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2019-03-08

Note of the Day – March 8 (John 5:1-5ff)

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

John 5:1-15ff

Having discussed the Sabbath Controversy episodes from the Synoptic Gospels—in particular, the healing miracle of Mark 3:1-6 par (see the previous notes)—it will be worth concluding this topic with a brief study of a (somewhat) similar miracle story in the Gospel of John. The Fourth Gospel actually contains two miracles stories, with a similar outline and structure—Jn 5:1-15 and 9:1-41. Each of these episodes is said to have occurred on a Sabbath day (5:9-10; 9:14-16), though only in the first does the Sabbath play a central role.

Actually, in the main section (vv. 1-9a), narrating the healing itself, the Sabbath is not mentioned. We are clearly dealing here with an authentic (historical) tradition, which includes several interesting local details (vv. 2-3, 5; also verse 4, which may not have been part of the original text). The reference to the Sabbath comes in verse 9b: “And the Shabbat {Sabbath} was on that day”. As in the Synoptic traditions, certain people object to “work” being done on the Sabbath. However, in the Johannine narrative, the people—they are not referred to as Scribes or Pharisees, simply other “Jews”—raise their objection, not to Jesus’ act of healing, but toward the man who was healed, for carrying his mat on the Sabbath (v. 10). The exchange between these “Jews” and the healed man (vv. 10-12) is similar to that which occurs in the later episode of chapter 9 (vv. 14-17), where the people interrogating the man are identified as Pharisees (vv. 13, 15). On the whole, the Sabbath healing episode of 5:1-14 is not all that different from similar traditions in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6 par; Lk 13:10-17). The tradition has been developed in John through its association with the discourse of Jesus that follows in 5:15-47.

A common feature of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John is the way that they start with a specific (historical) tradition. The Johannine traditions are quite similar to episodes we find in the Synoptic Gospels; but in the narrative context of the Fourth Gospel, they serve as the launch-point for a discourse. These discourses follow a dialog format, which leads into an expository ‘sermon’ by Jesus; the basic structure may be outlined as follows:

  • Narrative setting, often in the context of a traditional episode (miracle story, etc)
  • A statement or declaration by Jesus
  • The reaction by those who hear him (sometimes including a question or exclamation), which indicates a lack of understanding, i.e. regarding the true meaning of Jesus’ words
  • An explanation by Jesus—a kind of sermon or homily—in which he expounds and elaborates on the (true) meaning of his earlier statement

Occasionally these elements are repeated, producing a discourse with a more complex, cyclical structure. In John 5, the basic structure has been maintained, but widened in scope:

  • Narrative setting—context of a healing miracle on a Sabbath (and festival) day (vv. 1-14)
  • Statement by Jesus (verse 17; vv. 15-16 are transitional)
  • Reaction by those who hear him (verse 18)
  • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus, in two parts:
    • The Son does the work(s) of the Father—vv. 19-30
    • The work(s) as a witness of the Son (and the Father)—vv. 31-47

Verses 16 and 18 establish the connection between the discourse and the Sabbath healing episode; otherwise, there would seem to be little relation between the two. Jesus does not even mention the Sabbath in verses 19-47; rather, the theme, especially in verses 19-30, is on Jesus (the Son) doing the works of God (the Father). The statement by Jesus in verse 17 does, however, draw upon the ancient tradition that associates the Sabbath rest with God resting (ceasing) from his work (as Creator) on the seventh day. There are two components to Jesus’ saying, and each is provocative in its own right:

  • “My Father works (even) until (right) now…”—which implies that God’s work of creating (new) life actually continues right until the present moment. Jesus’ relationship to God (i.e. as Son) is also implied by his emphatic personalization, “my Father”.
  • “…and I (also) work”—the parallelism is intentional here, meaning that Jesus does the same kind of (life-creating) work as God. In the narrative context, this would refer to the healing of the disabled man; but in the discourse which follows (vv. 19-30ff), the emphasis is on resurrection—the granting of new life to those who are dead (literally and figuratively).

The implications of Jesus’ saying were not lost on his hearers, according to the reaction of the “Jews” narrated in verse 18:

“Through [i.e. because of] this, then, the Jews sought to kill him off, (in) that [i.e. because] not only did he loosen [i.e. break/violate] the Shabbat (law), he even counted God (as) his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

Do the Jews misunderstand Jesus’ statement, as the position of this reaction in the Johannine discourse format would suggest? Jesus never quite presents himself as equal (i&so$) to God in the Gospel. The closest he comes is in 8:58 and 10:30; but, in neither passage is the word i&so$ used. The word only occurs once in the New Testament in such a context—in the “Christ-hymn” of Philippians (2:6-11, v. 6), a passage which must read and studied carefully.

What, then, does Jesus actually say about his relationship to God in the discourse of Jn 5:19-30ff? It is precisely that of a Son to his Father. The principal idea stems from basic parental instruction, but, more specifically, from the common situation of the son who follows in the occupation of his father, and who must learn his trade by watching and listening to his father carefully. Jesus uses this motif repeatedly in the Gospel of John—the Son says and does (only) what he hears and sees his Father saying and doing (v. 19). It is a perfect imitation, and perfect obedience as well. Ultimately, the Son does the work that the Father does—the same work. This work essentially is to give life—new life—to those who are without it. The discourse moves from healing (vv. 1-14) to raising the dead (vv. 21-29)—resurrection both in a spiritual (vv. 21-24) and physical (vv. 25-29) sense. Verse 26 perhaps summarizes best Jesus’ own understanding of his relationship to God in this passage:

“For just as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave (it) to the Son to hold life in himself”

It is this life that the Son (Jesus) gives to others, to those who believe in him (vv. 24, 47, etc). It should be apparent how this idea relates to the miracle story (tradition) in vv. 1-15, and yet far transcends it, leading to a much deeper sense, and understanding, of Jesus’ life-giving power.