I think we have to allow that John’s Gospel differs from the Synoptic Gospels in this fundamental respect: it is not an attempt to remember the historical Jesus; it is an attempt to restate the significance of the historical Jesus from a later theological vantage point, shaped in particular by a bitter controversy with the Jews.
The Synoptic Gospels (and Acts) remember Jesus as the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel, who was rejected and killed, but who would become the cornerstone, the persecuted Son of Man who within a generation would be seen to be vindicated by events, and who would become Israel’s king.
From John’s perspective, however, Jesus was the creative word or wisdom of God, which had become flesh. Jesus was God doing something radically new. His own people, the Jews, rejected him (Jn. 1:11), so John affirms that Jesus was sent into the world, because God so loved the world, and his death was for the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29; 3:16-17). The story about Israel and the shocking prospect of Jerusalem’s destruction, which so preoccupied the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, has been superseded or transcended in John. He sees no prospect of Israel’s restoration as a nation.
But scratch the surface a bit, and we may be surprised to find that much of the older story is still there. A good example is Jesus’ defence of his actions when he is accused of breaking the Sabbath and making himself equal to God (Jn. 5:18-24).
The selfish and atheistical mind that thinks it is equal to God
The Jews are determined to kill Jesus because he healed a man by the Bethesda pool on the Sabbath. In response Jesus says, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” John then explains that this is why the Jews were seeking to kill him: not only was he breaking the Sabbath by healing a person, “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (ison… tōi theōi)” (Jn. 5:17-18).
An interesting parallel in Philo helps us to understand the connection between breaking the Sabbath, calling God his own Father, and making himself equal to God:
And some one may ask here, why, since it is a pious action to imitate the works of God, it is forbidden to me to plant a grove near the altar, and yet God plants a paradise? … But the selfish and atheistical (atheos) mind, thinking itself equal with God (isos… theōi) while it appears to be doing something, is found in reality to be rather suffering. (Philo Alleg. 1:48-49)
Philo does not mean, of course, that the selfish and ungodly mind makes itself equivalent to God or makes itself God or claims to be God. His point is rather that while it may be a pious action to imitate the works of God, it sometimes happens that a person presumes to transgress certain boundaries imposed by God. In this case it is forbidden to plant a grove near the altar. It looks like an act of pious imitation because God planted a paradise, but it is a good work that God has reserved for himself.
The same can be said of Jesus, more or less. Jesus claims to be imitating the works of the Father, but the Jews think that healing on the Sabbath, like planting a grove near the altar, is an act that God has reserved for himself. If God heals a person on the Sabbath, that’s his business, but woe betide the miracle-worker who dares to copy him. In arrogating this right for himself, Jesus has acted with a selfish and atheistical intention, making himself equal to God.
This is what the accusation about making God “his own Father” is getting at. He is actively redefining what it means to be in relationship with God as a son. For the pious Jew sonship meant not working on the Sabbath; for Jesus sonship meant faithfully doing the works of the Father, even if it got him into trouble.
So he tells them that the Son does nothing of his own accord, he only does what he sees the Father doing (Jn. 5:19). The Father heals, and the Son imitates him. The Father raises from the dead, and the Son imitates him (Jn. 5:20-21).
How is he able to do this, even on the Sabbath? Because the Father has “given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father”. He has “granted the Son also to have life in himself”; he has “given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (Jn. 5:22-24).
Authority given to the Son of Man
The interpretive background is to be found in Daniel, though no doubt it has come to John by way of the Synoptic traditions. Jesus is the Son of Man who has been given authority (Dan. 7:13-14, 27) to execute judgment and raise Israel’s dead, either to the life of the coming age or for condemnation and shame (Dan. 12:2-3). For, as Jesus says to the Jews, “an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn. 5:25).
Given the context (Sabbath breaking), it seems to me unlikely that the Jews had in mind those pagan rulers who exalted themselves and made themselves equal to God (cf. Is. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:2; Dan. 11:36-37). Paul’s argument in Philippians 2:6 is rather different: Jesus would not attain kingship by seizing the opportunity to make himself equal to God (isa theōi). But the comparison does show that making oneself equal to God had to do not with identity but with status. The divinised pagan ruler was not identified with the one true living God; he was accorded cultus as being on a par with God but he remained distinct from God.
Healing the man on the Sabbath, therefore, was a sign that Jesus was the Son who had been given the authority, as the “one like a son of man” of Daniel’s vision, to execute judgment and give life to those who believed in him.
This is not very different to the story of the healing of the paralysed man in the Synoptics. The scribes think that Jesus has blasphemed, arrogated to himself the authority of God, by proclaiming forgiveness of the man’s sins. He then heals the man as a sign that the Son of Man has been given authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6-8; cf. Mk. 2:10; Lk. 5:24), presumably in anticipation of the restoration of Israel, when—this is the point that John brings out—many of Israel’s dead will be raised, some to the life of the age to come, so to eternal condemnation.
What John does not do is follow the prophetic-apocalyptic story through to the end. There is nothing equivalent to Jesus’ words to his disciples that the Son of Man will be seen “coming in clouds with great glory” before the current generation passes away (Mk. 13:26, 30), or to the high priest that the leaders of Israel will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). John’s Son of Man is glorified when he is “lifted up” in death, not at a future parousia.
I said you are gods
On a later occasion the Jews threaten to stone Jesus because he said, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30-31). Again Jesus highlights the “good works from the Father” that he has done, and the Jews say, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (Jn. 10:33).
Jesus does not respond directly to the charge but asks them about a line in Psalm 82:
Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (Jn. 10:34–36)
I don’t think that Jesus means that scripture says that the Jews are “gods”. The reference is to the members of a discredited divine council, to whom the word of God came: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” (Ps. 82:2). Whereas the gods received the word of God but failed to act upon it, Jesus is the consecrated Son, given authority as the Son of Man (cf. Jn. 5:22-24), who is one with the Father, who faithfully does what he has been sent to do. He defends his claim to be the “Son of God”, that is the agent of God’s will, by drawing attention to the “good works”—healing the sick, etc.—that he has been doing.
This is just about recognisable as the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, but he has been lifted out of the historical narrative and relocated in a myopic account of the failure of the Jews to recognise that Jesus was doing the work of God. It is this controversy, I rather think, which drives the intense focus in John’s Gospel on the oneness of Jesus with the Father.