God's Sabbath Work

by Doug Ward

The Gospels report several instances when the activities of Jesus on the Sabbath day sparked controversy. During one festival season in Jerusalem, for example, Jesus healed a man who for thirty-eight years had been unable to walk (John 5:1-8). For many people, such a miracle was cause for rejoicing (see e.g. Luke 13:17), but healing was deemed to be a form of work that violated the commandment to rest on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-11).  The only action Jesus performed in this healing was to speak to the man (John 5:8), but much of the work that God carried out during the creation week consisted of speaking (Gen 1).  It was the intent and result of an action that determined whether it constituted work, and so Jesus was confronted by religious leaders for working on the Sabbath (John 5:16).


To the objections of these leaders Jesus responded, "My Father is working until now, and I am working" (v. 17). Jesus did not deny that healing was a form of work, but he said that this was a type of work that God himself performed on the Sabbath. Jesus, who had to be "about his Father's business," was simply emulating God.


Creation Continues

Jesus' statement may seem a bit puzzling at first. We know that God rested from his work of creation on the seventh day (Gen 2:2-3), and that the Sabbath commandment is based on his example. So what kinds of work does God do on the Sabbath?


To answer this question, we observe first that although the work of creation week ended after six days, God's creative work continued after that. For instance, God creates mighty works of deliverance. At the time of the Exodus he told Moses, "Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation" (Exod 34:10).1 Such marvels created the nation of Israel. God introduces himself as Creator of Israel in Isa 43:1, 7, 15.


God creates works of judgment. The Bible describes the judgment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who were swallowed up by the ground, as an example of God creating something new (Num 16:30). He also creates salvation and righteousness for his people (Isa 45:8). In a prayer of repentance, David asked that God would create in him "a clean heart", knowing that God could transform him spiritually (Ps 51:10).


Isaiah prophesied that God's creative activity will continue through the time of the messianic kingdom and beyond. The fourth chapter of Isaiah pictures God creating shelter for Israel with his presence in a future Jerusalem (Isa 4:5). He will also create agricultural plenty in the land (Isa 41:17-20). Ultimately he will create new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17).


These creative works of God do not cease on the Sabbath. During the time of the Exodus the miracle of manna, one of the "marvels" referred to in Exod 34:10, supplied the Israelites with food throughout the week. On the Sabbath the manna had the special property of not spoiling overnight (Exod 16:22-26). Israelites who tried to gather manna on the Sabbath faced judgment, an indication that the divine work of judgment does not take time off.


In fact, the Sabbath is an especially appropriate time for God to work. In addition to being a memorial of creation, the Sabbath celebrates Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Deut 5:12-15). This deliverance entails numerous marvels and awesome works, many of which have occurred on annual Sabbaths like Passover and Pentecost. In Psalm 92, traditionally identified as "a song for the Sabbath," the psalmist proclaims, "For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy" (v. 4). God's work of rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked is highlighted in this psalm.


By the time of Jesus, Jewish tradition recognized that God works on the Sabbath. Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BC-50 AD), a contemporary of Jesus, believed that God by his very nature is continually creating.2 Philo wrote that "on the seventh day the Creator, having brought to an end the formation of mortal things, begins the shaping of others more divine." He added that "God never leaves off making, but even as it is the property of fire to burn and of snow to chill, so it is the property of God to make" (Allegorical Interpretations 1.5-6).


There is also discussion of God's Sabbath work in rabbinic literature. One tradition, recorded in Genesis Rabbah 11:10, says that this work involves, in particular, judging the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Exodus Rabbah 30:9 raises the question of whether God's work makes him guilty of breaking the Sabbath. Here the sages argued that since the whole universe is God's domain, he never carries anything outside that domain and is therefore innocent of violating the commandment. Moreover, Numbers Rabbah 14:1 maintains that when God carries out work on the Sabbath through one of his servants, that servant is likewise innocent of breaking the Sabbath. Joshua's conquering of Jericho, a work of God's judgment that took place over a seven-day period, is noted as an example.


Like Father, Like Son

Our study of divine Sabbath work provides helpful background for understanding the words of Jesus in John 5. The healing of the crippled man at Bethesda is an example of the kind of mighty Sabbath works of deliverance for which God is known, as Jesus indicated in John 5:17. Jesus went on to describe further important tasks that God had authorized him to carry out, including resurrection of the dead and the execution of judgment. These are the kinds of tasks identified as divine Sabbath work in rabbinic literature and the writings of Philo. Jesus also implied that, like Joshua at Jericho, he was blameless for doing God's work on the Sabbath.


Jesus' words remind us of all the marvels performed by the Father and the Son in the past, along with those occurring in the present and those still to come. With the psalmist in Psalm 92, we sing for joy at the works of God's hands.


1Here the Hebrew word for "created" is bara, the same word used in Gen 1:1 for the creation of the heavens and the earth.


2See pp. 73-78 of the book Divine Sabbath Work by Michael H. Burer, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana, 2012.

Issue 31


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On 29 Sep 2016, 00:52.