Six observations on Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Law:
1. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath
The gospels tell several stories about Jesus offending the religious leaders of the time by “working” on the Sabbath. Sometimes that work involved plucking grain, which the Pharisees would have interpreted as harvesting (Mark 2:23-27), but more often it involved healing someone (Mark 3:1-6, John 5:1-15).
Part of me wants Jesus to defend himself by arguing that he’s not really working, but that’s not what happens. Instead he appeals to his divine authority (John 5:16-18). In Mark 2:27, for instance, Jesus states “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
2. Jesus saw the Sabbath as a life-preserving gift
Does this mean that Jesus was “above the law” or that he was a “law breaker”? In one sense, Jesus is above the law since he is the author of it. But in another sense, he placed himself under the law, in full submission to the Father. In the end, there can be no contradiction between Jesus and the law, since it would make God out to be a liar, or unfaithful, or both.
No, Jesus was not a law breaker and he was not breaking the Sabbath law as the Pharisees supposed. His actions and words hinged on his interpretation of the Sabbath. The Pharisees had made the Sabbath a burden, adding rules upon rules and interpreting Old Testament commands in the strictest possible sense.
Jesus, however, saw the Sabbath as a life-preserving event. He saw the Sabbath as a way for God to bless his people, to preserve their lives in the land, to grant them rest from their toil, to experience a day of Eden in a fallen world.
3. Jesus used the Sabbath as an opportunity to do good, to save life
When Jesus says he is the Lord of the Sabbath he means first, that he is the author of the Sabbath and, following that, that he can authoritatively interpret its meaning. That explains his actions. If he saw the Sabbath as a gift from God to preserve life, then it makes sense that he would specifically use it to heal those who need him.
In the Mark passage Jesus asks the religious leaders “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) The leaders, who had clung to a strict (and false) interpretation of the law are offended by Jesus and plot to kill him (Mark 3:6). Jesus, on the other hand, fulfills the purpose of the Sabbath to do good, to save life.
4. The Law, if obeyed, is a life-preserving gift
This brings up a broader question: What is the purpose of the law? Like the Sabbath command specifically, the law was given as a life-preserving gift to Israel.
I’m not quite sure I have chosen the right word to describe the law as “life-preserving” so please allow me to expand on what I mean. God is the giver of life. He is the Creator, the sustainer, and the redeemer.
He gave Israel the law so that through the law they might experience life as God intended. For instance, when Moses set before Israel the choice between life and death he was setting before them obedience and disobedience. In choosing obedience to the law they were choosing God. In choosing God, they were choosing life.
The Bible, then, can speak of the law giving life: “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:7), and it does so through connecting the faithful with the very heart and life of the Law Giver.
But here a problem arises: No one is faithful to the law – at least not consistently and not in our inmost beings. The law preserves life only if we obey it. For those who disobey the law it is not a means of blessing. Instead, it becomes a curse. Not that the law itself is bad, but in our disobedience of the law we forsake God and reject him and, in doing so, we forsake the very One who gives us life.
5. Jesus fulfills the Law, and so can give us life
Here’s the good news: Jesus fulfilled the whole law, and not just the letter of the law. Jesus fulfilled the spirit of the Sabbath by giving life on the Sabbath. He fulfilled the spirit of the law by loving God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving his neighbors as himself.
As the one who fulfilled the whole law, he qualified himself as the one who could not only preserve life but save life and give life. In his death he took our curse. Through his life he can give us blessing, the blessing of his life.
6. In Jesus, we find Sabbath rest
The question remains, then, what is our relationship to the Sabbath?
Jesus does not “unhitch” himself from the law, nor does he leave it unchanged. Instead, he “fulfills” the law. For instance, through his sacrifice he fulfills the sacrificial system, therefore making it obsolete. The law is not repudiated, but completed. In the same way, by making us clean through his death he does away with ceremonial food laws intended to keep God’s people ceremonially clean. He can, therefore, declare all foods clean.
I don’t think we have the precedent to rule Sabbath rest obsolete in the same way we can with the sacrificial system and the ceremonial food laws. However, I don’t think that Jesus has left the Sabbath law unchanged.
For instance, we can see that very early on Christians began setting aside Sunday as the Lord’s Day. This was the day that Jesus rose from the dead and in it Christians find a new sort of rest, the rest of God’s redemption. I also take as evidence Colossians 2:16-17 “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and in him we find the reality to which the Sabbath points. How, then, should Christians celebrate Sabbath rest? Let me say, first, that I am in process here and cannot either speak from great expertise or experience. Nevertheless, here are some observations about which I am fairly confident.
· Find rest in Jesus by accepting the life-giving gift of salvation.
· Set aside time to worship God and remember that he is the Creator and Savior.
· Trust God with your work. Intentionally rest as a way of practically trust the work of God.
· Take warning from Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees. Don’t view the Sabbath as a burden which must be followed to the strict letter of the law. View it, instead, as a gift from a good God.