The Father and the Son’s Sabbath Labor

“This was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working’ ” (vv. 16–17).

- John 5:15–18

One thing that most Christian heresies have in common is a denial of the deity of Christ, often accompanied by the assertion that Jesus never claimed to be God. Now, it is true that the Gospels never record our Savior directly saying, “I am God”; however, a careful reading of the New Testament shows that Jesus on several occasions taught things that amounted to a claim of deity. His teaching was so clear, in fact, that His earthly enemies understood what He was ultimately saying about Himself. We see this in today’s passage, where John says the Jewish leaders sought to kill Jesus because He made “himself equal with God” (John 5:18).

How did Jesus make Himself equal with God on the occasion recorded in John 5:15–18? He told the leaders that He had the same right to work on the Sabbath that His Father did. The work He did was to heal the man at Bethesda, and while the old covenant law did not actually forbid healing and doing other works of mercy on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9–14), many of the religious leaders hated Jesus so much that they would not abide His helping people on the holy day of rest. But Jesus, when He was confronted about the healing at Bethesda, did not appeal to the lawfulness of serving others on the Sabbath. Instead, He appealed to His Father’s sovereign prerogative to labor on the Sabbath and associated His own working with that same authority. Since God revealed the Sabbath law, He has the ultimate right to interpret it correctly and to do what He will on the Sabbath. There should be no wonder, then, that the leaders who were opposing Jesus understood Him to be claiming equality with God. In essence, our Lord was saying He had the same right to do what He wanted on the Sabbath that the Creator has.

Scripture says that God rested on the seventh day and yet that He continues to work (Gen. 2:1–3; John 5:17). He rested from His labor of the original creation but has continued to uphold and sustain the universe (Heb. 1:1–4). He has continued to preserve and even restore His creation, so it is right to preserve life on the Sabbath. John Calvin comments on today’s passage that God “did not cease to sustain by this power the world which he had made, to govern it by his wisdom, to support it by his goodness, and to regulate all things according to his pleasure, both in heaven and on earth. In six days, therefore, the creation of the world was completed, but the administration of it is still continued, and God incessantly works in maintaining and preserving the order of it.”

Coram Deo

God’s rest on the Sabbath is a model for ours (Gen. 2:1–3). Thus, if God works on the Sabbath to preserve the universe, the cessation of ordinary labor on the Sabbath does not equal idleness on our part. We are called to do what is necessary to preserve life even on the Lord’s Day and to do works of mercy for the sake of others both on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 23:3
Mark 3:1–6
Luke 6:1–5
John 7:1–24

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