Tuesday, June 30, 2015

John 5:19 - God can do Nothing at All?

“19 Therefore, in answer, Jesus went on to say to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, The Son cannot do a single thing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing. For whatever things that One does, these things the Son also does in like manner.”

One of the most remarkable arguments I've seen promoting "the deity of Christ" involves John 5:19, and goes something like this:

"Since Jesus can do nothing at all of his own initiative, but can only do what the Father does, he must be God, because only God can only do what God does.  We can do things of our own initiative, including the commission of both righteous and sinful acts, but Jesus was incapable of doing anything but what the Father does."

This odd argument not only ignores the fact that John 5 obviously presents Jesus role using agency language (i.e. "the agent is equated with the principal" as the Rabbis would put it), but it involves a de-contextualized reading.  Clearly Jesus was speaking in reference to doing God’s work in the carrying out of his commission as God’s representative.  He did not mean that he was incapable of eating, drinking, tying his sandal laces, blowing his nose, etc., without having first beheld “the Father doing [it]”.

The same could be said respecting any number of verses that orthodox folks sometimes tend to de-contextualize.

Take John 16:30 and Matt. 24:36 for example:

John 16:30: "Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.”

Matt. 24:36: "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

While apparently ignoring context, some will assert that John 16:30 implies that Jesus must be God for he "knows all things" without exception. Yet we know that the verse shouldn't be read that way because Jesus' followers themselves tell us that "This makes [them] believe that [Jesus] came from God" not that Jesus IS God. In other words, the disciples did not have in mind an all-encompassing reference, but they knew that Jesus was not lacking when it came to providing them with the knowledge that they’d need to be empowered for what was to come while they fulfilled their commissions as representatives of God and his Son. Thus, there's no contradiction between John 16:30 and Matt. 24:36, and no need to resort to verbal prestidigitation by asserting that as God Jesus knew all things without exception but as Man he had limited knowledge, as though that were even an intelligible statement.

John 9:32-34 also comes to mind:

“32 From of old it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of one born blind. 33 If this [man] were not from God, he could do nothing at all.” 34 In answer they said to him: “You were altogether born in sins, and yet are you teaching us?”

Here Jesus healed a blind man who goes on to defend Jesus to the religious leaders. When the blind man said “If this [man] were not from God, he could do nothing at all”, he didn’t mean that Jesus would be unable to eat, drink, trim his ear hair, etc. The “nothing at all” is clearly in a reference to the sort of miraculous works Jesus had just done.

Note also John 15:5:

“5 I am the vine, YOU are the branches. He that remains in union with me, and I in union with him, this one bears much fruit; because apart from me YOU can do nothing at all.”

Although Jesus tells his disciples that apart from him they can “do nothing at all”, he clearly didn’t mean that in an all-encompassing way. He is speaking in reference to “fruit” that his disciples can bear as “branches”. In other words, he was speaking of the work they would do as representatives of him and his Father, not about other things like eating, drinking, buying fish at the market, etc. And he certainly didn't mean that without Jesus, the disciples would be incapable of sinning!

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