I see at least three main things going on in John 5:1-24. One of these three main things we saw the last time we looked at the text, namely, the healing of this man at the pool of Bethesda, and Jesus’ statement that the point of the healing was not to gratify sign-seekers but to conquer sin.
1) A Healing to Conquer Sin
So in verses 8–9, “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” Jesus gets away so quickly to avoid excessive focus on the miracle that the man doesn’t even know who healed him when the authorities question him about carrying his bed on the Sabbath. Verse 13: “Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.”
So we wonder: Is this a random miracle that Jesus did and then escaped without anyone even knowing who he was or why he did it? The answer comes in verse 14: “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” In other words: I have sought you out to tell you the point of what I did to you. I healed your body with the aim that it would lead to the healing of your soul. I conquered your sickness with a view to conquering your sin. I healed you for the sake of your holiness.
Jesus’ Miracles: Not an End in Themselves
None of the physical miracles of Jesus was an end in itself. They all point to something more about him and about the kingdom of God and about the spiritual and moral transformations that he is working. When he fed the five thousand from a few loaves and fish, the point was that he himself is the true bread from heaven. But in John 6:26, he had to say to the crowd, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). You missed the spiritual sign-character of the miracle; you only saw the physical shell.
So he is saying to the healed man now in John 5, “Don’t miss what your healing was a sign of.” Your healing was about your holiness. I have come for that. So look to me and turn from sin.
That’s one of the three main things that are going on in this text. And we will come back to it at the end.
The other two main things have to do with the way the Father and the Son are related, and the fact that this miracle of healing was done on the Sabbath. So let’s take those one at a time and see how they are related to each other and how they relate to the healing and its aim in the man’s holiness.
2) Jesus’ Relationship to the Father
A dominant theme in this passage is the way Jesus relates to God the Father. Verse 16 says that the Jews were persecuting Jesus because he had healed this man on the Sabbath: “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.”
So Jesus responded with an explanation in verse 17: “But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’” Leave aside the question of the Sabbath for a moment and simply focus on the relationship of Jesus to God. This is what the Jews did, and it elevated their persecution to plan to kill. Here is what they heard Jesus say about his relationship to God. Verse 18: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Jesus Let It Stand
Now what is crucial to see here is not why they would draw that conclusion, but that Jesus let it stand. They were there. We weren’t. They could see and hear the way he spoke about God as his Father. And evidently there were sufficient indications in what he said and the way he said it that they thought, This is over the top. This man really is treating himself as equal with God in the way he talks about God.
Jesus lets it stand and begins to unpack its implications. He says that 1) the Son doesn’t—indeed the Son can’t—go his own way but stays in perfect step with the Father; and 2) the Father doesn’t go his own way but acts in perfect step with the Son. 3) Then he gives two implications of this for us. Take these one at a time.
Jesus Does Only What the Father Does
First, the Son only does what the Father does. They act in perfect synchronization. Verses 19–20: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.”
The most important statement in those verses is the second half of verse 19: “Whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” This is different from saying: Jesus chooses some things to do that he sees the Father doing and so only does what the Father is doing. It says, “Whatever the Father does,” Jesus does. When the Father acts, Jesus acts. This is the sort of thing the Jews heard Jesus say. And they concluded rightly: You talk like you’re equal with him. You talk as if for him to act is for you to act—as if there is some kind of essential connection or union.
The Father Acts in Step with Jesus
Second, in verse 22 it seems to go the other direction, that the Father acts in step with the Son. Verse 22: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” Now when you read this, you can’t throw away everything you just read in verse 19 as though it suddenly stopped being true. Verse 19 says, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” So when verse 22 says, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son,” it can’t mean the Son doesn’t see the Father judging but goes ahead and judges anyway. And John 3:36 says clearly that if you don’t believe in Jesus, “the wrath of God remains on him.” That is, God does judge.
So I take verse 22 to mean: “The Father judges no one [on his own].” The Father doesn’t go off on his own, without any reference to the Son, and judge the world. He judges no one like that. Another thing verse 22 seems to mean is that the Son, not the Father, is the frontline, historical criterion of who comes into judgment. That’s the point of verse 23: “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” In other words, whether God is dishonored with the effect that judgment falls is determined by the frontline, historical person of Jesus. If people honor him for who he really is, then God the Father is honored for who he really is. So in that sense, all judgment is given to the Son. What people make of him decides their final judgment. But that’s because what they make of him is what they make of God.
So it seems to me that the part of verse 22 (“The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son”) means the Father is not the frontline, historical criterion of judgment, but is in perfect step with the Son’s judgment because the one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father.
I said that there were two implications for us from the fact that the Son stays in perfect step with the Father, and the Father acts in perfect step with the Son. One of them we just saw. In the twenty-first century world of teeming pluralism, with religions and worldviews and cultures and lifestyles competing for our allegiance, verse 23 lands like a bombshell: “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”
In other words, if you want to know if someone in another religion, or no religion, honors God (has a true worshipful relationship with God), the test that you use to know this is: Do they honor Jesus for who he really is—as the divine Son of God, the Messiah, the crucified and risen Savior of the world, the Lord of the universe and Judge of all human beings? If they don’t, then they don’t honor God. That’s the first implication.
The second is in verse 24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” If we hear the message of Jesus in the Gospel of John taken in its totality—not just some distorted part of it—and, if through that message and that person, we come to trust God as the one who sent him for our salvation, two amazing things happen.
1) We not only will have eternal life, but we already have it, and 2) we not only will not come into the judgment of condemnation, but have already passed through judgment and are safe on the other side. Jesus has become that judgment for us. When we are united to him by faith, his death becomes our death, and his crucifixion our crucifixion, and his curse on the cross our curse on the cross, and his resurrection our resurrection. We have already “passed from death to life”! This is glorious news beyond all words. Exult in this. Know this about yourself as a believer. Be made radically courageous by this.
So the first main issue in this text is the man’s healing and its purpose to lead the man to holiness. And the second main issue in this text is the way the Father and the Son are equal so that when one is acting the other is acting—with the two implications that if we don’t honor the Son, we don’t honor the Father, and if we believe on the Father through the word of Jesus, we have already passed from death to life and are on the other side of condemnation.
3) The Issue of the Sabbath
That leaves one more main issue in the text to deal with—the issue of the Sabbath. Now, in what we have seen about Jesus’ relation to the Father, we have the foundation to make sense of Jesus’ answer to their criticism. Remember that verse 16 says, “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things—namely, this healing—on the Sabbath.”
Now what is Jesus’ explanation? He had given an explanation to the healed man for why he was healed—namely, this is about the pursuit of your holiness. I conquer sickness to show you that I want to conquer sin. And now he has an explanation for the Jewish leaders who are criticizing the fact that this happened on the Sabbath. He says in verse 17, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
What Is Jesus Saying?
What’s he saying? I think something like this. My Father and I created a perfect world, a paradise, and then we rested, not that we were tired, but stepped back as it were and enjoy the perfect display of our own glory revealed in our creative handiwork. That’s what Sabbath is for—the restful, focused, enjoyment of God.
But then sin entered the world, and through sin came sickness and calamity and death. And from that moment, my Father and I have been working again. We have been working—in many ways that you don’t understand—to restore a Sabbath paradise to the universe. We have been working to overcome sin and sickness and death.
Even your own law, which contains the Sabbath command, was part of our working to conquer sin and hold back the miseries of unrighteousness and point you forward to a Messiah, a Savior, who would come and perform the decisive acts of restoration and transformation toward the new heavens and the new earth.
When I heal a man, and intentionally do it on the Sabbath, I am showing you something about myself. What was happening at the pool of Bethesda was that my Father and I were revealing the world that is coming. It is a world in which there will be no sickness and a world in which there will be no sin. “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
Repent and Rejoice
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Whether you see it or not, here is my response to your accusations about my Sabbath-breaking:
I and the Father are one. We created the world and the Sabbath. Since sin and sickness entered the world, my Father has been working, and I have been working, to restore Sabbath joy and wholeness and rest to the world. That is what I am doing here and now in the months that remain to me on the earth. I will deliver the decisive victory at the cross. And I will come again to complete my redeeming work. And in that kingdom, there will be no sickness, and there will be no sin. Therefore, repent, and rejoice that a man has been saved from both on the Sabbath. Amen.