This week we’ve been looking at Jesus on trial in John chapter 5. Jesus gets himself into trouble by healing a lame man on the Sabbath, and then telling him to pick up and carry his mat – both of which were prohibited on the day of rest. In his defence, he says this:5:17 In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”
This only served to get him in more hot water, as the Jewish leaders understood this to be blasphemy:5:18 For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Without wanting to evoke too many overtones of Batman, how will our hero escape this predicament? Read on.
In first century trials, you were expected to defend yourself by means of a persuasive speech – convincing the crowd of your good character, tendering the supporting evidence, and shaming your accusers. And although this isn’t a real court, it’s still taking the form of the trial, so Jesus begins his defence speech. And he begins by explaining what he meant. Let’s take a listen:5:19 Jesus gave them this answer: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’
Now this isn’t quite the ‘I’m just following orders’ defence it might seem. It’s using the metaphor of apprenticeship to describe an aspect of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father. In the ancient world, the general rule was that in terms of work, you did what your father did; and what his father did before him, and so on. None of this going off to Uni or college or TAFE and choosing a career – you learned first-hand from working alongside Dad, carefully copying his craft. And when he got too old, it was expected that you’d take over the family business.
So by using this image of a son apprenticed to his father, Jesus is claiming to be continuing the family business. To be continuing the work of God in the world. And not just the way a slave might carry out his master’s orders; but in the context of the intimate relationship between father and son.5:20 ‘For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.’
And what is it that Jesus the Son copies his Father in doing? Bringing the gift of eternal life:5:21 ‘For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.’
Now the son – particularly the first born son – had a special status in the family business. He had the authority to do business on the father’s behalf – not just as some hired hand or a messenger. Custom had it that he could do business as though he were the father himself. And because of this, the father would often send the son to represent him. So you responded to the son the way you would respond to the father.5:22-23 ‘Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.’
Jesus then goes in vv24-30 to give a strong warning about how we respond to him. If we reject him, we are rejecting the Father and face judgement. But if we accept him – if we accept his claim to represent the Father – then we receive the gift of eternal life he brings:5:24 ‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.’
So if we were to sum up the first point Jesus makes in his defence, it would be this: ‘I’m not setting myself up as equal to God in the sense of being his rival. I’m not trying to replace him. On the contrary – I’m continuing his work, as a son joining the family business. And I’ve come to you because the Father sent me. He authorised me to represent him, as a son represents his father. So be very careful, you who accuse me of blasphemy. Because you’re not just putting me on trial. You’re also putting the Father on trial. And for that, there are eternal consequences.’
To everyone who tells us that they’re happy with their idea of God, comfortable with their concept of heaven and salvation – our message needs to be tactful, yet loud and clear. If Jesus is indeed God’s authorised representative, then he’s the only one whose opinion counts. And to reject Jesus’ revelation of God is to reject God himself.
But still. Is that the case? All Jesus has done so far is to clarify his claim. He hasn’t yet proven it. The defence will need to call some witnesses tomorrow. Court adjourned.