Jesus and the Sabbath
Louis Kuntz, March 9, 2000

Did Jesus live in accordance with the terms of the Sinai covenant? To some extent he did. As Paul put it,

"when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law [the Sinai covenant] to redeem those who were under the law . . . " (Gal 4:4-5).

Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day according to the law. He honored Moses. He kept the feast days. In short, Jesus lived as a Jew. But he also contradicted Moses and the old covenant. In the Sermon on the Mount he appeared as the new Moses, the Prophet who was to come, saying over and over, You have heard that it was said... But I tell you.... Matt:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44. He declared distinctions between clean and unclean foods no longer valid:

In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean". Mark 7:18,19).

While he affirmed a reverence for the temple, the focal point of Judaism, Jesus also proclaimed that now that he was present the place of worship was irrelevant:

The time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. John 4:20-24.

And how did Jesus relate to the sabbath, the weekly sign of allegiance to the old covenant? Like a good Jew, he worshipped at the synagogue every sabbath as was customary: on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. Luke 4:16. But he did not keep the sabbath as Moses had commanded. In fact, Jesus was a sabbath breaker.

Some would argue against this by asserting that he only broke the rabbis' traditions regarding Sabbath observance and not the revealed law from Sinai. But this cannot be maintained in the face of biblical evidence. Let us look at two examples. The first example is found in Matthew 12:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath. (Matt 12:1-2)

Were the Pharisees correct? Was this act contrary to the law? Without a doubt the answer to both questions is yes. The very first sabbath command that God gave to anyone is that which we have already noted in Exodus 16:23-30:

"This is what the LORD commanded: 'Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.'" So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. "Eat it today," Moses said, "because today is a Sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any." Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, "How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out." So the people rested on the seventh day.

That law specifically prohibited gathering food and traveling out of one's place on the seventh day. Any work such as gathering food was to be finished on the sixth day, the day of preparation. What were Jesus and his disciples doing? Traveling through a grainfield gathering food! Didn't Jesus know about the preparation day? The Pharisees knew the law, and on the basis of the law from Sinai they were right in challenging Jesus.

But Jesus didn't answer with the excuse that they were hungry and this was an act of necessity. In no way did he argue on the basis of Moses' law - He was clearly in violation of it. Instead, Jesus first argued that as David and his men ate the showbread in the temple when hungry, yet remained guiltless, so also now; symbols are only symbols and must take second place to human need. Symbols were made to benefit people, not to control them. But the second part of his argument is startling. Jesus said:

Have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. (Matt 12:5,6)

Christ was referring to the fact that for priests doing temple duty, work on the sabbath was permitted. Why? The temple was the focal point of the covenant. Its inner sanctum held the terms of the covenant as well as the presence of God himself. But Jesus said, "Something greater than the temple is here," referring to himself. Jesus was proclaiming that he is the reality, the fulfillment of all that to which the temple pointed. And here is the thrust of his argument: If priests in the service of the temple could break the sabbath law prohibiting work and yet remain guiltless, so too could the disciples profane the sabbath in the service of Jesus who is greater than the temple. The sabbath was only a sign, signifying that a person was entitled to worship in the temple as a member of the covenant people. The temple was therefore greater than the sabbath, because there Israel worshipped God. The temple worship was a reality greater than the sabbath. But Jesus is greater than even the temple, and this means that he is also the reality which is greater than the sabbath.

The second example of Jesus breaking the sabbath is found in John 5. Jesus found a paralytic by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. He healed the man and said, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk. John continues the story:

Now that day was the sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, "It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet. But he answered them, "The man who healed me said to me, `Take up your pallet, and walk.' John 5:9-11

Were the Jews right? Was it unlawful for the man to carry his pallet according to God's word, or was it just contrary to their traditions? In the time of Jeremiah, when God was about to punish his people for sabbath-breaking, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:

Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy . . . Jer 17:21,22

This was not just a Jewish tradition, it was a commandment of God. What did Jesus tell the man to do? - to carry a burden in Jerusalem on the sabbath day in direct contradiction to an Old Testament command! And Jesus didn't stop there. When the Jews challenged him, he shocked them even more. Rather than explaining that he was merely showing the right way to keep the sabbath, Jesus admitted their charge. His answer was, "My Father is working still, and I am working" (John 5:17). This was on the sabbath and Jesus said, "I am working. What does the fourth commandment of the decalogue say? "The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work. What did Jesus say he was doing? Working! Working to bring forth the new age, the new creation.

Then John summarizes the two reasons why the Jews were attacking Jesus:

"This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God" John 5:18

Was Jesus actually making himself equal with God or was this merely the Jews' accusation? Of course he was claiming personal divinity. This is John's account. Was he also breaking the sabbath? According to the Gospel writer, of course he was.

The book of Hebrews uses the sabbath as a type of Christ. Throughout the epistle the argument is that Jesus is better than the old covenant; better than Moses, priests, the temple, sacrifices, the promised land, etc. And in Hebrews 3 and 4 the author uses the sabbath rest of God at creation as a type of the real rest believers have in Jesus.

Hebrews 3 speaks of the promised rest for Israel in the wilderness. God invited them to enter the promised land and rest. Instead, through unbelief they died in the wilderness. The next generation did enter the promised land with Joshua, but because of unbelief they too did not find the rest. Hundreds of years later the psalmist again offered God's invitation to rest. He termed "today" (the present) as the time when the invitation remained open, saying, "Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion. But his readers didn't receive the rest. The writer of Hebrews again presents the invitation to enter the rest, this time comparing it to the sabbath. He says:

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. (Heb 4:8-10)

What is this sabbath rest? The meaning of the text is better understood with the reading "Sabbath-like rest. That Sabbath-like rest is found in the gospel and those who believe the gospel have already entered that long-promised rest, as Hebrews 4:3 says, "we who have believed enter that rest. The writer then gives his appeal so that all who wish to may enter that rest. Through the gospel of Christ we now have the reality, the true and permanent rest of which the weekly sabbath was only a type, a dim foreshadowing.

Our Salvation Rest in Jesus is as good as it gets.