18 This was why hoi Ioudaioi were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he “breaking” the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
(Please, make sure to read this post in the context of the overall study – you can find it here. Especially, the sections covered in John 5.2-17).
How can their strong negative language, expressing their intent to kill him, be explained? We read that hoi Ioudaioi (normally and incorrectly translated simply as “the Jews”) sought to kill Jesus (vs.18). It is known that in the vast majority of premeditated murder cases, the actions of the murderer were based on feelings of anger that eventually led to the murder itself. This is probably why Jesus taught that in some way anger towards a fellow human is the same as actual murder.
When people become (and stay very) angry for a long period of time they often cannot bear the heavy burden of their anger. They seek to take some action that will satisfy and nullify the anger that causes them so much emotional pain. They must end the pain that their own anger causes them. The stronger the anger; the stronger is the desire to end it. In the absence of a better way, people resort to evil actions such as violence and even murder.
The issue was not that Jesus did not abide by the Sabbath-keeping rulings of hoi Ioudaioi. Judaism in the time of Jesus was not monolithic. It is probably better to speak in terms of many Judaisms rather than one, given the wide variety of Jewish observance practices and scriptural interpretation that existed at that time. Only in the 5th – 7th centuries C.E. can we speak of Jewish rabbinic leadership solidifying its authority over the Jewish community. The rabbis were engaged in setting forth an authoritative corpus of rabbinic literature that would determine the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament for the rest of the Jewish community for centuries to come. They did very much succeed, but only centuries later.
Incidentally, the word in Greek translated here as “breaking” the Sabbath does not need to be translated this way. It is equally possible to speak of Jesus “setting the Sabbath free.” It is not that the author of John thought Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. He in fact was persuaded that Jesus could not break the command of his own, so by definition, Jesus could not be everything John said he was and at the same time to be a Sabbath-breaker. But, in John’s story, hoi Iudaioi accused him of breaking the Sabbath. Because they were seeking to discredit him in the eyes of the people whose heart-allegiance they did not possess and whose rebellion they still feared.
Jesus’ very presence (His person) as well as his teachings (His words) and his miracles (His deeds) were spelling trouble for the Jerusalem Temple elite and others who fed off the same budget and status. Jesus was gaining more and more popular following. He was performing miracles and giving prophetic speeches almost exclusively outside of Judea, (the headquarters of hoi Ioudaioi) where, for the most part, he was accepted and honored. He, as a matter of principle, did not respond to their requests to submit to their authority. He was rightly perceived by them to be a real threat; but most importantly, he was a threat to their personal status and their personal financial resources that were associated with the Jerusalem Temple.
In the chapter 5, however, the anger and plans to kill Jesus are only beginning. They pick up when Jesus will cross the red line of the patience and tolerance of the hoi Ioudaioi. The final threat of Jesus to the hoi Ioudaioi leadership will be his most spectacular miracle – the resurrection of the well-known and respected member of the hoi Ioudaioi, a man named Eliezar. (We know him as Lazarus.)
We read in a later portion of the Gospel that Jesus’ coming to Bethany (very near Jerusalem) and resurrecting Lazarus resulted in two significant events. Many members of hoi Ioudaioi placed their faith in Jesus. As a result, an emergency meeting of the top level of the leadership was called. In John 11:47-48, we read: “… the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
We will look at this story in detail when we get to chapter 11, but for now, it is clear that the accusations of hoi Ioudaioi in chapter 5 did not have to do with Jesus’ seemingly “liberal” Sabbath observance, but with his person, words and deeds.
It is not that his claims to be the Son of Man/Logos of God did not have a place in Judaisms of the time, but simply that Jesus was not allowed to take that place. Stop and think about it again. It was not because “divine Messiah” claim did not fit “the Jewish” thinking spectrum (see the links), it was precisely because it did. That was the problem!
The Jerusalem leaders did the math. If things continue “as is,” Jesus would surely have put them out of a job with his prophetic speeches that were validated by his great miracles. In the next sections we will see how Jesus’ roles will merge two normally separate concepts, the Son of God and the Son of Man. We will consider John 5.19-30 in its ancient literary and poetic context. I think you will be amazed!
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