On three occasions in the gospel of John, the Lord declares that he can do nothing of himself. The first occurrence of this affirmation is in John 5.

He had just healed a man at the pool of Bethesda, but having done this on the Sabbath day, he immediately incurred the indignation of the Jews. Indeed, their wrath was so vicious that they sought to murder him on the spot. In one deft stroke John unveils the bankruptcy of Judaism. It drove men to destroy an innocent man simply because he did something good on the wrong day.

The Lord’s response exposes their faulty reasoning: “My Father worketh hitherto [i.e. even until now], and I work” (John 5:17). Does God suspend the operations of the universe on the Sabbath? Does He withdraw His power and fail the needs of man once a week? The response from Jesus highlighted the fact that God is prepared to work for man’s salvation every day.

By highlighting his Father’s work first, the Lord demonstrates that he is always fully conscious of His Father’s greatness. ‘All I am doing’, he asserts, ‘is copying my Father’s example. My Father works and I work alongside him’, he says. ‘I have the same desire, the same will, the same intent to work as He has’. How God-honouring is this thought. It was an undeniably powerful factor in his approach to life.

But it had the opposite reaction from the Jews. Instead of reflecting upon the powerful miracle that had been wrought and upon the irrefutable power of God that was made manifest in their midst, they charged him with blasphemy.‘He is making himself equal with God’, they asserted.

This brought forth the first of these three declarations in verse 19: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise”.

His first point was that he was the Son of God and not God Himself. The rulers could never understand how God could have a Son who was the perfect reflection of His own character. Secondly, he affirms that he can do nothing of himself. By this he meant not so much that his power was only derived from the Father (although that was true: John 14:10), but that his work was not something based on his own imagination and will. He was saying that his work was an imitation of the Father’s work: “what he seeth the Father do… these also doeth the Son likewise”. Note the emphasis, “also… likewise”. Just as a son mimics the actions of his parents, so the Lord did everything his Father did.

In verse 20 he expands this thought further. On what basis would His Father unveil His work to His Son? The Lord answers that: “For the Father loveth (Greek: phileo—to have affection for) the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth”. We have a remarkable declaration here of the love God had towards His Son; a love in which He personally unveiled to the Son the work He was doing to save mankind! The Father “shows” in love and the Son “sees”.

This opens up a wonderful scene to contemplate—the Father showing His Son by His very deeds and by His example of love (cp John 3:16) how He was working to redeem mankind. And the Son, morning by morning, drinking this in as a ready student (Isa 50:4-5) and reflecting this work ethic by emulating his Father in precisely the same way. This is what he meant when he said that he could do nothing of himself. He was saying that his very motive and work was not his own—all was derived from His Father’s own personal example and motive. God was teaching His Son by asking him to observe His own actions!

What a powerful exhortation that leaves for us. This is what it means to know the Father and the Son. We observe their actions through the pages of the Word and we need to emulate their example. Their desire was not to lose any (John 6:39-40). We should have that same spirit amongst ourselves.

Now the Lord didn’t leave the point there. He went on to say that His Father would show him greater works than the healing they had witnessed at Bethesda. That greater work was in resurrecting the Son and granting him everlasting life, and by this great work God was signalling to the Son that He wanted him to do the same: “For, as the Father doth raise the dead, and doth make alive, so also the Son doth make alive whom he willeth (v21, YLT).

The Son was raised by the Father, judged to be righteous by the Father and granted everlasting life by the Father, and in this series of works He “committed all judgment unto the Son” (v22). How exalted is the Lord’s grasp of what his Father was instructing him! God was teaching by doing; and what He was doing with His Son was leaving an implicit thought: ‘I want you to do the same’. ‘I will raise the dead and vindicate the righteous,’ He said, ‘and you are to do the same!’ The Lord understood the point—something that might never have occurred to us unless it had been revealed by John.

Jesus was not equal to God; he was God’s Son, which implies both inherited inferiority as well as derived authority. This is why he went on to say,“as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man” (vv26-27). This work has been given to him so that his actions will reflect his Father’s. Their will is identical and will be expressed in the same decisions. Hence, to demonstrate this alignment of wills, the Son has been given the enormous authority to adjudicate between those who should be awarded life and those who will be found worthy of death. In the Lord’s hands are the keys of hell and of death (Rev 1:18).

This brings us to the second declaration by the Lord in verse 30: “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me”.

Once again, this expression is not speaking about the Son’s lack of authority and power. On the contrary, he has been given great authority to confer life or death. Jesus is making the point that his judgment is not made in isolation of the Father’s will; it is not a decision that can breach any sense of justice. He has been listening to His Father, observing His judgments and understanding the way his Father passes judgment. His decisions at the judgment seat will reflect that same sense of justice because he knows the wishes of his heavenly Father.

This leads us to the last of these declarations in John 8:28: “When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him”.

The context describes a people who “understood not” (vv14, 19, 27, 28, 32, 43, 55) and this veil of ignorance would remain until his lifting up. This lifting up would demonstrate two things, Jesus declared. Firstly, only when the events of the crucifixion had occurred (and by implication the resurrection and ascension that followed) would they understand that he was the promised Messiah. Secondly, it would demonstrate that every action and every word were all derived from his Father’s education. How would his lifting up show that he did nothing of himself? Because those who believed would have opportunity to examine the Lord’s life and see the ways of the Father in him. They would understand that he was the perfect manifestation of God and that his desires matched the Father’s exactly.

They couldn’t make the connection between Jesus and his Father whilst he was amongst them. They couldn’t understand that Jesus, the carpenter, was imitating God’s actions towards them. But they soon would.

What does this all mean for us? In John 15:5, Jesus said this: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing”. He had stated on three previous occasions that he could do nothing of himself. Now he says the same thing to us. ‘You can do nothing of yourself. The same relationship I had with my Father’, he argues, ‘must now exist between myself and you!’.

The Lord learnt everything from his Father. We must learn everything from our Master. His words and ideals and motives must now be ours. The Lord fully yielded up himself to please the Father—we are asked to do the same. It will require us to abide in Christ, living with him, as it were. We are not permitted to let our will override the Father’s. Like our Lord, we are called to always do those things that please Him. Surrendering our will to the will of Christ is saying that without him we can do nothing. May we take these principles to heart and bring forth much fruit to the honour of our heavenly Father and to the honour of His Son.