How does the Father relate to the Son? (A second look at John 5:19-27)

The context to John 5:19-29 is that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. He claimed the right to do this because he was doing what his Father did.  His opponents saw in this reference to God as father a claim to divinity and therefore blasphemy. We can assume from that, that it was not the mere use of the title Father but Jesus was claiming a particular relationship with the Father that authorised him to act in line with God’s actions, this is the Son and heir carrying out the Father’s business. Indeed, the imagery that follows is that of a father’s business such as Joseph’s carpenter’s shop in Nazareth and the son apprenticed to the father[1]

In our passage, therefore, we see that Jesus both re-enforces the point that he is one with the Father but defends himself against the blasphemy charge. The problem with Jesus setting himself up as equal to God was the possibility that there was another source of divine will so that Yahweh had a rival.

Jesus uses language that points to his divine authority to judge, to give life and indeed to be self-existent, having life within himself. However, he also expresses a level of dependency on the Father. As Carson observes:

“The principle thrust of v 19 is that whatever ‘making himself equal with God (v18) might mean, for Jesus it does not mean complete or even partial independence from his Father (cf 7:18). The truth is that the Son can do nothing by himself – or, better, ‘on his own initiative’ … Though he is the unique Son of God … and may truly be called God (1:1,18; 20:28) and take to himself divine titles (e.g. 8:58) and, as in this context, divine rights (5:17), yet he is always submissive to the Father.”[2]

This means that whilst there is love between the persons, the way in which this love is shown is not reciprocal. 

“If it is true that the Father loves the Son, it is no less true that the Son loves the Father. The love of the Father  for the Son  is displayed in the continuous disclosure of all he does to the Son (here in v. 20): the love of the Son for the Father is displayed in the perfect obedience that issues in the cross (14:31).  The love of the Father and of the Son may be perfectly reciprocal in its purity, but not in the way love for each is displayed.”[3]

Now, the crucial question remains, is this a description of The Son in eternity or the Son purely in terms of his incarnation. Calvin believes that it only refers to the incarnation but note these words:

“This passage has been interpreted in different ways by the Arians and the orthodox Fathers. Arius inferred from it that the Son was inferior to the Father because Christ could do nothing by himself. The Fathers replied that these words only denote a distinction of the persons, so that it is known that Christ comes from the Father, although Christ is not deprived of intrinsic power of action. Both these arguments were wrong. This discourse does not relate to the simple divinity of Christ, and the next statements do not of themselves relate to the eternal Word of God, but only apply to the Son of God in so far as he is manifest in the body.”[4]

This is important because although Calvin binds the son’s act of submission to his father within the context of time and space, he here recognises that there is strong historical, orthodox support for the view that the Father-Son relationship described here in some way reflects the eternal relationship between Father and Son.

The basis for noting a strong connection between the incarnation and this relationship is in verse 27 where Jesus says:

“27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.”

Jesus’ authority to judge is related specifically to his humanity. However, the context points to a future date for judgement when the tombs will be emptied. Whilst therefore, the authority relates to his incarnation, it is not simply something delegated in time to Jesus the man. Rather this refers to his authority to judge in eternity and on the last day which arises not just because of his divinity but also because he is the one who has lived the perfect sinless life, died and been buried on our behalf.

Furthermore, we have to keep remembering that the issue at stake in the passage is whether or not Jesus blasphemes when he claims divine prerogative. It would make little sense therefore for him to defend his words and actions at this point on the basis of human permission and indeed, if Jesus can then claim the right to call God his Father and act in the role of son and heir on the basis of his incarnate human nature, then that also has the unfortunate effect of undermining the Biblical argument against Arianism too, a point that particularly concerned Mike Ovey.

Therefore, I believe that it is right to see John 5 as describing something that arises out of Christ’s eternal identity as the Son.  Now, if the Son is eternally begotten then that suggests something that is not subject to the laws of time.  That being the case, it may not be helpful to speak in overly transactional terms about how the eternal relationship works in terms of giving, sending and obedience. However, what I would suggest that the incarnation does is to slow things down so that we can see in real time (or slow-motion) something of what the eternal, timeless nature looks like.

We do not see a sudden and new relationship between Father and Son in the incarnation. The nature of that loving relationship as consistently been there in eternity.


[1] Carson, John, 250.

[2] Carson, John, 250.

[3] Carson, John, 251.

[4] Calvin, John, 1127.

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