John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000
In the first two verses of the Prologue John had hinted at a complexity within the oneness of God. In this section of 22 verses he goes on to give us fifteen references to the relationship between Jesus the Son of God and the Father.
These are introduced with Jesus' enigmatic statement : "My Father is still working, and I also am working" (5:17). And we are immediately puzzled by the idea of God working, and how does Jesus' work relate to the Father's work? On one hand God ceased from the work of bringing our world into being on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3). But God is constantly relating to and intervening in the lives of the humans he made in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27) to live in the creation he has made for them.
When I go to a bank machine to withdraw cash there are simultaneously hundreds of other customers checking their accounts, paying bills, and making transfers all over the country. My bank never stops working. In that sense God is certainly at work relating every moment to every one of us all over the world.
When the Messiah Son of God took birth among us his eternal "work" was narrowly focused (photographers and computers call it zooming) among a few people in a very small country. Having emptied himself of his glory (Philippians 2:5-11) he gives us a glimpse into the loving heart of God. We might compare the Chief Executive Officer of my bank leaving his desk in the head office and coming to talk to me personally about my account.
In the vision of many ancient Greek philosophers the basic assumption was that God is immutable (cannot be changed by what we say or do) and impassible (is not affected by our feelings). This idea has permeated and skewed centuries of western theology. My bank is obviously not immutable. Every second it is being changed by the input of its customers. How much more a loving God.
As the Gospel proceeds, John will pick out Jesus's words about the way God's mind is affected and changed by our prayers. "I will do whatever you ask in my name" (14:13, 15:16). "Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it you" (16:23-24, as in Matthew 7:7-11). If we believe in the power of prayer, it is impossible at the same time to picture God as impassible.
In this section John's focus is on Jesus' words about the relationship between himself and the Father. In other parts of the Gospel he will also introduce us to the work of the Holy Spirit who came down upon the Messiah at his baptism (1:32-33). Nicodemus was told he needed to be born and moved by the Spirit (3:5-6). But John will leave most of what Jesus said about the Spirit to his conversation during the last supper (14:26, 15:26, 16:7-12). Whereas Matthew's Gospel ends with the command to baptize and teach in the name of the three Persons of God (Matthew 29:19-20), John' Gospel could be viewed as an explanation of the Trinitarian (as opposed to Unitarian) heart of God.
In trying to explain the oneness of the atom scientists used a model of protons, neutrons and electrons held together by atomic force. The picture has been complicated by the addition of sub-atomic particles and the strange unpredictability of quantum mechanics. And all these are in constant motion and affected by each other. If every molecule of the universe is that complex, we should expect the inner life of the Creator of the universe to be infinitely richer.
Like scientists who study the atom, we can only approach the mystery of God through a series of pictures and images. God is one (monotheism) but there is an inner complexity of three Persons working together and relating to us in many ways. In this section John now gives us in the very words of Jesus some of the relationships between the Father and the Son.
5:17 We have pictured a bank constantly at work as its computer is accessed day and night by millions of customers. But God does not need a special place for us to be in contact with him, or special words. We can talk to him any time, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit not only listen and care but they can intervene in all sorts of complex ways. The work of the Son when he came among us on earth is pictured throughout the Gospel.
5:18 Saying that he was constantly in touch with God as his own Father was rightly understood by the theologians as a claim that he was equally and eternally part of the Godhead. And by Jewish law this was a blasphemy deserving the death penalty.
John contrasts the Son of God's eternal relationship to the Father to our own relationship to the Father when we become adopted children of God (1:12).
5:19 Jesus goes on to give us a first explanation of the Father/Son relationship. Though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equally God, they relate to each other and to us in different ways (as do the protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom). Throughout the Gospel we will note Jesus' sense both of subordination to the Father, and the exercising of a very different function as he sees what the Father is doing and expresses it on earth. "The Son can do nothing on his own." From our human point of view we can picture the Father as our Parent above us, the Son as our Leader and Friend beside us, and the Spirit as giving us wisdom and inspiration from deep within our hearts.
5:20 What holds an atom together is the mighty power of atomic force. What holds the eternal Trinity together is the infinitely greater power of love. God is love (1 John 4:16), which means first that the three Persons of the Trinity, though different in their functions, love each totally. In one sense having taken birth among us and become fully human, Jesus had to learn from the Father. And the great works (signs, see 2:11) which John chose to include in his Gospel were not done by the Messiah in his human strength but by the power of the Spirit.
5:21 Only God can possibly raise the dead and make alive (Deuteronomy 32:39) . The same life-giving power of the Father which will raise Jesus (and us) from the dead through the power of the Spirit (see Romans 8:11) is the power by which Jesus gave eternal life (extending through death and resurrection) to those who entrusted themselves to him (see 5:26).
5:22 We have already seen how people inevitably judge themselves if they shrink away from the light of the Son of God (John 3:19-20). But, as the Messiah, the Son of God also judges among the nations and assigns wrath (bad consequences) for oppressive and unjust behavior.
5:23 The fact that Jesus is so closely related to the Father means that anyone who dishonors him as Son of God is inevitably dishonoring God. But perhaps we should qualify this by noting that some people have, through no fault of their own, been given a totally wrong picture of Jesus (brainwashed by another religion), and they may not be rejecting him as he really is.
5:24 Many people in the world (including little children, retarded persons, and others who have never heard the good news) have their heart reaching out to God (Acts 17:27) without knowing the source of the light they are responding to. But they do not have assurance of salvation till they hear the words of the Son, and realize that these are the very Word of God (see 1:1).
5:25 When the Messiah was crucified (even before his body was taken down from the cross- see Matthew 27:50-53) his first resurrection act was to bring up from sheol (the abode of the dead) those who had died in previous centuries with their hearts looking for God (Matthew 12:40, Ephesians 4:8-9, Hebrew 13:20, 1 Peter 3:18-19).
5:26-27 These two verses reinforce 5:21-22 with the addition that Jesus can judge us "because he is a son of man" (the Greek has no definite article) "He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God" (Hebrews 2:17). Having experienced our humanity from the inside, and been tempted "in every respect as we are" (Hebrews 4:15) his judgment is not only totally loving but with personal knowledge of how we feel.
5:28-29 See comment on 5:25. But Jesus now adds the fact that there are two kinds of resurrection.. On the one hand there is the resurrection into eternal life. The other is a deliberate preference for the darkness (3:19) of eternal death.
5:30 This is a summing up of the earlier verses (5:19, 22) with the addition that "I seek not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me" (a comment on 5:19).
5:31-36 Jesus now answers the objection that he is giving testimony about himself. He first looks back to the witness given by John the Baptist (1:24-34), but there is a mass of other evidence that also needs to be introduced.
5:37 The works (signs, see 2:11) that the Father is working in Jesus' life by the Spirit can only be understood on the assumption that the Father has sent the Son into the world (see 3:16). God the Father cannot be seen, but Jesus' life is all the evidence for God's intervention in our world that anybody might need.
5:38 In one sense the Word of God was continually coming into our world (1:9). "The heavens are telling the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1). God sent prophets, and the Messiah intervened again and again in great Days of the Lord. Refusal to believe in the one God has so evidently sent proves that the Word of God has never taken root in their hearts. The idea of the Word taking up its abode in our human minds is repeated in the parable of the Vine (15:7, as in 1 John 2:14b, 24, 3:9).
5:39-42 Many of Jesus' hearers had memorized and studied large parts of Old Testament. And they imagined this gave them eternal life. But the written Word of God pointed to the living Word of God, and when He came among them they rejected him because they had no room for the love of God (which was the essence of the law in Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
As in our day, they would eagerly listen to rabbis, gurus, prophets, and political leaders (Matthew 24:24), but they could not accept the idea of Jesus coming as the Son of God in the Father's name. And the basic reason for this was accepting the approval of others rather than looking to God alone.
5:45-47 There was no need for Jesus to reprove the religious leaders for their unbelief. Later he will reprove them for their hypocrisy and hard-heartedness (Matthew 23:2-36). If they had taken the law of Moses seriously (see Luke 16:29-30, 1 Corinthians 10:4), they would have recognized that Jesus' words were the very words of God.