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The Sabbath under Crossfire #12

Christ and the Sabbath #2

                        THE SABBATH UNDER CROSSFIRE

Continued from previous page:

by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD



     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superseded by His coming, the true Sabbath?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. 

     Luke's account of the opening scene of Christ's ministry
provides a suitable starting point for inquiring into the
relationship between the Savior and the Sabbath. According to
Luke, it was "on a Sabbath day" that Jesus officially inaugurated
His ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth, making a programmatic
speech. It is noteworthy that Luke introduces Christ as an
habitual observer of the Sabbath ("as his custom was"--Luke
4:16). Does Luke intend by this to set Christ before his readers
as a model of Sabbathkeeping? Max B. Turner, a contributor to the
scholarly symposium "From Sabbath to the Lord's Day," rejects
this possibility, maintaining instead 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." 37
     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
     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
     Second, 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 expound the Scripture during the divine
     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 early 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. 

     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
acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18). 43
     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. 

     Christ's announcement of His Messiahship (Luke 4:16-21) is
followed in Luke by two Sabbath healing episodes. 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 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 healing of the crippled woman,
reported only by Luke, further clarifies the relationship between
the Sabbath and the Savior's saving ministry. In the brief
narrative (Luke 13:10-17), the Greek verb "luein," usually
translated "to free, to untie, to loose," is used by the Lord
three times, thus suggesting intentional rather than accidental
usage of the term.
     The first time, the verb is used by Christ in addressing the
woman: "You are freed from your infirmity" (Luke 13:12,). 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).
     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

Sabbath 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 a daughter of Abraham from her physical and spiritual
bonds on the Sabbath exemplify how the Messianic liberation
typified by the Sabbath was being fulfilled (Luke 4:21)?
     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."
     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.

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.

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 priests 55 
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. l
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 is
less 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.

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 privilages 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
     Lastly, Jesus asserts His lordship over the Sabbath - that
is, His prerogatives 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

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
     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

     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.


To be continued


The explanations given by Bacchiocchi on Christ and the Sabbath
is EXACTLY as I read and understood them as a young boy. Reading
with a child's mind at age 8,9,10,11 years old, in my "Red-letter
New Testament" (words of Christ in red) given to me as a gift, I
understood the work Jesus did on the Sabbath was intended to
instruct us in the correct way to observe the Sabbath as in
contradiction to the "man made laws of the Jews" via the scribes,
Pharisees, Sadducees, who had perverted the principles and heart
of the fourth commandment. As a child I NEVER thought of these
Christ/Sabbath passages as teaching us that the Sabbath can be
any day of the week or that this fourth commandment was now
"abolished" and hence we could forget about it, as to being
observed. The life and teaching of Christ to me in the Gospels,
as I read it from the mind of a child, was a life and teaching of
the perfect example of obeying all the Ten Commandments,
including the fourth one, which had respect to the 7th day of the
week. It was not until I was 18 (in 1961) years old that the
truth of Sunday being the first day of the week and not the 7th
day, was given to me through my Baptist landlord. Until that time
I believed all that I knew of the "Christian world" was observing
the 7th day of the week in accordance with the words of the
fourth commandment as stated in Exodus 20, and hence that
Christianity was also believing that Jesus in the Gospels taught
NOT that the Sabbath day was abolished, but taught HOW to observe
the Sabbath day in the correct attitude that God had always
wanted mankind to observe it.

What a disgusting SHOCK it was to me to find and read all the
arguments used to either CHANGE the Sabbath from the 7th day to
the 1st day, or to ABOLISH it completely!!

Oh, the heart of man, how deceitful and twisted it can get at
times. But, if you let in the light and Spirit of God, to work in
your mind and heart, you can know the truth and the truth will
set you free. You will then rejoice in the blessedness of the
fourth commandment; you will find rest, and peace, and
refreshment, as you observe the 7th day Sabbath.

Keith Hunt 

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