Jesus on Trial — John 5:17-18

This week we’re looking at Jesus on trial in John chapter 5 (see yesterday’s post for the background). At the start of the chapter, we had the statement of facts: Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, and told him to pick up his mat and carry it – both of which are prohibited by law. This comes to the attention of the Jewish leaders, who then bring this accusation against him.

The accusation

The trouble is, Jesus doesn’t exactly defend himself the way you might expect. His response? (Or his apologia as it is described in v17, which was a technical term for a courtroom-style defence speech.)

5:17 In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”

Not exactly the words of someone trying to avoid trouble. Let me explain why.

In 2007, I read a newspaper story of an 18 year old man from Tennessee. He was charged with driving with a suspended licence and had to appear in court. As he raised his right hand to be sworn in, a packet of white powder fell out of his pocket – which turned out to be 1.2g of cocaine. He was then facing up to 12 years  in prison.

Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath, which was bad enough. But in the process of defending himself against this charge he ends up doing something far worse in the eyes of the Jewish leaders – he claimed equality with God. To the Jews, this was nothing less than blasphemy, and was deserving of death.

5:18 For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Now notice he hasn’t actually yet claimed to be God – more explicit claims would come later in John’s gospel. For now, it’s bad enough that he claims God as his Father and that he’s doing his work; that he’s equal to God in status and function. Because unless you actually are God, that’s blasphemy.

And more than that – being equal to God and doing his work means that Jesus gets to define the rules. He gets to break a lesser rule in order to perform a greater good. He gets to set aside the external regulations of the Sabbath in order to get to the heart of the law.

He effectively challenges the established idea of who God is & how God works. And the Jewish leaders were threatened by this. They were quite comfortable with the set of rules and regulations they had – particularly because they had made many of the rules up and they were in control of them. But Jesus comes along changes it all. He claims the authority to reveal what God is really like, in place of their distorted, self-made picture.

Two thousand years later, Jesus is still in the business of doing that, which is why he still attracts opposition and hostility. It’s why he’s still on trial.

For a start, to those who believe that that there is no God – that God doesn’t exist – Jesus is a threat. Because if Jesus is who he claims to be, their whole worldview falls apart. And instead of being their own ultimate authority about what’s right and wrong, they have to deal with Jesus’ claim to tell us what’s right and wrong. They have  to acknowledge Jesus’ authority to define sin, to set the rules, and to be the one who tells us what truth is. So Jesus is on trial.

And then there are people who have different religious beliefs. Who follow a different god or gods. To them, Jesus is a threat in much the same way. He claims to be the only way to God, the only name that brings salvation. And if that were true, then embracing Jesus may well mean rejection by their family, their community, and their ethnic heritage. So Jesus is on trial.

And perhaps most commonly, there are the people who say they believe in the God of the Bible – in a general sense. People who’ve already made up their mind about who God is and how he works, and they’re happy with that definition. A God who reflects their own image back to them. A God who’s easygoing. Who doesn’t worry about sin. Who’s reduced to the role of a lifesaver when they get in trouble. To them, Jesus is a threat. His claim to be equal in status with God threatens their own claim to be equal with God. Or at least, it threatens their desire to define God the way they’d like him defined. A vague idea. Or a mate. Someone who bears a striking resemblance to themselves.

But Jesus turns everything upside down. And so Jesus is on trial. Both now, and two thousand years ago among the Jewish leaders. What will be his defence? Can he prove his claim?

To think about

How would you defend Jesus against this new charge – the one he brought on himself, of blasphemy, where he made himself equal with God? What arguments would you make? What witnesses would you call?

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