The Sabbath in John Study No. 247
he story of the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath is reported in John 5:1-23. This Sabbath episode is most important because it contains Christ’s famous statement: “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working,” John 5:17, NKJV. The RSV rendition is, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” Christ made this pronouncement to defend Himself from the accusation of Sabbath-breaking for healing the paralytic and ordering him to go home with his mat.
Sunday-keeping scholars find in Christ’s appeal to the “working until now” of the Father, a compelling proof that Christ rescinded the obligation of Sabbath-keeping both for Himself and for His followers. For example, in his influential doctoral dissertation, Sunday: the History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (Philadelphia, 1968), Willy Rordorf wrote: “John 5:17 intends to interpret Genesis 2:2f., in the sense that God has never rested from the beginning of creation, that He does not yet rest, but that He will rest at the end . . . . Consequently, Jesus derives for Himself the abrogation of the commandment to rest on the weekly Sabbath from the eschatological [future] interpretation of Genesis 2:2f,” p. 98.
In view of the enormous significance attached by Sunday-keeping scholars to John 5:17, I decided to share a brief summary of my analysis of this text.
In John’s Gospel, the relationship between the Sabbath and Christ’s work of salvation is alluded to, in two Sabbath miracles: the healing of the paralytic (John 5:1-18) and of the blind man (John 9:1-41). The two episodes are examined together since they are substantially similar. Both healed men had been chronically ill: one an invalid for 38 years (John 5:5) and the other blind from birth (John 9:2). In both instances, Christ told the men to act. To the paralyzed man He said, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” (John 5:8); to the blind man, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). Both of these actions represent breaking rabbinical Sabbath laws, and thus both are used by Pharisees to charge Christ with Sabbath-breaking (John 5:10, 16, 9:14-16). In both instances, Christ repudiated such a charge by arguing that His works of salvation are not precluded, but rather contemplated, by the Sabbath commandment (John 5:17, 7:23, 9:4). Christ’s justification is expressed through a memorable statement: “My Father is working until now and I am working” (John 5:17; cf. 9:4).
Negation or Clarification of the Sabbath?
What did Christ mean when He formally defended Himself against the charge of Sabbath-breaking by appealing to the “working until now” of His Father? Did He use the example of His Father to rescind the obligation of Sabbath-keeping both for Himself and for His followers? This is the position defended by Sunday-keeping scholars. Or, did Christ appeal to the working of the Father on the Sabbath to clarify the true nature and meaning of the day? To put it simply, does Christ’s statement represent a negation or a clarification of the Sabbath law?
In a previous study I showed that the “working until now” of the Father and of the Son has historically received three basic interpretations: (1) continuous creation, (2) continuous care, and (3) redemptive activities. [For my analysis of John 5:17, see my article “John 5:17: Negation or Clarification of the Sabbath?” Andrews University Seminary Studies 19 (Spring 1981), pp. 3-19.] The exponents of these three views basically agree in regarding Christ’s pronouncement as an implicit (for some, explicit) annulment of the Sabbath commandment. Does such a conclusion reflect the legitimate meaning of the passage or arbitrary assumptions, which have been read into the passage? To answer this question and to understand the significance of Christ’s saying, we briefly examine the role of the adverb “until now” — heos arti, the meaning of the verb “is working” — ergazetai, and the theological implications of the passage.
Traditionally, the adverbial phrase “until now” has been interpreted as the continuous working of God (whether it be in creation, preservation, or redemption), which allegedly overrides or rescinds the Sabbath law. But the adverb itself (“until”), especially as used in Greek in its emphatic position before the verb, presupposes not constancy, but culmination. The latter is brought out by some translators through the use of the emphatic form “even until now.” [See, for example, George Allen Turner, Julius R. Mantey, O. Cullman, E. C. Hoskyns, F. Godet on John 5:17.]
This adverbial phrase presupposes a beginning (terminus a quo) and an end (terminus ad quem). The former is apparently the initial creation Sabbath (Genesis 2:2-3) and the latter the final Sabbath rest envisaged in a similar Sabbath pronouncement in John 9:4, “We must work the works of Him Who sent Me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” In this statement the culmination of the divine and human working is explicitly designated as the “night.” By virtue of the conceptual similarities between John 5:17 and 9:4, it seems legitimate to conclude that the “night” is the culmination for both texts.
What Jesus is saying, then, is that though God rested on the Sabbath at the completion of creation, because of sin, He has been “working until now” to bring the promised Sabbath rest to fruition. That will be the final and perfect Sabbath of which the initial creation Sabbath was the prototype. A study of the meaning of the divine working clarifies and supports this interpretation.
The meaning of the verb “is working” until now, of the Father, is clarified by John’s references to the working and works of God which are repeatedly and explicitly identified, not with a continuous divine creation nor with a constant maintenance of the universe, but with the saving mission of Christ.
Jesus explicitly states: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29). And again, “If I am not doing the works of My Father, then do not believe Me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37, 38; cf. 4:34, 14:11, 15:24).
The redemptive nature of the works of God is evident in the healing of the blind man since the act is explicitly described as the manifestation of “the works of God” (John 9:3). This means then that God ended on the Sabbath His works of creation, but not His working in general. Because of sin, He has been engaged in the work of redemption “until now.” To use the words of A. T. Lincoln, one might say, “As regards the work of creation, God’s rest was final, but as that rest was meant for humanity to enjoy, when it was disturbed by sin, God worked in history to accomplish His original purpose.” [A. T. Lincoln, “Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, ed. Donald A. Carson (Grand Rapids, 1982), p. 204.]
Christ appeals to the “working” of His Father not to nullify, but to clarify, the function of the Sabbath. To understand Christ’s defense, one must remember that the Sabbath is linked both to creation (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:11) and redemption (Deuteronomy 5:15). While in Exodus 20:11, the reason given for observing the Sabbath is the completion of Creation in six days, in Deuteronomy 5:15, the reason is deliverance from the Egyptian bondage: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
While by interrupting all secular activities the Israelite was remembering the Creator-God, by acting mercifully toward fellow-beings he was imitating the Redeemer-God. This was true not only in the life of the people, in general, who on the Sabbath were to be compassionate toward the less fortunate, but especially in the service of the priest who could legitimately perform on the Sabbath works forbidden to other Israelites, because such works had a redemptive function.
On the basis of this theology of the Sabbath admitted by the Jews, Christ defends the legality of the “working” that He and His Father perform on the Sabbath. In John, Christ appeals to the example of circumcision to silence the echo of the controversy over the healing of the paralytic (John 7:22-24). The Lord argues that if it is legitimate on the Sabbath for the priests to care for one small part of man’s body (according to rabbinic reckoning, circumcision involved one of man’s 248 members) [Yoma 85b] in order to extend to the newborn child the salvation of the covenant, [on the redemptive meaning of circumcision, see Rudolf Meyer, “peritemno,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel (Grand Rapids, 1973), vol. 6, pp. 75-76] there is no reason to be “angry” with Him for restoring on that day the “whole body of man,” John 7:23.
For Christ, the Sabbath is the day to work for the redemption of the whole man. This is borne out by the fact that in both healings, Christ looked for the healed men on the same day and, having found them, He ministered to their spiritual need (John 5:14, 9:35-38). Christ’s opponents cannot perceive the redemptive nature of His Sabbath ministry because they “judge by appearances,” John 7:24. For them, the pallet and the clay are more important than the social reunion (5:10) and the restoration of sight (John 9:14), which those objects symbolized. It was necessary therefore for Christ to act against prevailing misconceptions in order to restore the Sabbath to its positive function.
In the Sabbath healing of the blind man recorded in John 9, Christ extends to His followers the invitation to become links of the same redemptive chain, saying: “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work,” verse 4. The “night” apparently refers to the conclusion of the history of salvation, a conclusion which we found implied in the adverbial phrase “until now.” Such a conclusion of divine and human redemptive activity would usher in the final Sabbath of which the creation Sabbath was a prototype.
To bring about that final Sabbath, the Godhead “is working” for our salvation (John 5:17); but “we must work” to extend it to others (John 9:4). The foregoing considerations indicate that the two Sabbath healings reported by John substantiate the redemptive meaning of the Sabbath we found earlier in Luke and Matthew — namely, a time to experience and share the blessings of salvation accomplished by Christ.
— by Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Retired Prof. of Theology and Church History, Andrews University, in Endtime Issues Newsletter, No. 110.