In John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, telling him to “take up your bed, and walk” (5:8, 11-12). When some in Jerusalem see the healed man carrying his sleeping mat, they tell him, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed” (5:10). When the man identifies Jesus as his healer, the Judeans are upset that Yeshua “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (5:16); from their perspective “he was breaking the Sabbath” (5:18). Jesus’ words may relax certain interpretations of Sabbath restrictions, but his actions are in accord with God’s unceasing work to heal humanity. Despite the assumptions of his disgruntled interlocutors, Jesus did not break the Sabbath.
When Jesus heals a man who had been unable to walk for thirty-eight years (John 5:5), most English translations state that some in Jerusalem thought Yeshua was “breaking the Sabbath” (5:18). Yet the phrase could be translated not as “breaking” but as “loosening” (ἔλυεν; eluen) the Sabbath. For instance, John the Baptist says he is not worthy to “loosen” (λύω) Jesus’ sandal (John 1:27), and Jesus tells those around the risen but cloth-wrapped Lazarus, “Loosen (λύω) him, and let him go” (11:44). Granted, John’s use of λύω can denote destruction (e.g., 2:19) or the potential transgression of Torah (e.g., 7:23), but Jesus also contends that the “Law” (νόμος; nómos) or “Scripture” (γραφή; graphé) cannot be “broken” (λύω; 10:34-35), so it would make little sense for John to say that Jesus had “broken” the Sabbath. Instead, another way to read John 5:18 is that some were upset because Jesus “loosened” a more scrupulous interpretation of Sabbath observance when he told the man to carry his mat.
Later rabbinic discussion about Sabbath observance supports Jesus’ decision to heal at the Bethesda pool. The rabbis developed a concept called פקוח נפשׁ (pikuach nephesh), or “preserving a life” on the Sabbath. According to the Babylonian Talmud (c. 600 CE), if one could perform certain tasks on the Sabbath, “how much more may one suspend the laws of the Sabbath to preserve a [human] life (לפקוח נפשׁ)!” (b. Yoma 85a). Jesus uses the same logic in John’s Gospel, saying, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it… [but] you circumcise a human being on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a human receives circumcision, so that the Law of Moses may not be broken (λύω), are you angry with me because I made a human completely whole on the Sabbath?” (7:21-23). While some of the people in Jerusalem were upset with Yeshua for healing a man on the Sabbath, Jesus’ action was perfectly in step with other interpretations of lawful behavior on the day of rest, and his restorative work furthered God’s unending desire for human healing—even on the Sabbath.