The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments

Part 2b: The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

Part 1
The Sabbath and the Savior in the Old Testament
Part 2a
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament
Part 2b
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued
Part 2c
The Sabbath and the Savior in the New Testament - Continued

Authority or Legality?
Some scholars argue that Christ used the example of David and of the priests in order to show His authority to transcend the Sabbath law rather than to prove the legality of the disciples' action within that law. For them, "it is a question of authority rather than of legality" that is at stake in this passage.58 The comparison between the priests and Christ is allegedly supposed to show that "persons with authority" can override the Sabbath.59 The ultimate conclusion drawn from such reasoning is that Christ's authoritative teaching supposedly anticipates the change in the day of worship, which, however, did not actually occur until after the resurrection.60 Such reasoning reveals a genuine desire to find grounds for Sunday observance in Christ's teaching, but it cannot be legitimately supported by Christ's arguments.

Did Christ appeal to the example of David and of the priests to show that persons of authority have the right to supersede the Sabbath law? Can human authority per se be regarded as a valid criterion to transcend God's law? If this were true, there would be constant conflict between human authority and divine precepts. Such a conflict, however, does not exist in Jesus' reasoning. What He tells the Pharisees is not that the law does not apply to important persons such as David or the priests but, on the contrary, that their exceptional conduct, like that of the disciples, is contemplated by the law. This is clearly indicated by the counter-question Christ asks twice: "Have you not read in the law . . .?" (Matt 12:5; cf. v. 3).

Note that it is within the law (not outside it) that Jesus finds precedents to defend the legality of the disciples' conduct. The disciples were "guiltless" then, not because their authority (or that of Christ) transcended the law, but because their action fell within the intention of the law itself. David Hill stresses this point in his comment on Matthew 12:5: "The verse provides a precedent for the action of the disciples within the Law itself, and therefore places Jesus securely within the Law."61

Christ, the Interpreter of the Law.
All laws must be interpreted. The case of the priests provides a fitting example. The law ordered them to work on the Sabbath (Num 28:9; Lev 24:8), thus causing them to break another law-that of the Sabbath rest (Ex 20:8-10). This means that the letter of the law cannot be applied indiscriminately, but must be interpreted discriminately when applied to specific cases. In American society, the Supreme Court acts as the final interpreter of the intent of the laws of the land. This is the authority that Christ claims by proclaiming Himself "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt 12:8; Mark 2:28). It is not the authority to abrogate or substitute the Sabbath commandment but rather to reveal its true divine intention. 62

Christ demonstrates this authority as interpreter of the true meaning of the Fourth Commandment by presenting five significant arguments to defend the innocence of His disciples. First, the Lord refers to David to validate the general principle that the law admits exceptions (Matt 12:3; Mark 2:25). Second, Christ provides a specific example of exceptional use of the Sabbath by the priests to prove that the commandment does not preclude but contemplates ministering to the spiritual needs of people (Matt 12:5). Third, Christ claims for Himself and His disciples the same Sabbath privileges of the priests because, as the superior Antitype of the Temple and its priesthood (Matt 12:6), He and His followers also, like the priests, must provide a ministry of salvation to needy sinners.

Fourth, by citing Hosea's statement, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Matt 12:7), Jesus explains that the order of priorities in the observance of the Sabbath is first a loving service to needy persons and then the fulfillment of ritual prescriptions. Lastly, Jesus asserts His lordship over the Sabbath-that is, His prerogative to interpret its meaning by reaffirming the fundamental principle that the Sabbath was instituted to insure human well-being (Mark 2:28). Consequently, to deny human needs on account of the Sabbath is a perversion of its original purpose.

The Man with the Withered Hand.
Christ's proclamation of lordship over the Sabbath is followed immediately by a second healing episode of the man with the withered hand (Matt 12:9-21; cf. Mark 3 :1-6). The function of this healing was to demonstrate how Christ exerted His lordship over the Sabbath by offering Messianic healing and restoration on that day.

Jesus finds Himself in the synagogue before a man with a paralyzed hand, brought there in all probability by a deputation of Scribes and Pharisees. They came to the synagogue, not to worship, but to scrutinize Christ and "see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him" (Mark 3:2). According to Matthew, they ask Christ the testing question: "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?" (Matt 12:10). Their question is not motivated by a genuine concern for the sick man, nor by a desire to explore how the Sabbath is related to the healing ministry. Rather, they are there as the authority who knows all the exemptions foreseen by the rabbinic casuistry and who wants to judge Christ on the basis of the minutiae of their regulations.

Christ reading their thoughts is "grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5). He accepts the challenge and meets it fairly and squarely. First, He invites the man to come to the front, saying, "Come here" (Mark 3:3). This step is possibly designed to waken sympathy for the stricken man and at the same time to make sure all are aware of what He is about to do. Then He asks the experts of the law, "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4). To bring this question into sharper focus, according to Matthew, Christ adds a second question in the form of a parabolic saying: "What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep?" (Matt 12:11,12).

These questions raise an important issue. By the question of principle, which Christ illustrated with the second question containing a concrete example, did He intend to abrogate radically the Sabbath commandment or did He aim at restoring the institution to its original divine value and function? Most scholars subscribe to the former option. For example, Leonard Goppelt emphatically states that "Jesus' double question marks the end of the Sabbath commandment: it is no longer a statutory ordinance and it no longer has absolute validity if this all-embracing, overlapping alternative is valid-namely to save life."63

This interpretation rests on the assumption that "to save life" is contrary to the spirit and function of the Sabbath. Can this be true? It may perhaps reflect the prevailing misconception and misuse of the Sabbath, but not the original purpose of the Sabbath commandment. To accept this supposition would make God guilty of failing to safeguard the value of life when instituting the Sabbath.

The Sabbath: A Day to Show Concern.
The original purpose of the Sabbath and its related institutions is to emphasize the importance of loving one's neighbor, especially the defenseless. In the various versions of the Sabbath commandment, for instance, a recurring list of persons appears to whom freedom to rest on the Sabbath is to be granted. The ones particularly singled out are usually the manservant, the maidservant, the son of the bondmaid, the cattle, and the sojourner and/or alien. This indicates that the Sabbath was ordained especially to show compassion toward defenseless and needy beings. "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest and the son of your bond-maid and the alien may be refreshed" (Ex 23 :12).

Niels-Erik Andreasen aptly comments that "the landlord must be concerned with the human value of his subjects, just as Yahweh was when he secured freedom for his people."64 It is indeed moving that the Sabbath was designed to show concern even for the cattle, but, Hans Walter Wolf points out, "It is even more touching that, of all the dependent laborers, the son of the female slave and the alien are especially singled out. For when such persons are ordered to work, they have no recourse or protection."65

This original dimension of the Sabbath as a day to honor God by showing concern and compassion to fellow beings had largely been forgotten in the time of Jesus. The Sabbath had become the day when correct performance of a ritual was more important than a spontaneous response to the cry of human needs. Our story provides a fitting example of this prevailing perversion by contrasting two types of Sabbath-keepers. On one side stood Christ "grieved at the hardness of the heart" of his accusers and taking steps to save the life of a wretched man (Mark 3:4-5). On the other side stood the experts of the law who, even while sitting in a place of worship, spent their Sabbath time looking for faults and thinking of methods to kill Christ (Mark 3 :2,6). This contrast of attitudes may well provide the explanation to Christ's question about the legitimacy of saving or killing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4); the person who is not concerned for the physical and spiritual salvation of others on the Sabbath is automatically involved in destructive efforts or attitudes.

Christ's program of Sabbath reform must be seen in the context of His overall attitude toward the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ explains that His mission is to restore the various prescriptions of the law to their original intentions (Matt 5 :17,21ff.). This work of clarifying the intent behind the commandments was a dire necessity since the accumulation of traditions had in many cases obscured their original function. As Christ put it, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!" (Mark 7:9).

The fifth commandment, for instance, which enjoins one to "honor your father and your mother," according to Christ, had been made void through the tradition of the Corban (Mark 7:12-13). This practice consisted in translating a service or an obligation to be rendered to one's parents into a gift to be given to the temple. Likewise, the Sabbath commandment, unless liberated from the many senseless casuistic restrictions, would have remained a system for self-righteousness rather than a time for loving the Creator-Redeemer and one's fellow beings.

By healing the man with the withered hand, Christ not only clarified the intent of the Sabbath commandment but also demonstrated how He fulfilled the Messianic restoration which had been nourished by the celebration of the Sabbath. These intentional healing acts performed by Christ on behalf of incurable persons serve to clarify the relationship between the Savior's rest and the Sabbath.

Summing up, in Matthew the Old Testament Sabbath rest is seen as being actualized by Christ who offers to His followers the Messianic rest. The two Sabbath episodes reported by Matthew qualify the meaning of the Sabbath rest, first as Messianic redemption through its references to mercy and to Sabbath services performed by priests, and second, as Messianic restoration through the example of the Sabbath rescuing of a sheep and the restoring to health of a sick man. In the light of this redemptive/Messianic understanding of the Sabbath, how was the Sabbath observed in the Matthean community and in the apostolic church as a whole? This question is addressed below in the final section of this chapter dealing with the manner of Sabbathkeeping in the Apostolic Church.

3. The Sabbath in John

In John's Gospel, the relationship between the Sabbath and Christ's work of salvation is alluded to in two Sabbath miracles: the healing of the paralytic (John 5:1-18) and of the blind man (John 9:1-41). The two episodes are examined together since they are substantially similar. Both healed men had been chronically ill: one an invalid for 38 years (John 5:5) and the other blind from birth (John 9:2). In both instances, Christ told the men to act. To the paralyzed man He said, "Rise, take up your pallet, and walk" (John 5:8); to the blind man, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (John 9:7). Both of these actions represent breaking rabbinical Sabbath laws, and thus both are used by Pharisees to charge Christ with Sabbath-breaking (John 5 :10, 16; 9:14-16). In both instances, Christ repudiated such a charge by arguing that His works of salvation are not precluded but rather contemplated by the Sabbath commandment (John 5:17; 7:23; 9:4). Christ's justification is expressed especially through a memorable statement: "My Father is working until now and I am working" (John 5:17; cf. 9:4).

Negation or Clarification of the Sabbath?
What did Christ mean when He formally defended Himself against the charge of Sabbath-breaking by appealing to the "working until now" of His Father? Did He use the example of His Father to rescind the obligation of Sabbathkeeping both for Himself and for His followers or to clarify its true nature and meaning? To put it bluntly, does Christ's statement represent a negation or a clarification of the Sabbath law?

In a previous study I showed that the "working until now" of the Father and of the Son has historically received three basic interpretations: (1) continuous creation, (2) continuous care, and (3) redemptive activities.66 The exponents of these three views basically agree in regarding Christ's pronouncement as an implicit (for some, explicit) annulment of the Sabbath commandment. Does such a conclusion reflect the legitimate meaning of the passage or rather arbitrary assumptions which have been read into the passage? To answer this question and to understand the significance of Christ's saying, we briefly examine the role of the adverb "until now"-heos arti, the meaning of the verb "is working"-ergazetai, and the theological implications of the passage.

The Adverb "Until Now."
Traditionally, the adverbial phrase "until now" has been interpreted as the continuous working of God (whether it be in creation, preservation, or redemption) which allegedly overrides or rescinds the Sabbath law. But the adverb itself ("until"), especially as used in Greek in its emphatic position before the verb, presupposes not constancy but culmination. The latter is brought out by some translators through the use of the emphatic form "even until now."67

This adverbial phrase presupposes a beginning (terminus a quo) and an end (terminus ad quem). The former is apparently the initial creation Sabbath (Gen 2:2-3) and the latter the final Sabbath rest envisaged in a similar Sabbath pronouncement as the "night . . . when no one can work" (9:4). What Jesus is saying, then, is that though God rested on the Sabbath at the completion of creation, because of sin He has been "working until now" to bring the promised Sabbath rest to fruition.

The Verb "Is Working."
The meaning of the verb "is working" until now of the Father is clarified by John's references to the working and works of God which are repeatedly and explicitly identified, not with a continuous divine creation nor with a constant maintenance of the universe, but with the saving mission of Christ.

Jesus explicitly states: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29, emphasis supplied). And again,

"If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (John 10:37, 38; cf. 4:34; 14:11; 15:24; emphasis supplied).

The redemptive nature of the works of God is evident in the healing of the blind man since the act is explicitly described as the manifestation of "the works of God" (John 9:3). This means then that God ended on the Sabbath His works of creation but not His working, in general. Because of sin, He has been engaged in the work of redemption "until now." To use the words of A. T. Lincoln, one might say, "As regards the work of creation God's rest was final, but as that rest was meant for humanity to enjoy, when it was disturbed by sin, God worked in history to accomplish his original purpose."68

Theological Implications.
Christ appeals to the "working" of His Father not to nullify but to clarify the function of the Sabbath. To understand Christ's defense, one must remember that the Sabbath is linked both to creation (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:11) and redemption (Deut 5:15).

While by interrupting all secular activities the Israelite was remembering the Creator-God, by acting mercifully toward fellow-beings he was imitating the Redeemer-God. This was true not only in the life of the people, in general, who on the Sabbath were to be compassionate toward the less fortunate, but especially in the service of the priest who could legitimately perform on the Sabbath works forbidden to other Israelites, because such works had a redemptive function.

On the basis of this theology of the Sabbath admitted by the Jews, Christ defends the legality of the "working" that He and His Father perform on the Sabbath. In John, Christ appeals to the example of circumcision to silence the echo of the controversy over the healing of the paralytic (John 7:22-24). The Lord argues that if it is legitimate on the Sabbath for the priests to care for one small part of man's body (according to rabbinic reckoning, circumcision involved one of man's 248 members)69 in order to extend to the newborn child the salvation of the covenant,70 there is no reason to be "angry" with Him for restoring on that day the "whole body of man" (John 7:23).

For Christ, the Sabbath is the day to work for the redemption of the whole man. This is borne out by the fact that in both healings, Christ looked for the healed men on the same day and , having found them, He ministered to their spiritual need (John 5:14; 9:35-38). Christ's opponents cannot perceive the redemptive nature of His Sabbath ministry because they "judge by appearances" (John 7:24). For them, the pallet and the clay are more important than the social reunion (5:10) and the restoration of sight (John 9:14) which those objects symbolized. It was necessary therefore for Christ to act against prevailing misconceptions in order to restore the Sabbath to its positive function.

In the Sabbath healing of the blind man recorded in John 9, Christ extends to His followers the invitation to become links of the same redemptive chain, saying: "We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work" (v. 4). The "night" apparently refers to the conclusion of the history of salvation, a conclusion which we found implied in the adverbial phrase "until now." Such a conclusion of divine and human redemptive activity would usher in the final Sabbath of which the creation Sabbath was a prototype.

To bring about that final Sabbath, the Godhead "is working" for our salvation (John 5:17); but "we must work" to extend it to others (John 9:4). The foregoing considerations indicate that the two Sabbath healings reported by John substantiate the redemptive meaning of the Sabbath we found earlier in Luke and Matthew-namely, a time to experience and share the blessings of salvation accomplished by Christ.

4. The Sabbath in Hebrews

The redemptive meaning of the Sabbath we found in the Gospels is reflected in Hebrews 4:1-11 where the author draws upon existing eschatological understandings of the Sabbath rest to relate God's rest of the seventh day of creation (Heb 4:4) to all the rest and peace God intends to confer on His people. The discussion of the Sabbath in Hebrews is crucial to our study because it reveals how Sabbathkeeping was understood and experienced by the New Testament church.

In Chapter 3, we examined how the Sabbath in Hebrews relates to the discussion about the Old and New Covenants. At this juncture, our concern is to establish if the meaning of Sabbathkeeping in Hebrews reflects the same redemptive meaning of the Sabbath we have found in the Gospels.

The relationship between the Sabbath and the Savior is established by the author of Hebrews by linking together Genesis 2:2 with Psalm 95:7,11. By means of these two texts the writer of Hebrews explains that the Sabbath rest offered at creation (Heb 4:4) was not exhausted when the Israelites under Joshua found a resting place in Canaan, since God offered again His rest "long afterwards" through David (Heb 4:7; cf. Ps 95:7). Consequently, God's promised Sabbath rest still awaited a fuller realization which has dawned with the coming of Christ (Heb 4:9). It is by believing in Jesus Christ that God's people can at last experience ("enter"-Heb 4:3,10,11) the "good news" of God's rest promised on the "seventh day" of creation (Heb 4:4).

Chapter 4, Part 2a
Chapter 4, Part 2c


Notes to Chapter 4, Part 2b
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

58. Robert Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids, 1967), p. 117. Cf. Morna D. Hooker, The Son of Man in Mark (New York, 1967), p. 98; P. K. Jewett (note 36), p. 37.
59. D. A. Carson (note 54), p. 67.
60. Ibid., p. 79. Cf. W. Rordorf, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (Philadelphia, 1968), pp. 70, 296.
61. David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew (1972), p. 211.
62. This view is emphatically stated by Etan Levine: "The Pharisees are not being told that the Sabbath injunctions should be abrogated; rather, within their own realm of discourse they are being reminded that plucking grain on the Sabbath is legitimate for sacred purposes. Thus, Jesus does not abrogate the Torah, but exercises his prerogative to interpret it, in this case defining the 'sacred' in term other than the Temple ritual, as the text explicitly states" ("The Sabbath Controversy According to Matthew," New Testament Studies 22 [1976]: 482). Similarly, William L. Lane writes: "The divine intention was in no way infringed by the plucking of heads of grain on the part of Jesus' disciples" (The Gospel According to Mark [New York, 1974], p. 120).
63 . L. Goppelt, Christentum und Judentum im ers ten und zweiten Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1954), p. 46, as cited in W. Rordorf (note 60), p. 71. Rordorf himself defends this view and goes so far as to accuse Matthew of "beginning the moralistic misunderstanding of Jesus' attitude toward the Sabbath" (note 60, p. 68). This misunderstanding allegedly consists in assuming "that the obligation to love one's neighbour displaces in certain circumstances the command to keep a day of rest" (ibid.). One wonders whether Matthew really misunderstood or truly understood Christ's meaning and message of the Sabbath, when he wrote, "It is lawful to do good on the sabbath" (Matt 12:12). It is true that in post-exilic Judaism an elaborate fence had been erected around the Sabbath to assure its faithful observance. The multitude of meticulous and casuistic regulations, produced to guard the Sabbath, turned the observance of the day into a legalistic ritual rather than into a loving service. It was Christ's intent to restore the Sabbath to the original divine design.
64. Niels-Erik Andreasen, "Festival and Freedom," Interpretation 28 (1974), p. 289.
65. Hans Walter Wolff, "The Day of Rest in the Old Testament," Concordia Theological Monthly 43 (1972), p. 504.
66. For my analysis of John 5:17, see my article "John 5:17: Negation or Clarification of the Sabbath?" Andrews University Seminary Studies 19 (Spring 1981), p. 3-19.
67. See, for example, George Allen Turner, Julius R. Mantey, O. Cullman, E. C. Hoskyns, F. Godet on John 5:17.
68. A. T. Lincoln, "Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament," in From Sabbath to Lord's Day, ed. Donald A. Carson (Grand Rapids, 1982), p. 204.
69. Yoma 85b.
70. On the redemptive meaning of circumcision, see Rudolf Meyer, "peritemno," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel (Grand Rapids, 1973), vol. 6, pp. 75-76.

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University