Matthew 12:1-14: “Work” on the Sabbath

Read: Matthew 12:1-14

Right after Jesus gives the great invitation to those who are weary, he illustrates his point by “working” on the Sabbath, an act that would be considered unlawful by the Pharisees. They say that his disciples are doing something unlawful because they picked grain on the Sabbath. There was no explicit command in the law that forbade anyone from doing this. Rather, what the Pharisees were doing is layer on additional burdens on top of what was commanded concerning the Sabbath, which was a general command not to work (Exodus 35:2-3, Deuteronomy 5:13-15), so the question here is whether or not what Jesus and his disciples were doing actually constituted work.

In his defense, Jesus gives two objections. The first is an illustration from the Old Testament wherein David eats the showbread at the temple (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The law required however that the bread be eaten by Aaron and his sons who were the priestly line (Leviticus 24:5–9). What the priests points out here though is interesting in 1 Samuel. He allows them to eat it if they had “kept themselves from women”. In other words, he was asking if they were ceremonial clean. Jesus is nuancing here why the showbread was for the priest based on the text – it had to with the bread being consecrated bread to be consumed in a holy way. The letter of the law does this by making it available to the priest who should have been that way while serving God. The second illustration Jesus gives more context to the actual alleged offense though. He says that the priests themselves who offer sacrifices on the Sabbath, thereby profaning the Sabbath because of their “work” on the day. In other words, Jesus is saying that what the Pharisees consider “work” is not what the law considered “work”, because if it was even the priests in the temple would be guilty which they clearly weren’t.

The next episode that the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus on is another accusation of “working” on the Sabbath by posing a question, asking if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. This time, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. Jesus in his defense on this one makes an argument to the stronger alluding to a law found in Deuteronomy 22:4. Here, the law says that if a bother’s donkey or ox is fallen on the road, you should help lift the ox or donkey rather than ignore it. Naturally, if such an incident was to happen on the Sabbath it would seem that there would be a conflict there. But Jesus says argues that it is even more imperative when it’s a person in need, not merely an animal, and such an action is not “work”.

Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). In other words, the Sabbath was never intended to be a burden for man as the Pharisees had made it, but rather a day of rest from burdens. When Jesus declares that the “Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” in a way drives this point home. Jesus often used this phrase to appeal to his humanity. As Lord, he is the one who instituted the Sabbath, and as a man he is the one who benefits from the Sabbath. In both respects, any regulations or otherwise are to make the Sabbath serve man’s need for rest, not add unnecessary laws on top it.

Christians today do well to take a Sabbath day of rest, but at the same time should not become so legalistic about it. The purpose is to set aside time to worship God and rest for one’s job day to day tasks.

Lord, you are Lord of the Sabbath

Help me to find my much-needed rest!

John 5:1-18

Read: John 5:1-18

Jesus was undoubtedly a devout Jew in that he would go up to festivals in Jerusalem. This is the second time in the book of John that notes Jesus going to Jerusalem for a festival (John 2:13). Jesus encounters a man by the pool of Bethesda. (Archaeology uncovered what is likely the pool of Bethesda in the 1800 in Jerusalem.) The man was lame and had been lying by the pool for 38 years, well over half a lifetime considering the life expectancy was considerably lower than it is today, perhaps around forty years old. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” The man was holding out hope that someone would help him into the pool because the belief that angels would stir the waters and whoever entered the pool first would be healed. A lame man who couldn’t walk would obviously have a hard time getting himself in the pool. In a roundabout way, he did answer Jesus’ question affirmatively.  Jesus healed him and the man got up, took up his bead, and walked.

The Jews saw that the man was carrying his bed, and they told him that it was not lawful to carry his bed. It is questionable as to whether or not the man was really breaking the law. The Pharisees valued piety and had made the law stricter than it already was, such that a simple task such as picking up one’s bedroll was considered unlawful. The prohibition against working on the Sabbath is recorded in Exodus 20:8-11 and Exodus 31:12-17. Nehemiah 13:15-21 expounds on this when Nehemiah sees people working on the Sabbath. Often times, Jesus did things that were considered unlawful to do on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17, Luke 6:1-11, Mark 2:23-28, Mark 3:1-6, Matthew 12:1-14).

Mark 2:27-28 mark two facts about the Sabbath that apparently the Jews had missed. First, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, meaning that God instituted a law to prevent man from being over worked – to give him a day of rest from labor. Also, the purpose of this day was to remember God. The Pharisees had made the law burdensome to the people rather than liberating such that one became obsessive over avoiding work on the Sabbath rather that actually resting on the Sabbath. Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they would lead their livestock from feeding to drinking in Luke 13:15.

Second, Jesus (the Son of Man) is the Lord of the Sabbath.  In a manner of speaking, Jesus was receiving from the Sabbath that for which the Sabbath was in part instituted: worship of God. The man Jesus healed was later in the Temple, probably worshiping as most good Jews would probably do on the Sabbath, and Jesus found him there. Jesus tells him to sin no more so nothing else worse would happen. The man then goes and tells the Jews who healed him, and they persecuted Jesus. Jesus says that it is his Father who is working and he is too. Then the Jews wanted to kill him for both working on the Sabbath and claiming equality with God who is Lord of the Sabbath and Lord of all.

The prohibition against working on the Sabbath was given for two reasons: rest and worship. Some had got so caught up in trying to refrain from working on the Sabbath that they were working harder avoiding work than they would if they were actually working! The real crime here is not work insomuch as it is forgetting the purpose of the Sabbath by being legalistic about the Sabbath and condemning those who do not keep the Sabbath according to one’s own artificial standards. This temptation has not gone away either. Being devout does not mean that one should uphold the Sabbath for the legalistic purposes, rather it is good for Christians to have a day to rest and devote themselves to Lord of the Sabbath introspectively — and don’t be afraid to do good on the Sabbath either.

Lord of the Sabbath, help me to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy!