The Sabbath

Jesus Upholds Sabbath, Rejects Tradition

Sometime after their return from the Babylonian Captivity, the Jewish religious leaders began to add their own traditions to the law of Moses in general-and to the Sabbath in particular. It was as if by adding all kinds of regulations they could prevent the people from breaking the Sabbath-and thus avert God's punishment for disobedience. But in adding their own man-made rules, they completely missed the point of the Sabbath.

Sabbath Regulations Given in Talmud

Two entire treatises of the Talmud deal with how the Sabbath was to be kept. Thirty-nine types of work were not to be done on the Sabbath. For example, writing more than one letter was prohibited. Tying certain types of knots was prohibited, but others were permitted. A Levite in the Temple could retie a broken string on a musical instrument, but he could not put on a new one. Practising medicine was not allowed-unless life was endangered. Hence, a man with a toothache could rinse his mouth with vinegar on the Sabbath-as long as he swallowed it (that was eating); but he could not rinse his mouth and then spit out the vinegar (that was practising medicine).

Travel on the Sabbath was limited to a specific distance from one's domicile. However, if one wanted to go further on the Sabbath, he could legally extend his domicile by placing some of his belongings at a distant point; then he could begin counting his Sabbath's journey from that distant point (A Dictionary of Bible, James Hastings, Scribner's, 1903, article "Sabbath").

No wonder Jesus called the Pharisees and Scribes a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites! No wonder He said of them,

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! Thus you nullify the word of God by your traditions that you have handed down (Mark 7.9,13).

By putting all their emphasis on legalistic do's and don'ts, the Pharisees had indeed made a burden of the Sabbath; they had turned a day of joy and rest and rejoicing into an oppressive yoke. They completely obliterated God's positive intent for the Sabbath!

Jesus Upholds the Sabbath

While Jesus took great exception to man-made traditions, never once did He hint that the Sabbath was to be set aside or changed to another day. Rather, He upheld the law, focusing on the positive spiritual intent of the day. He proclaimed Himself Lord of the Sabbath, the day which had been set aside by God's example at Creation.

When the Pharisees accused Jesus disciples of breaking the Sabbath by shelling out a few kernels of grain (they called it harvesting), He denounced their traditions-but He upheld the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mark 2.27-28).

When the Pharisees wanted to accuse Him for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus asked, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath; to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3.4). He showed the positive intent of the Sabbath-as a day of release; but never did He suggest that the Sabbath would be abandoned.

On one occasion, the ruler of a synagogue was upset that Jesus healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath and told the people they should be healed on one of the six working days. Jesus responded,

You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and ... give it water? Then should not this woman ... be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? (Luke 13.15-16).

Jesus was showing that freedom was an essential theme for this day of release.

After Jesus healed a man with a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath the Pharisees asked Him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" (Matt.12:10). He responded,

If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath,

will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12.11-12).

Again, Jesus objected to the burdensome, arbitrary, inhumane traditions of men. But He upheld the spiritual intent and application, the freedom guaranteed by the Sabbath command, just as He did for the other Commandments. (See Matt. 5.21-30; Isaiah 42.21; Jer. 31.33).

Sabbath Upheld in Olivet Prophecy

Near the end of His ministry, Jesus indicated that His followers would continue keeping the Sabbath after His death and resurrection. The occasion was the "Olivet Prophecy" recorded in Matt. 24. His disciples had come to Him asking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs of His coming at the end of the age. In verse 16, He spoke about the people of Judea fleeing into the mountains. In verse 20 He exhorted the disciples, "Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. "

Now, if the Sabbath was to cease following Jesus' death, this exhortation would be totally uncalled for. But such is not the case. The Sabbath would continue to be a day of rest, worship and rejuvenation for God's people. Hence, an emergency flight, while not strictly prohibited, would not be in keeping with God's purpose for the Sabbath.

The Gospel record, from beginning to end, is clear: our Lord kept the Sabbath and affirmed that it was made at Creation for all mankind. And while He abhorred the rituals and restrictions devised by men, He strongly upheld the spiritual intent of the Fourth Commandment.

Christians who consider Him their Leader, Teacher, and King should follow in His footsteps!