John (Part 14): The Sabbath Discourse – Part 1 (Ch 5:16 – 5:23)
The Jews and Jesus had a conflict concerning the Sabbath. I believe the conflict existed because the Jews forgot (or never knew) the true purpose of the Sabbath. The first mention of the Sabbath as Sabbath occurs in Exodus 16. There we find the Israelites on their journey in the wilderness hungry and thirsty. They think longingly of the pots of meat and bread they had left in Egypt and grumble at their state. God provides quail and manna to feed the Israelites. The manna appears covering the ground in the morning as dew. God told them to collect only what they would use in a day, about two quarts per person. Any extra that they kept would rot by the next day. However, on the sixth day, God told them to gather twice as much because on the seventh day, the Sabbath, the manna would not appear for them to gather. They found that on the seventh day the leftover manna from the previous day did not rot. The manna was to teach them about God’s provision for them and their need to trust God for that provision—the basic obligations in covenant relationship with God.
The next time the Sabbath is mentioned is at Sinai as the fourth of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:8-11 we learn that God wants the Israelites to keep the day holy. He orders them not to work on that day, and he gives them a reason. He says in verse 11, “For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day.” So, it appears that God wanted the Israelites to imitate his activity in the creation week by resting on the seventh day—the Sabbath. But why? Was it because they needed rest from working so hard? Well, surely God didn’t need that kind of rest. So, if God gives them the Sabbath to imitate what he did, it surely wouldn’t be about needing rest from physical labor because they would be too tired to go on. Why did God rest? Would it have been to reflect on what he had accomplished? There does seem to be an element of reflection, but God also reflected each day as he notices and pronounces his work good. The sixth day gets an extra degree of reflection as God says “very good” in considering his work. What was special about the sixth day? His image bearers were created on that day. So is God ordering a Sabbath rest so the Israelites can reflect on themselves—humanity? Not really—at least, that not the entirety of it.
Remember that in Kinship Theology, everything rests on God’s creation purpose: God created so that he and his image bearers would enjoy everlasting love relationship. In eternity past, God determined to create for this purpose. And so he created; he stepped through those six days. When he was finished—when his image bearers were created and placed in their newly created home—God rested. He rested not merely to look over his work. He rested not merely to reflect on his image bearers. But specifically, he rested to reflect on the accomplishing (or, at least, accomplishing for the moment) of his creative purpose—the establishing of the love relationship. It is relationship that held God’s attention, and it is this relationship upon which he wants his image bearers to reflect. The Sabbath was intended for that purpose—to rest in the beauty of relationship designed by God.
That, then, is the emphasis of the Exodus 16 manna event. The obligation of God in covenant relationship is to provide. The obligation of the image bearers is to trust in God’s provision. The manna incident highlighted those points of covenant relationship—especially in the discussion of the Sabbath rest.
Moving to the New Testament, as we revisit the Gospel accounts of Sabbath day conflict, we find in Jesus’ answers the strengthening of realization of the Sabbath’s purpose. In Matthew 12, after speaking of healing a man with the withered or paralyzed hand and the accusation of the Jews that that would be a Sabbath violation, Jesus said that they would not so think had they understood why God said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7). That statement comes from Hosea 6:6. There God is infuriated at the Jews who continued to perform sacrifices in ritual obligation with no thought as to purpose. The sacrifice was to remind the Jews of the provision of God in covenant care and concern. But the Jews performed the sacrifice with no thought of covenant care and concern for the less fortunate among their own people. God was saying that the act of sacrifice itself was of no value apart from its purpose. The same was true for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was to remind the Jews of covenant relationship. Here Jesus was providing for covenant relationship—the very purpose of the Sabbath—and the Jews were accusing him of violating the Sabbath by that very act that focused on the purpose. And this is why in that passage Jesus called himself innocent of the charge. He wasn’t violating the Law. Jesus was demonstrating fulfillment of the Law by accomplishing its purpose.
Jesus went on here to say he is Lord of the Sabbath. In the parallel incident in Mark 2, Jesus first stated that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. He said these things again to emphasize the priority of purpose over mindless adherence to the rules. The Sabbath being made for the people was a means to remind of the importance of concentrating on relationship. Thus, the Son of Man—the perfect representative of humankind—is Lord of the Sabbath not in the sense that he can dismiss the Sabbath if he wants, but rather in the sense that he is the perfect representation of the Sabbath; he perfectly fulfills the Sabbath.
How ridiculous it would be if the very thing that God gives them to remind them of relational concern were used by them to justify NOT being concerned for each other! And so, Jesus said, “it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath” (Mt 12:12). Likewise, in Luke 13, Jesus “untied from bondage” a woman who was crippled because it was the perfect act to fulfill the Sabbath—giving miraculous healing in covenantal, relational care for someone in need.
In all this activity, Jesus highlighted the purpose of the Sabbath—focus on covenant relationship—by not only acting in care but also showing himself to be the fulfillment of that care. And throughout the NT, then, we are encouraged to do the same.
1 Co 10:31; Col 3:17, 23 Whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory.
Eph 5:2, 8, 18 Walk in love; Walk as children of light; Be filled by the Spirit.
Ph 2:5 Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus – empty self; be humble.
Ph 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always.
I Th 5:17 Pray without ceasing.
Notice that these verses that hold Sabbath focus are intended not for one day a week. It is no longer the stopping of the routine that is required to remind us. The Holy Spirit lives within to remind us of our covenant relationship. And with the Spirit within, every day becomes a Sabbath; every moment is intent on covenantal relationship.
Jesus, as the fulfillment of the Sabbath, gave us the understanding of how the weekly Sabbath was a picture fulfilling God’s revelation. Since the Fall, God had progressively given preparation for the rescue he would provide in redemption. That preparation corresponded to the week. When Jesus came, he introduced the Sabbath, fulfilling the rest realized in Sabbath reflection.
But there is another sense to which this picture points, and we get a hint of it in Jesus statement in John 5:17. He told the Jews that he was still working as his Father was. Our current age—the New Covenant age that Jesus initiated—may also correspond to the week following which ultimate rest will be realized in Christ’s second coming—the initiation of the eschatological Sabbath.
We see, then, that Jesus did not break the Sabbath as the Jews wrongly surmised. He fulfilled the Sabbath. And for his kingdom, he expanded the Sabbath’s application to an every day, every moment event (just as he expanded the Law by concentrating on purpose in the Sermon on the Mount).
In verse 18 of our passage, John notes that the Jews had a double complaint. Besides breaking the Sabbath, they thought he was also making himself equal with God. Some people misunderstand how the Jews were coming to this conclusion. Jesus said in verse 17, “My Father is still working, and I am working also.” It was not the fact that Jesus called God “my Father” which drove the Jews to this false understanding of equality. After all, the Jews called God “Father” as well. The Jews’ accusation of Jesus making himself equal to God rested on the fact that Jesus said he was working on the Sabbath. Of course, they knew God continued to work on the Sabbath. He still held the world together. He still watched over Israel on the Sabbath. They had no problem understanding that God worked on the Sabbath. But God had given commandment for his people to stop working on that day. Jesus was seemingly dismissing this command from God by saying “just as God doesn’t abide by the command, I don’t have to either.” Removing himself from being under the command on the basis that God was not under the command made it look as if Jesus was saying that he was on an equal hierarchical plane with God.
So, Jesus offers a reply to his accusers starting in verse 19. Jesus picks up on the word that the Jews use to lead to a different conclusion. In English, we use two different words: “make” and “do” (or “does”). In Greek, it is one word. They accuse him of “making” himself equal with God. By picking up on that one Greek (or, really, Aramaic) word, Jesus literally replied, “The Son cannot make of himself anything, but only what the Father makes.” Whatever the Father makes, the Son makes.”
Of course, Jesus means to draw himself close into relationship with God AND show his subjection (not distancing equality) to God. Jesus uses the father/son relationship of normal family life. He says that just as a father loves his son, God the Father loves the Son of Man. A father imparts to his son his work. For example, Joseph was a carpenter; Jesus then became a carpenter. But Jesus uses this familiar passing of a father’s profession to his son to explain his relationship with God. He told them in verses 20-21 that the Father shows the Son everything he is doing and gives to the Son that work of raising the dead—giving life. Thus, as a son brings honor to his father in continuing on his profession, the Son should receive the same honor due to God the Father.
Now, we must not lose sight of the fact that this was Jesus’ defense of his activity done on the Sabbath. Through this illustration, Jesus is effectively explaining the Sabbath for these mindlessly ritualistic Jews. Let’s recall what we had already concluded. The Sabbath purpose was to rest in the beauty of relationship designed by God. Remember that the creation purpose was for God and his image bearers to enjoy everlasting love relationship. Putting these together, we realize that the Sabbath was actually the reflection of God’s creation purpose.
We also know that life itself may be defined in absolute sense as relationship with God. When Adam and Eve were created (given life), they were placed in the Garden of God’s Good Pleasure (Eden). They were in the place of relationship with God. God told them not to eat of that one tree lest they die (become separated from relationship with God). But they did eat, and so they received the penalty of death—separation from God. God drove them out of the Garden, away from the relationship of his pleasure.
Therefore, if life is relationship with God, and death is separation from God, the giving of life is fulfilling the Sabbath. This is why Jesus, in this particular passage of defending his Sabbath action to the Jews, spoke of his activity in giving life. It is a Sabbath-fulfilling activity.
Jesus also stated that he is the one who judges Verse 22 is interesting and important. It tells us that all judgment is given to the Son. It also expressly says that the Father judges no one. It is not that the Father doesn't care or is no longer paying attention. After all, Isaiah tells us that God accomplishes salvation. But Isaiah also says that God accomplishes salvation through his Messiah Rescuer. The idea is the same here. God’s judgment is exclusively performed through Jesus. God has decided that the condition is faith. God knows who will have faith. But it is by Jesus that that faith is judged, and, in that recognition, Jesus gives life (relationship). And, again, this is Sabbath (relationship-focused) activity.