After Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, some in Jerusalem object because they interpret his activity as a violation of Sabbath rest. “But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working continually, and I am working’” (John 5:17). Yeshua asserts that God works even on the Sabbath, and that he is following the divine example. At first glance, this assertion seems to contradict biblical allusions to God resting on the seventh day. However, Jesus’ assessment aligns with those of other Jewish interpreters who affirm God’s continuous work in the world—even on the Sabbath.
Following six days of creation, God rests on the seventh day: “On the seventh day God finished all his work (מלאכה; melakhah) that he had done, and he rested (שׁבת; shavat) on the seventh day from all the work he had done” (Genesis 2:2). God’s initial seventh-day rest serves as the prototype for the institution of the Sabbath at Mount Sinai. God tells Moses, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (מלאכה; melakhah) but the seventh day is a Sabbath (שׁבת; shavat) for the Lord your God; you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:9-10). Insofar as the Sabbath is said to be “for the Lord,” this verse suggests that God continues to rest every seventh day—and now God’s people, Israel, must follow the heavenly pattern.
Yet, the notion that God “takes time off” once a week did not seem logical to some ancient Jewish thinkers. While Philo of Alexandria agrees that God rests on the Sabbath, he also asserts that “Moses does not give the name of ‘rest’ to mere inactivity…. [God] never ceases to work all that is best and most beautiful. God’s ‘rest’ is a working with absolute ease, without toil and without suffering” (Cherubim 87). The rabbis who came after Philo agree that God never really stops working among humanity, noting that God “rested from the work of [creating] the world, but he does not rest from the work of the wicked and the work of the righteous; rather, he is working (פועל; po’el)… [by] punishing the wicked… and bestowing reward upon the righteous” (Genesis Rabbah 11:10). Likewise, Jesus affirms that God “is working” (ἐργάζεται; ergázetai) on the Sabbath (Jn 5:17), and concludes that his own earthly work mirrors that of his heavenly Father.