5)—the very thing for which they hypocritically rebuked Jesus.
The hostile Jews instantly grasped the import of Jesus’ words and as a result were seeking (the tense of the verb indicates continuous action) all the more to kill Him (cf. v. 16). He was not only breaking the Sabbath, but even worse in their minds, Jesus also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (cf. 10:30–33). In contrast to the Jews’ collective reference to God as “our Father,” Jesus called God His own Father. The clear implication, which His opponents readily understood, was that He was claiming to be fully equal with God in nature (cf. 1:1; 8:58; 20:28; Phil. 2:6). In response, they intensified their efforts to take His life (cf. 7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40, 59; 11:53), not just for exposing their self-styled legalism, but now with justification (in their minds), because He was asserting His deity.
17 Jesus justified his activity on the Sabbath by explaining that since God the Father was continuing to work even to that very day, so also is the Son free to work. Exodus 20:11 teaches that after God had completed the creation in six days, “he rested on the seventh day.” The rabbis understood, however, that God’s Sabbath rest did not mean that he became idle, for without the activity of divine providence on the Sabbath all life would cease; furthermore, since only God can give life and human beings are born on the Sabbath, it follows that God must be active on the Sabbath. The third-century rabbi Hoshaiah is quoted as saying that God’s resting on this day from all his works “means that he rested from work on his world; but he did not rest from work on the unrighteous and on the righteous” (Gen. Rab. 11.10). That God remains active in this world was perfectly acceptable to Jesus’ detractors. What was not acceptable was Jesus’ (implied) claim that he was God’s Son and therefore shared the same privilege. While the Jews sometimes referred in worship to God as their father, they would never use the term in an individual sense as Jesus had just done.
18 For Jesus to challenge the fundamental distinction between God and human beings (God being infinite and holy, human beings being finite and sinful) was tantamount to blasphemy. While Jesus’ statement would not have been taken as actual blasphemy (m. Sanh. 7.5 says that “the blasphemer is not culpable unless he pronounces the Name itself”), the implication was perfectly clear. He was laying claim to a special and unique relationship to God as Father that gave him the right to do whatever was appropriate for God to do. The charge that he broke the Sabbath (and in so doing was relaxing or invalidating the law; cf. TDNT 4:336) was serious, but not nearly as damaging as the charge that by calling God his own Father he was making himself equal with God. While in Greek thought certain outstanding individuals were considered to be godlike, such a comparison was blasphemous to the Jew. Hendriksen, 1:196, comments that for Jesus to claim for himself deity “was either the most wicked blasphemy, to be punished with death; or else, it was the most glorious truth, to be accepted by faith.”
Obviously Jesus’ antagonists were not about to accept such a claim, so “they tried all the harder to kill him.” Opposition to truth inevitably takes the course of violence. Conviction stirs up hatred in those who hold just as strongly to an opposing belief. Historically the only recourse has been to do away with those whose convictions undermine and repudiate the conventional wisdom of the day. Yet truth has a way of vindicating itself, and in the end every knee will bow and every tongue confess the lordship of Jesus Christ (Php 2:10–11).