In today’s Gospel reading, as usual, the Pharisees have a bone to pick with Jesus (John 9:1-41). Their main contention is that Jesus cured a man on the Sabbath. Healing on the Sabbath seems to always get Jesus in trouble. What is it about the Sabbath that makes the Pharisees so irate? In an earlier Sabbath healing in John’s Gospel, Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “My Father is working still and I am working.” (John 5: 17). With this bold statement, Jesus is insinuating to the Pharisees that adherence to the Sabbath applies to God’s people, but it doesn’t apply to God Himself. Therefore, by putting Himself on par with God, Jesus draws the wrath of the Pharisees.
Here, Jesus is also alluding that God still works on the Sabbath, but the type of work God does on the Sabbath is unique from the kind of work God did leading up to the Sabbath. In order to understand the deeper meaning of the Sabbath, we have to go back to creation. The narrative in Genesis describes God’s creation in a period of time sequence analogous to six days. Creation came about in six days, and on the seventh day, God consecrated all He created. On the seventh day, God didn’t create, but instead, He hallowed all His creation on this day and rested. God rested not because He was tired and out of breath but because He revealed to the people how they are to understand the seventh day. Then, God commanded the Israelites not to do any work on the Sabbath.
Under the Old Covenant, every seventh day was set aside for worship and rest; no man was permitted to work (Ex. 20:8-11). By NT times, the Pharisees greatly emphasized Sabbath worship as a benchmark of one’s faithfulness to God. Yet the Pharisees held a limited view of what the Sabbath meant whereas Jesus acted out of the true meaning of the Sabbath - by entering into a covenantal relationship with God.
The key to understanding the meaning of the Sabbath lies in grasping how we get to God’s end game – covenantal relationship. Simply put, a covenantal relationship means that God adopts us into His Family. Here, we become members and heirs of the Trinity Family. Now, did we do anything to earn this? No. Can we perform a noble work to get into the Trinity family? No. Adoption into the Trinity is a pure gift of grace from God that we did nothing to earn. Along these lines, if we look back at the Sabbath commandment, the emphasis in God’s instruction is that you don’t do anything – you don’t work.
The commandment in Exodus could have been to keep the Sabbath holy and enter into deep worship of God. But, instead, the commandment is worded in an odd way. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall cease from all your work.” (Exodus 20:8-11). Therefore, how you remember the Sabbath day is to terminate your human labor. There is nothing in the commandment about what you should do – though it is implied that we are to worship on the Sabbath. The only thing in the commandment is what you don’t do – you don’t work.
The whole reason God created us is to be in a relationship with Him precisely as His children (1 John 3:1-3, Romans 8:14-17). Notice Jesus said, “my Father still works” on the Sabbath instead of “the Lord works" which illuminates to us God is not a mere powerful diety with no connection to His creation. Rather, God acts as a father in a family context. We are to imitate God by doing what God did – working for six days. But, God initiated the Sabbath not because He needed it but because we need it. Ultimately, our human “works" do not make us God’s children. To realize this concept, God instructs us to refrain from working on the Sabbath so we can subconsciously identify that becoming His children has nothing to do with our works - it's a total gift from God. Therefore, the seventh day represents a work that God does because of what we can’t do.
The concept of the Sabbath can be best applied through an analogy. Imagine a father wants to build a marvelous house for his children. It is one thing for the father to work to build a house for his children. It is quite another thing for a father to spend time with his children in this house. Now, while the father is working on the house, yes, his children should go out into the world and “work” in a similar fashion as the father. There are two crucial lessons in this analogy extracted from the children’s work in order to understand the concept of the Sabbath. Does the children’s “work” in their world earn them a seat in their father’s splendid house and abundant inheritance? No, becoming a child of the father, complete with all the benefits of the father’s inheritance, is nothing the children earned on their own. This legacy of the father was a total gift from the father that the kids did nothing to merit. Furthermore, should the children “work” in their world when the father wants to be with them in their house? No, at this point, the children should stop their “work” precisely so they can enter into the house to be in a relationship with their father. Therefore, the “don’t work” principle conveys to the kids that they can’t work their way into the father’s inheritance and that in order to be in an intimate relationship with the father, they need to stop their human work to enter his house.
Our works don’t usher us into a covenant relationship with God. To be sure, we have to earnestly strive to live out a spiritually active life (cf. Philippians 2:12), but we also must acknowledge that we can’t grind our way into God’s family. What must we do to become children of God and spend time with God? We must do nothing on our own. Given our fast-paced, instant gratification world surrounded by stimuli to incite work and activity, refraining from human “work” seems impossible. But those who can detach from the day’s rapid activities and be in a monk-like state will be better in-tune with resting with God, and, in turn, more at peace and wise when they do enter their work phase.
Another psychological advantage of not working surfaces with the following formula; if the Sabbath is centered around being integrated in to God’s family, if we did do human works to become members of God’s family, guess who is going to take part of the credit? We will.
God is likely showing us by not working on the Sabbath rest where our humble seat should be placed. Therefore, as an act of God’s fatherly providence that He is going to provide for us and as an expression of our own humility that we can’t do anything to be in God’s family, God establishes the Sabbath as the sign. The Sabbath also signifies that after God’s work in creation and our works in the faith meet together and rest.
In this “rest” of the Sabbath, God reveals more intimacy about His nature to us. When Jesus tells his opponents, “my father still works” just unveiled the deepest mystery of the Sabbath. Notice Jesus did not say, “the Lord is working still.” He references the Sabbath with “Father” and the working of God as a Father. Therefore, the “work” that God wants to accomplish on the day that we do nothing is precisely the work of a father.
Six days represent what God does as our creator. The seventh day signifies when the Creator is transformed into our Father. The Sabbath would then represent whereby God’s creatures (us) created in His image and likeness are altered into God’s children. The Sabbath is when the title Lord is transformed into the title Father, and we are altered from the title servants into children. The “work” that God wants to accomplish on the day that we do nothing is precisely the work of a father. Therefore, when we cease from our human work, we can allow God’s work as a Father to adopt us into His family.
The seventh day is the work of a Father that surpasses His immense creator work. What God does on the seventh day is unique from constructing the universe. He spends time with His children; He heals His children. The whole point of this healing is precisely so the blind man can be with God – which is why he was “sent” to the Pool of Siloam for this water makes one ritually clean to enter into God’s presence.
Elsewhere in Scripture, God’s “rest” is analogous to entering into God’s promised land (Psalm 95:11 Deut. 12:9, Hebrews 3:1, 4:1). We can assuredly assume that heaven will be the ultimate rest with God. Christ healed on the Sabbath for a reason – to show that God is a Father and we are His children, in which he spends time with us as we both enter the “rest” together.