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Leading Question: “What did Jesus do to transform the human understanding of the Sabbath?”

Introduction to the Issue. In our modern world the idea of sacred time has nearly vanished. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,” said the Lord from Mt. Sinai. But very few people “remember” anymore. Because our series for this quarter is “Christ and His Law,” Sabbath is included. So how can we discuss all that needs to be discussed in one lesson? These are the issues that could shape our discussion:

  1. Sabbath as command, gift or test?
  2. Sabbath as a day of liberation or Sabbath as a day of restriction?
  3. Sabbath as a day for all people or as a day for Jews?
  4. Jesus as Sabbath reformer.

Focusing on the last item may be most helpful, especially since discussing Sabbath in the context of “law” has potentially harsh overtones. Have you ever heard anyone say, “It’s the law” in a friendly tone of voice?

We have a choice of beginning this discussion with a good Old Testament text or a good New Testament one. The New Testament one is well known. In fact it is the official “memory verse” in the regular lesson guide: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28, NRSV).

But if the New Testament declares that the Sabbath was made for humankind, the Old Testament declares that it was also made for animals: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed (Exod. 23:12, NRSV). In the Deuteronomic version of the decalogue, the fourth command includes a statement of purpose for the sabbath: “so that your manservant and maidservant may rest as you do” (Deut. 5:14). Former British prime minister, Harold MacMillan, is reputed to have called this passage “the first and greatest worker protection act in history” – Chris Wright, “Deuteronomic Depression,” Themelios 19:2 (Jan. 1994), 3.

Right here two radical ideas can be inserted into the discussion. The first one is based on the fact that Jesus’ every day language was Aramaic. And in Aramaic, the phrase “son of man” is the normal term for “human being.” That could mean that humans are Lord of the Sabbath! A New Testament colleague pointed that possibility out to me once, but I have never seen it confirmed in print. So perhaps we should deal with it rather cautiously. But whether the “lord” of the Sabbath is the Messiah or the people whom the Messiah created, it is clear that the Sabbath was intended to be a blessing to human beings. That was the point Jesus was making in Mark 2.

The second bombshell comes when we compare the Old Testament method for enforcing the keeping of the Sabbath – stoning a man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath – and Jesus’ approach to the Sabbath. In one of his most famous Sabbath healing miracles, Jesus told the man who had been crippled for 38 years: “Stand up, take your mat ( = sticks!) and walk” (John 5:8). So how could Jesus move away from the heavy hand in the Old Testament? And why? Is it possible that when the law is internalized, the heavy hand disappears? In the additional Mosaic legislation, the death penalty is linked with the breaking of each of the commandments except the last one – you shall not covet. The ten commandments themselves contain no penalties, thus giving them a more positive role to play, one that slips easily into the new covenant when the law is written on the heart. In such a model there are no threats or penalties, just blessings (cf. Jer. 31:31-34).

Now let’s look at some specific aspects of Sabbath keeping in the light of both Testaments:

  1. The Sabbath is intended for all human beings not just for Jews. In Exodus 20 the Sabbath is linked with creation, suggesting that it was intended for all humanity, not just for the Jews. Furthermore, Exodus 23:12 declares that the Sabbath was intended to refresh both animals and foreigners. “On the seventh day you shall rest,” the Scriptures declare, “so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed” (NRSV). And in the decalogue of Deuteronomy 5 where the Sabbath celebrates, not creation, but Israel’s redemption from Egypt, a blessing is still granted to the broader group. It was given “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (Deut. 5:14, NRSV).
  2. The Sabbath is a day for corporate worship. While there is little in Scripture that tells just how one should worship on the Sabbath, Luke 4:16 indicates that Jesus saw the Sabbath as a time for worshiping with the community of believers. On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue “as was his custom.”
  3. The Sabbath is a time for enjoyment. Not only does Mark 2 point to the Sabbath as a day for blessing humanity, the idea of the Sabbath as a day of delight is already present in Isaiah 58, though the text presents a tantalizing paradox. The prophet tells us to turn from our own interests on the day and to call the Sabbath a delight. There’s plenty to ponder in that paradox.
  4. The Sabbath is a day for healing. Five of Jesus’ most spectacular healing miracles give us a vivid picture of a God who goes out of his way to heal wounded people on Sabbath. Note that none of these were “emergency” miracles. In one instance Scripture notes that the woman was afflicted for 18 years; in another that the man was afflicted for 38 years.
    1. Mark 3:1-6, man with the withered hand
    2. Luke 13:10-17, woman with the bent back (18 years)
    3. Luke 14:1-6, man with dropsy
    4. John 5:1-9, man at pool of Bethesda (38 years)
    5. John 9:1-14, man born blind
  5. The Sabbath will be a part of the new creation. Isaiah 66:22 assures us that we will come together from Sabbath to Sabbath. Could that be a call for more careful attention to the Sabbath in our secular world today?

There follows a 1992 column of mine that calls us to transform the “No” of the Sabbath into a “yes,” an important corrective for those who may have experienced the Sabbath as more of a burden than a joy.

God’s Liberating “No!”
By Alden Thompson
Signs of the Times, August, 1992

“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12, NRSV).

If English is your mother tongue, then “no” was one of your first words, along with “ma-ma,” “da-da,” and “see.” The adults in your life taught it to you firmly and with conviction.

Theirs was a noble purpose, of course. “No!” saved you from the dangers of the world and spared the world the havoc your grubby little hands were eager to cause. But you didn’t like the word. Keeping a wary eye on the No-sayer, you watched for that slight break in resolve that would leave your liberty intact.

When you learned to say it yourself, however, you liked it a lot. “No!” became the word in your vocabulary. With a jaunty toss of your little head, you said No! to everything.

Except for very obedient souls, that love-hate relationship with No continues into adult life. We like to say Yes to friends. But against the system, against the big boys, we love to say No whenever it is safe to do so. I still remember (with some chagrin) the twinge of wicked delight that crept into my soul when I could write a No to Harvard. Harvard hadn’t done anything wrong. I simply had decided to attend the University of Edinburgh instead. Yet for a brief moment, I was the little man saying No to the big system. It was fun.

But it’s not the best of fun. I’m with Paul in Romans 7, wanting to say a gracious Yes, but hearing myself blurt out a perverse No. Or vice versa.

Gratitude overwhelmed Paul when he realized his inner battle didn’t prevent him from finding peace in Jesus (see Romans 8:1-2). That’s good news for us, too. But we still long to realize that new covenant promise when our every Yes and No naturally reflect the mind of God (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Can it happen now?

Yes. Jesus shows the way. Let’s consider how, in the light of that most troublesome divine No, the No of the Sabbath command.

I say troublesome because the Sabbath command is likely to be just that, whether it’s new or old. If it’s new, hearing it could cost you your job. If it’s old, you’ll remember the irritation when it stood between you and fun. Let’s face it, turning from our own pleasure on the Sabbath yet calling the day a delight (see Isaiah 58:13) doesn’t come easily.

In the Old Testament, God’s hand was firm, even deadly. Sin against any one of the ten commandments, except for the prohibition against coveting, incurred the death penalty. By divine command, a man caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath was stoned (see Numbers 14:32-36). That was a language Israel could understand.

The Sabbath command itself is blunt enough: “Don’t work” (Exodus 20:10). That’s clear. But does it have to be painful?

No. Jesus taught that the Sabbath was a day for people, for meeting human needs. His Sabbath miracles of healing made that point clear. The Pharisees criticized His disciples for plucking grain on Sabbath. But that was sin against their law, not His. “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” said Jesus, “not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, NRSV).

We hear the gracious No of the Sabbath in Exodus 23:12. By saying No to work, God gave rest to Israel, to slaves, to animals. It was a liberating No.

It still is. My wife discovered that liberation when she was a young girl picking strawberries and beans in the fields of Oregon: Six days of grueling work, one glorious day of freedom.

That No became special to me when I was a student on a Christian campus, one that celebrated the Sabbath rest. Joy! The Lord had forbidden me to study my college coursework on Sabbath. His No had set me free.

I still relish that Sabbath freedom. I covet it for you in our hectic world. Yet our celebration must be tempered by the sobering reminders of that great Sabbath chapter, Isaiah 58, the reminders that some are not yet free. There God calls us to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free” (Is. 58:6, NRSV). He asks us to share our bread with the hungry, to care for the homeless poor and the naked (vs. 7). That’s His Sabbath agenda and ours. Until He returns, His liberating No sets us free to make it happen.

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