Question: "What does it mean that Jesus made Himself equal with God (John 5:18)?"

Answer: Jesus heals a lame man on the Sabbath in John 5, and that caused the Jewish leaders to persecute Jesus. “In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working’” (John 5:17). This statement raised the leaders’ anger to a fever pitch: “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).

The identity of Jesus is critical to understanding the Christian faith, and it’s a topic that the Gospel of John sheds much light on. In fact, it’s the first topic John addresses in his book: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John describes the Word (Jesus) as “with God”—distinct from God the Father in some way—yet, at the same time, Jesus is God. In addition, Jesus was “in the beginning,” pointing the reader back to Genesis 1:1. Jesus has always existed as one of the three Persons of the Trinity. Jesus’ words in John 5 making Himself equal with God were a simple reflection of reality.

In John 5:18 the Jewish religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus because He was claiming deity and equality with God. They were correct in this accusation (John 1:1–2; 5:17; 8:58). The Jews rightly understood that, when Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work . . . , and I too am working” (John 5:17), He made Himself equal to God. He spoke of Himself as if He were on the same level as God, and He professed a special relationship with God—He said, “My Father,” not “our Father.” The Jews considered Jesus to be guilty of blasphemy in three ways: 1) Jesus called God His “Father,” 2) He worked in tandem with God, and 3) He asserted the same authority to work on the Sabbath as God has. It is notable that Jesus did not correct them; He accepted the accusation that He had claimed deity for Himself.

That was not the only time Jesus laid claim to deity. In John 8:58 Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham. As Abraham lived roughly 2,000 years prior to Jesus making the claim, the only way Jesus’ claim could be true is if He is God. Not only that, but Jesus makes the claim by identifying as “I am.” This is the name of God spoken to Moses at the burning bush. It was the name Moses provided to the Hebrew people when asked who sent him to free them from Egypt (Exodus 3:14). In saying He was the I Am who existed before Abraham, Jesus was clearly making Himself God, and the unbelieving Jews responded accordingly—“They picked up stones to stone him” (John 8:59).

The Jewish leaders in John 5 started with the false premise that Jesus is not God in the flesh. They refused to entertain the thought, even after seeing the miracle He performed. So they were offended by His words and the fact that He had healed on the Sabbath. But Jesus simply presented Himself as He is. He is God. The Jews accused Jesus of making Himself equal with God as if He were a charlatan trying to boost Himself into that position. They missed the truth that Jesus, as the Son of God, has always been God.

There were other witnesses to the deity of Jesus. John the Baptist (John 5:33–35), Jesus’ own works (John 5:36), God the Father (John 5:37–38), and the Scriptures (John 5:39–47). Jesus’ deity is also attested in Hebrews 1:1–3; Colossians 1:15–17; Ephesians 1:3–14; and Philippians 2:1–11.

Jesus’ deity is a central aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus provides those who believe in Him with the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He can do this because He is God and therefore has the righteousness of God to give. Jesus, God the Son, took on flesh and walked sinlessly among His creations, was wrongfully killed by them, and rose again so they may have the righteousness of God and eternal life. This is the good news of Jesus Christ.