The Sabbath and the Savior in the Old Testament
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued
The existence in the Old Testament of a Messianic/redemptive typology of the Sabbath has led many Christians to conclude that the Sabbath is an Old Testament institution given specifically to the Jews to remind them of God's past creation and of the future Messianic redemption. Calvin, for example, describes the Old Testament Sabbath as "typical" (symbolic), that is, "a legal ceremony shadowing forth a spiritual rest, the truth of which was manifested in Christ."35 Therefore, Christians no longer need to observe the Sabbath because Christ has fulfilled its Messianic/redemptive typology. As Paul K. Jewett puts it, "by his redemptive work, Jesus sets aside the Sabbath by fulfilling its ultimate divine intent."36
The view that Christ fulfilled the Sabbath by terminating its observance is very popular today among both Catholics and Protestants. During the course of this study, we noted that recently this view has been adopted even by former sabbatarians like the Worldwide Church of God, Ratzlaff in his book Sabbath in Crisis, and some newly organized independent "Adventist" congregations. The popular acceptance of this view calls for close examination of the New Testament teachings regarding the relationship between the Sabbath and the Savior.
The basic questions addressed here are these: Did Christ's redemptive mission fulfill the eschatological expectations inherent in the Sabbath by terminating its function and observance, as in the case of the Temple's services (Heb 8:13; 9:23-28), or by expanding its meaning and enriching its observance as the celebration of His redemptive accomplishments? Did Christ view the observance of the Sabbath as the unquestionable will of God for His followers? Or, did Christ regard the obligation of Sabbathkeeping as fulfilled and superseded by His coming, the true Sabbath? Did Christ teach that "New Covenant" Christians are to observe the Sabbath by experiencing the "rest of salvation" every day rather than by resting unto Lord on the seventh day? To find answers to these questions, we briefly examine some Sabbath passages found in Luke, Matthew, John, and Hebrews.
1. The Sabbath in Luke
Christ: A Model of Sabbathkeeping.
Without denying the possibility that Luke may have also thought of Christ's custom of teaching on the Sabbath, it hardly seems justifiable to conclude that the phrase "as his custom was" "provides little real evidence of theological commitment on behalf of Jesus to Sabbath worship." 38 Why? For at least five reasons. First, Luke speaks of Christ's customary Sabbathkeeping in the immediate context of His upbringing in Nazareth ("where he had been brought up"-v. 16). This suggests that the allusion is especially to the custom of Sabbath observance during Christ's youth.
Second, even if the phrase referred exclusively to Christ's habitual Sabbath teaching in the synagogue, would not this also provide a theological model? Has not the Christian Church adopted the teaching model of the Sabbath (whether it be Saturday or Sunday) by reading and expounding the Scripture during the divine service?39
Third, the word "Sabbath" occurs in Luke's Gospel 21 times and 8 times in Acts.40 That is approximately twice as often as in any of the other three Gospels. This surely suggests that Luke attaches significance to the Sabbath. Fourth, Luke not only begins but also closes the account of Christ's earthly ministry on a Sabbath by mentioning that His entombment took place on "the day of Preparation and the Sabbath was beginning" (Luke 23:54). A number of scholars recognize in this text Luke's concern to show that the Christian community observed the Sabbath.41
Lastly, Luke expands his brief account of Christ's burial by stating emphatically that the women "rested on the sabbath in obedience to the commandment" (23:56b-NIV). Why does Luke present not only Christ but also His followers as habitual Sabbathkeepers. This consistent pattern can hardly be construed as insignificant or incidental. The many examples and situations of Sabbathkeeping reported by Luke strongly suggest that Luke intended to set before his readers Christ as "a model of reverence for the Sabbath."42 To understand such a "model," however, it is necessary to study how Luke and the other evangelists relate the Sabbath to the coming of Christ.
Messianic Fulfillment of Sabbath Liberation.
The vital function of this passage has been noticed by many scholars. Hans Conzelmann correctly views it as a nutshell summary of the "Messianic program." 44 The original passage of Isaiah, as noted earlier, describes by means of the imagery of the Sabbath year the liberation from captivity that the Servant of the Lord would bring to His people. The fact that the language and imagery of the Sabbath years found in Isaiah 61:1-3 (and 58:6) were utilized by sectarian and mainstream Jews to describe the work of the expected Messiah makes Christ's use of this passage all the more significant. This means that Christ presented Himself to the people as the very fulfillment of their Messianic expectations which had been nourished by the vision of the Sabbath years.
This conclusion is supported by what may be regarded as a brief summary of Jesus' exposition of the Isaianic passage which is recorded in Luke 4:21: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." In other words, the Messianic redemption promised by Isaiah through the imagery of the Sabbath year is "now" being fulfilled. As Paul K. Jewett aptly comments, "The great Jubilee Sabbath has become a reality for those who have been loosed from their sins by the coming of the Messiah and have found inheritance in Him."45
The theme of promise and fulfillment recurs in all the Gospels. Many aspects of Christ's life and ministry are presented repeatedly as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. The risen Christ Himself, according to Luke, explained to His disciples that His teaching and mission represented the fulfillment of "everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms" (Luke 24:44; cf. 24:26-27).
How does the Sabbath fit into this theme of promise and fulfillment? What did Christ mean when He announced His mission to be the fulfillment of the sabbatical promises of liberation? Did He intend to explain, perhaps in a veiled fashion, that the institution of the Sabbath was a type which had found its fulfillment in Himself, the Antitype, and therefore its obligations had ceased? In such a case, Christ would have paved the way for the replacement of the Sabbath with a new day of worship, as many Christians believe. Or did Christ through His redemptive mission fulfill the promised sabbatical rest and release in order to make the day a fitting channel through which to experience His blessings of salvation?
To find an answer to these questions, it is necessary to examine the Sabbath teaching and ministry of Christ reported in the Gospels. So far we have noticed that, according to Luke, Christ delivered His programmatic speech on a Sabbath claiming to be the fulfillment of the Messianic restoration announced by means of the Sabbath years (Is 61:1-3; 58:6).
Early Sabbath Healings.
The second healing was accomplished immediately after the religious service in Simon's house and brought about the physical restoration of Simon's mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39; Mark 1:29-31). The result of the latter was rejoicing for the whole family and service: "immediately she rose and served them" (Luke 4:39). The themes of liberation, joy, and service present in embryonic form in these first healings are more explicitly associated with the meaning of the Sabbath in the subsequent ministry of Christ.
The Crippled Woman.
The first time, the verb is used by Christ in addressing the woman: "You are freed from your infirmity" (Luke 13:12, emphasis supplied). Twice again the verb is used by Christ to respond to the indignation of the ruler of the synagogue: "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 13:15-16; emphasis supplied).
Arguing from a minor to a major case, Christ shows how the Sabbath had been paradoxically distorted. An ox or an ass could be legitimately untied on the Sabbath for drinking purposes (possibly because a day without water would result in loss of weight and, consequently, of market value), but a suffering woman could not be released on such a day from the shackles of her physical and spiritual infirmity.
Christ acted deliberately against prevailing misconceptions in order to restore the day to God's intended purpose. It should be noted that in this as well as in all other Sabbath healings, Christ is not questioning the validity of the Sabbath commandment; rather, He argues for its true values which had been obscured by the accumulation of traditions and countless regulations.
The connection between the redemptive typology of the Sabbath and Jesus' healings on the Sabbath is recognized, for example, by Paul K. Jewett who rightly observes that "We have in Jesus' healings on the Sabbath, not only acts of love, compassion, and mercy, but true 'sabbatical acts,' acts which show that the messianic Sabbath, the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest of the Old Testament, has broken into our world. Therefore, the Sabbath, of all days, is the most appropriate for healing."46
This fulfillment by Christ of the Old Testament Sabbath does not imply, as argued by the same author, that "Christians therefore are . . . free from the Sabbath to gather on the first day,"47 but rather that Christ by fulfilling the redemptive typology of the Sabbath made the day a fitting memorial of His redemptive mission. The redemptive meaning of Christ's Sabbath healings can be seen also in the spiritual ministry Jesus provides to those whom He heals (cf. Mark 1:25; 2:5; Luke 13:16; John 5:14; 9:38).
Acts of healing people such as the crippled woman are not merely acts of love and compassion but true "sabbatical acts" which reveal how the Messianic redemption typified and promised by the Sabbath was being fulfilled through Christ's saving ministry. For all the people blessed by Christ's Sabbath ministry, the day became the memorial of the healing of their bodies and souls, the exodus from the bonds of Satan into the freedom of the Savior.
Some scholars reject this interpretation, arguing that the comparison between the loosing on the Sabbath of oxen and donkeys from their cribs for drinking purposes and the freeing of a woman from Satan's bond suggests that the Sabbath was not a particularly appropriate day for Christ's works of mercy. They reason that since the untying and watering of animals took place daily, irrespective of the Sabbath, Christ's saving acts are performed, not because it is Sabbath, but in spite of it.48
Such an argument comes short on at least two counts. First, the animals are explicitly included among the beneficiaries of the Sabbath commandment ("your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle," - Deut. 5 :14; cf. Ex. 20:10). Thus showing kindness even to dumb beasts was especially appropriate on the Sabbath. 49 Second, Christ challenges the contention of the ruler of the synagogue that healing ought to take place only during the "six days" rather than "on the sabbath day" (Luke 13:14) by affirming exactly the contrary, namely, that the woman ought to be loosed from her bond "on the sabbath day" (v. 16). This implies that Christ chose to heal her not in spite of the Sabbath but rather because the day provided a most fitting occasion.50
The physical and spiritual freedom that the Savior offered to that sick woman on the Sabbath represents a token manifestation of Christ's proclaimed fulfillment of the Sabbath liberation (Luke 4:18-21), which had dawned with His coming. This redemptive meaning of the Sabbath is further clarified in other incidents to be examined. But, before leaving this episode, we may ask, How did the woman and the people who witnessed Christ's saving interventions come to view the Sabbath? Luke reports that while Christ's "adversaries were put to shame; all the people rejoiced" (Luke 13:17) and the woman "praised God" (Luke 13:13). Undoubtedly for the healed woman and for all the people blessed by Christ's Sabbath ministry, the day became the memorial of the healing of their bodies and souls, of the exodus from the bonds of Satan into the freedom of the Savior.
2. The Sabbath in Matthew
The Savior's Rest. Matthew does not introduce any Sabbath episode until almost halfway through his Gospel. Then he relates two Sabbath pericopes (Matt 12:1-14) which he connects temporally to Jesus' offer of His rest:
"Come to me, all 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" (Matt 11:28-30).
To understand the nature of the Savior's rest, it is important to look at the wider and immediate context.
In the wider context, Jesus' offer of His rest is sandwiched between several accounts of rejection or opposition: the doubting of John the Baptist (11:1-6), the rejection by an unbelieving generation (11:7-19) and by the Galilean cities (11:20-24), the plotting of Pharisees (12:14), the rejection of Christ's healing by Pharisees (12:22-37), the rebuke to an unbelieving generation (12:38-45), and the misunderstanding by His relatives (12:46-50). In this context of unusual opposition and misunderstanding, Jesus disclosed His Messianic identity by proclaiming Himself to be "the Son" who "knows" and "reveals" "the Father" in a unique way (11:27). To support this Messianic claim, Christ offered the Messianic rest typified by the Sabbath (11:28-30).
We noted earlier that the Sabbath rest in Old Testament times served to nourish the hope of Messianic redemption. The messianic age was expected to be "wholly Sabbath and rest in the life everlasting."51 In the light of the existing Messianic understanding of the Sabbath rest, it appears that Christ, by offering His rest immediately after His Messianic disclosure intended to substantiate His Messianic claim by offering what the Messiah was expected to bring-namely, the peace and rest typified by the Sabbath.52
The Savior's Rest and the Sabbath. The connection between Jesus' rest and the Sabbath is also indicated in Matthew by the placement of the former (11:28-30) in the immediate context of two Sabbath episodes (12:1-14). The two are connected, as noted by several scholars, not only structurally but also temporally by the phrase "at that time" (12:1).53 The time referred to is a Sabbath day when Jesus and the disciples went through a field.
The fact that, according to Matthew, Christ offered His rest on a Sabbath day suggests the possibility that the two are linked together not only temporally but also theologically. The theological connection between the two is clarified by the two Sabbath episodes which serve to explain how the Messianic rest offered by Jesus is related to the Sabbath. The first story about the disciples plucking ears of corn on a Sabbath (Matt 12:1-8) interprets Jesus' rest as redemption-rest, especially through Christ's appeal to the example of the priests who worked intensively on the Sabbath in the Temple and yet were "guiltless" (Matt 12:5). The second story about the healing of the man with the withered hand interprets Jesus' rest as restoration-rest, especially through Christ's illustration of the rescuing of a sheep from a pit on the Sabbath (Matt 12:11-12).
Why were the priests "guiltless" though offering more services and sacrifices on the Sabbath (Num 28:8, 9)? Certainly it was not because they took a day off at another time during the week. No such provision is contemplated in the Old Testament. The absence of such a provision constitutes a direct challenge to the one-day-in-seven principle so greatly relied upon by many Christians to justify Sunday observance on the basis of the Sabbath commandment. Donald Carson, editor of the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord's Day, acknowledges that "if the Old Testament principle were really 'one day in seven for worship and rest' instead of 'the seventh day for worship and rest,' we might have expected Old Testament legislation to prescribe some other day off for the priests. The lack of such confirms the importance in Old Testament thought of the seventh day, as opposed to the mere one-in-seven principle so greatly relied upon by those who wish to see in Sunday the precise New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament Sabbath."54
The priests performed activities on the Sabbath which per se were rightly condemned by the commandment; yet they were guiltless because they were fulfilling the purpose of the Sabbath, which is to supply the spiritual needs of the people. But, how could Christ defend His actions as well as those of His disciples by this example of the service performed by the priests on the Sabbath, when neither He nor His disciples were fulfilling the divine law of sacrifices on that day? The answer is found in the subsequent statement Christ made: "I tell you something greater than the temple is here" (Matt 12:6).
The symbolic function of the temple and its services had now found its fulfillment and were superseded by the service of the True High Priest. Therefore, on the Sabbath, and even by preference on the Sabbath, Christ also must intensify His "sacrificial offering," that is to say, His ministry of salvation on behalf of needy sinners; and what He does His followers, the new priesthood, must do likewise. In John 7:22-23 Christ expresses the same concept. As the priest on the Sabbath extends the blessing of the covenant to the newborn through the act of circumcision, so Christ on the Sabbath must work for the salvation of the entire person.
Christ finds in the redemptive work performed typologically by the priests on the Sabbath a valid basis to justify His own Sabbath ministry because He views it as "something greater than the temple" (12:6). The redemption offered typologically through the Temple services and sacrifices performed by the priests55 is now being provided realistically through the saving mission of the Son of Man, the Messiah.56 Therefore, just as the priests were "guiltless" in performing their Sabbath services in the Temple, so were Jesus' disciples in serving the One who is greater than the Temple.57
The Temple and its services provide Jesus with a valid frame of reference to explain His Sabbath theology. This is because their redemptive function best exemplified both His Messianic mission and the divine intended purpose for the Sabbath. In fact, by identifying His saving mission with the Sabbath, Christ reveals the ultimate divine purpose of the commandment, namely, fellowship with God. Through Christ's redemptive ministry, the Sabbath becomes a time not only to commemorate God's past creation but also to experience the blessings of salvation by ministering to the needs of others.
The humanitarian dimension of the Sabbath unfortunately had largely been forgotten in Christ's day. The claims of rituals had taken the place of the claims of service to human needs. In the statement reported by Matthew, Christ openly attacks this perversion of the Sabbath, saying, "If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt 12:7). For Christ, the disciples are "guiltless" though they had contravened the Sabbath law of complete rest because the true meaning of the commandment is ''mercy and not sacrifice.''
What do ''mercy" and "sacrifice" stand for? The prophet Hosea, from whose book these words are quoted, rebukes his people for "seeking the Lord . . . with their flocks and herds" (5 :6) as if God could be propitiated by the many costly sacrifices (cf. 1 Sam 15:22). The prophet reminds them that what God desires is "mercy and not sacrifice" (Hos 6:6). This mercy desired by God is characterized both in the Old and New Testaments by a compassionate attitude that finds expression in helpful acts. In the Gospel of Matthew, especially, "mercy" denotes the acts of aid and relief that members of the covenant community owe to one another (Matt 5:7; 9:13; 12:7, 23:23). It was this pity and sympathy for anyone in distress that the Pharisees lacked. Therefore, the hunger experienced by Christ and His disciples did not kindle within their hearts any feeling of tenderness or eagerness to help. Instead, they were condemning the disciples.
This showing of love by acts of kindness represents for Christ the true observance of the Sabbath, since it acknowledges the very redemptive activity of God, which the day commemorates. In fact, as memorial of the divine redemption from both the bondage of Egypt (Deut 5:15) and the bonds of sin (Luke 4:18-19; 13:16; John 5:17), the Sabbath is the time when believers experience God's merciful salvation by expressing kindness and mercy toward others. Therefore, the order of the true Sabbath service which Christ sets up requires first the living-loving service of the heart and then the fulfillment of cultic prescriptions. It is a sobering thought that in the Gospels less is said about the preaching ministry of Christ on the Sabbath in the Synagogue and more about His ministry of compassion and mercy on behalf of needy sinners.
Chapter 4, Part 1
Chapter 4, Part 2b
Notes to Chapter 4, Part 2a
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University