Relevant Verses: Mark 2:23-28; Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 4:16, John 5:1-18
Leading Question: What does Jesus teach us about the Sabbath?
In this lesson we will focus on what Jesus tells us about the Sabbath in the Gospels. On either side of the Gospels, the Sabbath is very much alive. In the Pentateuch, the full decalogue is given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; Isaiah 58 calls the people to true Sabbath keeping, and Nehemiah 13:15-22 reveals the strong-arm tactics used by Nehemiah to recover a sense of Sabbath sacredness.
On the other side of the Gospels, that is, in Acts and the epistles, there is no rhetoric urging Sabbath keeping. In the book of Acts, however, it is clear that attending services on the Sabbath was still an important habit practiced by the apostles. In the book of Acts there are at least five references to the continuing rhythm of Sabbath worship.
– Acts 13 describes the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch of Pisidia, a ministry that took place on Sabbath. Acts 13:44 says that almost the whole city came together on Sabbath to hear the word of the Lord preached.
– Acts 15:21 describes the work of the first general conference for the new Christian community and the proclamation that went out from that conference referred to the regular Sabbath reading of the law.
– Acts 16:13 tells how Paul and Silas came to Philippi and went outside the city gate on the Sabbath, seeking the place where they assumed that the believers would be meeting. They were right. Lydia and others came there to worship on the Sabbath.
– Acts 17:2 tells how Paul and Silas worshiped with the believers in Thessalonica on the Sabbath day.
– Acts 18:4 tells how Paul worshiped every Sabbath in the synagogue at Corinth.
The Gospel record of Jesus’ activities on Sabbath is sandwiched between these Old Testament and New Testament Sabbath bookends. And here we find a Jesus who seems intent on reforming attitudes toward Sabbath keeping. Luke 4:16 tells us that Jesus made it a habit to worship in the synagogue on Sabbath. But that was not his real Sabbath work. Mark 2 and Matthew 12 describe the conflict over Sabbath keeping when Jesus’ disciples plucked and ate grain on the Sabbath.
The essential background for understanding Jesus’ Sabbath behavior is the Jewish effort to recover a sense of sacredness for the law, including the command to keep the Sabbath. After the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the exile to Babylon, Israel finally came to their senses and realized that the nation had gone into captivity because they had abandoned God’s law. In the course of time, Jewish leaders set out to build a fence about the law, adding additional commands to protect the “real” commands of the decalogue. So, with reference to the Sabbath, they developed a list of 39 major categories of Sabbath breaking. When the disciples walked through the grainfield, plucking and eating, they broke four of those major commands: Harvesting, threshing, winnowing, and preparing food.
Loosening that kind of rigidity became the focus of Jesus’ Sabbath activities. In a number of instances, Jesus deliberately set out to perform miracles on the Sabbath, miracles that could have been performed on any other day. But Jesus wanted to teach that it was indeed lawful to minister to human needs on the Sabbath. John Brunt’s little book, Day for Healing (RH, 1981), describes just how Jesus went about it. It is a shame that the book is out of print. The lowest used book price on bookfinder.com at the time of this writing is $99.99!
A closer look at just one of these miracles, the healing at the pool of Bethesda (KJV; NRSV = Bethzatha), reveals Jesus’ purpose. John 5 tells us that the man healed at the pool had been their for 38 years. Surely he could have waited one more day to be healed. But no, Jesus came deliberately on the Sabbath to heal him. In the Old Testament, God commanded that a man be stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36). But here is the incarnate God commanding a man to “pick up his mat and walk” on the Sabbath day (John 5:8)!
Adventists urgently to take seriously Jesus’ Sabbath activities as we seek to discover the meaning of the Sabbath for our day. Adventist Sabbath keeping habits have tended simply to reflect the Sunday keeping habits of their Christian neighbors. Thus, on the European continent, the Adventist practice of Sabbath keeping has reflected the more relaxed attitude toward Sunday keeping typical of their neighbors. By contrast, British Sabbath keeping is more restrained, just as British attitudes toward Sunday keeping has been more restrained and restrictive.
But those days are long since passed. The idea of sacred time on a particular day of the week has virtually vanished in our culture, whether on the Continent, in Britain, or in the United States. If no one is keeping Sunday sacred, how will Adventists know how to keep the Sabbath? That is the challenge facing Adventism. So let us learn from Jesus and re-discover the Sabbath for our day.