Sunday, December 05, 2021

Seven Sabbaths

Quick question: How many Sabbaths was the Lord Jesus accused of breaking?

Well, we can’t say for certain, as there is no guarantee the writers of the Gospels were attempting to document every occasion on which the Jewish leadership became offended with him for allegedly doing it.

What we do know is that the first four books of the New Testament make reference to seven occasions when the Lord explained the reasons for his behavior.

You may also find it interesting that each time the Lord engaged with the Pharisees, he employed slightly different lines of argument. If ever greater patience were displayed in the face of superstitious legalism, I can’t think when it might be.

Remember the Sabbath Day …

On the seventh day God rested, and he blessed it. Technically, that was the first Sabbath.

2,500 years later in the wilderness of Sin, God made the Sabbath a law for his people. The weekly one-day rest was originally instituted in connection with God’s provision of manna from heaven. It was a test to see whether the Israelites could be trusted to obey God’s law. Still, that first Sabbath was not without benefits for those tested: bread for sustenance and rest for refreshment. Even the laws of nature behaved differently. Bread that fell to the ground every day during the week did not fall on the Sabbath. Bread that bred worms and stank during the week did not rot on the Sabbath.

Lessons reinforced by miracles are surely taken to heart, right?


The Sabbath and Human Nature

Like all God’s laws, the Sabbath also revealed human nature. It’s good for us to know what we are actually made of. So the inaugural Sabbath day was broken by Israelites who didn’t take God seriously.

Worse, by the first century AD, Jewish religious leaders had wholly corrupted the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath, turning it into a burden rather than a blessing. It became perhaps the greatest bone of contention in the Gospel record. On one side, Jesus, patiently explaining what God had intended when he ordained it. On the other, institutional religious forces blindly and mechanically enforcing a tradition they didn’t understand.

So then, without further ado, here are the seven occasions on which the Lord brought up the Sabbath issue or responded to the accusations of the Pharisees. I doubt they are in chronological order.

1/ Ears of Corn

Around the time Jesus began to denounce the cities in which he had performed miraculous works for their lack of repentance and hardness of heart, he and his disciples were passing through grain fields on the Sabbath. The hungry disciples began to pluck heads of grain to eat. Observing this, self-righteous Pharisees charged them with breaking the law by “working” on the Sabbath, a very serious accusation. There are three versions of this story in three Gospels, and we find Jesus coming to the defense of the disciples with three distinguishable arguments.

The first is based on Old Testament precedent. The Lord cites two examples: (1) David ate the bread of the presence under exigent circumstances and was not condemned for it; and (2) the priests “work” every Sabbath and are held guiltless. If you condemn the disciples for their actions, you are condemning both the institution of the priesthood and the greatest king in Israel’s history.

The second is an argument from authority: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” If you are in the presence of the one who instituted the Sabbath, you cannot presume to interpret its meaning more faithfully than the one who instituted it in the first place.

The third justification, which we find in Mark’s account, is a theological argument: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This truth is specifically spelled out in Exodus. The Pharisees could hardly contest it. (That man was not made for the Sabbath can also be inferred from the fact that the human race existed for 2,500 years before God ever required the observance of a Sabbath rest, and even then it was only for one tiny nation.)

2/ The Man with the Withered Hand

Matthew and Luke record the story of the Lord’s healing of a man with a withered hand. It is immediately apparent the Lord was looking to engage with his detractors. Luke mentions at the onset that Jesus was being watched, and he surely knew it. Moreover, the contentious healing was only performed “after looking all around at them”. The Lord paused, took stock of the hostile reaction of the Jewish authorities, then proceeded to heal anyway. We may reasonably conclude he was deliberately tweaking them.

In this instance, the Lord’s defense is priority: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” If you would lift a sheep in distress out of a pit on the Sabbath, how much more important is a man?

3/ The Woman with a Disabling Spirit

Luke records the story of a woman who had been bent over for eighteen years and could not stand up straight as a result of spiritual affliction. Again, this takes place in a synagogue. Confronted with the indignation of the synagogue ruler, Jesus replies, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

Depending on how we read it, the Lord’s justification may be either the urgency or the appropriateness of the healing. He may be saying, “She has suffered long enough, and should not have to wait another day.” Alternatively, he may be saying that, in the eyes of God, the Sabbath day is the most appropriate possible time (“ought not”) for such a sufferer to be delivered from her suffering. Either way, nobody present had a smart comeback for that.

4/ The Man with Dropsy

This is Luke again, on yet another Sabbath day, this time at dinner at the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees. A man present is suffering from an accumulation of fluid in the tissues which today we would probably call edema or congestive heart failure. Once again, Luke makes sure we know that Jesus knew every eye was on him when he graciously healed the man, and once again, that nobody had a word of reply for his argument.

What was his point this time? Consistency. “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” It was blatant hypocrisy to charge the Lord with Sabbath-breaking for doing something more urgent and necessary than anything they would have done themselves in good conscience.

5/ A Paralytic in Bethesda

At the pool at Bethesda on a Sabbath day, the Lord comes across a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years and asks him if he wants to be healed. Receiving the answer yes, the Lord commands him to take up his bed and walk, and he does so.

It is difficult to see this as anything but a deliberate provocation of the Jews. Jesus could have told the man to leave his bedding behind to avoid drawing attention. But not only does he do the “work” of healing, he also commands the healed man to carry his bed away in plain sight of all. The argument he makes in this case comes from his special relationship to the Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” If the Father chooses to do a work on the Sabbath, then surely it is appropriate for his only begotten Son to work alongside him.

6/ In the Temple

Jesus makes a secret trip to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths, and unexpectedly appears at the temple to teach. A crowd of religious leaders marvels at the authority with which he speaks, and the Lord takes the opportunity to bring up the contentious issue of his alleged Sabbath-breaking. In this case, he makes his argument on the basis of their own religious practice. The Jews were unoffended by a circumcision performed on the Sabbath, though it was indisputably a “work”, because it kept the law of circumcision.

The practice of the Jewish leadership demonstrated that keeping the Sabbath was not a universal necessity. Other matters might affect how the Sabbath law was applied, including the obligation to keep other aspects of the law.

7/ The Beggar Born Blind

Here is the rare case of a public healing that was not performed in front of the Pharisees, but ended up in their hands anyway. On leaving the temple, the Lord Jesus passes by a beggar who has been blind from birth. Jesus heals him by spitting on the ground, making mud with his saliva, and anointing the beggar’s eyes. Then he sends him to the pool of Siloam to wash it out, resulting in his healing. By this time Jesus is elsewhere, so the dispute over the healing is between the man Jesus healed and the Pharisees to whom he is brought.

The explanation Jesus gives for “breaking” the Sabbath in this instance is opportunity: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” The “we” implies this is a private explanation to the disciples rather than a defense to the Pharisees, but it stands as yet another reason that keeping the Sabbath was a lower priority than doing the work of God.

The Point

So then, we have seven occasions of contention, and as many as ten explanations for the Lord’s behavior. Which brings up a fairly important question: Why was the Sabbath such a big deal for the Lord? Why was it so important that the Pharisees be repeatedly called to account for their legalism in public?

This was no merely technical issue of Old Testament interpretation. The Pharisees were purporting to represent the Father. They presumed to interpret the Law of Moses for the masses; to speak on God’s behalf.

What were they saying about him? Well, it was a complete misrepresentation, wasn’t it. The Pharisees’ God didn’t refresh you; he left you always looking over your shoulder in case you were about to be clobbered for some minor violation. The Pharisees’ God was a petty tyrant, not a gracious provider. Instead of being present and working in his children’s interest, the Pharisees’ God was distant and uninterested; even his punishments were administered through proxies. The Pharisees’ God was more interested in tedious administrative detail than in meeting his children’s needs. The Pharisees’ God was less loving toward his children than the Pharisees were to their own.

This is the way legalists always present God to a needy world. If you come across it today in institutional churches, you’ll find it’s just as false and unappealing a presentation as it was in the first century.

Let me suggest the Lord’s concern was less about the Sabbath than it was about the gross misrepresentation of his Father, to which he provided about as extensive a rejoinder as can possibly be imagined.

The Lord of the Sabbath

So how many Sabbaths did the Lord really break?

You know it’s a trick question. None, of course. The Lord of the Sabbath cannot break what he made.

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