Jesus and the Sabbath
by Steven Siciliano | 9 September 2018 |
All four New Testament gospels include stories in which the religious leaders of Jesus’ day accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. By analyzing these stories, Seventh-day Adventists build up their theology of proper Sabbath observance, often relying heavily on Jesus’ statement that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” This principle, though clearly central, is by no means the only defense Jesus used to excuse things that He and His disciples did on the Sabbath. Depending on how you subdivide His various rebuttals, Jesus provided upwards of eight or nine different lines of reasoning for His unorthodox activities. This installment of “Reading What’s There” will survey a few of those, starting with a review of the one just mentioned.
The well-known phrase “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” appears in Matthew 12:8-14, Luke 6:6-11, and Mark 3:1-6. All three accounts describe the same incident with some variation, but the shared storyline involves Jesus’ healing a man with a paralyzed hand and a discussion about whether or not what He did was appropriate. All the gospels convey the idea that acts of healing do not breach the law because they are “good,” and therefore appropriate on Sabbath. Matthew includes an additional comment showing that Jesus’ opponents were willing to rescue animals on Sabbath, implying that they too understood that saving life can override the prohibition against exerting oneself on the day.
Another well-known incident precedes this one, however, in which Jesus uses other arguments that impart important insights into His attitude towards the Sabbath, and His very identity. It’s the story in Mark 2, Luke 6, and Matthew 12 in which Jesus’ disciples were gleaning grain when the Pharisees demanded to know why they were doing something unlawful. Jesus could easily have said that meeting people’s needs was “good,” and thus allowable, but He didn’t. In fact, He seems to have implied the opposite.
First, Jesus reminded his opponents of an incident recorded in 1 Samuel 21, in which David and his men ate the consecrated showbread, which was reserved only for priests. Rather than try to argue that David’s action was lawful, Jesus acknowledged that what David and his men did was unlawful. He gave no explanation as to why David was free to circumvent the rules but Jesus could very well have meant to suggest that, as God’s anointed heir to the throne, David’s status and work superseded ritual prohibitions. In fact, in Matthew’s account Jesus adds in a similar remark about priests who serve in the temple. They too “break the Sabbath” and yet are guiltless, presumably because they are ministering in the presence of God and thus exempt from the usual prohibitions. After that Matthew includes an another argument in which Jesus, referring to Himself, said that “something greater than the temple” was present.
When taken together, these statements about David, the priests, and the temple affirm that Jesus was both the anointed messiah and the new dwelling place of God. His followers, therefore, like the priests and the companions of David, were not bound by typical Sabbath restrictions – at least not while in His presence.
Be that as it may, the obvious point here is that Jesus was certainly not restricted to the argument that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Instead, His sayings in this story seem to provide a different, more exalted logic to justify actions which were technically unlawful.
And that’s not the end of it. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduces yet another line of defense by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man.” That statement, within the context of the debate at hand, strongly suggests that the human race is not subservient to the Sabbath but vice-versa. The Sabbath was not designed to bring people into subjection but to minister to their well-being. As shocking as it may sound, human beings rightly oriented towards God take precedence over the Sabbath.
Jesus then adds what may be the clinching argument of all when He says, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” In other words, Jesus as messiah is in charge of the day and not vice-versa. Clearly, for a person to be lord over something means that he or she possesses higher authority than the thing. Jesus had already said that the human race enjoys superior status to the Sabbath. How much more must Jesus, as the Son of Man, have authority to specify what is and is not appropriate on the day? Even beyond the question of what is “lawful” to do on the Sabbath, Jesus used this occasion to assert an essential fact about Himself – He is messiah and Lord. And that means He is Lord of the Sabbath.
These two stories alone introduce four or five different principles that not only contribute to a theology of the Sabbath but convey profound insights into the status of human beings and the authority of Jesus as Lord. It takes effort to know how to apply these concepts, but one thing is sure – Jesus did not rely on a single argument for why He and His followers were free to break the Sabbath conventions of His day. If contemporary Christians settle for only one defense while neglecting the others, they do themselves and the Bible a disservice.