At the beginning of John chapter five, Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem to attend a Jewish festival. We are not told which festival, but some scholars believe it to be the Feast of Tabernacles.
While in Jerusalem, Jesus visits the pool of Bethesda (see model below). The pool is where blind, lame, and paralyzed people would go to seek healing. At the pool, Jesus finds a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years.
Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed and the man answers that he has nobody to help him get in the pool when the waters stir. The superstition surrounding the pool is that an angel would periodically stir up the waters and that the first one who entered the pool would be healed.
Ignoring the superstition, Jesus tells the man to get up off his mat, pick it up, and walk away with it. Miraculously healed by Jesus’s simple command, the man does indeed walk away with his mat.
As the man walks away with his mat, Jewish religious leaders (possibly members of the Sanhedrin) see the man and ask him why he is breaking the Sabbath rules about abstaining from work. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains:
The Old Testament had forbidden work on the Sabbath. But what is ‘work’? The assumption in the Scripture seems to be that ‘work’ refers to one’s customary employment; but judging by Mishnah (Shabbath 7:2; 10:5), dominant rabbinic opinion had analysed the prohibition into thirty-nine classes of work, including taking or carrying anything from one domain to another (except for cases of compassion, such as carrying a paralytic). By Old Testament standards, it is not clear the healed man was contravening the law, since he did not normally carry mats around for a living; according to the ‘tradition of the elders’ the man was breaking the law, since he was contravening one of the prohibited thirty-nine categories of work to which the law was understood to refer. It is not yet Jesus who is charged with breaking the law (e.g. for healing the man on a Sabbath, as in Mk. 3:1–6), though that will come (v. 18): for the moment, it is the healed man who must face the indignation of the Jews—here referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem (cf. notes on 1:19).
The man answers that he was simply doing what he was told. When the Jewish leaders ask who told him to carry his mat, the healed man says he does not know.
Jesus finds the healed invalid soon afterward in the temple complex and commands him to sin no more lest something worse would happen to him. What could Jesus be referring to? Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) argues:
The comment seems to imply that at least sometimes—including in the case of the invalid?—sickness may be a result of sin (e.g., 1 Kings 13:4; 2 Kings 1:4; 2 Chron. 16:12). Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries generally held that suffering was a direct result of sin (cf. John 9:2). Given expression already by the ‘miserable counselors’ in the book of Job, rabbinic literature states the principle succinctly: ‘There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity’ (b. Šabb. 55a with reference to Ezek. 18:20; attributed to R. Ammi [c. A.D. 300]). However, the Old Testament features several instances where suffering is transparently not a result of sin (e.g., 2 Sam. 4:4; 1 Kings 14:4; 2 Kings 13:14). Jesus himself, likewise, rejects simple cause-and-effect explanations (cf. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:3). Nevertheless, Jesus acknowledges that sin may well lead to suffering. In the present instance, the ‘something worse’ he threatens probably does not refer to a worse physical condition but rather to eternal judgment for sin (cf. 5:22-30).
The healed invalid then reports to the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who healed him. The Gospel author, John, then explains that the religious leaders start persecuting Jesus because “he was doing these things on the Sabbath.” Carson adds,
The Synoptic Gospels record a number of incidents in which Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath becomes the focus of controversy (Mk. 2:23–3:6; Lk. 13:10–17; 14:1–6; cf. Mt. 12:1–14). All the Gospels report that disputes between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over the Sabbath were so sharp that they figured prominently in the rising desire to kill Jesus.
Jesus responds to the religious leaders that if his Father, God, is working on the Sabbath, then Jesus, the Son, should likewise work on the Sabbath. Even though the Book of Genesis records that God rested on the seventh day, that rest has to do with the creation of the universe. God “works” to sustain the creation every day. Carson writes:
The consensus amongst the rabbis, too, was that God works on the Sabbath, for otherwise providence itself would weekly go into abeyance. About the end of the first century, four eminent rabbis (Rabban Gamaliel II, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and R. Akiba) discussed the point, and concluded that although God works constantly, he cannot rightly be charged with violating the Sabbath law, since (1) the entire universe is his domain (Is. 6:3), and therefore he never carries anything outside it; (2) otherwise put, God fills the whole world (Je. 23:24); and in any case (3) God lifts nothing to a height greater than his own stature (Exodus Rabbah 30:9; cf. Genesis Rabbah 11:10).
Jesus is saying that if God is excused from the ban of Sabbath work, then Jesus is likewise excused because the same rules that apply to God apply to Jesus, the Son. The Jewish leaders seek all the more to kill Jesus because he is not only commanding people to break Sabbath laws, he is making himself equal to God!
In verses 19-23, Jesus clarifies his relationship with God the Father. Let’s unpack each of these verses. In verse 19, we learn that Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing; he never does anything of his own accord. As Carson puts in, “The Father initiates, sends, commands, commissions, grants; the Son responds, obeys, performs his Father’s will, receives authority. In this sense, the Son is the Father’s agent (cf. Bühner), though, as John goes on to insist, much more than an agent.”
In verse 20, we learn that God the Father loves Jesus, His Son, and therefore shows Jesus everything He does. Carson writes, “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).”
In verse 21, John writes that as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so too can Jesus give life to whomever he chooses. Carson reminds us:
The Old Testament writers presupposed that the raising of the dead was a prerogative belonging to God alone: ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life’ (2 Ki. 5:7). The same presupposition is amply attested in later Jewish tradition. Rabbi Johanan asserted that three keys remained in God’s hand and were not entrusted to representatives: the key of the rain cf. Dt. 28:12), the key of the womb (cf. Gn. 30:22), and the key of the resurrection of the dead (cf. Ezk. 37:13, SB 1. 523–524, 737, 895).
In verse 22, Jesus explains that he will also be given the prerogative to judge. Carson explains:
God had long been recognized as ‘the Judge of all the earth’ (Gn. 18:25). Throughout the pages of the Old Testament God had frequently exercised judgment in the lives of his covenant people and in the surrounding nations. But at the end of the age, there would be the last, great assize, when all would be judged, both small and great (cf. Rev. 20:11–15). Here, however, the Son insists that the office of judge, whether in the present or at the last day, has been entrusted to him. This does not mean Jesus will exercise judgment independently of the Father, for even the judgment he exercises is a reflection of his consistent determination to please the one who sent him (v. 30).
Finally, in verse 23, we learn the reason that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. It is so that the Son will honored as the Father is honored. Carson summarizes how we should react to Jesus’s words:
Granted that the purpose of the Father is that all should honour the Son, it is but a small step to Jesus’ conclusion: He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him. In a theistic universe, such a statement belongs to one who is himself to be addressed as God (cf. 20:28), or to stark insanity. The one who utters such things is to be dismissed with pity or scorn, or worshipped as Lord. If with much current scholarship we retreat to seeing in such material less the claims of the Son than the beliefs and witness of the Evangelist and his church, the same options confront us. Either John is supremely deluded and must be dismissed as a fool, or his witness is true and Jesus is to be ascribed the honours due God alone. There is no rational middle ground.