Who Works When, and Why? (John 5)
The healing of the man at the pool of Bethsaida brings to the surface a controversy familiar from Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Jesus’ penchant for healing on the Sabbath. If the controversy is familiar, however, Jesus’ self-defense takes a slightly different angle. His lengthy argument is crisply summarized in John 5:17, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The principle is clear. God keeps the creation going even on the Sabbath, and therefore Jesus, who shares the divine identity, is permitted to do the same. Jesus was almost certainly not alone in arguing that God was at work on the Sabbath, but his deduction about justifying his own work is unique.
As a result, we cannot use this story to deduce the propriety or impropriety of our working on the Sabbath. We may be doing God’s work, but we do not share the divine identity as Christ does. Human work having life-or-death consequences—military self-defense (1 Maccabees 2:41) or pulling an animal from a ditch—was already accepted as legitimate on the Sabbath. The healing itself is not questioned in this episode, even though the man would have suffered no harm had Jesus waited until Sunday to heal him. Instead, Jesus is criticized for permitting him to carry a mat—a form of work, according to the Jewish Law—on the Sabbath. Does this imply that Jesus permits us to drive to vacation on the Sabbath? Fly on Sunday to a business meeting that begins on Monday morning? Operate a continuous casting plant 24/7/365? There is no hint here that Jesus is merely widening the list of activities permitted on the Sabbath. Instead, let us apply the theme we see running through John—work that maintains and redeems the creation (material or spiritual) and contributes to closer relationships with God and people is appropriate for the Sabbath. Whether any particular work fulfills this description must be discerned by the person(s) involved. For more on this topic, see "Matthew 12:1-8" in Matthew and Work, "Mark 1:21-45" and "Mark 2:23-3:6" in Mark and Work, and "Luke 6:1-11; 13:10-17" in Luke and Work and the article Rest and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.
A clearer, and more important, lesson for us from this narrative is that God is still at work to maintain the present creation, and Jesus furthers that work in his healing ministry. Jesus’ signs are at one level the in-breaking of the new world. They demonstrate “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). At the same time, they are also the up-keeping of the present world. It seems perfectly appropriate to see this as a paradigm for our own myriad jobs. As we act in faith to restore what has been broken (as doctors, nurses, auto mechanics, and so forth), we call people to remember the goodness of the creator God. As we act in faith to develop the capacities of the creation (as programmers, teachers, artists, and so on), we call people to reflect on the goodness of humanity’s God-given dominion over the world. The work of redemption and the work of creation/production, done in faith, both shout out our trust in the God who is, and who was, and who is to come. God created all things through Christ, is restoring them to his original intent through Christ, and will bring them to their appointed goal through Christ.