John 5:16-18 – Jesus’ Apologetic – Part I

Our Diving Deeper lesson title and lesson focus comes from Jesus’ words in verse 17, “Jesus answered them”.
  • Most consider these words to have legal overtones and thus convey a pointed defense against the Jews’ accusations.
  • But before we examine Jesus’ defense we need to understand why His words in verse 17 were so offensive.

John 5:16–18 (ESV) — 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” 18 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.

In our text today, John cites two reasons “the Jews were persecuting Jesus” (vs. 16).
  • (1) Breaking the Sabbath
  • (2) Making Himself Equal with God

The 2nd reason, the charge of “making himself equal with God” (vs. 18), stemmed from Jesus’ answer to the first charge against him of “doing these things on the Sabbath” (vs. 16).

We will deal with the breaking the Sabbath accusations first.


We first have to do a brief background on Sabbath laws to give us some context for the exchange between the Jews and Jesus.

Sabbath laws were extremely important to Jews.
  • John MacArthur describes them as being, “at the heart of Jewish worship in Jesus’ day”.
  • In accommodating Roman rule to the Jewish religion, the Romans themselves recognized this in that the Sabbath “had been officially acknowledged by Roman authorities since Julius Caesar decreed that the Jews had the right to observe it throughout the Roman Empire” – AYBD.

Surprisingly, the “Biblical laws on the Sabbath are not numerous” – AYBD.
  • Exodus 20:8–11 (ESV) — 8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  • Exodus 23:12 (ESV) — 12 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
  • Exodus 35:3 (ESV) — 3 You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”
    o Numbers 15:32 also says gathering fire wood is prohibited – a man was stoned for doing so.
  • Nehemiah 10:31 (ESV) — 31 And if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day. And we will forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.

However, as most of us know, the Pharisees added Sabbath restrictions over and above those outlined in the OT.
  • Josephus even made note of this practice:
    o “The Pharisees had handed down [paredosan] certain regulations [nomima] from [their] forebears [ek paterōn diadochēs], which are not recorded in the laws of Moses, and which on this account are rejected by the Sadducean group” (Ant 13.10.6 §297) – AYBD.
  • And it was one of these additions, by the way, that Jesus was accused of violating.

Why did the Jews add to the Sabbath restrictions?
  • “To be sure the Sabbath law to abstain from labor was not broken, the rabbis forbade any conduct that could contribute to labor: for example, one was not to carry anything [like the cripple carrying his mat], lest one carry tools; again, one was not to walk far from one’s house, lest one go to one’s fields. Establishing such rules to keep a law from being transgressed was called “building a fence around the law,” and it was enjoined as one of a rabbi’s chief endeavors” – AYBD.
  • They wanted to ensure compliance!

Not surprisingly, just as politicians provide loopholes in their ever convoluted and complicated laws, so too did the Jews come up with loopholes in the Sabbath laws.
But why the loopholes – an interesting rabbit trail?

Jeremiah 17:21–22 (ESV) — 21 Thus says the LORD: Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. 22 And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers.
  • Jeremiah refers to a specific command of God concerning the Sabbath which forbids carrying a load out of one’s house.
  • However, the Jews found this to be an excellent loophole opportunity.

All they needed to do was to “make” multiple houses into “one house” and they could fellowship with each other in a way that would have been forbidden to do otherwise.
• It is a conception indicated by the word ˓êrûb [eruv], “the fusion of sabbath limits”. By the erection of cross-beams, for example, all the houses in a courtyard or along an alley could be “fused” into one house, and then vessels containing food could be carried from house to house, thus permitting communal dining on the Sabbath (despite Jer 17:19–27) – AYBD.

Modern Day Eruv – Corruption to the 2nd Power
  • “Eruv” is fishing line or nylon string strung along the top of utility poles that “fence in” in a section of community providing them a loophole for violating Sabbath restrictions, much like the cross-beams from Jesus’ day.
  • This is a total corruption of the “building a fence around the law”, which of course, was also a total corruption of Sabbath law.

Back to Jesus and the Sabbath:
  • So, by healing the man and telling him to carry his mat were the Jews right in accusing Jesus of breaking Sabbath laws?
  • From their perspective, yes.
  • Or, at the very least, He certainly “broke through the fence”, so to speak.

But what about from Jesus perspective, what was His view?
  • Obviously, He clearly did not break any Sabbath laws in His view.
  • And He countered their charge with the following words in verse 17, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.
  • He didn’t even bother giving them a lesson on what a legitimate Sabbath law was.
  • But refuted their charge by opening up a whole new can of worms.
  • What did Jesus mean to convey with these words?


(1)  Firstly, Jesus words were meant to demonstrate that God the Father works on the Sabbath.
Isn’t God still at rest?
• Genesis 2:1–3 (ESV) — 1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Oddly, one of the things that Jesus and the Jews would have been in agreement on was that God DID work on the Sabbath.
  • D.A. Carson puts the Jews’ logic as follows, if God “observes the Sabbath, who keeps the universe in running order while he rests?
  • He goes on to tell us, “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)” – D.A. Carson.

And the Bible itself confirms the necessity of God actively upholding the universe:
  • Psalm 75:3 (ESV) — 3 When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars. Selah
  • Colossians 1:17 (ESV) — 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
  • Hebrews 1:3 (ESV) — 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

So clearly, there was no disagreement that the Father worked on the Sabbath.
  • In fact John MacArthur reminds us to remember that the, “Sabbath was not instituted for God’s benefit but for man’s”.
  • So why, then, would Jesus point out that the Father works on the Sabbath?
  • The answer to this question leads us to the 2nd thing Jesus meant to convey with His words in verse 17.

(2)  Secondly, Jesus words were meant to reveal that His working on the Sabbath is no different than the Father working on the Sabbath.
  • Of course, this only made any sense if Jesus was claiming to be God!
  • This is why the Jews were so offended by Jesus’ statement.
  • And in verse 18 they were correct in suggesting that Jesus was, “making himself equal with God”.

Can one be equal with God and not God?
  • Did the Bible writers claim that Jesus is God?
    o John 1:1; John 1:18; John 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1
  • Did Jesus claim to be God?
    o John 8:58 – the “I am” statement.
    o Matt 22:44, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 when explaining who He is.
    o Rev 1:8 – “I am the Alpha and the Omega”.
    o See “The Word Was – Part II” lesson from John 1
  • Why does it matter? (From Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology)
    o (1) It is taught in Scripture
    o (2) Only God could “bear the full penalty for all the sins” of believers – only God can save man
    o (3) Only God can “be the one mediator between God and man” – only God can reveal God
    o (4) If Christ is not God, there is no salvation

Next week we will finish this lesson and examine Jesus apologetic and how he demonstrates His equality with God.