The New Testament and the Sabbath

Friday September 21, 2018 Written by Published in Church Talk

The Gospels record six cases in which Jesus' actions resulted in controversy over the Sabbath, and two more that did not.


Jesus faces the accusation that his disciples have broken the Sabbath by picking grain and eating (Matthew 12:1 – 8).  He is interrogated concerning his healing of a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:9 – 14), a crippled woman (Luke 13:10 – 14), a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1 – 6) a sick man by the pool of Bethseda (John 5:1 – 18), and a blind man (John 9:1 – 34). Neither the healing of Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29 – 31) nor Jesus' synagogue address in Nazareth seems to have occasioned any opposition.

Just how Jesus regarded the Sabbath is a matter of discussion. Some argue that Jesus deliberately broke the Sabbath commandment in order to call attention to his messianic character. Others contend that Jesus violated not the Sabbath commandment but only the subtlety of the Pharisees as contained in the halachah (a collection of Jewish religious laws from the written and oral Torah). In the final analysis, a comprehensive statement about Jesus' attitude toward the Sabbath would require an investigation into his attitude toward the Law in general.

But even in the face of interpretive difficulties, the particular nature of Jesus' response to these controversies make two things quite clear. First, by his statement, "the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:8), Jesus claims that the authority of the Sabbath does not exceed his own.

Hence, the Son of Man as Lord decides the true meaning of the Sabbath. In two accounts by the Apostle John, in particular, the authority by which Jesus' Sabbath healings are performed is linked directly to God the Father, according both to the blind man's (John 9:33) and Jesus' own witness (John 5:17).

Second, by stressing that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), Jesus gives an indication as to its true meaning. That is, he places it against the universal horizon of God's intent that it benefits all creation and not just Israel. Jesus' healings on the Sabbath underscore this beneficent character, for "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:12).

By his response to the religious leaders in two incidents described in Luke, one gathers the impression that what is ultimately at stake is the health (physical and spiritual) of those healed.

Just as naturally as one would lead an ox or donkey to water (Luke 13:15) or rescue a child who has fallen into a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5 ), Jesus acts with urgency, in the interests of life and salvation.

Among the several references to the Sabbath in the Book of Acts, there is little evidence to suggest that the earliest Christian communities deviated from the traditional Sabbath observed on the seventh day.

The lone reference to a gathering "On the first day of the week", (Acts 20:7) most likely reflects an emerging Christian consensus that the first day was an appropriate day on which to meet for worship and celebrating the Lord's Supper.

In his letters, Paul shows concern for certain restrictions placed on his converts (Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16), among them Sabbath keeping no doubt.

If Romans 14:5 refers to Sabbath-keeping, in his characteristic refusal to allow such things to become a basis for judging fellow believers, Paul seems to support one's freedom either to observe or not observe the Jewish Sabbath, though he evidently continued to observe it for himself (Acts 17:2).

Hebrews anticipates a “sabbath rest” that remains for the people of God (Hebrews 4:1 – 11).  The term “sabbatismos” appears nowhere else in the New Testament, and may be the writer's own creation to indicate the superiority of the coming rest to that of the seventh day. Though a superior quality of rest, it is still marked chiefly by the cessation of labour patterned after God's rest on the seventh day.

After his resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), we never find Christ meeting with his disciples on the seventh day. But he specially honoured the first day by manifesting himself to them on four separate occasions (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:18 – 34; John 20:19 – 23). Again, on the next first day of the week, Jesus appeared to his disciples (John 20:26).

Some have calculated that Christ's ascension took place on the first day of the week. And there can be no doubt that the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost was on that day (Acts 2:1).

Thus Christ appears as instituting a new day to be observed by his people as the Sabbath, a day to be henceforth known amongst them as the Lord's Day. The observance of this Lord's Day as the Sabbath was the general custom of the primitive churches, and must have had apostolic sanction and authority, and so the sanction and authority of Jesus Christ.

Jesus and the Sabbath

Apart from His claim to be the Messiah, there is no subject on which our Lord came into such sharp conflict with the religious leaders of the Jews as in the matter of Sabbath observance. He set Himself squarely against the current rabbinic restrictions as contrary to the spirit of the original law of the Sabbath.

The rabbis seemed to think that the Sabbath was an end in itself, an institution to which the pious Israelite must subject all his personal interests; in other words, that man was made for the Sabbath: man might suffer hardship, but the institution must be preserved inviolate.

Jesus, on the contrary, taught that the Sabbath was made for man's benefit. If there should arise a conflict between man’s needs and the letter of the Law, man’s higher interests and needs must take precedence over the law of the Sabbath.

 There is no reason to think that Jesus meant to discredit the Sabbath as an institution. It was His custom to attend worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16). The humane element in the rest day at the end of every week must have appealed to His sympathetic nature.

It was the one precept of the Ten Commandments that was predominantly ceremonial, though it had distinct sociological and moral value.

As an institution for the benefit of toiling men and animals, Jesus held the Sabbath in high regard. As the Messiah, He was not subject to its restrictions. He could at any moment assert His lordship over the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The institution was not on a par with the great moral precepts, which are unchangeable. It is worthy of note that, while Jesus pushed the moral precepts of the Ten Commandments into the inner realm of thought and desire, thus making the requirement more difficult and the law more exacting, He fought for a more liberal and lenient interpretation of the law of the Sabbath.

Paul and the Sabbath:

The early Christians kept the seventh day as a Sabbath, much after the fashion of other Jews. Gradually the first day of the week came to be recognised as the day on which the followers of Jesus would meet for worship.

The resurrection of our Lord on that day made it for Christians the most joyous day of all the week. When Gentiles were admitted into the church, the question at once arose whether they should be required to keep the Law of Moses.

It is the glory of Paul that he fought for and won freedom for his Gentile fellow Christians. It is significant of the attitude of the apostles that the decrees of the Council at Jerusalem made no mention of Sabbath observance in the requirements laid upon Gentile Christians (Acts 15:28).

Paul boldly contended that believers in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, were set free from the burdens of the Mosaic Law. Even circumcision counted for nothing, now that men were saved by believing in Jesus (Galatians 5:6).

Christian liberty as proclaimed by Paul included all days and seasons. A man could observe special days or not, just as his own judgment and conscience might dictate (Romans 14:5); but in all such matters one ought to be careful not to put a stumbling block in a brother's way (Romans 14:13).

That Paul contended for personal freedom in respect of the Sabbath is made quite clear in Colossians 2:16, where he groups together dietary laws, feast days, new moons and sabbaths. The early Christians brought over into their mode of observing the Lord's Day the best elements of the Jewish Sabbath, without its onerous restrictions.

            Orometua Vaka Ngaro

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