In the previous section, we started looking at the conditions for judging, using John 7:24 as a springboard. In it Jesus says to “judge with righteous judgment.” This topic came up because Jesus was bold enough to heal a man on the Sabbath day, which perturbed some of the more “religious” folks around Him. They, however, had no problem circumcising a boy on the Sabbath.
You see, the Jews were in somewhat of a predicament. According to the letter of the Law, they were not to work on the Sabbath. However, they were commanded to circumcise all baby boys when they were eight days old. What if the eight day was a Sabbath…which rule should be followed?
To help us understand this subject a little better, I thought it would be helpful to dig a little deeper into what the Sabbath was all about. Hopefully it will help us in similar predicaments.
Here is the question. Did Jesus break the Law by healing a man on the Sabbath? If so, He could not have been God. That is out of the question.
What Jesus did was to separate God’s Law from man’s law. He understood the difference between the commands of God and the commands of men.
Let’s back up to the establishment of the Sabbath to help us better understand.
The establishment of the Sabbath
Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. (Genesis 2:3 NKJV)
After God finished His work of creation, He set apart the seventh day of the week as special. It was on that day that He rested from creation. Nothing else is recorded about it until the Israelites are set free from their bondage in Egypt.
The first time the word Sabbath appears in the Bible is in Exodus 16:23, where God forbid the Israelites to gather manna on the Sabbath. Why? Because “the Lord has given you the Sabbath” (Exodus 16:29 NKJV). The Sabbath was a gift from God!
Rules for the Sabbath
Nothing further is recorded about the Sabbath in the Scriptures until the Law was given on Mt. Sinai. It was at that point that God laid out strict rules for the Sabbath.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. (Exodus 20:8-10 NKJV)
The Sabbath was to be kept holy. Additionally, anyone who worked on the Sabbath should be put to death (Exodus 31:15). No one was to kindle a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2). Even the animals were restricted (Deuteronomy 5:12-14). Later, the prophet Jeremiah recounted how the Israelites were not to carry a burden out of their houses on the Sabbath (Jeremiah 17:21-22).
God obviously was making a point when He instituted the Sabbath. But what was its purpose?
The purpose for the Sabbath
The Sabbath was instituted for two reasons:
1. A sign between God and His people
Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.” (Exodus 31:13 NKJV)
When the people of Israel observed the Sabbath, they were reminded of their submission to God.
2. A time of rest
. . . but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. (Deuteronomy 5:14 NKJV)
The Sabbath provided a time of forced rest, which is necessary for sustaining energy to deal with daily life.
Although God gave a few specifics about what was not to be done on the Sabbath, much was left to interpretation. This is the basis for the issue over the Sabbath: how much work is work?
This is where misuse of the Sabbath came into play.
The Misuse of the Sabbath
Because God did not disclose exactly how much work is work, some folks fabricated their own rules and expected everyone else to live by them. Eventually to what extent a person observed the Sabbath became a litmus test for spirituality. Instead of using it as a day for rest and commemoration of their relationship with God, they singled it out as proof of their self-righteousness.
With all this misuse of the Sabbath taking place, how did Jesus feel about it? Let’s find out.
Jesus honored the Sabbath principle
To see how Jesus viewed the Sabbath, we need to look at the twelfth chapter of Matthew. Jesus’ tired disciples had been following Him and were hungry. When they happened by a field of corn, some of the disciples grabbed a few handfuls to shove into their mouths.
As was often the case, Jesus’ opponents were watching. How could this self-labeled man of God allow His followers to exert the energy of plucking a few ears of corn on the Sabbath?
In response to their charge, Jesus asked them a question.
Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? (Matthew 12:3-4 NKJV).
The “have you not read” part seems to be intended as a personal jab. Of course we have read that! We are the spiritual ones here!
OK. Maybe they knew about it, but they had missed the point. If David could be excused for eating the showbread (which was not lawful – see I Samuel 21:6), surely they could overlook Jesus’ friends for pulling an ear of corn on the Sabbath!
Jesus was not yet finished, however.
Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? (Matthew 12:5 NKJV)
The priests who served in the Temple had to work on the Sabbath, and everyone seemed fine with that (see Numbers 28:9).
Jesus’ next words were even more piercing.
But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:7 NKJV, quoting from Hosea 6:6)
Although they may have been obeying the “letter of the law,” they were missing out on the spirit of it, which is what God really wanted. In fact, Mark records Jesus as saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 NKJV).
The Sabbath was not set up for the purpose of making life difficult for man. It forced him to have a day of rest.
Immediately after this exchange, Jesus went into a synagogue and encountered a man with a withered hand. His ever-present detractors knew that Jesus could hardly pass a sick person without healing him, so they inquired, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10 NKJV). Once again, Jesus responded with His own question.
What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:11-12 NKJV)
Another time, Jesus came across a woman who had been sick for eighteen years. Whatever her problem was, it caused her to be unable to straighten herself up. As was His practice, He healed her on the Sabbath. When the ruler of the synagogue rebuked Him, He answered with a stinging rebuke of His own.
Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? (Luke 13:16 NKJV)
Jesus knew that the purpose of the Sabbath was not to imprison people. If a donkey could be led to water on the Sabbath, could not a human being be set free from an infirmity?
Unfortunately, too many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so intently focused on the letter of the law that they were filled with self-righteousness. Even more unfortunately, the problem has not gone away. We also can become addicted to an unhealthy emphasis on extra-biblical rules. Then we expect that if others are going to be “spiritual,” they must align themselves with our rules.
Maybe it would help to consider some specific examples. For instance, we can fight about what types of food we should eat. Is a vegetarian more spiritual than a carnivore (that’s me, by the way), or are those of us who enjoy a good steak the more godly ones? Paul even instructed the Romans not to fight over whether or not to eat meat that had been offered to idols!
Then we can argue about which days we should honor above the others (Romans 15:5-6). Some feel a sense of spirituality because they celebrate Christmas; others feel they honor God by refraining to do so. If a church decides to meet on Saturday night rather than Sunday night it is often deemed “liberal.”
Then there’s church attendance itself. God says to meet (Hebrews 10:25); we determine how often. When we do meet together we attempt to obey God’s command to praise Him, but then we derail the whole process by arguing over what type of instruments we should use in doing so. We can even have fights over whether we should put words to our songs on a screen or in a hymn book, whether we should call our Bible study time “Sunday School” or “small groups,” or what shape our building should be. And the list goes on.
When we argue over these things and treat those who disagree as “lesser Christians,” we are no different than the Pharisees. They had added on to God’s command and gave their additions the same authority as His.
Here is a rule that might help us:
When the command is clear in the Scriptures, we must obey and expect compliance.
When the command is not clear in the Scriptures, we must treat each other in deference and love.
In summary, the Law commanded rest on the Sabbath. Jesus healed people, which others thought to be work. Jesus pointed out that the Sabbath was given to be a blessing to people, and healing definitely could be counted as a blessing. If God would have specifically said, “Do not heal on the Sabbath,” Jesus would have found Himself in an entirely different situation. His opponents had added their own spin on to the Law and considered themselves to be self-righteous because of it.
There is no problem adding a safety barrier around God’s commands. However, there is a problem when we consider ourselves more spiritual than others because of it. We often, like the Pharisees, have a lopsided spirituality. We zero in on a few rules and get swelled up with pride when we do them well.
Let’s make it a point to truly determine what the Scriptures say on a matter. When the Scriptures are clear, we must stand with an unwavering steadfastness. However, when the Scriptures are not clear, let’s show a little grace.