This verse clearly identifies two of the persons within the Godhead: the Father and the Son. The Jews understood what He was driving at; they knew He was saying, "I am God." Jesus Christ was identifying Himself as within Elohim. The Jews understood this, and they were ready to jump on Him for blasphemy.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Nature of God: Elohim
"Hitherto" (King James version) is not a word that we are familiar with. It means, "to here," so in this context it implies "to this very day." Jesus is saying, "My Father is working right up to this point of time, and I am too." God is an active Creator. He did not create everything physical, and then just sit back, cross His legs, and twiddle His thumbs. He is an active Creator.
God created this universe to carry out the next step in His purpose, which is His ongoing work. He is creating a Family of beings just like Himself. He is reproducing Himself by creating us in His image. "Conversion" is the word that describes this process of transformation—"from glory to glory"—from the glory of man to the glory of God. We are being brought into the image of God.
This image is not in the way that we look, but in certain knowledge and attitudes that we believe, accept, submit to in thought and in conduct. It is accomplished by putting the mind of God in us. This regeneration begins a growth process. In our case, it is the growth of God's mind in ours.
God's mind, just like ours, is more than words. It is also attitudes, feelings, moods, passions, inclinations, and perspectives. These things can be described by words, but they are not words. They develop through the combination of knowledge and experience, most frequently within relationships. We really cannot relate to a machine, but we can relate to other beings—we can have relationships with God and men—fellowships, social intercourse, work, play, and interaction. From these experiences, these mental, emotional, and attitudinal aspects of the mind, beyond mere words, create and develop.
As it happens, nothing actually is produced that has form, weight, or can be measured. Rather it is knowledge gleaned from experience, and it is accompanied by God personally and actively working and creating to enable us to accomplish our part in carrying out His will. Remember, Paul said, "For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part 6)
We do not use "hitherto" much anymore. It means that the Father began working at some unexpressed time in the past, and He is working still. He began working and has never stopped. His audience understood this because they say that God was working on the Sabbath.
If God has never stopped working, He works seven days a week, 365 day a year, decade after decade, century after century. He is working and has never stopped for the Sabbath. Then Jesus adds, ". . . and I work." The Jews did not like this at all because Jesus associated Himself with God, and He was declaring, "I work on the Sabbath too," basically throwing their accusation right back at them. But the very fact He said it incensed them because they knew immediately that, in order for this to be true, He had to be equated with God.
The Father and the Son began working on a project in the indefinite past. Once that project began, They worked without stopping - "hitherto" - even now. Remember, God is our model, and He works on the Sabbath. But the key is the type of work that He and His Son do.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Sabbathkeeping (Part 1)
The issue is the Sabbath. God does not stop working on the Sabbath. However, He is not laboring in a steel mill. He is not bending over an engineering table, working on His automobile, or cutting His lawn. What is God doing? Psalm 74:12 says that God is working salvation in all the world, and that work does not stop on the Sabbath.
Jesus is justifying what He did on the Sabbath by the fact that He was doing the same thing God was. He was expending His energy in God's creation, and therefore it was justifiable for Jesus to work. So, creative acts—creative work—of the kind that God is involved in does not stop just because the Sabbath arrives.
The Sabbath is, therefore, an integral part of the same process of Creation that God began on that seventh day. The physical aspect was finished at the end of the sixth day. But the spiritual aspect began with creation of the Sabbath, and it continues to this day, as Jesus establishes in John 5.
In the physical sequence of events—the first six days—God created an environment for man and life. But God shows through the creation of the Sabbath that the life-producing process is not complete with just the physical environment. The Sabbath plays an important role in producing spiritual life. It is life with a dimension that the physical cannot supply. Thus, the Sabbath is not an afterthought of a tremendous Creation. Rather it is a deliberate memorializing of the most enduring thing that man knows—time.
Time plays an important role in God's spiritual creation. It is as if God says, "When this day rolls around, look at what I have made, and consider that I am not finished yet. I am reproducing Myself, and you can be part of My spiritual creation." God created the Sabbath by resting from His physical exertions, thus setting us the example that we must also rest from our physical exertions.
He also blessed and sanctified the day. He did this to no other day! Yet people will argue, even with Christ, that we should not keep it as He did. It is very obvious that He kept it. Yet, it is the commandment that men tend most to disregard as though it is nothing.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 1)
The charge does not accuse Him of healing but of breaking Sabbath regulations. In both cases, Jesus repudiates the charge by arguing 1) that the works of salvation are contemplated by the Sabbath commandment (see Deuteronomy 5:15, where redemption is the focus of the keeping of the Sabbath), and 2) that what Jesus did—being contemplated by the Sabbath law—is equivalent to God doing the same thing. It was this that really angered the Jews because they surmised that He not only had "broken the Sabbath" but in their eyes did something far worse: blaspheming God by making Himself equal with God.
It ought to be obvious that Christ did not regard the Sabbath as a time of idleness. He certainly looked at it far differently than the Jews did. He admitted that what He was doing here could be considered as work.
But what kind of work is it? Since He equated Himself with God, what He was saying is that He was doing the work of God. That is His justification. "My Father is working until now," and He did not break the Sabbath!
It is interesting that the word "answered" in verse 17 also appears in verse 19. It is the only place in the New Testament where this particular Greek word is translated "answered." It is a particularly strong word. What it means is that Jesus was heatedly defending Himself. It is showing that He considered their accusation to be "personal," as it were, and He reacts to it very strongly.
What comes out of His mouth is, "My Father has been working till now, and He works on the Sabbath!"
Then Jesus answered and said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do." (John 5:19)
Jesus is saying, "I am imitating what I have seen My Father do. Therefore, I am not breaking the Sabbath because God does this on the Sabbath!"
What we have to figure out is what kind of work does God do on the Sabbath? This is important to understanding the principle of the kind of work that is permitted on the Sabbath. What does God do that Jesus is copying?
God shows that He rested from His work. The kind of work that God is doing on the Sabbath does not involve the work of physically creating something. So we can eliminate that right away. Notice John 1:1-3:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made [past tense] through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
John is referring to the physical Creation. Those works were finished, as it were, from the foundation of the world. Jesus is not referring here to the work of earning a living. The work that God is involved in is something else entirely!
God does His work ceaselessly and effortlessly. Jesus is telling us what kind of work it is: the work of redeeming. It is the work of salvation. It is the work of healing people, particularly their minds.
In John 5:31-36, Jesus Christ says, in essence, "What I am doing proves that I am the Messiah." At that time, He had just healed someone, redeemed him from bondage to an illness, from uselessness. He just gave to him the liberty to have hope. He just delivered someone out of his discouragement. That kind of work is the work of salvation. God "is working salvation" (Psalm 74:12).
Also consider John 6:29: "Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.'" God is working to produce in us faith in Jesus Christ because salvation is by grace through faith. Faith is the foundation from which everything in God's purpose grows. God is working to get us saved. He is able to do it, but we have a part in this salvation in that we have to make choices. The basis of our choices is whether or not we believe in Jesus Christ. If we believe Him, then we will make the right choices. It is essential, then, that our faith be increased.
So, the purpose of the manifestation of the works of God in Christ is to produce faith. If one has faith in God, then what will he do? He will apply God's Word, and that produces liberty in himself and in others. We can now begin to see the part that the Sabbath plays in this. It is essential to increasing our faith.
The work that God is doing is not the work of a physical creation but the work of a spiritual creation. He is creating sons in His image. Christ is Redeemer, Deliverer, Savior—and that is His work! What does He spend His time doing? He spends His time healing, forgiving sin, teaching the way of God, and doing good. That is His part in the work of God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 3)
What work is the Father doing? He is "working salvation in the midst of the earth" (Psalm 74:12). God is always working toward the completion of His purpose - the salvation of mankind. Jesus works within the same process and pointedly makes an issue of this on the Sabbath days. God's work is creating sons in His image. Thus, healing, forgiving sin, and doing good are part of Christ's work as Savior and High Priest that He might be "firstborn among many brethren."
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part Two): Christ's Attitude Toward the Sabbath
The implication is, "My Father has been working from the beginning, and He's continuing to work." What is Their work? It is creating, creation. God is the Potter, we are the clay. He is the One doing the shaping, the molding, the creating. "It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves." He is the One who is continuing the creation that He began and revealed in Genesis 1. He is still working on us! Continuing the pottery metaphor, the Holy Spirit, then, can be compared to the water that the potter uses to bring the clay to the right consistency to enable him to shape it.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Pentecost and the Holy Spirit
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing John 5:17: