Summary: Superman might be good enough to save a virtual world. But we need a real Savior to save us from the real one.
Meet the Real Superman
Two weeks ago, we talked about Jesus healing the sick man who had been sick for 38 years on the Sabbath day. To the Pharisees, this seemed to be a gross violation of the Law of Moses. In fact, the Old Testament forbid the carrying of a burden on the Sabbath day, but this was more in context with the carrying of a burden in reference to buying and selling on the Sabbath day. Jesus’ saw things differently. To Him, the man was carrying a burden of sickness for 38 years. How many Sabbaths had this man been burdened with this sickness without finding rest. In comparison carrying a lightweight, flimsy straw mat was nothing in comparison. It is this disagreement over the proper observance of the Sabbath which leads to the confrontation we look at today.
Exposition of the Text
Verse 16 says that the Jews were continually persecuting Jesus because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. The English translation does not bring out the idea of an ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Greek indicates that the healing of this sick man on the Sabbath was just one of several incidents. John has not included any other of these to this point, but we can see several such incidents recorded in the other Gospels. The meaning of the verse is that the Jews were constantly accusing Jesus of being a habitual Sabbath breaker. Not only this, but by commanding the man to take up his mat, he was teaching others, in their opinion, to break the Sabbath as well.
In versed 17, Jesus defends what he has done. The verb “answered” here in the Greek is in the rare use of what is called the middle voice. This gives the idea of “Jesus answered for himself” or simply “Jesus defended his actions, saying…” What Jesus says here in his defense is “My Father is always at work; therefore, I am working also.”
Even the Pharisees had to conclude from what we have of their writings that it was necessary for God to be continually at work. What would happen to the universe if God took a day off? Would the planets fall out of their orbits? Or how would we feel if we came before God in an urgent prayer request and got the answer from God’s voice mail; “I am on vacation today, please call again later.” In other places in the Gospels, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that they would lift their donkey out of a pit it had fallen into on the Sabbath day. This would break the exact reference the Pharisees accused the man of doing, which is carrying a burden on the Sabbath day. The implication that what one would do for an animal as an act of mercy is even more appropriate for a human being created in the image of God.
Jesus healed on the Sabbath day. He was accused in the other Gospels that this, too, was a violation of the Sabbath. Could you imagine how well the concept of Sabbath the Pharisees had would go over today? Forget the Taliban! Suppose you or someone you loved had a heart attack on the Sabbath day, and there was no one to answer at 911 because it was the Sabbath day. And there are no doctors on call also, because it is the day of rest. You can’t perform CPR, because it is work, and work is forbidden on the day of rest. Any you better not pray either, because some would consider this work. And if prayer itself were allowed, you would be petitioning God to work on his day off. Anyone can plainly see that Jesus’ concept of the Sabbath was far superior to the Pharisees.
Yet God was about to take His second day off since the creation. God the Son was about to be put in a tomb to rest on the Sabbath, having finished the new creation on the cross with the words, “It is finished.” Just as God at the completion of creation on the sixth day, said, “It is very good.” The words Jesus said on the cross is better translated “It has been made perfect” Rather than “finished”. Having finished the work of the new creation starting on Palm Sunday, Jesus would take His Sabbath.
There is another subtle thought embedded in this verse as well. It is true that the Law commanded the keeping of the Sabbath day and keeping it Holy. It was also conceded even by the Pharisees that God was necessarily exempt from this requirement. By Jesus saying that He was working on the Sabbath just like His Father was at work, He was making a claim that He was exempt from the Sabbath law. If only God is exempt, then Jesus is claiming that He is none other than God Himself.