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In this short transitional section we hear for the first time of the Jews' persecuting Jesus (v. 16). Jesus' response captures in a nutshell the heart of all that he is and does, for he reveals himself to be doing God's work as one equal to God. Accordingly, the Jews wish to kill him for such a claim. The monologue that follows will focus on this central claim (5:19-30), after which witnesses will be brought in for support (5:31-40). All that follows in the Gospel will be an unfolding of what is expressed here.
Jesus' deeds, beginning with the miracle at the wedding in Cana, have revealed the glory of God, his gracious love. Thus they provide the evidence for Jesus' assertion that his Father is working and he is working (5:17). The gratuity of God's love becomes more evident each time he expresses favor to increasingly less-worthy recipients until it is seen clearly in Jesus' healing of a man who, having been healed, betrays him. The rejection of Jesus by the invalid echoes the rejection by the opponents in that they themselves have been graciously offered divine revelation in Jesus. Instead of accepting that which is graciously offered them by Jesus, the opponents seek to kill him (5:18). Thus 5:1-18 is pivotal because it brings to a climax the revelation of grace that began in these initial stories and because it also triggers the opponents' hostility, which in turn leads to Jesus' death, the supreme revelation of this same gracious love.
Jesus has healed one who is totally unworthy, thereby revealing God's love. But by doing it on the sabbath he provokes the Jewish opponents. Jesus' defense is that his Father is working and he is working. This is a statement extraordinary in its clarity, not at all cryptic. And indeed, the opponents understand that he is claiming to be uniquely related to God. This claim is implied in two ways. First, he does not say "My Father is working and therefore I am working." Rather, he simply coordinates the two sayings, setting them on equal footing. Second, according to Jewish thought God alone is allowed to work on the sabbath, so to claim such a right would make one equal to God, as they say (5:18). According to Exodus Rabbah 30:9 the idea that God worked on the sabbath was held by rabbis at the time John is writing in the 90s. These rabbis argued that God is exempt from the prohibition to work on the sabbath (Ex 20:11; Deut 5:14) because "a man is permitted to carry on the sabbath in his own courtyard" and Isaiah 6:3 indicates that the whole world is God's courtyard when it says "the whole earth is full of his glory." Similarly, a person is permitted to carry "a distance of his own height," and since God fills heaven and earth (Jer 23:24) there is no limit to his carrying. These arguments may focus on "carrying" because God must continue to carry the universe even on the sabbath or it would collapse. The use of carrying as a reference point in rabbinic arguments in John's day may account for why John chose this type of story about sabbath breaking—in which a man carries his mat—to stand for all the instances in which Jesus challenged his opponents' ideas about the sabbath.
Yet another rabbinic argument is also strikingly related to the themes here in John. "He rested from the work of [creating] His world, but not from the work of the wicked and the work of the righteous, for He works with the former and with the latter. He shows the former their essential character, and the latter their essential character" (Genesis Rabbah 11:10). That is, the work of judgment takes place on the sabbath, presumably because people die on the sabbath and go before God. Raymond Brown also suggests that because births occur on the sabbath, God's work of giving life must occur on the sabbath (Brown 1966:217). It is precisely these divine prerogatives of life-giving and judgment that Jesus is exercising according to the monologue that follows (Jn 5:21-22).
The work Jesus sees the Father doing and the work he himself does is characterized by gratuitous love. But the opponents fail to recognize this divine love in Jesus and thereby show the depth of their alienation from God. Their rejection of Jesus, who reveals the Father, shows that they have never heard nor seen God (5:37), or else they would have recognized him in his Son. They are utterly unlike their gracious God who is revealed in Jesus. As Jesus himself says in what follows, "I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts" (5:42). They have grasped something of Jesus' claim, but they reject it.