John 5:16-20 (NIV): So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason 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. Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these.
The Jewish leaders were so focused on the fact that Jesus had broken their rules about the Sabbath that they completely missed the big picture. Instead of rejoicing over the fact that God had miraculously healed a man through Jesus, a man who had been an invalid for 38 years, they were incensed because the healing at taken place at the wrong time.
Jesus tried to help them to understand what they were missing. Jesus was not a lone wolf, an independent agent. As a member of the Trinity, He always acted in unity with God the Father. If He healed a person, it was not just His idea; He was working in concert with the Father. If He did that healing on the Sabbath, it was because the Father had decided that the Sabbath was the right time for the healing to take place. And if Jesus was obeying the Father, then His actions in no way broke the Sabbath laws as the Father prescribed them, and was in no way sin.
God’s focus for the Sabbath was not simply to avoid any and all activity, but to change the focus of a person’s activities to Him and His agenda. Every one of God’s people was to cease their normal work for one full day every week, entrusting their livelihoods to Him. They were to leave their businesses in His care, and even leave their crops in His care for a full day, even during the plowing and harvest seasons (cf. Exodus 34:21), entrusting even their food supply to Him. For a full day they were to put aside the concerns of their lives, and focus entirely on God and His agenda.
Admittedly, it is simpler for people to simply “outlaw” all activities on the Sabbath. But even on the Sabbath God is still speaking, still working to save people, to draw people closer to Himself. Instead of merely being a day of inactivity, Jesus properly understood the Sabbath as a day set aside completely to God, to focus wholeheartedly on His agenda, His will, unclouded by the day-to-day concerns of life.
It is this focus which leads to what some might see as contradictions. The same devotion to God and His Sabbath that would cause a person to close His business on that day would also cause him or her to obey God’s call to heal a person, or make time to take them to the hospital. The same devotion that would cause them to not mow their law on the Sabbath would also cause them to obey God’s call to mow the lawn of a sick or disabled neighbor.
The key point of the Sabbath is not to count the number of steps that we walk, but to take the steps that God directs us to take. It is not about how heavy a load we should carry, but about carrying the load that God directs us to carry. If the Father Himself had not directed Jesus to the pool of Bethesda to heal this long-disabled man, the man would not have been healed.
As always, to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention better than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22b). The rules which the Jewish leaders had erected around God’s Sabbath actually had the effect of blinding them to God’s leading and making them deaf to God’s voice for one full day each week – a malady that did NOT afflict Jesus.
Father, this points out that You are still present and active in our world today, guiding and directing Your people seven days a week. We know that You will not contradict today what You said in Your word – You are the same yesterday, today, and forever. But, as Jesus understood, as He experienced and lived out in His obedience to Your voice, obeying Your direction to minister to others, to heal, to evangelize, and to help someone to grow in their knowledge and experience of You will never violate Your commandments – even on the Sabbath. Amen.