The Trinitarian Claim
Since this passage says that Jesus was making himself equal with God, Trinitarians claim this passage also identifies Jesus as God.
Examination of the Evidence
1. Fallacious Reasoning
Here in this passage Trinitarians draw the conclusion that since Jesus was making himself equal with God, then he must also be God by identity. However, it is quite plain to thinking people that being equal with another person does not mean you also share their identity. If Jesus is equal with God that does not mean we should conclude he is God by identity. In fact, we should conclude otherwise. Even further, it is quite clear that Jesus was being accused of making himself equal with God the Father. Anyone can easily see that it would then be quite absurd to claim equality with God the Father, another person, would mean he is God the Father by identity. In the same way, it is just as absurd to claim he shares the Father's identity as "God."
The Greek word translated as "equal" simply means "the same as" and the Jews were very angry because being God's "own" son implied his origins were directly in God the Father himself and this would mean that Jesus had no earthly father but was claiming that God himself was his father. The Jews thought that the claim he was God's Son made him "the same as" their God in some sense. The Trinitiarian is imagining an idea into this text that is not found. The word "God" here is a reference to a person, an identity, the Father. The Trinitarian conveniently assumes the word "God" means "divine nature" and "equal" means "equal in divine nature" when the concept is simply not there. And then he further assumes that this equality affords a right to be identified as "God."
Jesus said that, "no one has seen the Father," and he also said that if they saw him they had indeed seen the Father! At first glance, these two statements appear contradictory. He also explicitly explained they had seen the Father in the works he was doing not in what he was, which explains to us how he could say these two apparently contradictory things, and in fact, unless we want to make Jesus a liar, we cannot say they saw the Father in what he was by nature since he tells us plainly no one has seen God. Therefore, we know Jesus is not talking about his nature but his identity in terms of his role of doing these works in the name of his Father. Also, we know he is not talking about positional status for he later says, "the Father is greater than I."
2. God is not being identified as Jesus but as the Father
Notice very carefully the identity of God in this passage. Who is it? Is it Jesus? No, it isn't. Jesus is telling the Jews right here who God is and how he is related to God. He identified the entity known as "God", not as himself, but as his Father. And this is also what the Jews understood - that he was calling the person they themselves understood to be "God," his own Father, making himself God's own Son. The verse is about Jesus relationship TO God his Father. The reason the Jews were so angry with Jesus is that he was claiming their own God was his Father. These Jews all had earthly fathers. But Jesus was claiming his Father was God himself. To be God's own son afforded him a much higher status than these Jews who perceived themselves to be the legitimate sons of God and rulers of Israel. The Jews also later identify God as their Father (8:41). What irritated them here was that Jesus was claiming to be God's "own" Son. The identity of "God" was not Jesus but Jesus' Father and the Jews understood this completely. They simply were not perceiving that Jesus was claiming to be "God" but rather God's Son. The same situation occurs again in John 10. In fact, this is what John is explicitly telling us in this passage. Indeed, they finally charged him with claiming to be the "son of God" (19:7). The Jews here do not perceive that he is claiming to be "God" but God's son and that relationship made Jesus equal with God who is identified as the Father. If anything, this passage militates against Trinitarianism by identifying "God" simply as the Father of Jesus Christ and Jesus as the Son of that God.
If one wants to claim Jesus did make himself equal with God, one ask just how Jesus was equal with his Father. Instead of imagining whatever we like into the passage, as Trinitarians do, let us inquire into the truth of this matter. If Jesus was claiming to be equal with God, the passage says that claiming to be God's son afforded Jesus equality with God. The Jews seem to be understanding that a son has equality with his Father in some sense. In what sense? One can be equal with another person in some sense but that does not mean you share the other person's identity.
Analysis of the Facts
1. The Context
A Review of what was actually said:
The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working." Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God. Therefore, Jesus answered...."
Notice what happened here. Jesus healed on the Sabbath and the Jews became angry because he had done these things on the Sabbath. Then Jesus says "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working." Then we read that the Jews became even more angry because he not only broke the Sabbath, but in Jesus' last statement, he said God was his Father "making himself equal with God." The key verse is verse 17, where Jesus claims his Father is working. Jesus is the same as the Father in the sense that both the Father and the Son are working. Notice what follows verse 18:
Therefore Jesus answered and said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do for whatever He does, the Son also likewise does."
Jesus is responding to the Jews and is going back to the same theme he spoke in verse 17. Jesus' response in verse 19 tells us how he understood the Jewish charge and how he was the same as the Father. The Jews themselves called God their Father (8:41). We must ask then why they would be angry at another Jew for referring to God as his Father if they themselves were calling God their Father. But here Jesus is saying that his Father has been working until now and I have been working. This is what angered the Jews. As Jews under the Law, they were required to rest on the Sabbath. Indeed, Hebrews 4:3 indicates that God has been resting from all his works since the foundation of the world. But these Jews had to accept that their God was at the same time not resting but still doing mighty works. For example, God did mighty works when He delivered them from Egypt. God was resting but His works were still unfolding in time and space. What was angering these Jews was the fact that they thought Jesus was claiming an equality with God on this level. They could not work today but their God's works were still unfolding, even on the Sabbath.
Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose the Jews correctly understood Jesus as making himself equal with God. If that is the case, the context shows that Jesus was claiming he has the same right as God the Father to be working on this Sabbath. It is similar to his "Lord of the Sabbath" teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. Hence, we can see that we are plainly told right here in this very account just how Jesus was equal with God his Father. In claiming to be God's own Son, he was claiming that he had the right to be working on the Sabbath just as his Father would have that right. Therefore, the Jews were not only angry that Jesus had broke the Sabbath, they were even more angry that he claimed that he had been given the authority to do it. Finally, we must carefully regard what Jesus said about the works he was doing, "the Father abiding in me does the works" (14:10).
2. A Further Consideration
John 5:18 does not say Jesus called God his Father. It says that Jesus was "calling God his OWN Father." This may have angered the Jews because they understood Jesus to be saying that their God, the God of Israel, was Jesus' Father in the sense that, as an individual person, Jesus was their God's son.
In John 8, the Jews had no problem also confessing that God was their Father, "we have one Father: God" (8:41). But given the Old Testament background, it seems likely that these Jews distinguished between God being the Father of the nation Israel as a unitary whole and God being the Father of a single person. God refers to the nation of Israel as his "My son, My firstborn." (Ex 4:22). He is described by Moses as their Father who bought them (Deut 32:6) and who begat them (32:18). See also Isaiah 63:16; 64:8.
For these Jews, God was the Father of the nation of Israel, the Father of the unitary whole, not the Father of any particular individual Israelite. For them, their God begat Israel; their God did not beget any particular Israelite person.
We must further recognize who Jesus was: the King of the Jews, the King of Israel. He was the King of this nation. He was the King of Israel about whom Yahweh said, "Israel is My son, My firstborn." In the ancient mind, the King of a nation typified that nation's identity.
It is therefore possible that these Jews were not being hypocritical to declare God was their Father. However, their presumption that if God was Jesus' Father, he was making himself somehow equal with God, may have been based on the notion that they thought the nation of Israel was somehow equal with God since God was the Father of the nation of Israel.
And indeed, when we regard the opening verses of Isaiah 42 and compare this with Matthew's quotation of this passage at Matthew 12:18-21, we can clearly see YAHWEH the speaker is necessarily God the Father who goes on to say, "I will not give My glory to another." When we carefully regard the context of this statement in the surrounding chapters of Isaiah, it is quite clear YAHWEH did not mean "I will not give My glory to another [besides Me]" but "I will not give My glory to another [besides Israel]." See Isaiah 43:1-7 and 46:13 where God says Israel was created for His glory and Israel is "My glory." As Paul also says:
For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the sonship, and the glory... Romans 9:3-4.
The nation of Israel manifested God's glory. God manifested his glory in the nation of Israel who were created for His glory and to be His glory. And so it is with Jesus who tells us "the Father abiding in me does the works." Jesus' God's glory was manifested in the works he was doing. It may be very possible that the Jews presumed that Israel was equal with their God in the sense that their God, YAHWEH, was the Father of their nation and manifested His glory among them in the mighty works that occurred through Israel. Hence, working with this preconception, they would perceive Jesus was making this same claim about himself.
4. What Jesus did not do
At Philippians 2:6, we read that although Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard being equal with God something to seize upon. Paul's point is that Jesus did not reach out for equality with God. Rather he assumed the position of a servant and obediently humbled himself even to death on a cross.
5. True or False Accusations? Another Consideration
Was Jesus really claiming to be equal with God the Father? This is a difficult question since John does not recount that the Jews said he was making himself equal with God. Rather, John states himself the reason the Jews wanted to kill Jesus was because he was making himself equal with God. In context, this could be taken two different ways:
1. The Jews correctly understood that Jesus was making himself equal with God by calling God his own Father and it was for this reason that the Jews wanted to kill him.
2. The Jews incorrectly understood that Jesus was making himself equal with God by calling God his own Father. The Jews simply thought Jesus was making himself equal with God but they were wrong. Indeed, Jesus later says, "the Father is greater than I." Greater is not equal to. Moreover, to claim the Jews were correct, one must regard both of the reasons they wanted to kill him: (1) breaking the Sabbath, and (2) making himself equal with God. One must also consistently suppose that Jesus also broke the Sabbath.
Indeed, Jesus later says, "the Father is greater than I." Greater is not equal to. Moreover, to claim the Jews were correct, one must regard both of the reasons they wanted to kill him: (1) breaking the Sabbath, and (2) making himself equal with God. One must also consistently suppose that Jesus also broke the Sabbath.
But Jesus was a Jew born under the Law and a man who did not commit sin. To break the Sabbath was to sin by breaking his God's Law. Can we conclude that the Jews were correct to understand that Jesus broke the Sabbath? How then can we conclude they were correct to understand Jesus was making himself equal with God?
The Jews were insisting Jesus had broke the Sabbath by healing a man on the Sabbath. But carefully regard the following passages:
The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. John 5:15-16.
And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, "Woman, you are freed from your sickness." And he laid his hands on her; and immediately she was made erect again and began glorifying God. But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, "There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" Luke 13:10-16.
Departing from there, he went into their synagogue. And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" so that they might accuse Him. And he said to them, "What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it IS lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand!" He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, as to how they might destroy Him. Matthew 12:9-14.
Jesus did not break the Sabbath in John chapter 5. According to Jesus, it was not unlawful to heal a man on the Sabbath and he teaches the Jews that they are wrong about their notions of unlawful healing on the Sabbath. However, even though Jesus did not break the Sabbath they accused him of breaking the Sabbath. The Jews obviously did not agree with Jesus about this matter and sought to destroy him for healing on the Sabbath.
Interestingly, Jesus later in John chapter 7 actually comments on the healing incident in John chapter 5:
Jesus answered them, "I did one deed, and you all marvel. For this reason Moses has given you circumcision (not because it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and on the Sabbath you circumcise a man. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." See Notes below.
It is quite clear that the Jews were wrongly accusing Jesus and he did not break the Sabbath.
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.
In verse 16, we read the Jews were persecuting Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. In verse 18, we read that they wanted to kill Jesus for two reason and one of them was breaking the Sabbath. However, the overwhelming weight of the evidence demonstrates that Jesus did not actually break the Sabbath. The Jews were wrongly accusing him. We must then entertain the likelihood they were wrongly accusing him of making himself equal with God.
One must make yet another observation. While Jesus WAS NOT breaking the Sabbath, Jesus WAS calling God his own Father. And this the detail which makes this statement confusing to readers. One might be tempted to conclude at this point that the Jews mistakenly accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath but they were not mistaken about calling God his own Father because Jesus did in fact do so. However, if we are to compare the two reasons the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, the most obvious contrast to make is not:
1. Breaking the Sabbath
2. Calling God his own Father
The most obvious contrast to make is:
1. Breaking the Sabbath
2. Calling God his own Father making himself equal with God
We cannot conclude that John informs us the Jews were angry simply because he called God his own Father but because they thought that calling God his own Father meant he made himself equal with their God. Notice how Jesus clarifies this for them and explains why they are mistaken:
Therefore Jesus answered and said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also likewise does. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that He Himself is doing; and the Father will show Him greater works than these, so that you will marvel... He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him... I have come in the name of my Father, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the only God?"
The Jews were angry because in claiming to be the God's son, the Jews presumed Jesus was implying an equality with God who is identified as his Father. God is identified here and it is not Jesus but his Father. And with respect to position, God the Father is not equal to Jesus but greater than Jesus (14:28). The only equality between the Father and Son is illustrated in the following context which shows that Jesus was claiming the same right as his Father to heal on the Sabbath because God was indeed his Father. Moreover, the Jews were wrongly accusing Jesus and he did not break the Sabbath and if we consistently interpret the verse, we should conclude Jesus was not making himself equal with God either. Despite the context, Trinitarians eisegetically imagine a pre-conceived notion into the text which is foreign to this context. Hence, the Trinitarian claim is groundless.
The Jews were mistaken about Jesus breaking the Sabbath. Consistency should lead us to first presume they were mistaken about Jesus making himself equal with God. And indeed, greater > is not equal to =. The Jews make this supposition; Jesus did not claim to be equal to God. All the evidence suggests the Jews were mistaken. He did not say, "The Father is equal to me," nor did he say, "I am equal to my Father." But he was sent by the Father did say, "Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him."
"My Father is greater than I."
Last Update: June 19, 2012
It is also interesting that some scholars have good reason to believe the order of the chapters in the Gospel of John, as they appear in today's Bibles, may be misplaced. John chapter 7 may have originally followed John chapter 5 and John chapter 6 may have originally followed John chapter 4. Regard the following:
4:1 Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), He left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria [to get to Galilee].
4:43 After the two days He went forth from [Samaria] into Galilee. For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country. So when He came to Galilee, the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things that He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they themselves also went to the feast.
4:46 He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine
4:47 When [the royal official] heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee
4:53 So the father knew that it was at the same hour, in the which Jesus said unto him, Your sons lives and he believed, and his whole house.
4:54 This is again the second miracle that Jesus did, when he came out of Judaea into Galilee.
6:1 After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.
6:2 And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased.
6:126 Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum [ in Galilee].
This would mean John chapter 5 should really follow John chapter 6 which follows chapter 4. Notice the following:
5:1 After these things [John 6] there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem
5:18 For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him
5:45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?
7:1 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee, for he was unwilling to walk in Judea because the Jews were seeking to kill him.
7:2 Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was near. Therefore His brothers said to him, "Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see your works which you are doing."
7:9 He stayed in Galilee
7:10 But when his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he himself also went up.
7:19 Did not Moses give you the Law, and yet none of you carries out the Law? Why do you seek to kill Me?" The crowd answered, "You have a demon! Who seeks to kill You?" Jesus answered them, "I did one deed, and you all marvel. For this reason Moses has given you circumcision (not because it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and on the Sabbath you circumcise a man. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? (referring to the healing in chapter 5).