[Note: This is the fourth part of a five part message about the Sabbath. If you wish, you can read the previous parts of this sermon below:
So far in our lengthy discussion about the Sabbath commandment in scripture we have talked about what the Sabbath commandment included, some of the purposes of the Sabbaths as described in the Bible, and a basic overview of the plan of God’s working with humanity as revealed in the Holy Days of the Bible. We are now more than halfway done with this particular brief examination of the Sabbath day, and I hope you are all aware of the depth and importance of God’s Sabbath within the fabric and meaning of the Bible. If you have missed the first three parts of this message and wish to read and translate for yourself what I have already said about the Sabbath day, please ask me after services and I will print out my previous messages for you. Today I would like to talk about a particularly serious but often ignored aspect of the Sabbath, and that is Jesus Christ’s attitude toward the Sabbath. The question I want all of you to think about today as we examine the relationship between the Messiah and the Sabbath is this: how do we reconcile the hostility that most people who call themselves Christians possess toward the Sabbath and the fact that Jesus Christ called Himself the Lord of the Sabbath? What would cause believers to insult their Lord and Savior in such a fashion by hating what Jesus Christ ruled over?
Lord Of The Sabbath
From Mark 2:23-3:6 we have two passages that explore a great deal of Jesus Christ’s behavior toward the Sabbath day. Let us examine these two passages and see what about the Sabbath was a point of controversy between Jesus Christ and the religious leadership of His time. This will help us understand the purposes of the Sabbath without showing the hostility toward it that the heathen do. Mark 2:23-3:6 reads as follows: “Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath. And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.”
What are these two passages saying? First, let us ask ourselves a basic question: do these passages speak out against the Sabbath at all? No, not at all. On the contrary, these passages show a great deal of respect for the Sabbath. Jesus Christ calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath, telling the Pharisees that He has the right to interpret what is and what is not proper on this day, and not the Pharisees, who claimed the authority to put a hedge around the Sabbath by making a lot of burdensome requirements about what sort of activity was permissible on this day. Jesus Christ was claiming ownership of the Sabbath, as He had created it and given it to all mankind in the first place in the Garden of Eden, and was now seeking to show its true purposes away from all of the corruption that it had suffered at the hands of the Pharisees and other ungodly interpreters of God’s laws, who had turned what was meant for freedom and liberty into a burden. And so Jesus Christ did not correct His disciples for seeking to fill their bellies with a little grain nor did He make the man wait until sundown to be freed of his infirmity, but instead our Savior used the opportunity of the Sabbath to set the man free from his withered hand.
Let us also note that Jesus Christ said that man was not created for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was created for man. The Sabbath was not meant to be a burden, but was rather meant to serve the best interests of all mankind. All mankind was supposed to rest on this day, and not only the Jews. The Jews of Jesus Christ’s time (and even today) think themselves especially blessed by God because of their supposed obedience to God’s laws. Instead of sharing the joy of God’s laws, and the freedom that the Sabbath provides when it is obeyed as God commands, all too often the Jews have sought to “hedge” the Sabbath by seeking to avoid their responsibilities to their fellow man by claiming that the Sabbath prevented them from helping out others. Some Jews went so far that they would not help either human beings or animals that were suffering on the Sabbath day, considering it improper work, and hardening their hearts against their fellow man. Let us not do as they did.
At this point we might wonder why the Pharisees were so hostile to the Messiah’s interpretation of the Sabbath. The Pharisees had laid down a complicated set of rules and regulations about the Sabbath, seeking to rigorously define what was a burden. The Pharisees laid down 39 types of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath . These included lighting a candle, buying and selling, cooking, harvesting (which was defined to include even putting food in your hand as Jesus’ disciples did), wearing more than three layers of clothing, and writing. Even pressing the button on an elevator in an Israeli hotel is counted as “lighting a fire” by Orthodox Jews, and so it is customary in such places for there to be at least one elevator where all of the buttons are lit the entire Sabbath so that an Orthodox Jew does not have to “break the law” in this fashion even while staying in a hotel. I have seen this myself with my own eyes when I visited Israel a few years ago. It would appear that the biggest difference between the Sabbath of the Pharisees and the Sabbath of God is that God wanted the Sabbath to be for freedom and joy for all, while the Pharisees seemed to be far more concerned about their own purity and righteousness than about the health and well-being of their brethren.
Christ, The Sabbath, And Liberty
Before we look at some of the works that Jesus Christ did on the Sabbath, let us examine what Jesus Christ said about His own purposes and worship practices on the Sabbath day. In looking at these passages we can see exactly what Jesus Christ meant by obeying God’s commandments in the way that He did. We will see that Jesus Christ understood and deliberately provoked his audience to see the close relationship between the Sabbath and liberty. Let us examine these incidents and understand the purposes behind them as they relate to the Sabbath commandment of God.
First, let us look at a parallel account to the passage we opened today’s message with. Let us turn to Matthew 12:1-8, another passage that talks about the incident where Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath. Matthew 12:1-8 reads: “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And his disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He he said to them, “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? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
What does this mean? In 1 Samuel 21, the Bible tells the story of how David and his soldiers, on the run from King Saul, came to the high priest Abimelech and asked to eat of the showbread that had grown a bit stale and been replaced by new showbread since they had no food to eat. Then the priests of Nod gave the showbread to David and his men even though according to God’s law only the priests were supposed to eat the showbread. The situation with the disciples was similar—just like David and his men, the disciples were hungry, there was food, and they were not harvesting for profit for themselves or others, just picking up heads of grain and eating them, which they were permitted to do according to biblical law in Deuteronomy 23:25. Since the disciples were not harvesting the grain, they were blameless, since the law was given for the benefit of others, not to make them suffer or have people use their loyalty to the law as an excuse not to help their brethren and neighbors.
Jesus Christ here also talks about one of the key elements of the Sabbath that we may often neglect. Far too many people think of the Sabbath like the Pharisees did, as a heavy burden that God requires believers to carry. However, Jesus Christ here said that his attitude toward the Sabbath was expressed by the scripture in Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” meaning that the Sabbath is about God’s grace and not about legalistic requirements. The laws of obedience to God’s Sabbaths are designed for grace and mercy for all humanity, rather than to be a burden on believers. It was an opportunity to serve brethren and God, as the priests did, who were blameless for their spiritual Sabbath labor, rather than an opportunity to be lazy and let others do all the work for us while we enjoy the fruits of their spiritual service.
We do not have to simply guess or speculate on Jesus Christ’s motives for practicing the Sabbath as He did (and as God commands). He told us His motives very openly in one of his first sermon messages, in Luke 4:16-21. Let us turn there today and see what Jesus Christ said about His own practice and obedience of the Sabbath. Luke 4:16-21 reads: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
First of all, we need to recognize something about what this passage says about Jesus Christ’s Sabbath practices. Some people dismiss them as simply being custom and habit, but this passage says that it was not only the custom of Jesus Christ to attend Sabbath services at the synagogue but also His custom to be a reader. Being a reader in a Jewish synagogue, reading the weekly Torah readings from the Law or the Haftorah readings from the Prophets (as Jesus did in this passage), was a position of great respect, and it required that someone be obedient to God’s laws. Only those who were known to be obedient to God’s laws among the Jews were allowed this respect to read the holy scriptures to a congregation in the synagogue. We therefore know from this passage that Jesus Christ was known as being law-abiding in His ways, and that it was not only His custom to attend Sabbath services, but also to take an active role in congregational service.
Let us also note something about the message that Jesus Christ gave. As a congregational reader, He had the opportunity to read a passage from the prophets, in this case Isaiah 61:1-2. He read out a passage that describes the Jubilee year, part of the Sabbath commandment of God, as we discussed earlier. Jesus Christ, our Messiah, says that the following things were fulfilled by Him while He walked this earth: preaching the gospel to the poor, healing the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, proclaiming the recovery of sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord. We can take these comments about the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed as referring to spiritual burdens that people face as a result of being deceived in a wicked world, but they also refer to physical burdens that believers bear. And Jesus Christ not only preached a spiritual kingdom of God, but He was also concerned about the physical needs and struggles of believers. All parts of our lives belong to God: our body, our heart, our mind, and our spirit. Jesus Christ, our Savior and Messiah, came to heal all of it, to care for our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual lives, to bring it all into harmony with God’s ways. And the Sabbath is a huge part of that lifting of our burdens from our shoulders and setting us free from the debt and penalty of sin so that we can live freely in obedience to God. All too often it is easy to forget that being free from sin and oppression requires obedience to God.
Let us look at one more passage that talks about the liberty and freedom that Jesus Christ came to give involving the Sabbath. We find this passage in Matthew 11:25-30. The Sabbath practiced and preached by Jesus Christ was designed to give true rest to believers. Matthew 11:25-30 reads: “At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and the prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Here we see the point of the Sabbath to Jesus Christ. Instead of the Sabbath being a heavy burden, it was designed as a freedom from burdens, and not only physical burdens either. By obeying the Sabbath as Jesus Christ interpreted it, we find rest from the cares and pressures and exploitation of our lives, from the constant desire of the wealthy and powerful for everyone else to work for their profits all day every day in some factory, and from doing buffalo work in someone’s field or mine day in and day out without ceasing. It is not the will of God that people should be treated like cattle or ground into a pulp because of ceaseless toil and labor. God desires us to rest, to find peace of mind for our bodies and minds and hearts and spirits, and the Sabbath provides that opportunity. And, as we shall shortly see, Jesus Christ Himself used the Sabbath as a way to free people from their burdens, giving us an example so that we can do the same.
Healing And The Sabbath
Now that we have looked at the connection between Jesus Christ and liberty concerning His practice and preaching on the Sabbath, let us look at a few of the examples of healing on the Sabbath and see how these examples served Jesus Christ’s purposes to connect obedience of the Sabbath and Christian freedom for the godly believer. These are not all of the examples that could be found, but hopefully they provide a context to Jesus’ healing activities on the Sabbath and the purposes of those works.
Let us look first at a double story of Sabbath healings found in Luke 4:31-39. Here we see two healing miracles on the same Sabbath, with two lessons about the type of freedom that is provided by the Sabbath, as well as lessons about Jesus Christ’s ministry. Luke 4:31-39 reads: “Then He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths. And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority. Now in the synagogue there was a man who had a spirit of an unclean demon. And he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him in their midst, it came out of him and did not hurt him. Then they were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, “What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out. And the report about Him went out into every place in the surrounding region. Now He arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made request of Him concerning her. So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.”
Here we see that Jesus Christ preached on the Sabbath with authority, and as part of that authority he cast out demons from suffering believers on the Sabbath. By rebuking a demon within a synagogue who was attempting to take credit for preaching the Gospel, Jesus Christ was showing his authority over the spirit realm, a claim to authority that was understood by his Jewish audience. However, in rebuking the demon he was also providing freedom from the uncleanness that results from demon possession. Rather than freeing people to sin and be unclean in their behavior, Jesus Christ used the Sabbath to free believers from uncleanness. Too often believers forget this in their hurry to sin so that grace may abound. In addition, we note that when Jesus left the synagogue he went to heal Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever so that she could be free to serve. The freedom given by the Sabbath is not a freedom to be lazy, but rather a freedom to serve God and brethren, as Peter’s mother-in-law did after she was healed by Jesus Christ from her fever.
For our next example of healing, let us turn to Luke 6:6-11, for the miracle that took place just after Jesus Christ claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath. Luke 6:6-11 reads: “Now it happened on another Sabbath, also, that He entered the synagogue and taught. And a man was there whose right hand was withered. So the scribes and Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, that they might find an accusation against Him. But He knew their thoughts, and said to the man who had the withered hand, “Arise and stand here.” And he arose and stood. Then Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” And when He had looked around at them all, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. But they were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
Here again we see Jesus Christ providing a healing miracle to show freedom for believers from illness, just as he had freed the demon possessed person earlier. Like that miracle, this was a public miracle in a synagogue designed to prove a point. Just as Jesus Christ has authority over the spirit world, so He also has the authority to define what is proper and what is not proper to do on the Sabbath. The Pharisees plotted on the Sabbath to destroy Jesus Christ, which was a sin (the sin of murder, in fact), seeking to show how obedient they were to the technical requirements of the Sabbath by their own standard of interpretation, while Jesus Christ healed on the Sabbath to set someone free from the burden of illness. We see, from the example of Jesus Christ, that it is not a sin to do good for someone on the Sabbath, and that acts of service are not prohibited by God on the Sabbath even if they require some labor on our part.
Finally, for our last scripture today, let us look at Luke 13:10-17, which gives another lesson from Jesus Christ Himself about healing on the Sabbath. Luke 13:10-17 reads: “Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him, and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord answered him and said, “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?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.”
Here we see that the ruler of a synagogue where Jesus Christ was teaching on the Sabbath was found to be guilty of hypocrisy for viewing his own animal as more worthy of freedom than a fellow believer struggling with the burden of poor health. This poor woman was bent over from arthritis or some other disorder without relief for eighteen years, and yet the ruler of the synagogue had no compassion on his fellow believer, and failed to recognize that for Jesus Christ the Sabbath was about freedom not only from servile labor but also freedom from all sorts of illnesses. Jesus Christ made it a point to heal on the Sabbath in the synagogues to set people free on the Sabbath, hoping that they would draw the connection between the Sabbath and freedom. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Jews of Jesus’ day did not want to free the common person from their burdens, and the ordinary Jews of Jesus’ time wanted Jesus to free them from the oppression of the Romans, a sort of freedom that Jesus Christ did not wish to provide in his first coming. Nonetheless, Jesus did come first to provide a taste of spiritual freedom and freedom from illnesses on the Sabbath, so that we could realize that the Sabbath was not a burden or a sign of slavery, but was rather a sign of freedom that we are to enjoy now and that we are to enjoy in the future.
Today we have discussed how Jesus Christ acted toward the Sabbath. He was very aware that the Sabbath pointed back to Creation and also pointed to freedom and liberty, as he preached these matters on the Sabbath and also deliberately and frequently healed on the Sabbath in the synagogues to teach a lesson about the connection between the Sabbath and liberty. These healing miracles included healings from demon possessions, fevers, as well as physical disabilities and ailments like arthritis. These Sabbath miracles, as well as Jesus Christ’s messages connecting the Sabbath to liberty, demonstrated that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that the Sabbath was a key part of His purpose in freeing believers from slavery to sin. Let us therefore use the Sabbath as an opportunity to serve God’s people and to set other people free from their burdens in the same way that Jesus Christ used the Sabbath to bring freedom during His time here on earth. For the “yoke” of Jesus Christ, including obedience to the Sabbath commandment, is easy, and His “burden” is light. Let us therefore cease from slandering God’s commanded day of rest as a difficult burden ourselves and follow it as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did. Since Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, the Sabbath ought to be important to us as well, for no faithful servant will insult the glory and majesty of his Lord and King.