A SYNAGOGUE, still in the northern province of Galilee, for it was dangerous for Jesus to work in Judea, was the setting of the next incident. A man in the congregation had a withered arm. Among the congregation also were the usual watchers to see whether Christ would heal this man, for it was the Sabbath day. Jesus was more than willing to accept the challenge. He was determined to reinforce His teaching on Sabbath importance and observance. This was an excellent opportunity for Him to dramatize His teaching before the watching people. Therefore Jesus called the man out to the focus of all eyes in the synagogue while He asked the watchers a question. "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil?" In that context, this was a very searching question. The silence grew intense, for this case had probably been rather carefully arranged.
Let me translate Jesus' question into the mode of today: I am driving to church on Sabbath. I see a man on the sidewalk. He has been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver. He is seriously injured, but I drive on, for my preaching appointment admits no delay. I would be justly condemned for my act of omission. This is the argument Christ applied. He said to the intent assemblage: "If I have the power to heal this man whom I may never see again, and I fail to heal him, I am acting by default. I am making a choice. Either I can do good or, by doing nothing, I can do evil. Which action is the best on the Sabbath day?" Again they had no answer.
I want you to notice an extremely significant action taken by the Pharisees. They "straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him" (Mark 3:6). Already Christ's healings on the Sabbath had made it very difficult and dangerous for Him to carry on His ministry in the province of Judea. In view of the authority and power the Herodians could exercise within the northern province of Galilee, it is evident that Jesus would soon face the same difficulties and hazards in that area as in Judea. No longer would He protect Himself by moving and working under a different administration. That their action in consulting the Herodians had this effect is evident, for after this Christ made quite frequent journeys into such regions as Perea, Caesarea Philippi, and other Gentile or semi-Gentile areas. Finally, as His ministry drew to its close, it had become so difficult for Jesus to work in Galilee that on His return to Jerusalem, where the final crisis would take place, He followed the trans-Jordan route through Perea down to Jerusalem. This was a very slow, circuitous journey, with Jesus taking time to preach to vast crowds who came from all directions to hear Him. Seventy disciples went ahead of Him into the towns and villages, telling of Christ's approach and notifying the people of the route He was taking. It was during this journey, that Jesus was involved in another of these Sabbath encounters in the synagogue.
Freedom From Bonds on the Sabbath
On this occasion Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and seeing a woman there who had been crippled for eighteen years, He healed her. She was glorifying God for her marvelous and unexpected deliverance when the president of the synagogue interrupted her and addressed the congregation, telling them that since there were six working days, they could be healed on these. There was positively no need for them to be healed on the Sabbath day. Now there are several points about this incident that are interesting and significant. First, the woman had not come to the synagogue in order to be healed. She had simply come to worship, and the synagogue president would have been most indignant if she had failed to be there. Second, her healing had been the result of Christ's initiative. Why scold the people? Why not challenge Christ, who was directly responsible? It was most unreasonable to blame either the congregation or the woman. Even the president of the synagogue could hardly expect the woman, having been unexpectedly healed, to come to Christ and say: "Please make me the way I was. I would prefer to go on living all doubled up rather than be healed on the Sabbath day. So please put me back the way You found me." Of course, it is rather obvious why he didn't challenge Jesus. In every previous case where the Jews had challenged Christ over the matter of Sabbath observance they had been consistently defeated. This man did not feel capable of debating with the Great Teacher. So he tried the technique of ignoring Jesus and addressing the people, who had hitherto been docile enough.
But now Christ was driving home the full implications to His moral and spiritual victories over the Pharisees. Apparently He particularly disliked the moral cowardice that this man added to his invincible bigotry. Jesus said: " 'What hypocrites you are!' . . . 'Is there a single one of you who does not loose his ox or his donkey from the manger and take it out to water on the Sabbath? And here is this woman, a daughter of Abraham, who has been kept prisoner by Satan for eighteen long years: was it wrong for her to be freed from her bonds on the Sabbath?' " (Luke 13:15-17, N.E.B.).*
But notice the results of Christ's statement at this time. "At these words all his opponents were covered with confusion, while the mass of the people were delighted at all the wonderful things he was doing" (verse 17, N.E.B.* Italics supplied). He had liberated the Sabbath. The common man rejoiced because all the idiocy, all the pedantic nonsense that had clustered around the Jewish law, was being shifted, and this Great Expositor, this Liberator, was making abundant sense of the teachings of God. A broad, strong, and fresh wind was blowing through the moribund institutions of Judaism. A great, new revival impulse, a powerful reformatory movement, was stirring within the Jewish religion, and the friends of the work of God, seeing the onset of this great liberation, rejoiced. But the opposition, which had consolidated against Christ, which had a vested interest in the maintenance of the dry forms of Judaism, were shamed and confused by His actions and His arguments. How amazingly was this Galilean Teacher fulfilling the visions that had been given to the prophet Ezekiel as he lived among the saddened captives by the rivers of Babylon. Truly the dry bones of the house of Israel were standing to their feet. Flesh and sinew were coming upon the bones, and the winds of the Spirit were galvanizing them into life and virtue. As the prophet Isaiah had predicted, He was magnifying the law and making it honorable.
Shortly after this, another incident occurred when He went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees. He had gone to this house as a guest, but notwithstanding "they watched him," for it was the Sabbath day. And there was a man there who had the dropsy (chap. 14:2). Again he is most conveniently placed. Before Jesus performed any miracle, He asked the lawyers and Pharisees who were there at the banquet: "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?" This was the vital question on which the controversy had begun, and this was the issue on which it would end. Jesus did not avoid the question of the Sabbath. This was no minor issue in His career. On this subject He constantly confronted them, drove His lesson home, and ruthlessly exposed their moral paucity and intellectual impotence. Involved in this present group were the most skilled interpretive brains of the nation. Lawyers were here who were famed for their powers of understanding the subtlest nuances of the law. Pharisees were present, those indomitable and valiant defenders of the faith.
Differences Crystallized Over Sabbath Observance
They could choose whom they would to represent them. They could confront Him with the most acute minds available. However, there is seldom gain in killing a man. This merely makes a martyr and creates a shrine to which people will come and sometimes worship. Power applied to crush a man without confounding him first is power misapplied, for the people might ask awkward and inconvenient questions. These leaders were aware of this, for they were not fools. We know that in the last scene at the Temple they brought every resource they had available to prove that He was wrong. Over and over again Christ had said: "Which of you can find Me at fault?" What did they do now? They held their peace. There were many witnesses to this, and the people were frankly puzzled. This Teacher was not a conservative. How could this remarkable but radical Interpreter confront the leaders of the nation on their most deeply held views and each time leave them speechless? The record clearly emphasizes that it was along this very issue of Sabbath observance that all the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees crystallized.
The Day When Life Began Again
Many Christians today call the seventh day the Jewish Sabbath. But as we have seen, there was absolutely no resemblance between the way the Jews taught and kept the Sabbath and the way that Christ did. Yet both recognized the same day. And both were sufficiently conscious of the importance of the day to think that it was worth all this conflict. In fact, it was well understood by both Jesus and the Jewish leaders that the Sabbath and the way it should be kept was the key issue, for it mirrored their essentially different approaches to the law. To say that Jesus had no regard for the law or the Sabbath is to completely miss the point of the whole conflict. This, in fact, was the charge the Pharisees leveled against Him and the charge that Jesus most strenuously denied. Christ made the Sabbath a day of liberation. During His ministry, thousands of people rejoiced because the Sabbath day for them marked the beginning of a new life. Thousands of their friends and acquaintances rejoiced and remembered every seventh day that rolled on its course as the day when their closest and dearest entered a new experience of life and health. There were many who had heard for the first time on the Sabbath day. There were many who on the Sabbath day had looked up into the blue sky and down into the eyes of their own children for the first time, and consequently for the first time had really understood the glories of their Creator and Redeemer. In short, there were many who on the Sabbath day had seen for the first time the real face of God. "My Father works," Jesus had said, "and I work." But what a work it was. Under that combined ministration the Sabbath became the symbol of the liberating glory and power of God. Far from being the crushing, cruel burden it had been under the hand of a constrictive Judaism, it now became the glorious symbol of the freedom of the believer in Christ. It became a sign of the sanctifying and liberating power of the Creator. "But they held their peace." "And they could not answer him again to these things." Impotent in argument, but too obstinate to yield, can leaders find any position or posture more abject?
Sabbath Expressed in Life of Christ
This is the Sabbath bequeathed to us. The basis of Sabbathkeeping is not only the fact that it was announced with fire and smoke, amid the tremblings of the people, on Mount Sinai. And wonderful as was the fact that it was written by the finger of God upon tables of stone and enunciated from a quaking mountain, yet the mightiest expression of the Sabbath is that this law was written in the heart of a Man who went about doing good and emancipating people. Action, living and dynamic, is more powerful than inorganic, static fact. I can see the Sabbath, expressed in the life of Jesus Christ, and I can believe that His power to keep the day is mine, because He has forgiven me my derelictions, because if I make mistakes I have an Advocate, and because He will work in me by His Spirit to give me the feeling for the Sabbath that He had. In Him, the Example, the Sabbath had its most glorious expression.
We do not take the Sabbath from the Jews. We take it from Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:2, "Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men." Because the law was first written in the living heart of Jesus Christ, it can be written in the hearts of His people by the Spirit. And it is the Christian Sabbath, because He is the Lord of that Sabbath. It is not merely the Jewish Sabbath, for Christ Himself said: "The sabbath was made for man." It was the Jew who arrogated to himself all the blessings of the law and expelled the rest of humanity. But in Christ all men find their salvation, and since Jesus thus becomes their Lord, He also is to them both lawgiver and friend. The law is part of the great act of God through Jesus Christ. It is significant that when He died He rested in the tomb for the twenty-four hours of the Sabbath. By so doing He marked indelibly the importance and significance of the day.
It has frequently been argued that, although Jesus went along to some extent with the Jewish point of view while clarifying and broadening it, He left it to His followers to change the day in order to glorify before the Greek and Roman world the tremendous fact of the resurrection. Further, it is added that since most of Christ's ministry was directed to the Jews, He confined Himself to Jewish establishment and institutions, but that the disciples, whom He left behind, were to operate within the broader compass, and that they acted accordingly. It is indeed very true that the Christian church had great difficulty in breaking away from its Jewish swaddling bands, and Paul in particular was in conflict in many of the churches and with other disciples concerning this question. Because of this, Paul has gone down as the representative of the anti-Judaistic mind. This is probably taking it too far, but certainly no one would question that he was the supreme emancipator of the Christian church from those things which might be marked as narrowly Judaistic.
Using this approach, some have argued that Paul was particularly instrumental in introducing the "Christian sabbath," the first day of the week, and that he only preached in synagogues on the seventh day because this was where he would find the Jews, and it was his practice to preach first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
Sabbath Kept Whether Popular or Unpopular
On the surface, this argument seems to have some merit. But at Philippi the Jews were exceedingly unpopular. Paul and Silas derived no advantage from worshiping in the small building on the riverside where only a few people were in the habit of gathering. In fact, it placed them at a very considerable disadvantage, for later that day their accusers, the owners of the demented girl whom they had healed, found it useful to say before the magistrates: "These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city." They realized that the accusation that Paul and Silas had healed a sick maid would have little weight. So they seized upon a factor in the situation that would certainly predispose the authorities against the two men—the fact that they were Jews. And it worked. For without further inquiry the praetors had the two men beaten and thrown into jail, to their later consternation when they discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen whom they had flogged without even the semblance of a trial. In the light of these circumstances it would be rather absurd to argue that the two Christian missionaries went down to the river as part of an evangelistic strategy. Any intelligent policy would have forbidden them identifying themselves with the "Jewish" Sabbath and would have urged them to approach these Macedonians in an entirely different fashion. Evidently the reason for their worship activities in Philippi was their belief that the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, and that on this day they must worship, whether or not the Jews were unpopular in that particular city. Certainly their unfortunate experience in Philippi curtailed any further work in that place.
Fundamental Not Tacked On
All the evidence that we can weigh is positively in favor of the fact that there is only one Christian Sabbath. When we preach the Sabbath from the Old Testament, from the ministry of Christ, from the Epistles, we are preaching a vitally central facet of the Christian revelation. We are not tacking on a circumstantial detail to an evangelistic program. The Sabbath is a fundamental and central segment of the commandments of God, recognized by Jesus Christ as such and by Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
Therefore, when we preach the Sabbath we must preach it as a Christ-centered doctrine. When engaged in an evangelistic campaign I was talking to a man who said, "In my opinion there is only one thing that is really necessary for salvation."
"What is that?" I asked.
"To believe in Jesus Christ," he replied.
"I cordially agree with you." And then I added, "What do you understand by believing in Jesus Christ?"
"Well, I believe He died for me."
"Yes, that's true. What else?"
"I believe that He is my example." "Excellent. Now, what was His attitude to the Sabbath?"
I say main in tl,e best evidence we have for the Sabbath is the ministry of Jesus.