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John 5:18 says

"Because of this, the Jews tried all the harder to kill Him. Not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God."

Some hold the narrator here is simply recounting what the Jews said, not making those claims himself, and so much discussion has centred on whether the narrator was claiming Jesus was 'making himself equal with God' or simply recounting the claims of the hostile Jewish elite.

Yet, the sentence contains two claims. First, that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath, and second, that He was making himself equal with God.

What of the first part? According to Exodus 31:14-15,

"14 Keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Anyone who profanes it must surely be put to death. Whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from among his people. 15 For six days work may be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must surely be put to death."

If it is true that Jesus was 'breaking the Sabbath', the consequence according to Exodus (mentioned not once but twice) seems to be the death penalty.

What grammatical, contextual, or cultural clues do we have to tell us whether Jesus was in fact breaking the Sabbath?

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  • The equality topic shown in the context was that Jesus was claiming the same right as his Father (my Father is working) to heal/ do good on the Sabbath. John 7:22-23 shows that the forefathers of the Jews circumcised on the Sabbath. Matthew 12:9-14 also show that it is lawful to do good on a sabbath. Jesus did not break the sabbath. There is nothing in the bible that say he did. The accusation came from those who by their tradition nullify the words of God Mark 7:13. Jun 1 at 10:22
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    @AlexBalilo Make this into an answer? Jun 1 at 16:24
  • 1
    You have already answered this question yourself: "the narrator here is simply recounting what the Jews said, not making those claims himself". Jun 3 at 12:41
  • Your cited text contains no evidence; merely an accusation. Further, doesn't "everyone know" Jesus never claimed to be the son of God, in- or outside the hearing before Herod or Pilate? Aug 10 at 20:27
  • @RobbieGoodwin Not sure I quite follow you - can you rephrase? Aug 10 at 20:45

10 Answers 10

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The Pharisees had rules that were much stricter than God's rules. They interpreted "work" to include almost every physical activity. Even today, orthodox Jews consider turning on a light switch or pressing an elevator button to be "work".

So by the Pharisee's rules, Jesus was breaking the sabbath.

The biblical sabbath restrictions are more about work for economic or personal gain though. Jesus wasn't ploughing a field to grow crops, or working to earn money, or painting his front door to improve the looks and value of his property. He was helping a fellow man in distress, with no monetary or personal gain for either of them.

And in light of Christianity's seeing things from a spiritual rather than physical perspective, the sabbath clearly is a time for spiritual matters, such as Bible study, or visiting and healing the sick, etc.

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    "They interpreted "work" to include almost every physical activity" How do you reconcile the idea Jesus wasn't working with John 5:16-17 "Now because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews began to persecute Him. 17 But Jesus answered them, “To this very day My Father is at His work, and I too am working.”" He seems to be claiming He was working. Jun 1 at 5:22
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    @OneGodtheFather, yes he was working, but the work was spiritual in nature and not for personal physical or economic benefit. Compare baking a pie (physical work, producing a new physical object) versus giving that pie to an elderly neighbour the next day while visiting them on the sabbath (spiritual work, improving someone else's mental health). The message is that the sabbath isn't simply about refraining from physical work, it is a day for spiritual work, improving one's own character and spiritual knowledge and assisting others to do the same. Jun 1 at 13:07
  • Right. Jesus emphasizes it's his Father's work He's doing, not his own. Exodus 20:9 "Six days shall you labor and do all your work" Works of service to God aren't forbidden. Jun 2 at 19:09
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Based on Exodus 31:14-15, Jesus did not violate Shabbat in [John 5] - However, Jesus did violate Shabbat rules of "Pikuach Nefesh" in [John 5] by healing a patient without terminal illness. * Based on [Orach Chayim 328:2-4], Since Jesus could have waited to heal the patient.

"For someone who has a dangerous illness, it is a commandment to break Shabbat for him. One who hurries to do this is praised. One who asks about this is a murderer." (מי שיש לו חולי של סכנה מצוה לחלל עליו את השבת והזריז הרי זה משובח והשואל הרי זה שופך דמים)
"An internal injury does not require an [expert] appraisal, so even if there are no experts there, and the sick person does not say anything, they do for him as they would be accustomed to do for him on a weekday. But when they know and recognize that the particular illness can wait and does not require [Sabbath] desecration, it is forbidden to desecrate over it even though it is an internal injury." (מכה של חלל אינה צריכה אומד שאפי' אין שם בקיאים וחולה אינו אומר כלום עושים לו כל שרגילים לעשות לו בחול אבל כשיודעים ומכירים באותו חולי שממתין ואין צריך חילול אסור לחלל עליו אע"פ שהיא מכה של חלל)

https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Orach_Chayim.328.4?ven=Wikisource_Shulchan_Aruch&vhe=Maginei_Eretz:_Shulchan_Aruch_Orach_Chaim,_Lemberg,_1893&lang=bi

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  • +1 תשובה טובה, תודה חִידָה This answer fits the total context of the New Testament as well as making sense in the immediate context.
    – Perry Webb
    May 31 at 21:55
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    Me Grog not grok all answer. Why you say "Based on Exodus 31:14-15, Jesus did not violate Shabbat in [John 5]"? May 31 at 22:03
  • Healing wasn't Jesus' occupation.
    – Perry Webb
    Jun 1 at 0:50
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    @PerryWebb Jesus did a lot of healing. Didn't He just say He was working? Jun 1 at 5:15
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    The explanation of keeping the Sabbath: " 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 20:11, ESV). (2016). Crossway Bibles. But, the way the Pharisees defined work, God works on the Sabbath.
    – Perry Webb
    Jun 1 at 9:17
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Jesus did not violate Sabbath by healing the sick and eating on the Sabbath according to the law. He proved it by arguing that Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Works like rescuing life, healing the sick are more important obligations than the Sabbath rest. It is foolishness not to do the essential commands for the sake of minor ones. Not all commands have the same value. Even though morality has objective values, it is not absolute as believed by majority of Western "Christians" who follow the Augustinian absolute morals theory.

I will quote from engediresourcecenter site of Lois Tverberg:

“Weighing” the Laws Against Each Other

Another way Jewish thought seeks balance is in its approach to the law. Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow.

For instance, the command to circumcise on the eight day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and doing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light,” kal, and “heavy,” hamur. Certain principles derived from the Bible were used to organize laws relative to each other, and the focus of many rabbinic debates was how to prioritize them.

One rabbinic principle is Pikuach Nephesh, which is the preservation of life.4 The rabbis saw that Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not stand by while your brother’s blood is shed” — meaning if someone’s life is in danger, you must intervene. The Torah also says the law was given in order to bring life, (Ex. 30:15-16), so they concluded that all laws (except a few) should be set aside to save a human life.5

Because of this, Jewish doctors and nurses go to work on the Sabbath, because they may potentially save a life, and if a person is ill, he or she is supposed to eat on Yom Kippur, the day when eating and drinking are strictly forbidden. Even the possibility of saving a life is enough to put this principle into effect. The rabbis would disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy of refusing blood transfusions in a medical emergency, because of the prohibition against drinking blood in Genesis 9:4. The weightier law is to save life!

Imagine you lived in Europe during World War II and were hiding Jews in your home, and a Nazi came demanding to know where they were. Should you lie or tell the truth? According to the principle of Pikuach Nephesh, you should lie to save their lives. There is also biblical precedent in Exodus, when the midwives lied to Pharaoh rather than to kill the Israelite boys, and God rewarded them (Ex. 1:19-21).

Surprisingly, Christians have sometimes come to the opposite conclusion. The theologian St. Augustine actually said, “Since, then, eternal life is lost by lying, a lie may never be told for the preservation of the temporal life of another.”6 He would conclude that a person must answer the Nazi truthfully no matter what. It appears that in his thinking, all rules are absolute. This logic forces one to conclude that law to intervene to save life (Lev. 19:16) and the law against lying (Lev. 19:11) are irreconcilable.

Consider this argument to see how his adversaries were put to shame or defeated:

ESV Luke 13:14-17: “But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.”

Again to quote from Tverberg:

... Therefore the Jewish people took special care to outline what activities constituted “work,” so that they could avoid them and fully rest on the Sabbath. “Work” included untying animals to take them out to plow, since animals were supposed to rest on the Sabbath too. Certain types of healing activities were proscribed also, because they involved grinding herbs or other actions not allowed on the Sabbath. People with long-term illnesses simply endured them through the day.

While strict adherence to the Sabbath was valued, the early rabbis ruled that some situations warranted an override of Sabbath regulations. If human life was in danger, all rules against working would be set aside for the reason of “pikuah nephesh” — to save life. Also, some rules were set aside out of compassion for animals, so they wouldn’t suffer from not being fed or taken out for water. This was called tzar baalei hayim—preventing suffering to living things.

Jesus seems to be using the logic of tzar baalei hayim in his statement about healing the woman. It was not a life-or-death need that she be healed that day, but she had suffered for 18 years. If an animal can be untied to be led to water to prevent its suffering thirst, shouldn’t she be “unbound” too?

The whole difference in the doctrine of Jesus and the religious establishment was that the Rabbis followed the tradition of men, the rituals instead of the commands. The same tendency have continued among the Gentile churches.

Mark 7:7-9: “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

The "scholars" seems to have overemphasized the reference of Jesus saying he was the Lord of Sabbath, and the John's verse, "My father is working until now, and I am working too"; they have neglected the legal justifications for breaking the Sabbath. Moreover, Christians have traditionally believed the law and commandments are useless and worthless anyway, so there was no motivation for them to study the details of the law and morality. John doesn't provide those legal arguments because he was writing to the Gentiles for a different purpose.

It should be also noted that the death penalty was given only in the rarest of rare cases. Nobody blindly followed the example of capital punishment for picking up sticks just because of a reference. It may have been taken as a figurative illustration to scare the congregation for instilling discipline. The fact that they wanted to kill Jesus shows their hypocritical evil intent. Jesus never actually broke the law.

While it is true, the Messiah is Lord of Sabbath but he gave valid legal arguments that show all men have higher obligations than the observing Sabbath rest. We have to weigh the commands, unlike what the Romans or the traditional Christians have believed.

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  • "Jesus seems to be using the logic of tzar baalei hayim in his statement about healing the woman. It was not a life-or-death need that she be healed that day, but she had suffered for 18 years." This seems like an important clue. Consider John 5:5-6 "One man there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and realized that he had spent a long time in this condition, He asked him, “Do you want to get well?”" Jun 1 at 5:46
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Here is a backdrop to this statement of Jesus breaking the Sabbath.

The heart of God is being revealed through the work of Jesus on a Sabbath day.

The very word the Jews used of Jesus "breaking" the sabbath is: from the word, 3089. luó ►

Strong's Concordance luó: to loose, to release, to dissolve Original Word: λύω Part of Speech: Verb Transliteration: luó Phonetic Spelling: (loo'-o) Definition: to loose, to release, to dissolve Usage: (a) I loose, untie, release, (b) met: I break, destroy, set at naught, contravene; I break up a meeting, annul. HELPS Word-studies 3089 lýō – properly, loose (unleash) let go; release (unbind) so something no longer holds together; (figuratively) release what has been held back (like Christ "releasing" the seven seals in the scroll in Revelation)

  1. to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened: properly, the bandages of the feet, the shoes

  2. to loose one bound, i. e. to unbind, release from bonds, set free: one bound up (swathed in bandages), John 11:44; bound with chains (a prisoner), Acts 22:30 (where Rec. adds ἀπό τῶν δεσμῶν); hence, equivalent to to discharge from prison, let go

Revelation 20:30 ἐκ τῆς φυλακῆς αὐτοῦ, 7; metaphorically, to free (ἀπό δεσμοῦ) from the bondage of disease (one held by Satan) by restoration to health, Luke 13:16; to release one bound by the chains of sin

Laws, as having binding force, are likened to bonds; hence, λύειν is equivalent to to annul, subvert; to do away with; to deprive of authority, whether by precept or by act

to overthrow, do away with:

John 11:44 V-AMA-2P GRK: Ἰησοῦς αὐτοῖς Λύσατε αὐτὸν καὶ NAS: said to them, Unbind him, and let KJV: saith unto them, Loose him, and INT: Jesus to them Unbind him and Acts 2:24 V-APA-NMS GRK: θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας NAS: raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony KJV: hath raised up, having loosed the pains INT: God raised up having loosed the Agony

It is an irony that they accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because this is what God His Father desired to do through Jesus who happened to be doing the work of God on that day. He wanted to break someone loose from there infirmity that had bound them for 38 years.

God the Father and His Son Jesus we're not bound from doing good because it was certain day. Love is never bound.

A certain man had been in infirm for 38 years. Jesus perceived what he had been through and asked him do you want to be sound?

(Some people use pity for their illnesses and he did not want peoples pity, he wanted to be well) Jesus asked him this question then. Do you want to be well!

Jesus told him to rise up, pick up his pallet and walk. He was raised and he picks up his pallet and walked. This person at the time did not even know that it was Jesus who at that time healed him. Later on he found out it was Jesus.

Jesus's Father and Him are both working that day in one mans life and this is what they did. They released, destroyed what was keeping this man down, released him from being a prisoner to what was destroying his life. They put an end to his agony and released him from his pains. He was set free from the slavery to whatever it was that was holding him down. Together they raised him up and gave him back a new life

Jesus truly showed who is the Lord of the Sabbath. It was God and His Son who gave this man rest.

It is symbolic of the rest God gave the nation of Israel after they had been slaves for 400 years working as slaves to the Egyptians seven days a week night and day. He had delivered them from their slavery to their oppressors.

For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:8

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Matthew 12:11-12 says (NIV):

He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Also, the original commandment said, in Exodus 20:8-10:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.

The Sabbath was imposed as a reminder of the Creation Week, as we continue in the verse 11, which gives us an idea that the Sabbath is a weekly reconfirmation of our faith in God as the Creator of everything:

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The Sabbath should be a day of joy, and not a day of prohibitions. It should be considered a resting day even for the employeers and animals of the followers. God Himself practiced the Sabbath resting, although He was obviosly not tired, but as an act of stipulation of the Sabbath at the week of the creation (which shows that the Sabbath existed since the creation, and not since the Ten Commandments). Verse 10:

On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.

These rules do not forbid acts of mercy or essential tasks that are required for maintaining life or health. It should be a day not only for "breaking the routine" of the regular work and focusing on the relation with God and understanding His matters. Which includes the love for each other, as we read in 1 John 4:8:

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

We have also another confirmation, in Matthew 25:40, that providing essential assistance to others is done for God, and not for the person who is receiving help:

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

In the New Testment, Jesus claimed that He wasn't coming to break the laws, but to accomplish them, as they should last forever. Matthew 5:17-19:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

That said, if Jesus broke the Law (even only one commandment - ref. James 2:10), this would differ to what he claimed about the Law. He lived His human life as a maximum example of how the Law could be followed. Although (or "because") He is God, He does not change (Malachi 3:6), and likely, his law also does not change, as we read in the previous verse.

Jesus did not break the Law by profaning Sabbath (nor any other commandment) and lived a life in full compliance to the Law. The political and religious powers made the Law to become heavy to be followed, but men did it, while God didn't. Yet, this fact was not enough to make God change His laws, but Jesus came to teach us how the Law should be originally practiced, like in the Eden. Among other things, He taught us the lawfulness of doing good for others in the Sabbath.

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I would beg to differ with the premise of the question that the Jews leveled two charges against Jesus (in John 5) of:

  • breaking the Sabbath
  • claiming equality with God.

It is certainly true that the charge of Sabbath breaking was the initial charge as per V16. However, this quickly changed because of the way Jesus defended Himself against the charge of Sabbath breaking by saying:

V17 - “To this very day My Father is at His work, and I too am working.”

That is, Jesus claimed two things here:

  • (as per Col 1:17) to be constantly working and thus equal with God's continuous work, including on the Sabbath.
  • That God was His (Jesus') personal Father. He did not say "our Father", or "your Father", but "My Father", again, making Him equal with God.

This is neatly summed up in the Pulpit commentary:

The claim of special relation with the Father. Verse 17. - But Jesus answered them (ἀπεκρίνατο; here and ver. 19 are the only places where the author uses this aorist, My Father worketh hitherto; i.e. until now; has not, has never, ceased from working. Some critics, eager for disparaging comment, have said "this is point blank denial of the sabbath rest of the Creator as exhibited in Genesis 1, 2, and Exodus 20. But, on the contrary, it is the true exposition of those grand utterances. God through his Logos, the Father through his Son, did bring his strictly creative works to an end with the six days; but then he entered on the seventh day, the rest of his preserving, protective, reproductive energy; then he began to pursue his redeeming and quickening operations in all regions of his dominion. My Father worketh, energizes, until now. His "rest" is an infinite activity of wisdom and power, of righteousness and mercy. The true sabbath is this rest of God. Man has to enter into this rest, and cooperate with and utterly abandon himself to the will of God. Sabbath keeping is the great symbol of such entire satisfaction with God.

In this, a simple charge of Sabbath breaking became a charge of blasphemy against God.

V18. Because of this, the Jews tried all the harder to kill Him. Not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.

The charge would have been correct and valid for any human, but Jesus was not any human - He was, in addition to being human, equal with God as He Himself says:

V21-23 - For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He wishes. Furthermore, the Father judges no one, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.

CONCLUSION

Therefore, because Jesus was equal with God, the charge of blasphemy was not valid and so the charge of sabbath breaking was not valid. See appendix below for greater context.

APPENDIX - Jesus' Sabbath Miracles

Jesus performed seven miracles on the Sabbath: Mark 1:21-28, 29-31, 3:1-6, John 9:1-16, Luke 13:10-17, 14:1-6, John 5:1-18. In several of these, Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath and had to defend His actions. They differences in His defense is significant.

  • Mark 3:1-6 - Jesus heals a man with a shriveled hand on Sabbath. He claimed this was lawful because it was lawful to do good and minister to those in desperate need.
  • John 9:1-16 - Jesus heals a man born blind on Sabbath. His subsequent discussion with the Jews shows that this did not break the Sabbath but actually displayed God's power and showed the Jews spiritual blindness.
  • Luke 13:10-17 - Jesus heals a hunchback on Sabbath. Again, Jesus defends Himself by saying that such healing is acceptable on the Sabbath because He was ministering to one in great need and doing good.
  • John 5:1-18 - Jesus heals the man at Bethesda on Sabbath. In this case, Jesus made no attempt to defend Himself by claiming that He was doing good etc. Rather He claimed that this was part of His regular job of working continuously just as the Father does (compare Col 1:17) and thus was not guilty of Sabbath breaking.

This is significant; Jesus defense was essentially His divinity as He states several times in the subsequent discussion in John 5:

  • V17, 18 - But Jesus answered them, “To this very day My Father is at His work, and I too am working.” Because of this, the Jews tried all the harder to kill Him. Not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.
  • V21 - For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom He wishes. [ie, both Father and Son have innate life to give as they see fit.]
  • V23 - so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.

Thus, Jesus' defense is unique here - He claims equality with the Father and the need to uphold the universe (Col 1:17) thus was not guilty of breaking the Sabbath.

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  • Would you hold that if Jesus isn't God in the contemporary Trinitarian sense (co-equal), the charge of breaking the Sabbath would be valid? Jun 1 at 5:15
  • And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. (5:16) I realize there is a question about ἀποκτεῖναι in the original text, but even if was added, it was done so to make explicit the consequence for breaking the Sabbath (cf. Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6). Jun 1 at 5:56
  • @OneGodtheFather - yes He would be guilty. However, Jesus explicitly claimed equality with the Father several times in this passage. Now, whether this implies the trinitarian or binitarian doctrine is another matter entirely.
    – Dottard
    Jun 1 at 6:02
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    @OneGodtheFather - Jesus never broke the moral law in any form. He did good on the Sabbath (which was permitted) but in this case, deliberately overlooked by the Jews but Jesus elected to defend Himself by claiming equality with the Father. Contrast another occasion when He was accused of Sabbath breaking and used the excuse that it was reasonable to heal on Sabbath because it was doing good Luke 13:15. Thus, in John 5 the claim to be equal with God is the central point make by Jesus.
    – Dottard
    Jun 1 at 21:38
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    @OneGodtheFather - I will add another appendix above about this for extra context.
    – Dottard
    Jun 1 at 21:47
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Ray B said "The Pharisees had rules that were much stricter than God's rules." If by God's rules you mean the Torah then I think you are both right and wrong here. I don't know of any cases where the Pharisees put someone to death for sabbath-breaking as Moses reportedly did. They did define "work" more carefully than the Torah did. But there were many different opinions. I would say that the arguments between Jesus and the "Jews" could just as easily be presented as arguments among differing rabbinical schools, with Jesus representing the more "liberal" approach of Hillel, and "the Jews" representing the strict approach of Shammai. The author of the 4th Gospel, of course, saw "the Jews" generally as opponents of Jesus. I think not. Jesus was a Jew, arguing with fellow Jews about Jewish law. John's Gospel presents him as an outsider, sad to say, because by the time it was written, his community no longer saw itself as part of the Jewish world.

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    – agarza
    Aug 6 at 4:47
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The equality topic shown in the context was that Jesus was claiming the same right as his Father (my Father is working) to heal/ do good on the Sabbath. John 7:22-23 shows that the forefathers of the Jews circumcised on the Sabbath. Matthew 12:9-14 also show that it is lawful to do good on a sabbath. Jesus did not break the sabbath. There is nothing in the bible that say he did. The accusation came from those who by their tradition nullify the words of God Mark 7:13.

John 7:22:23 ASV 22Moses hath given you circumcision (not that it is of Moses, but of the fathers); and on the sabbath ye circumcise a man. 23If a man receiveth circumcision on the sabbath, that the law of Moses may not be broken; are ye wroth with me, because I made a man every whit whole on the sabbath?

Matthew 12:9-14 ASV 9And he departed thence, and went into their synagogue: 10and behold, a man having a withered hand. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? that they might accuse him. 11And he said unto them, What man shall there be of you, that shall have one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? 12How much then is a man of more value than a sheep! Wherefore it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day. 13Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, as the other. 14But the Pharisees went out, and took counsel against him, how they might destroy him.

Mark 7:13 ASV making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do

Jesus’ statements in John 5:19 show that he had been sent by God. He is not God and that he admitted that he could do nothing on his own, but only what the Father willed:

John 5:19 ASV Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing: for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner.

Does John 5:19 make sense if Jesus is the Almighty God and as God he did only what he was directed to do? Consider Psalm 135:6 ASV Whatsoever Jehovah pleased, that hath he done, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps; and Isaiah 46:9-10 ASV Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me 10 declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done; saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure; God says he does what he pleases while Jesus said he "can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing: for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner."

Further reading of John chapter 5 reveals that Jesus did not claim to be God. Jesus claimed to have been sent by God which the Jews refused to accept, John 5:37-38,43.

John 5:37-38 ASV And the Father that sent me, he hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his form And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he sent, him ye believe not.

John 5:43 ASV I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.

John 5:18 is a false accusation and is not what John believes as John 5:19 shows that the Son can do nothing on his own accord. All iniative is with the Father. Jesus is dependent on the Father. In John 5:26-27 ASV For as the Father hath life in himself, even so gave he to the Son also to have life in himself and he gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is a son of man. Note that Jesus did not say he has "life in himself". The Father "granted" to the Son to have the same. According to Jesus nothing is essential to the Father. Unlike Jesus, the Father is not dependent on anyone to "grant" him the possesion of life within Himself.

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Summary
While Jesus was accused of violating the Sabbath, the New Testament states this is not possible:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15 ESV)

Breaking the Sabbath was a sin. Jesus was without sin. Therefore, Jesus did not break the Sabbath. Furthermore, the sinlessness of Jesus is a key tenet of the New Testament: His death was an acceptable payment for all sin. If any accusation of violating the Sabbath had been correct, His sacrifice would not have been acceptable, and the entire New Testament would be invalidated.

Additionally, the rabbinic understanding of the penalty of kārēt required in Exodus 31:14 is that it is carried out by God who will extripate the offenders line and/or deny him life in the hereafter. John refutes both: Jesus returns to the Father and as a result of His sacrifice, He gives all who believe the right to become children of God.

Background
As noted by the OP, this instruction on the Sabbath includes penalties for disobedience:

12 And the LORD said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off (kārēt) from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31 ESV)

This command follows the instructions on building the Tabernacle. Thus, God is telling Moses that despite the extraordinary importance of building the Tabernacle, the Israelites must still keep the Sabbath; they are not to violate the Sabbath for the sake of completing the Tabernacle.1

This law identifies two types of violations: to profane (חָלַל) and to work (מְלָאכָה). There are two consequences for disobedience: execution (מוּת) and to be cut off from his people (כָּרַת), kārēt. The consequences are arranged chiastically, centered on kārēt

Death: Everyone who profanes the Sabbath shall be put to death
  Karet: Whoever does any work, that soul shall be cut off from among his people
Death: Whoever does any work on the day of the Sabbath shall be put to death

Work might be considered as profaning the Sabbath; yet one can imagine ways in which the Sabbath could be profaned which did not involve work. For example, if one were to deny the existence of, or blaspheme the Sabbath, one would deny the Law and the eternal sign by which YHVH's people know it is YHVH who sanctifies them. In fact, the entire edifice of Judaism collapses without the Sabbath, because the observance of this day is an affirmation of Judaism's fundamental message that God created the world.2

Therefore, in the incident with the 38-year invalid, the question is not simply "is healing work?" One must also consider if the instruction to ...take up your bed and walk profaned the Sabbath. In other words, did Jesus profane the Sabbath by giving the invalid this seemingly unnecessary instruction which caused the man to act unlawfully on the Sabbath (cf. 5:10).

Profaning the Sabbath
The initial issue is on the actions of the man:

9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.”

However, as John reports the details, the answer to the legality of healing on the Sabbath is found in the man's explanation of why he has yet to be healed: I have no one to put me into the pool... The implication is the man (with his bed) had been carried to the pool on the Sabbath.

From Jesus' perspective the man's presence at the pool presents two legal issues:

  1. The man was brought to the pool for the purpose of being healed. Obviously those who brought him did not believe healing on the Sabbath was unlawful.
  2. From Exodus 16 and 20 and Leviticus 23, the Sabbath is intended as a day spent "at home" with family and includes a holy convocation. Unless the man was removed from the pool, he would violate those Sabbath requirements.

Ironically, the Sabbath breakers were those who brought the man to the pool so he would be forced to "observe" the Sabbath in a place other than at home, or in the synagogue, or in the Temple. This point is brought out in Jesus' final encounter with the man:

And after that, Jesus found the man in the temple and said to him, Behold, you are made whole. Sin no more, lest a worse thing happen to you. (John 5:14)

The man, now healed, did what the Law requires:

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places. (Leviticus 23:3)

From a purely legalistic view, Jesus acted in a way which allowed the man to correctly observe the Sabbath, something those who brought the man to the pool not only failed to do: they acted contrary to the Law. Essentially Jesus instructions to the man draw attention to those who brought the man and his bed to the pool. IT is as if Jesus is saying: Why wasn't this son of Abraham3 allowed to observe the Sabbath in the Temple as the Law requires?

Kārēt
The command in Exodus seemingly has contradictory penalties. First, whoever does any work, that soul shall be cut off, (kārēt), from among his people (31:14) and anyone who does any work must be put to death (31:15). Scholars and rabbis have debated how to reconcile the two different penalties.

In examining the twenty-six OT occurrences4of kārēt, Jacob Milgrom affirms the rabbinic view kārēt is a divine penalty with two possible meanings, extirpation and/or execution:

As for the exact nature of kārēt, two of the five options...command attention. The first is that kārēt means extirpation (Ibn Ezra; cf. also Tosafot on b. Sabb. 25a), meaning that the offender's line is terminated. In contrast to the death penalty inflicted by man (yûmat) or God (yāmût), kārēt is not necessarily directed against the person of the sinner. He may live a full life or an aborted one. His death need not be immediate, as would be the case if his execution were the responsibility of a human court...[in some cases] the crime can only be determined by God (cf. v 28, Ibn Ezra), and the punishment is extirpation. Furthermore, kārēt, as extirpation, would be in consonance with the Priestly doctrine that God engages in collective responsibility: whereas man can only punish the sinner, God may also direct his wrath at the sinner's family and community.5

The other possible meaning of kārēt is that the punishment is indeed executed upon the sinner but only after his death: he is not permitted to rejoin his ancestors in the afterlife.6

It is difficult to determine which of these two meaning is correct. Because they are not mutually exclusive, it is possible that kārēt implies both of them, in other words, no descendants in this world and no life in the next.7

Commenting specifically on Exodus 31:14, Milgrom states "it implies that between them God and man will terminate the criminal: man will terminate the criminal and God will extripate his line and/or deny him life in the hereafter."8

Milgrom also offers an explanation for violations like Molech worship and Sabbath violations which add punishment by death by human agency to kārēt. He states: "Whereas the kārēt cases assume that the sin takes place in private so that only the deity is aware of the crime, the Molech and Sabbath violations are performed in public and, unless punished at once by judicial execution, they demoralize the entire community."9

Conclusion
John's Gospel displays a keen awareness of the rabbinic understanding of the penalty of kārēt for violating the Sabbath; he refutes the charge of breaking the Sabbath by stating God did not impose either extripation or deny Him life in the hereafter. To the contrary, Jesus is responsible for future generations, making children of God and has returned to the bosom of the Father.


1. Dennis Prager, p. 427
2. Ibid.
3. It is reasonable to conclude the man who was healed was Jewish, a "son of Abraham" (cf. Luke 13:16 where Jesus says "this daughter of Abraham" in defending his decision to heal her in the synagogue on the Sabbath.)
4. Milgrom states kārēt is found in Genesis 17:14; Exodus 12:15, 19, 30:33, 38, 31:14; Leviticus 7:18, 20-21, 25, 27, 17:4, 9, 10, 14, 18:27-29, 19:8, 20:2-5, 6, 23:29, 30, 24:15, Numbers 9:13, 15:30-31, 18:3, 19:13-20, and Ezekiel 14:5
5. Jacob Milgrom, The Anchor Bible, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Doubleday, 1991, pp. 458-459
6. Ibid., p. 459-460
7. Ibid., p. 460
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.

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Exodus 31:14b (KJV 1900)

for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

work is מְלָאכָה, məlāʾḵâ and while many argue that this has to refer only to trade or an occupation, or laborious work that involves toil (that's certainly the primary meaning), I think the meaning is broader, as it includes:

  • religious service in the Temple by Levites: 1 Chron 28.13
  • the work(s) of God - Jeremiah 50:25 and Nehemiah 6:16

So I don't think it's true that, for example, "healing" would not be considered work or teaching would not be considered work, nor that it's not work if it's not your occupation. Something else is at play here other than the definition of work because Jesus outlines a completely different interpretation of the sabbath than the one held by the Pharisees, so let's try to understand Christ's teachings:

Sign and Referent

First, the sabbath, circumcision, the temple, and sacrifices, are all symbols of another referent:

Exodus 31:13 (KJV 1900)

13 Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.

The Pharisees were focused on the sign at the expense of the referent, and so judged wrongly when one had to choose between them - they choose to honor the sign and dishonor the referent.

It is like a man who builds a costly monument to his wife, and so sells his wife into slavery in order to obtain funds to build it.

This was a constant theme of contention between Christ and the Pharisees [e.g. Matt 12:34-35, Matt 15.18, Luke 16:15]. Now the referent is always internal -- "that you may know" or "that you may receive mercy", "the presence of God", "deliverance", "peace", etc. It's not something you can see with the eyes. This is why God gave signs according to the outward appearance, but to focus on the sign and forget the referent is to judge wrongly:

23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?

24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. [John 7:22-24]

The Sabbath

The purpose of the Sabbath observance (the sign) is to recognize that God makes Israel holy (the referent). How is the sign related to the referent? Holy means separated, so separate from what? From Egypt, the land of toil. But it is not Israel that gives themselves rest, it is God that gives them rest.

that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you

People in Egypt can also stop working, but if they do, their needs aren't met. In Israel when people stop working, God provides their needs.

Exodus 16:29 (KJV 1900)

29 See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.

God's Priest must work on the Sabbath

Therefore God must do work on the Sabbath -- even more work than on any other day.

[John 5:17] But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.

Now God lives in eternity and all the works were completed from the foundation of the world (Heb 4:3), but here on earth, God's vessels do double duty: The priests mediate between God, and they work extra hard on the Sabbath with additional offerings in order for all the people's needs to be met.

9 “On the Sabbath day, two male lambs a year old without blemish, and two tenths of an ephah of fine flour for a grain offering, mixed with oil, and its drink offering: 10 this is the burnt offering of every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering. [Num 28:9-10 ESV]

This was Jesus' defense to accusations that he should not work:

[Matt 12.5-7] 5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?

and again:

[Matt 12.3-4] But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; 4 How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?

The picture of David entering the holy place and bringing out bread for his soldiers to eat is the image of Christ, and he has rights to do this since the bread is his body by which rest is obtained. Thus Jesus, like the priests, will be doing double duty on the sabbath providing rest to the people.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. [Matt 11:28]

The Sabbath work of the Priest is to give rest

All of the sabbath miracles that Jesus performed were to make people whole so they can have true rest on the Sabbath, not seeing any lack. Like the man who was laboring to get into the turbulent water, but Jesus healed him by grace, merely because he asked (a type for prayer), and then told him to pick up his bed and go home so that he can finally lie down in rest. This is the picture of God's provision on the Sabbath. It is in this sense that Jesus said "the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath" [Matt 12.8] - not because it means he can violate the sabbath, but because he is the one who sanctifies by giving rest.

Now we know that on the Sabbath, during the time of Christ, the people prayed for healing on the sabbath, as we found an Amidah prayer(1) believed to be pre-AD 70:

Heal us, Lord our God,

רפאינו יי אלהינו

from the pain of our heart and grief,

ממכאוב לבנו ויגון

and remove sighing from us,

ואנחה העבר ממבו

and bring healing for our wounds.

והעלה רפואה למכותינו

Blessed are you Lord, who heals

ברוך אתה יי רופא

the sick of his people Israel.

חולי עמו ישראל

Four times on the Sabbath (five times on high holy days) this prayer was recited, asking for spiritual, emotional, and physical healing. And when God sent a vessel to answer this prayer, the Pharisees accused the vessel of breaking the sabbath. They sold the wife in order to build a monument to her.

The Drift From Grace

The Pharisees scrambled the referent, which was about God's provision of rest, instead making it about their efforts of avoiding work.

How did the Pharisees then justify the extra work that the Priests must do on the Sabbath if it was not a recognition that God must provide more on that day? They actually thought God wanted more bulls to be given to him, rather than desiring mercy for the people, again confusing the sign (bulls offered) with the referent (God's forgiveness) so Christ said:

Matthew 12:7 (KJV 1900)

7 But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

If they understood that the purpose of all those extra sacrifices was to give people peace, rather than giving God bulls, then they would know why the Priests must work double duty on the Sabbath and they would welcome more healings and more people having their burdens lifted on the Sabbath.

Similarly, in Mark 2.27: "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath", Jesus is saying that the purpose of the Sabbath is for people to obtain rest, not for God to see them making observances.

These are subtle distinctions -- in the wilderness it was clear that a double portion of manna fell from Heaven, but in Israel they could just work extra hard and set aside the fruit of their own labor to eat on the Sabbath and so lose sight of God's provision. Similarly, they misinterpret "the LORD hath given you the sabbath" in Ex 16.19, reading it as "the LORD hath given you rules about observing the Sabbath" - another subtle shift. That is, they thought the Law regarding the Sabbath was the gift, when the true gift was the rest. The referent was the gift.

Romans 10:2–3 (KJV 1900)

2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Thus the double portion of manna from heaven was hidden from the Pharisees and so they could not obtain rest. What's worse, they also hid the referent from the people, thus preventing the people from obtaining rest, making the sign of no effect

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. [Matt 23:13]

A true observance of the Sabbath would require each man to take whatever burden they have, whether it is the need to do work, or some illness, or worry, and then turn to God in prayer, saying "Just as you delivered Israel from the toil of Egypt by your power, I know that you deliver me, and so I will rest and do nothing to meet the need by my own efforts as a sign that I recognize you meet all needs." Note that this is almost the Amidah prayer, but these are all subtle deviations from the road at the end of which they toil away trying to earn God's blessings through observance and they fall short of the Sabbath rest.


  1. David Instone-Brewer, Prayer and Agriculture, vol. 1, Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 97–101.

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