Jesus’ First Clear Claim to Deity!
During Jesus’ first Pentecost season after the beginning of his public ministry, he healed a man who was unable to walk. He did this on the Sabbath day. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem confronted him saying that he had broken the Sabbath.
John 5:17-18 NASB 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 with God. (emphasis mine)
The Greek word translated equal is isos (G2470). It is the same word used in Philippians 2:6 to indicate that when Jesus was in the form of God, he was equal with God (the Father) in power and authority (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence etc.). One thing is clear in John 5:17-18. The Jewish authorities understood Jesus to be saying that he was equal with God. Whatever we may think of Jesus’ words, the Jewish authorities sought to kill him, because he made himself equal with God.
Moreover, making himself equal with God is not merely the opinion of the Jewish authorities. It is the interpretation of John, the Gospel writer. Notice that he does not say that the authorities thought Jesus made himself equal with God. John says it was because Jesus made himself equal with God that the Jewish authorities sought to kill him.
Some will argue that this could not possibly be the Gospel writer’s interpretation, because that would mean that Jesus was also a Sabbath breaker. The same verse that says Jesus made himself equal with God also says, with equal authority, that Jesus broke the Sabbath. This is true! Jesus did break the Sabbath but without sin. Let me explain why this is so.
First and foremost, the context shows that, whatever Jesus’ reason for doing what he did, the Father backed him up by working the miracle through Jesus in the first place. Jesus told the Jews to look at what was going on – “I can’t do this of myself” (John 5:19). Remember, we are not speaking of equality of power etc. in this Scripture. Jesus left that behind in Philippians 2:6-7 to take the form of a bondservant. What Jesus is saying is he had a right to do as he did, because God is his own Father. They are equal in essence. He is the Son of God, and no one had any right to call his activity into question. After all, the signature of God was upon his works (John 5:19). Jesus and the Father worked together to perform the miracles. He wasn’t doing things alone. The Father was backing him up. This is the first point Jesus made in his defense.
Secondly, he was technically breaking the Sabbath, but as I said above, without sin. How can this be so? At this time in John 5, Jesus was in Jerusalem. He healed a man who couldn’t walk and told him to pick up his bed and go home. This was done on the Sabbath day (John 5:1-9). A similar argument developed in Galilee at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. About nine months earlier on one of the Sabbaths the Pharisees questioned Jesus, concerning his disciples taking corn off the stalks in a field and eating them on the Sabbath day (Luke 6:1-2). Jesus’ argument at that time was that David, the anointed of God, had eaten what was set aside for the priests only. He ate the showbread that was in the Tabernacle, which was consecrated for the priests alone. Luke presents only half the argument, so to get the full impact, one must read what Jesus said in Matthew 12:3-8. The other half of the argument is that the priests who serve the Temple “profane the Sabbath and are blameless” (Matthew 12:5). The priests make their living off the sacrifices brought to the Temple. Killing the beasts, skinning the animal, cutting up the meat etc., is not only a lot of work; it is the living of the priest. Technically, they were breaking the Sabbath, while they served the Temple. Therefore, the duties of the Temple are more important than the strict obedience to the Sabbath law. The argument concerning David is that David, as the anointed of God, made himself lord over the consecrated things in the Temple. Therefore, if serving the Temple is more important than strict observance of the Sabbath, what did David do but make himself lord over the gifts of the Temple. In other words, the priest’s duties and living are more important than the strict observance of the Sabbath law, yet David was in authority over that which concerned the Temple, namely the food of the priests. Jesus’ argument therefore is that, as Messiah, he is the Lord of the Sabbath and greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6-8).
When Jesus healed a man or woman on the Sabbath day, he was merely making that vessel of God whole and fit for use, as a part of the Temple of God (2Timothy 2:20). Therefore, when Jesus “broke” the Sabbath, it was in the same sense that the Levites and priests did. They served the Temple on the Sabbath days, while technically profaning the Sabbath. Yet they were blameless. So was Jesus blameless.
Therefore, John’s statement that Jesus is equal with God stands. The opposing argument, saying that if this is so Jesus is also a Sabbath-breaker, is moot and understood in the fact that Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath and greater than the Temple.