This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
"I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true." (ESV)
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It Cannot Be Any Other Way
Thursday of Pentecost 19
8 October 2015
When John records Jesus saying, "The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing" (Jn 5:19), we struggle with this statement in view of the full divinity of the Son of God. How can it be said that the Son only does what He sees the Father doing and that He does nothing of His own accord? Does this imply some deficiency in the Son, as though He would be incapable of acting by Himself? Gregory Nazianzus tackles this issue in his Third Theological Oration, a sermon delivered by Gregory in opposition to Arianism in the imperial city of Constantinople (c. 390). The Arians, who denied the full divinity of Christ, latched on to these statements to diminish the divinity of the Son in their heretical teaching: "See, he can't be God! He is incapable of some things that the Father is capable of. He says so Himself."
Gregory helpfully points out that the words "can" and "cannot" are used in a number of different ways in normal human language. They don't always express absolute impossibilities. Sometimes they express matters of fact. "I can go to church on Sunday." However, if I am willful or unbelieving, I may well refuse to do so, preferring to sleep in. So we may say, "I cannot go to church today, because I prefer to sleep in." Or take another example. If a husband and wife have attended church together for many years, a husband may struggle attending church after her death. He would say, "I cannot go to church without Mary." It is not a statement about ability but about will. First, this highlights for us that when we read the Bible we may not read with hostility to its meaning. Even in every day conversation, if your interlocutor shows hostility toward you, every question may well exhibit hostility. The Arians, hostile as they were toward the divinity of Christ, saw every biblical statement of this sort as giving evidence of the inferiority of the Son over against His Father. Second, we must read the Bible as nothing less than human literature. It is certainly something more, but it must be read with an eye to the normal rules of grammar and logic. In normal human language, the words "can" and "cannot" can mean a variety of things and they must not be shoe-horned into a denial of the divinity of Christ, because they can mean a variety of things.
In this particular word of Christ, "The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing" (Jn 5:19), He is highlighting the unity of essence between the Father and the Son that means that the Son only does what He does in harmony with the Father. So instead of implying that Jesus had a lesser divinity these words express the exact opposite. Certainly the first-century Jewish hearer of these words would have thought of them as blasphemous, because the Jews did not have a category of semi-divinity as was common among the Gentiles. A being was either God or not God, there was no middling case, no partial God. A claim of semi-divinity was as much blasphemy as the claim to full divinity, in Judaism. The first commandment was a bright and decisive line. He who is fully God and yet fully man works together with His Father for us. The unity of God the holy Trinity is focused on the salvation of His poor creatures like us, created by His incarnate Word. This is an expression of divine harmony. It cannot be any other way.
Gregory of Nazianzus
"'The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing' (Jn 5:19
). [How could it be said that the Son 'can do nothing'?] 'Can' and 'cannot' are not words with only one meaning, but have many meanings. They are used sometimes to refer to a deficiency of strength, sometimes in regard to time. Sometimes they can be used relatively to a certain object; as for instance, a child cannot be a professional athlete, or a new-born puppy cannot see or fight. Perhaps, someday the child will be an athlete, the puppy will see, and will fight with another, though it may still be unable to fight with every other.
Again they may be used of that which is generally true. For example, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden (Mt 5:14
). However, it might possibly be hidden by another higher hill that is in a line with it. Or in another sense, they are used of a thing which is not reasonable. Can the children at the wedding feast fast while the bridegroom is with them (Mk 2:19
)? This is true whether we are considering Christ's earthly ministry (for the time of His sojourning among us was not one of mourning, but of gladness), or, as the Word among us even now. For why should they keep a fast who are cleansed by the Word (Jn 15:3
)? Again, "can" and "cannot" are used of that which is contrary to the will; as in, He could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief (Mk 6:5
), referring to those who should receive them. For in order to heal there is need of both faith in the patient and power in the healer. When one of the two failed the other was impossible. But probably this sense refers to their unreasonableness. For it is not reasonable to heal those who would be injured by unbelief.
The sentence 'the world cannot hate you' (Jn 7:7
), is the same case as 'How can you speak good, when you are evil' (Mt 12:34
)? For in what sense is either impossible, except that it is contrary to the human will? There is a somewhat similar meaning in the expressions which imply that a thing impossible by nature is possible to God if He so wills (Mt 19:26
); such as that a man cannot be born a second time (Jn 3:4
), or that a needle will not let a camel through it (Mt 19:24
). For what could prevent either of these things from happening, if God so willed them?
There is the absolutely impossible and inadmissible. We assert that it is impossible for God to be evil, or not to exist-for this would be indicative of weakness in God rather than strength. It is impossible for the non-existent to exist, or for two and two to make both four and ten, so it is impossible and inconceivable that the Son should do anything that the Father does not do (Jn 5:19
). For all things that the Father has are the Son's (Jn 16:15
); and on the other hand, all that belongs to the Son is the Father's. Nothing then is their own, because all things are in common. For their being itself is common and equal, even though the Son receives it from the Father. In this way it is said 'I live because of the Father' (Jn 6:57
) not as though His life and being were kept together by the Father, but because He has His being from Him beyond all time, and beyond all cause.
How does He see the Father doing, and do likewise? Is it like those who copy pictures and letters, because they cannot attain the truth unless by looking at the original, and are led by the hand by it? How shall the divine wisdom stand in need of a teacher, or be incapable of acting unless taught? ...What an absurdity! He cleanses lepers, and delivers men from evil spirits, and diseases, quickens the dead, walks upon the sea, and does all His other works; but in what case, or when did the Father do these acts before Him? Is it not clear that the Father impressed the ideas of these same actions, and the Word brings them to pass, yet not in slavish or unskillful way, but with full knowledge and in a masterly way, or, to speak more properly, like the Father? For in this sense I understand the words that whatever is done by the Father, these things the Son does also; not, that is, because of the likeness of the things done, but in respect to the authority.
Gregory Nazianzus, Third Theological Oration, 10-11
Almighty God, in Your self-revelation You have revealed Yourself to us as three persons in one undivided essence. All three persons work together for our salvation. Though we humans often work at cross purposes with one another, You never do. Give us peace through confessing that unity of the Godhead that assures us of our ultimate righteousness in Your sight, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
For all those who are seeking gainful employment, that they would find work in keeping with their calling that would be useful to the neighbor
For all pastors, that they would continue to study the Word to serve the incarnate Word in their preaching and teaching
For the capital campaign team of Memorial Lutheran Church, that they might be strengthened in every good work as they bring the campaign to its close this year
Art: Dürer, Albrecht The Adoration of the Trinity (1515)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015