DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESTLESSNESS #15
Continued from previous page:
M.M.B.Turner maintains that it is "Jesus' more recently
acquired habit of teaching in the synagogues that is primarily in
view, especially since Luke uses the same expression in "Acts
17:2 in respect of Paul's (Sabbath) synagogue ministry. Without
denying the possibility that Luke may have thought also of
Christ's custom of teaching on the Sabbath, it hardly seems
justifiable to conclude that the phrase "provides no worthwhile
evidence of any theological commitment on behalf of Jesus or Paul
to Sabbath worship." Why?
In the first place because 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 earlier life.
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
Third, the word "Sabbath" occurs in Luke's Gospel 21 times
and 8 times in Acts, that is, approximately twice as often as in
any of the other three Gospels. This surely suggests that Luke
attaches significance to the day.
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" (23:54). (I have shown elsewhere on this Website,
that the Greek means "the Sabbath had begun and was continuing -
Lastly, Luke expands his brief account of Christ's burial by
stating positively 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
These references can hardly be construed as insignificant or
incidental. The many examples and situations of Sabbathkeeping
reported, strongly suggest that Luke's intention indeed may well
have been to set before his readers "a model of reverence for the
Sabbath." 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.
In His inaugural Nazareth address, Christ read and commented
upon a passage drawn mostly from Isaiah 61:1-2 (also 58:6) which
says "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed
me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to
set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acc-
eptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18). The vital function of this
passage has been noticed by many. Hans Conzelmann correctly views
it as a nutshell summary of the "Messianic program." 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 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 oŁ the Messiah and have
found inheritance in Him." The theme of promise and fulfillment
is recurrent in all the Gospels. Many aspects of Christ's life
and ministry are repeatedly presented as the fulfillment of OT
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;
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 libera tion?
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.) Or did Christ through His redemptive mission fulfill
the promised sabbatical rest and release, in order to make the
day a fitting vehicle to experience His blessings of salvation?
To answer this question 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 fulfill-
ment of the Messianic restoration announced by means of the
Sabbath years (Is.61:1-3; 58:6).
Annual or weekly Sabbath?
Is the Messianic fulfillment of the redemption promised by
the annual Sabbath equally applicable to the weekly Sabbath? M.
M.B.Turner's answer is negative, basically for three reasons.
First, because Isaiah 61 and 11Q Melchizedek) does not "actually
mention the weekly Sabbath." Second, because Jesus utilizes the
language of Isaiah 61 also on days other than the Sabbath. Third,
because "Luke gives no editorial hint that the OT passage was
particularly appropriate to a Sabbath (the 'today' of v.21 is
much broader in content than this)."
Are these objections really valid? Turner's first argument
fails to recognize the close conceptual link that existed between
the annual and the weekly Sabbaths. The former basically
represented an intensification and actualization of the temporary
"release" offered by the weekly Sabbath to all the members of the
Hebrew society. Consequently the Sabbath years were also regarded
as "a sabbath to the Lord" (Lev.25:4; 2 Chron.36:21). Moreover,
we have found that not only the annual but also the weekly
Sabbath rest was viewed as pointing forward to the Messianic rest
and restoration. This suggests that mentioning of the former
would not preclude, but would most probably include, the latter.
With regard to the second objection, why would Christ have
to confine the use of "Messianic jubilee motifs" only to His
Sabbath ministry, when such a motif represented the totality of
His redemptive mission?
The third objection also is hardly justifiable. Is it really
true that "Luke gives no editorial hint that the OT passage
chosen was particularly appropriate to a Sabbath"? What about
his emphatic use of "today" (v.21)? Is this not related to His
mention of the Sabbath? Such a possibility is recognized, for
instance, by Howard Marshall, who points out that the today
"refers primarily to the actual day on which Jesus spoke as being
the day when prophecy began to be fulfilled." This is not to deny
that the "today" has also a broader scope, being part of the
inbreaking of the Messianic age, "the acceptable year of the
Lord" (v.19). Moreover, does not Luke provide another noteworthy
"hint" by placing Christ's initial announcement of His
fulfillment of the sabbatical year (Luke 4:16-21) in the
immediate context of two Sabbath healing episodes (Luke
4:31-38)? Such a sequence suggests that Christ's proclamation of
His fulfillment of the expected sabbatical liberation is followed
by a demonstration of how its realization was being accomplished.
Sabbath release and Savior's redemption.
It has been convincingly shown that the determinative
catchword that "binds Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 together in Luke 4
is the small word 'aphesis,'" which is used twice in Luke and is
translated the first time as "release" for the captives and the
second time as "liberty" for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Is this
promised sabbatical "release" realized through the physical and
spiritual healing that Jesus provided to needy persons especially
on the Sabbath? Note that both Mark and Luke place Christ's first
miracle, the release of the demon-possessed man, on a Sabbath
(Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37), presumably to set "the stage for
the Sabbath works and healings which follow later." Obviously,
Christ's saving ministry was not confined to the Sabbath but
continued irrespective of days. However, His daily ministry also,
as we noted earlier, had a sabbatical significance since it
represented the realization of the expected Sabbath liberation.
But, one must not overlook the fact that a considerable coverage
is given in the Gospels to His Sabbath saving ministry. No less
than seven Sabbath healing episodes are reported, besides several
controversies about Sabbathkeeping. More important still is the
redemptive significance which is often attributed to Christ's
acts of healing performed on the Sabbath. A study of the latter
will help to clarify how the Sabbath is related to Christ's
2. Early Sabbath Healings
According to both Mark and Luke, the very first two healing
episodes occurred on a Sabbath (Mark 1:21-31; Luke 4:31-39).
Luke, in fact, places them immediately after the Nazareth ad
dress. The first took place in the synagogue of Capernaum during
a Sabbath service and resulted in the spiritual healing of a
demon-possessed man (Luke 4:31-37; Mark 1:21-28). The second was
accomplished immediately after that 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 which are present in an embryonic form in these first
healing acts are more explicitly associated with the meaning of
the Sabbath in the subsequent ministry of Christ.
3. The Crippled Woman
Freedom on the Sabbath.
The episode of the healing of the crippled woman, reported
only by Luke, brings out rather clearly the relationship between
the Sabbath and the Savior's saving ministry (Luke 13:10-17). It
is noteworthy that in the brief narrative the verb "to free" -
'luein' is used by the Lord three times. In the English RSV
translation, the verb is rendered each time with a different
synonym, namely "to free, to untie, to loose" (13:12,15,16). This
threefold repetition suggests that the verb is used not
accidentally but intentionally. The verb is employed by Christ
first in addressing the woman, "you are freed from your
infirmity" (v.12). At the words of the Lord that woman, who for
18 years had been "bent over," "was made straight" (vv.11,13).
The ruler of the synagogue became indignant over Christ's healing
act. His reaction brings into focus the contrast between the
prevailing perversion of the Sabbath on the one hand, and
Christ's effort to restore to the day its true meaning on the
other. For the ruler the Sabbath means rules to be obeyed, while
for Christ it is a day in which to love and to save needy human
To clarify the function of the Sabbath, Christ twice again
uses the verb "to free." First, by referring to a customary
concession: "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?" (Luke 13:15). Then, building upon the concept of
untying an animal, again Christ uses the same verb in the form of
a rhetorical question in order to draw the obvious conclusion
"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 13:16). 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 could have resulted in loss
of weight and consequently in less market value), but a suffering
woman could not be released on such a day from the shackles of
her physical and spiritual infirmity. It was necessary on the
Sabbath, therefore, for Christ to act deliberately against
prevailing misconceptions in order to restore the day to God's
intended purpose. It should be noticed that in this as well as in
all other instances, Christ is not questioning the binding
obligations of the Sabbath commandment, but rather He argues for
its true values which had been largely obscured by the
accumulation of traditions and countless regulations.
Sabbath release and Savior's redemption.
The imagery of loosing on the Sabbath a victim bound by
Satan's bonds (Luke 13:16) recalls Christ's announcement of His
mission "to proclaim release to the captives ... to set at
liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18). Does not Jesus' act
of freeing on the Sabbath a daughter of Abraham from physical and
spiritual bonds exemplify how the liberation of the Messianic
Sabbath was being fulfilled (Luke 4:21)? The connection between
the two is recognized by a number of scholars. Harald Riesenfeld,
for example, correctly points out that the "deeds of healing on
Sabbath days must be interpreted as signs that in the person of
Jesus was being realized something of what the Sabbath had
pointed forward to in the eschatological expectations of the
Jewish people." "The work of liberating the victims of Satan's
tyranny," aptly comments George Bradford Caird, "must go on seven
days a week. So far from being the wrong day, the sabbath was
actually the best day for such works of mercy. For the sabbath -
the day which God had given to Israel as a weekly release from
the bondage of labour - was also a weekly foretaste of the rest
which awaited the people of God in the kingdom, the final release
from all bondage. To liberate men and women from the reign of
Satan and to bring them under the gracious reign of God was
therefore to fulfill the purpose of the sabbath, not to profane
Paul K.Jewett perspicaciously remarks: "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 Mes-
sianic 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." Similarly C.F.
Evans points out that Christ "went out of His way to heal on the
Sabbath ... In reply to the ruler of the synagogue who states the
Pharisaic ruling that healing is only permissible on the Sabbath
if it is to save life, Jesus claims the Sabbath as the necessary
day for that healing which is the rescue of a member of the
chosen race from the bondage of Satan (Luke 13:14-16). The
Sabbath, being a memorial of the peace and rest which is God's,
is pre-eminently the day for the performance of those works which
constitute its fulfillment, inasmuch as they are signs of the
advent of the Messianic order of peace."
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 suggest that the Sabbath was not a particularly
appropriate day for Christ's works of mercy.
Why? Basically because they reason that as the untying and
watering of animals took place daily, irrespective of the
Sabbath, so Christ's saving acts are performed, not because it is
Sabbath but in spite of it. 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. 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 then that Christ chose to heal her not in spite of
the Sabbath but rather because the day provided a most fitting
The physical and spiritual freedom that the Savior offered
to that sick woman on the Sabbath represents a token manifest-
ation 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 now to be examined.
But, before leaving this episode, one may ask, How did the
woman and the people who witnessed Christ's saving intervention
come to view the Sabbath? Luke reports that while Christ's
"adversaries were put to shame ... the people rejoiced" (13:17),
and the woman "praised God" (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
4. The Paralytic and the Blind Man
Two Sabbath miracles reported by John further exemplify the
relationship between the Sabbath and Christ's work of salvation
(John 5:1-18; 9:1-41). The two episodes can be examined together
since they show substantial similarity. Both healed men had been
chronically ill: one an invalid for 38 years (5:5) and the other
blind from birth (9:2). In both instances Christ told the men to
act. To the paralyzed man He said, "Rise, take up your pallet,
and walk" (5:8); to the blind man, "Go, wash in the pool of
Siloam" (9:7). Both of these actions represent the breaking of
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 (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 actually 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 Sabbath keeping 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 we have shown that the "working until now" of the Father
and of the Son has historically received three basic
interpretations, namely, (1) continuous creation, (2) continuous
care, (3) redemptive activities. 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, it
is hoped, to understand the significance of Christ's saying, we
shall 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 meaning of the adverb "until now."
Traditionally the adverb "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 does the adverbial phrase "until now"
suggest that God is constantly working without respect to the
Sabbath? The adverb itself, especially as used in its emphatic
position before the verb (in Greek), presupposes not constancy
but culmination. The latter is brought out by some translators
through the use of the emphatic form "even until now." This
adverbial phrase presupposes a beginning (terminus a quo) and a
conclusion (terminus ad quem). The former is apparently the
initial creation Sabbath (Gen.2:2-3) and the latter the final
Sabbath rest, which is envisaged in the similar Sabbath
pronouncement as the "night ... when no one can work" (9:4). What
Jesus is saying, then, is that though God established the Sabbath
at the completion of creation, because of sin He has been
"working until now" to bring the promised Sabbath rest to
The meaning of the verb "working"
What is the nature of the "working until now" of the Father?
In the Gospel of John the working and works of God 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. For example, Jesus explicitly states:
"This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has
sent" (6:29). 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"
(10:37,38; cf. 4:34; 14:11; 15:24).
The redemptive nature of the works of God is especially
clear 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." Or 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."
What are the theological implications of Christ's defense?
Does He appeal to the "working" of His Father to nullify or
clarify the function of the Sabbath? To understand the
implications of Christ's defense, one needs to remember that the
Sabbath is linked both to the cosmos through creation (Gen.
2:2-3; Ex.20:11), and to the exodus through 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 temple. There, as we shall soon
see, the priests could legitimately perform on the Sabbath works
forbidden to the 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.
This is in fact the line of defense that Christ uses when He
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) in order to extend to the newborn child the salvation of
the covenant, there is no reason to be "angry" with Him for
restoring on that day the "whole body of man" (7:23). The Sabbath
is for Christ 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 needs (5:14; 9:3538).
His opponents cannot perceive the redemptive nature of
Christ's Sabbath ministry because they "judge by appearances"
(7:24). For them the pallet and the clay are more important than
the social reunification (5:10) and the restoration of sight
(9:14) which those objects symbolized. It was therefore necessary
for Christ to act against prevailing misconceptions in order to
restore the Sabbath to its positive function.
In another Sabbath pronouncement recorded in John 9:4,
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."
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 also "we must work" to extend it to others (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, namely, a time to
experience and share the blessings of salvation accomplished by
5. The Disciples' Plucking Ears of Corn
The episode of the disciples' plucking ears of corn on a
Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; Matt.12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5) provides an
additional indication of the relationship between the Sabbath and
the redemptive ministry of Christ. Jesus and the disciples were
walking along a path that went through the fields. The disciples
"were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of grain and to eat"
(Matt.12:1). The Pharisees, who somehow (!) were also in the
field on that day, regarded such an action as an outright
desecration of the Sabbath and complained to Christ, saying:
"Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?"
(Mark 2:24). One wonders, Why were the disciples assuaging their
hunger by eating raw ears of grain in the first place? The
presence of the Pharisees among them suggests that possibly they
all had attended together the Sabbath service at the synagogue,
and, having received no dinner invitation, the disciples were
picking and eating raw ears of grain as they were making their
way along the fields to find a place to rest. If this were the
case, then Christ's reply to the Pharisees, particularly His
quotation from Hosea, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Matt.
12:7), could well contain a veiled rebuke of their lack of
To defend the conduct of His disciples against the charge of
Sabbath-breaking, Christ advanced two basic arguments. First, He
reasoned that if it was right for David and his men to allay
their hunger by eating the holy bread which was reserved
exclusively for the priests (1 Sam. 21:1-7), then it was equally
legitimate for the disciples to provide for their needs by
plucking ears of grain during the holy time of the Sabbath. The
principle involved here is not, as some mistakenly assume, that
people of authority such as David and Christ "transcend the law"
because of the special position they enjoy. Are God's laws
binding only on ordinary creatures? To say the least, such a
notion would make God guilty of governing with a double standard,
one for common persons and one for privileged individuals. Such
a preposterous view of God is totally unwarranted because the
justification given in the text for David's action is not that he
was king David, but rather that "he and those who were with him"
were "in need and ... hungry" (Mark 2:25). In other words, it is
human need and not position that takes prior claim over the law.
Do not ordinary citizens exceed the speed limit with impunity
when taking a very sick person to a hospital?
Some argue that this principle is not applicable to the
disciples, because their hunger was not as acute as that of
David. Such a rabbinical reasoning is absent in the OT and in the
teachings of Jesus. The Scripture provides no graduated scale of
human needs to determine when action is justified. The principle
enunciated by Christ is, "the sabbath was made on account of
(dia) man" (Mark 2:27), that is, to ensure his physical and
spiritual well-being. This means that the welfare of human beings
is not restricted but guaranteed by proper Sabbath observance. To
require that the disciples deny their physical needs in order to
keep the Sabbath would mean to pervert its intended function,
namely, to be a day of delight and not one of privation. This
human function of the Sabbath will be cinsidered further in the
next chapter, entitled "The Sabbath: Good News of Service."
To be continued