“Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” – John 5:19
Those that would reduce, diminish, limit, or otherwise deny the deity of Jesus Christ are fond of using verses like this to prove Jesus did not have divine ability, the use of divine power, or every attribute of God.
After all, Jesus said clearly, “The Son can do nothing of himself”, but God can do all things without anyone else, right? So, they conclude that Jesus is testifying to his being less than fully God, lacking divine attributes or ability.
This wrong interpretation could not be further from the truth, which the context describes as exactly the opposite.
Instead of testifying to any inferiority of Christ, John 5 is one of the greatest passages in all scripture declaring the full and complete deity of Christ! (This squares with the purpose of the entire book of John as a proof that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God – John 20:31.)
So, what did Jesus mean when he said he could do nothing?
Equal with God
First, let’s get some context. Just prior to his statement Jesus answered the Jews condemnation of his healing on the Sabbath day.
“But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” – John 5:17
The Jews knew that the law forbad working on the Sabbath, but that their own prayers acknowledged God the Creator upholding creation on the seventh day. When Jesus said this, he was declaring his Father was God, and that he and the Father do the same things.
The Jews heard exactly what he was saying, and because of their unbelief, sought to kill him for blasphemy as John 5:18 says…
“… because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” – John 5:18
Do you see? By declaring his Father to be God, he was declaring equality to him.
It is with this in mind, that Jesus says, “verily, verily” which is another way of saying “It’s true! It’s true!” He was truly equal to God, and he (like the Father) can and does work on the Sabbath day.
Can Do Nothing
The very next thing Jesus says is supposedly where he reveals that he is not really equal with God in all attributes or power, but wouldn’t this undermine his entire defense and make him guilty of blasphemy? It would, but Jesus is not backing down.
Jesus explains that he “can do nothing of himself”, which is a strange way of talking if he were talking about his humanity.
When God created man in the garden he made him in his image, but made him a separate being from himself. Adam was not God. God has a will and thoughts, and they are higher and different than man’s.
Man could think, will, and operate with a level of moral independence from God. What man did, he was responsible for, not God. It was this distinction between man and God, that allows for relationship, but which ultimately led to a moral separation from God when Adam sinned.
Jesus says, although he and the Father are distinct, he has no independence from the Father. What Jesus does, God does. He does nothing, “but what he seeth the Father do.”
No mere man can claim this sort of unity with the Father. Even we who are in the body of Christ could not be so bold as to say “we do nothing of ourselves” and “we do only what the Father does”. We may desire to do God’s will, but it is not our natural reality. Only one that was equal with God could say this!
Doeth the Son Likewise
He further explains, “for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.”
Rather than limiting his divine actions, this statement says that the Son can and does do anything the Father does.
In the Godhead there is one will, and Jesus does everything in the Father’s will, because he shares that will with him. If he were just a man, and not the Son of God, then he would be speaking and doing things of himself.
The passages that follow elaborate on his statements of unity with the Father in the Godhead.
John 5:21 – As the Father… so the Son, speaking about having the same power of will to raise whom he will – which is one with the Father.
John 5:22-23 – As they honour the Father… all men should honour the Son, because the Son is the divine Judge.
John 5:24-26 – As the Father hath life in himself… so the Son. Only God has life in himself (John 1:1-3).
John 5:30 – Jesus repeats that he does not stand alone in his actions, but shares the will, power, and authority of the Father. What Jesus does, God wants it done, because Jesus is equal to God as is the Father. They share the same essence. Jesus always does what the Father wills because he is equal with God and has the same will.
I Came From God
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he was communicating his divine origins.
John 3:13 – The Son of Man is in heaven and came down from it.
John 5:37 – No man (including Israel) had seen or heard the voice of the Father, except the Son.
John 7:16 – The doctrines Christ taught were not learned in synagogue, but came from the Father.
John 8:42 – Jesus proceeded forth and “came from God”.
John 10:30 – Jesus declares unity with the Father in the Godhead. The Jews took up stones to stone him for making “thyself God” (John 10:33).
Everything Jesus did was something God did. This is the point Jesus makes when he says he does nothing of himself, because his will and actions are inseparable from that of the Father in perfect union in the Godhead.
Rather than communicating the humility of Christ, these passages explain his deity and provide substantial evidence for the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity: that there are three persons equal in essence in the one God.
Jesus does nothing of himself because there are three persons in the Godhead, and Jesus and the Father are one in the Godhead. None of them can do anything of themselves. Take away the Father, and Jesus can do nothing. Take away the Son, and the Father can do nothing for our salvation. Take away the Father, Son, or Spirit as God and you have a different God.
The Godhead Bodily
All men listening to Jesus knew that he was a man, but what made Jesus unique was that it was the first time God had ever done anything as a man. Jesus is the fullness of the Godhead bodily. He had always existed in the fullness of the Godhead, but for the first time God was found as a man (Phil 2:8).
This is what makes it possible for the death of Christ to be God’s salvation, because Jesus was equal with God. It is also what makes it possible for the death of Christ to pay for man’s sins, because Jesus was also a man dying as one of us in our place.
Limiting Jesus powers or attributes of deity based on his statements of unity with the Father in John 5 is out of context and strained, but it also endangers the very doctrines of salvation and the Godhead.