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John 5:16,17 (ESV)

And 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.”

Jesus uses this as an argument for why he was working on the Sabbath. This seems to contradict Genesis 2:2,3 in which God rests from creation, which is the basis for the Sabbath:

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

How can Jesus even say this? Is he actually saying something different than it sounds?

My question is this: How can Jesus use the argument "My Father is working until now" as a justification for working on the Sabbath, when the rationale God gives for it being holy in the first place is that He stopped working on it?

Perhaps some additional verses will help demonstrate the difficulty I observe (emphasis mine).

Exodus 20:8-11 (ESV)

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 31:14-17 (ESV)

“ ‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’ ”

For comparison, the argument Jesus uses in John 7:23 seems like a much more rational argument; something his hearers would find compelling. Is it possible in 5:16,17 he's not even trying to convince the Jews?

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Don, something which I think adds to this question. Time and space are bound to one another so when God began creation, He entered time and space yet He is eternal and somehow transcends time and space. We know Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundations of the world, so in effect His work in time and space from the reference point of eternity was completed, before it even began. So the linear tic tok of the clock doesn't apply to Him yet it does to us. Hebrews tell us to enter that rest of heaven and eternity now, so it is possible for us to transcend time and circumstance as well. –  JLB Mar 29 at 0:34
    
@JLB - I think it is a solution to many difficult issues in the Bible! –  DonJewett Apr 3 at 5:47
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5 Answers 5

Genesis 2:2 וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיֹּום הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתֹּו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיֹּום הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתֹּו אֲשֶׁר עָשָֽׂה׃

The word translated as "rest" in English, is actually the conjugated word from which we get the English word Sabbath, which actually means to "cease doing".

וַיִּשְׁבֹּת

or by its root:

שָׁבַת

Here's BlueletterBible's concordance entry: Strong's H7673

It is actually the same root word that is conjugated to mean "to go on strike" in modern Hebrew.

In Genesis it is used to refer to the fact that the creation process ceased, not that God "rested" in the sense of relieving exhaustion, as we would normally understand the term in English. The word "rest" in that sense is

נוּחַ

Which can be found in Genesis 8:9, for example (and is also where we get Noah's name). More here: Strong's H5117

Jesus' words are in reference to the fact that God is always at work, as the psalmist says in Psalm 54:4, He is the sustainer, something that implies a constant intervention (a "work" that does not cease). The institution of the Sabbath was not merely just so the Israelites would "rest" from their work but as with everything God institutes in the Bible, it had important theological significance (especially as can be gleaned from its prominence as one of the 10 commandments). The point of the Sabbath was to teach man that he should not think he is self-reliant (cf. instances such as Judges 7) and that instead they should rely upon God, but more specifically His mercy. The driving message throughout the Old Testament as well as the New (and this would be best extrapolated in c.se) is that man cannot, by his own efforts ("works") reach God's standard:

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

The Sabbath (and the penalty associated with breaking it) was a way for the Israelites to weekly remember this. See Hebrews 4 for a more in depth explanation of this concept.

So there is no contradiction, since God never stopped "working", being constantly active in sustaining His creation, and as Jesus also taught, the Sabbath was instituted for man, to rest, but also, to "stop doing" and remember that he is not self-reliant, whether for food, or for salvation.

Hope that helps.

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I have reread this a couple of times, and decided I was too hasty accepting it as the answer. I apologize. I may have to articulate my question better. –  DonJewett Apr 3 at 5:53
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God did cease working on the seventh day, from His creative works. That is to say, everything in existence (i.e., all matter) came into existence at that particular time. Thereafter, however, God began to work in a different manner, even until now, a manner in which man cannot work, as John Chrysostom elaborated in his Homily on the Gospel of John:

But if any one says, "And how does the Father 'work,' who 'ceased on the seventh day from all His works,'" let him learn the manner in which He 'works.' Then what is the manner of His working? He provides for, He organizes everything in existence. Therefore, when you behold a rising sun, and a running moon, and seas, and springs, and rivers, and rains, and the course of nature in the seeds, and in our own bodies, and in those of irrational beings, and all the other things by which this universe is composed, then learn the Father's incessant working. It states (Matt. 5:45), "For He causes His sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." And again (Matt. 6:30), "If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the fire"; and again (Matt. 6:26), discussing the birds, "Your heavenly Father feeds them."

Εἰ δὲ λέγοι τις· Καὶ ποῦ ὁ Πατὴρ ἐργάζεται, ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ἑβδόμῃ καταπαύσας ἀπὸ πάντων τῶν ἔργων αὐτοῦ; τὸν τρόπον μαθέτω καθ' ὃν ἐργάζεται. Τίς οὖν ὁ τρόπος τῆς ἐργασίας; Προνοεῖ, συγκροτεῖ τὰ γενόμενα πάντα. Ὁρῶν τοίνυν ἥλιον ἀνατέλλοντα, καὶ σελήνην τρέχουσαν, καὶ λίμνας, καὶ πηγὰς, καὶ ποταμοὺς, καὶ ὑετοὺς, καὶ φύσεως δρόμον, τὸν ἐν τοῖς σπέρμασι, τὸν ἐν τοῖς σώμασι τοῖς ἡμετέροις καὶ τοῖς τῶν ἀλόγων, τὰ ἄλλα πάντα δι' ὧν τόδε τὸ πᾶν συνέστηκε, μάνθανε τὴν διηνεκῆ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐργασίαν. Ἀνατέλλει γὰρ, φησὶ, τὸν ἥλιον αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ πονηροὺς καὶ ἀγαθοὺς, καὶ βρέχει ἐπὶ δικαίους καὶ ἀδίκους. Καὶ πάλιν· Εἰ δὲ τὸν χόρτον τοῦ ἀγροῦ σήμερον ὄντα καὶ αὔριον εἰς πῦρ βαλλόμενον, οὕτως ὁ Θεὸς ἀμφιέννυσι· καὶ περὶ τῶν πετεινῶν διαλεγόμενος πάλιν· Ὁ Πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τρέφει αὐτά.

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Simply put, humanly speaking, God never really rested. The Sabbath (Hebrew Shabbat or Shabbas) was made for people, and not vice versa, which Jesus made quite clear (see Mark 2:27 NAS). Careful exegesis and hermeneutics require that we become sensitive to expressions which describe human beings and the human condition, but which when applied to God are really anthropomorphisms (i.e., applying human characteristics, faculties, and attributes to God, such as having ears, eyes, hands, a nose, feet, and so much more.

Since God is an inexhaustible source of power, strength, stamina, and the general ability to work, He is never, nor could He ever be, exhausted, drained, spent, pooped, or in need of a time for "decompression." In verses such as Isaiah 43:24 and Malachi 2:17 we read, respectively,

"'Thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled me with the fat of thy sacrifices: but thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities.'"

"Ye have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet ye say , Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, 'Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them'; or, 'Where is the God of judgment'?"

Other versions translate wearied as

  • made tired

  • troubled

  • wore out

  • (to make) fed up

  • gavest travail (to)

  • gavest trials and tribulations (to)

  • tried the patience of

Wearied and wore out are the only two expressions which hint at God being physically exhausted. They are thus anthropomorphisms. (All the others touch on something which is true of God but does not connote physical tiredness. If I were to place all the other expressions under a general rubric, that rubric would be God's patience. Whereas God's inexhaustible power is infinite, His patience is not. That may sound surprising, but God's patience cannot be infinite since it comes to an end, particularly in "the Day of the Lord.")

As for God's inexhaustibility, take, for example, His maintaining of the universe by the word of His power! Take His kingdom-building work among literally every people-group in the world, not to mention each person within that people group! Take His "management and administration" of what goes on in heaven, on earth, and in the first heaven, where the devil seems--but only seems--to reign supreme. (Actually, he is the "prince of the power of the air," according to Ephesians 2:2, and he leads the ongoing rebellion of the fallen angels, now called demons, in the heavenly places, or the first heaven; see Ephesians 6:12).

God created the Sabbath to be a day of rest for His image bearers. He also commanded the Hebrews to set aside the last day of the week (which for modern-day Jews begins at sundown on Friday and ends 40 minutes past sunset on Saturday) for worship, reflection, meditation, and praise, as well as for recharging their batteries for another new week. Most Christian denominations today call the Hebrews' last day of the week, "the first day of the week," probably because they believe Christ arose from the dead on a Sunday. Slowly, the name "the Lord's Day" became to Christians, Slowly, after the completion of the New Testament canon, the phrase the Lord's Day became analogous to the Tanakh's Sabbath.

God Himself is in no need of slumber or sleep (Psalm 121:3-4; 132:4), or R & R, or vacations. He never needs "alone time" to recharge His batteries, so to speak. He is at work 24/7/365, and of course for all eternity! In other words, His work will never be done.

Many Christians believe that in heaven, God both is and will be (and I say this reverently) the Chief Executive of all the activity that goes on in His and His Son's kingdom, both now and in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-2).

By the way, when the book of Hebrews says in chapter 4, verse 10,

"For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His,"

the writer does not mean God rested, humanly speaking (another anthropomorphism). Rather, God's rest refers to God's completion of His work of creation as laid out in Genesis 1 and 2, and not His ongoing work in maintaining His creation and being Lord over His kingdom-work in the universe. God, I suggest, will never again create what He created once. He will, however, re-create it.

By re-create I mean God will one day take what has been spoiled by sin, that which is subject to aging, decay, death, and a host of "natural" phenomena on earth which we call, ironically, "acts of God" (e.g., floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, monsoons, tsunamis, and so on), and make it new. Call it the "new and improved" heavens and earth. Call it a restoration of what once was (that is, until our first parents chose to disobey God) to what it was always meant to be "in the beginning" (Genesis 1:1). God will certainly need to make some adjustments to it, as the Apostle Peter described, as follows, in his second letter:

"But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. . . . Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat . . .."(3:10 and 12 KJV; cf. Genesis 1:31 and Revelation 21:10 NAS).

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@rhetorician-Thank you, Don! A bit lengthy, but carries the essense of what biblical "rest" vs "work" is. –  user2479 Mar 28 at 6:24
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There are three "Sabbath" rests in the Scripture.

The first is the seventh day of creation, concerning which the reader is familiar. The second is the land, which the Lord had promised to Abraham. That is, the Lord's promise included rest in the land.

Deuteronomy 3:19-21 (NASB)
19 But your wives and your little ones and your livestock (I know that you have much livestock) shall remain in your cities which I have given you, 20 until the Lord gives rest to your fellow countrymen as to you, and they also possess the land which the Lord your God will give them beyond the Jordan. Then you may return every man to his possession which I have given you.’ 21 I commanded Joshua at that time, saying, ‘Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so the Lord shall do to all the kingdoms into which you are about to cross.

Joshua 1:12-14 (NASB)
12 To the Reubenites and to the Gadites and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, Joshua said, 13 “Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God gives you rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your cattle shall remain in the land which Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but you shall cross before your brothers in battle array, all your valiant warriors, and shall help them, 15 until the Lord gives your brothers rest, as He gives you, and they also possess the land which the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to your own land, and possess that which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”

The third is more difficult to describe. The following verse in Hebrews in the Christian New Testament draws upon the first two meanings of "Sabbath" rest as just described, above. That is, the following verse affirms that both the seventh day and the land of promise were "Sabbath" rests in the Hebrew Bible.

Hebrews 4:1-11 (NASB)
1 Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. 2 For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said,

   “As I swore in My wrath,   
   They shall not enter My rest,”   

although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; 5 and again in this passage, “They shall not enter My rest.” 6 Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before,

   “Today if you hear His voice,
   Do not harden your hearts.”

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. 9 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. 11 Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.

The author of the Book of Hebrews is quoting Psalm 95 from the LXX. He is saying that there are two "Sabbath" rests in the Hebrew Bible: the first is the seventh day of creation, and the second is the Promised Land. The author of Psalm 95 was King David, who wrote this psalm almost 600 years after the Exodus from Egypt. David says in Psalm 95 that we be careful to enter the "Sabbath" rest. The author of Hebrews is telling us that David could NOT be referring to the Promised Land, since David was writing to those who already were living in the Promised Land (viz., "For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that"). Therefore there is a third "Sabbath" rest, which is living in right relationship to the Lord. King David was admonishing his readers that they enter the "Sabbath" rest of right relationship with the Lord.

The "Sabbath" for which Jesus and his Father were working was this third "Sabbath." In other words, up until the crucifixion, the Lord "passed over" sins, which is where we understand the Passover. The Lord "PASSED OVER" those believers in the Hebrew Bible because the blood of the paschal lamb was poured out.

Romans 3:24-26 (NASB)
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

In other words, in as much as Isaac was the Promised Seed who was to be sacrificed by Abraham, so Jesus was the Promised Seed who was sacrificed by the Father. This sacrifice was the "work" between the Father and Son to propitiate and atone for the sins of the world.

Finally, and in summary, the general idea of "Sabbath" rest is based on the completed work of the redemptive work of the Lord. So, when the Lord instituted the "Sabbath" rest on the seventh day of creation, what happened was that he "saved" the earth from an original state of chaos and disorder, or formless and void. (Please click here.) The subsequent institution of the seventh day of rest in the Law of Moses (and seventh year of rest) are based on the same principle: the Lord "saved" Israel from Egypt, and the Promised Land was the place of rest. Finally, the sacrifice of Jesus occurred on the same chronological timeline as the Exodus narrative. (Please click here.) Therefore, the ultimate "Sabbath" rest is not geographical in scope, but is right relationship to the Lord based on his work. When we accept that work by faith (completed by the Son and the Father in reference to John 5:16-17), then we enter into his rest.

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Add to everything that Jesus poses the point that David was excused in eating of the showbread when he was hungry and yet the Pharisees were getting on to Jesus for eating on the Sabbath, by plucking grains. Then Jesus calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath and then Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath to prove this point. The point of Matt.127 is that God is merciful. In reality the plucking of grains to eat was not considered work, but they couldn't reap or harvest, but the Pharisees carried this conept too far and those that were poor were allowed to eat straight from the grains according to the law.

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