“So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. 17Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.’ 18For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
In a recent post called “The Naughty Lists” a discussion developed about whether or not Jesus broke the Sabbath based on John 5:18. My understanding of this verse is that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath traditions (considered on level with the law itself by the Pharisees) and not actually breaking the Law of Moses (the 4th commandment).
What Jesus is doing in this passage is using the Sabbath to teach them something about himself. You cannot separate these verses from the broader theology of John and what John is setting out to do. Jesus is not teaching us about the Sabbath, as we typically hear on these stories of Sabbath healings. Jesus is teaching us something about himself. I can say that with confidence because it is all over this story. Jesus makes the point that God works on the Sabbath (and no one is calling God a law breaker – 5:17), so when Jesus works on the Sabbath he is not breaking the Law of Moses because He and God are the same. So Jesus is not a Law breaker. Jesus point is not about the Sabbath. Jesus is using the Sabbath as an opportunity to teach them something about his identity. We are not called to have faith in the Sabbath but faith in Christ. We often miss the forest for the trees on this one and get all caught up on the Sabbath rather than on the Lord of the Sabbath. Often this point is entirely missed because we are unaware or unconcerned with the broader theology of the Gospel of John that this fits so well into.
Last, I wanted to point out a really good article online that is helpful and brief on this topic that I found really helpful. I went through a dozen commentaries trying to find anything helpful on this phrase but came up empty. So if this interests you, have a read – Is Jesus Breaking the Sabbath?