According to John reports three healing miracles: that of the son of the imperial official (4: 46 – 54), that of the sick man at the pool of Bethesda (5: 1 – 16) and that of the man born blind (9: 1 – 14). In two of these narratives, after the details of the miracle have been described, it is said that the healing took place on a Sabbath. These healings included actions prohibited by the rabbinic interpretation of the fourth commandment: in particular, Jesus instructed the sick man to carry his bed home on a Sabbath, and he himself made mud by mixing dust and spittle on a Sabbath.
When after the Babylonian Exile the synagogues became important new institutions, the rabbis searched for a way to detail what is “work”. Their search took them to the instructions given by God for the building of the sanctuary (Ex. 35: 4 – 39: 43), where thirty nine different tasks are identified. This list of labors to be done, the rabbis decided, are the definition of that which is not permitted to do on the Sabbath. To carry a burden and to prepare a mixture are both on the list.
Both healings on a Sabbath unleash arguments to defend Jesus’ authority to establish what is permitted and what is not permitted to be done on a Sabbath. Such questions came up frequently among Jews, and no doubt also were asked by Christians. All of them, at the beginning, were Jews, and ceasing to be Jews did not even enter their minds. In the first century of our era, the Sabbath was one of the most important identity marks among Jews, and its observance was one of the few things that Gentiles knew about them. In other words, early Christians did not ask themselves whether as followers of Christ they should continue to observe the Sabbath; that was taken for granted. The question was, “What cannot be done on Sabbath?” The list of the thirty nine works refers to activities commonly performed in rural communities, but did not include many things that had become common in Hellenistic urban centers. Thus, the question had much relevance. The difference between Jews in general and those who proclaimed the Risen Christ was that the Jews answered that question citing a passage of Scripture. Christians, besides citing Scripture, would also appeal to the Sabbath conduct of Jesus.
The healing of the sick man at the pool of Bethesda is given two justifications, and I will consider them separately. Surely Jn. 7: 19 – 23 refers to the healing of this sick man. In these verses we find an argument a fortiori, from minor to major. If one admits that in one case a certain rule applies, how much more it must be admitted that in this other case another rule applies. The argument works if common sense, or an official determination, considers that this other case is more important than the first one.
In the case of the sick man at the pool, the argument is based on what the Jews had decided on the case of circumcision when the eighth day of birth fell on a Sabbath. To carry out the circumcision requires doing things found in the list of the thirty nine works prohibited on a Sabbath. This created a true dilemma. What must be done when obeying one law of the Scriptures involves breaking another law of the Scriptures? In this case the Jews had determined that the law of circumcision was to be given preference over the law of the Sabbath. Circumcision is the mark of the true Jew. The Sabbath, according to rabbinic thought, is to be kept only by Jews. Gentiles who observe it are like adulterers who enter another man’s house to enjoy the charms of the wife of a Jew. (The rabbis also considered the Sabbath their bride.) It was, therefore, most important to mark the Jew so that he might legitimately keep the Sabbath.
While circumcision was the mark of the members of the chosen people of God, with time it also came to be considered something that perfected, that added qualities, to the male body. This is the basis for the argument of Jn. 7: 19 – 23. If you consider it licit to perfect a member of the body on a Sabbath, how much more should you consider it licit to give health to a whole body on a Sabbath. Common sense says that the whole body is more important than one of its members.
We find this type of argument also, for example, in the defense of the disciples who harvested wheat and ate it on a Sabbath (Mk. 2: 23 – 28). If you consider it to be licit for David and his men to eat the sanctuary’s bread of the presence, how much more should you consider it to be licit for my disciples to eat wheat harvested on a Sabbath because my presence with my disciples is superior to the presence of David with his men. Of course, this argument works only among those who admit the superiority of Christ over David. This tells us that the early Christians had different opinions as to what is licit Sabbath activity, and that they appealed to the conduct of Jesus in order to resolve them. It also lets us see that the early Christians were well educated in Greek culture. They could develop logical arguments as the most effective way to arrive at wise conclusions. The Hebrew traditional culture best preserved in the Wisdom Literature had used parallelisms based on the free association of ideas in order to expand the intellectual horizon.
The healing of the sick man at the pool of Bethesda is also justified in verse 17 of chapter 5: “My Father works until now, and I work” (my translation). This justification of Jesus’ Sabbath conduct is based in the answer to a question that preoccupied the ancient Jews: “Does God keep God’s laws?” More specifically, “Does God keep the Sabbath?” This question does not come up in our day because we understand that nature functions by itself according to “natural laws”. This way of seeing nature is relatively recent. When Isaac Newton proposed that the earth and all the stars in the heavens follow their respective orbits controlled by the law of gravity, many Christians thought he was negating the existence of God. Until then it was commonly understood that God is the one who has in his hands the movements of the heavenly bodies. The rising and the setting of the sun takes place because God causes it to come up at dawn and to go down at dusk. If God keeps the Sabbath, ceasing to work and resting, the sun would not come up, and many other things would not occur. Since every Sabbath the sun comes up at dawn and nature keeps functioning normally it can only mean that God works on the Sabbath.
In the writings of the Rabbis and of Philo of Alexandria different explications are given to the fact that God works on Sabbaths. For example, it is adduced that God works on material things during the other days of the week, but on Sabbaths God works on spiritual and intellectual matters. Among other things, Philo explains that God is at perfect rest also while working.
When Jesus says, “My Father works until now,” he is saying that God works continuously, including Sabbaths. It is not true that God worked in a remote past to bring about creation and has been at rest ever since. NO, God works every day. The Jews who heard this affirmation were in complete agreement with him. Jesus, however, added, “and I work” every day, also. Here he was not making an a fortiori argument, from minor to major. This is an ontological argument; it appeals to the nature of his being. Jesus claims to have, like God, the prerogative to work on Sabbaths. The Jews had no difficulty understanding what he had said. The narrator reports: “And this was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (5: 18). Jesus’ claim was a direct challenge to the one fundamental doctrine of the Jews after the Babylonian Exile: God is One.
These few words to justify the healing of the sick man at the pool give to the narrative a twist and provide the opportunity to elaborate on the Sabbath activities of the Son. In verses 19 – 30 the work that the Son carries out on a daily basis, inclusive of Sabbaths, is to give life and to judge. These are also exclusive divine prerogatives. That is, the Son is not only equal to God, his Father, but is also able to do what only God can do. Jesus had healed the sick man and ordered him to carry his bed home. He had given life to the sick and had judged those who in ignorance judged him.
The declaration “My Father works until now” leaves us a bit confused because of its temporal reference. To which “now” does it refer? This question has kept scholars busy for some time. Is it the case that God ceased working when Jesus died on the cross? Is not the activity of the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, a continuation of the work of the Son, which also is carried on every day? Or, is not the Sabbath work of the Son being performed now by his disciples? These questions, actually, are reducible to one: “What is the eschatological meaning of ‘until now’?”
Undoubtedly the phrase has a temporal reference, but does not say when “now” is. The one thing we can tell is that “now” is when the work of the Son is synchronized to the work of the Father, and, as the discourse that follows in verses 19 – 47 show, “now” is a critical moment when the presence of the Son on earth obliges human beings to make a decision about his person. This decision makes the difference between life and death. The gospel According to John, as we noted in a previous column, considers the presence of the giver of eternal life “now” as the fulfillment of all that “Moses in the law and the prophets wrote” (1: 45). God’s “now” is humanity’s eschatological moment. It is when what is ultimately vital imposes itself requiring a decision.
The justification of the sick man at the pool is linked to the words of Jesus before the healing of the man born blind: “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work” (9: 4). It is during the day, “now”, that the works the Father wishes to be done must be accomplished. That is, the Sabbath is not like the night when no one can work, but like the day, when the work of judging and giving life must be done. As long as the Son is on earth it is day; it is Sabbath. He is the Light of the World (9: 15), and the sons of light (12: 36), those who have been born of God (1: 13), work “now” also, on the Sabbath.
According to John has a well developed concept of time. In previous columns we saw how incidents in the life of Jesus are framed by Jewish feasts that provide the context for their interpretation. We also noted the way in which “the third day” and “the hour”, with special attention to “the hour that now is”, are used theologically. Besides, while Jesus and his disciples are beings of the day, Judas (13: 30) and Nicodemus (3: 2; 7: 50; 19: 39) are creatures of the night. The revelation of Jesus in glory as the Savior of the World takes place at high noon, when the sun is at its zenith (4: 6: 19: 14). (On this point this gospel disagrees with the apocalyptic expectations that envision the eschatological moment at midnight; the Lord will come when least expected, like a thief in the night. In the synoptic gospels Jesus died at three o’clock in the afternoon, the ninth hour [Mk. 15: 34], rather than at high noon.)
It is no coincidence that the third healing narrated in According to John also makes a specific reference to time. Even though Jesus is not in the presence of the child about to die, at the moment when Jesus, being in Cana of Galilee, says to the officer, “Your son will live”, in that very moment the child in Capernaum ceased having a fever. This took place on the seventh hour, the one with the perfect number (4: 52). The significance of this is that the words of Jesus to the imperial official had their fulfillment “now”. That is, the absent Jesus also brings healing to the Gentiles “now”. It is during the day when the Son is among women and men “now”, that eternal life, or its opposite, is received by human beings. It is “now” that the Sabbath is having its most complete realization.
Some among the Jews and among the early Christians conceived life with God temporally as an eternal Sabbath. According to John distinguishes itself by emphasizing that God works “until now”, “while it is day”. “Now” is when Christians who possess eternal life (3: 15, 16, 36; 5: 24; 6: 40, 47, 54: 20: 31) must do even greater works than those done by the Son (14: 12). That which the Son does, Christians must also do. As the Father and the Son, they work on Sabbath. In other words, they live in a perennial Sabbath. They enjoy the Sabbath rest while doing the works of God every day of their lives. The Glorified Christ established the eschatological Sabbath, and they “now” delight in it.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4659