BIBLICAL theology and anthropology envision God as Creator and man as creature, and the supreme goal of man's existence to be to apprehend God, to enter into a vital relationship with Him, and voluntarily to fulfill the Creator's purpose for him. To this end God ordained a special revelation of Himself, a special place where man might commune with Him, and a special time for such communion—the Scripture, the temple, and the Sabbath. In this study we are concerned with the attitude and practice of Christ and His followers with respect to Sabbath observance in New Testament times.
The New Testament accepts the God of the Old Testament as the true God; it does not reject Him and substitute another in His place. Similarly, it accepts the Old Testament as a special revelation of the true God, and amplifies it. In like manner, the New Testament accepts the seventh-day Sabbath as the norm of Christian practice. This basic relationship between the Old and the New is evident in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus declares that He had not " 'come to abolish the law and the prophets; . . . but to fulfil them' " (Matt. 5:17, R.S.V.). He came, as foretold, "to magnify his law and make it glorious" (Isa. 42:21, R.S.V.). In this fundamental statement of the principles of the new covenant Jesus cites and amplifies six precepts from the Torah.
In the former revelation emphasis seems to focus on the negative aspect of the Sabbath, on what was not to be done on that day. In the new revelation emphasis is placed on its positive aspect, on its nature and purpose. Popular religion in Christ's day portrayed God as an austere and exacting taskmaster, and man as a hapless bond servant indentured for life to a regimen of jots and tittles by the punctilious observance of which he could earn merit before God. It emphasized the mortifying letter of the law and was blind to its life-giving spirit.
The fourth command of the Decalogue has both negative and positive aspects. It specifies that on the Sabbath "thou shalt not do any work," but it also affirms what is to be done: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day" (Ex. 20:8, 11). The word shabbath means "cessation." Man was to cease from his own round of activities, not as an end in itself, but in order that he might have time to remember his Creator and to cultivate a right relationship with Him. But the day was not intended to be a vacuum; cessation was not its ultimate objective, but a sine qua non to an infinitely more important objective. Man was to forget his own immediate concerns in order that he might remember his Creator.
The Sabbath Was Made for Man
By His own precept and example our Lord affirmed the continuing relevance of the Sabbath. His declaration recorded in Mark 2:27, that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath," reflects the theology and anthropology of the Sermon on the Mount. Man was prior to the Sabbath, both in point of time and in importance. God did not have a sacrosanct day hedged about by an infinite number of restrictions, and therefore created someone to observe it. Me genoito! It was designed to lift man's eyes from temporalities to things of eternal value, to fix his eyes on his Creator and on the infinite purpose that gave him being.
Man is therefore more important than the Sabbath; he is greater than the Sabbath. The Sabbath was designed to provide him with time for entering into the vital relationship with God that his Creator intended, not to deprive him of time for his own temporal activities. In thus ceasing from his own activities he would be complying with the principle enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount, of seeking first the kingdom and righteousness of God, assured that temporal necessities would be his as well (Matt. 6:33). Emphasis on the negative aspect of the Sabbath makes it a burden; on its positive aspect, a blessing. In Mark 2:27 our Lord sets the Sabbath free from the negative shackles forged for it by narrow, legalistic minds, in order that it may serve man as the Creator originally intended.
In the kingdom of divine grace our Lord established at His first advent there was no room for a negative, legalistic observance of the Sabbath, but there was as much need as ever for the positive blessing the Sabbath was designed to afford. Furthermore, He is "Lord ... of the sabbath." By placing the day under His own jurisdiction He removes it from all human tampering, either to place additional restrictions upon it or to remove those that He attached to it. The purpose of the Sabbath as set forth in Mark 2:27, 28 affirms its continuing validity for Christians.
The Seven Sabbath Miracles
Like the grainfield incident out of which the declaration, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath," grew, the Sabbath miracles of our Lord illustrate the principle it sets forth. The seven Sabbath miracles were all miracles of healing: (1) the invalid at Bethesda, John 5:2-15; (2) the demoniac in the synagogue, Mark 1:21-28; (3) Peter's mother-in-law, Mark 1:29-31; (4) the man with a withered hand, Mark 3:1-6; (5) the man born blind, John 9:1-41; (6) the crippled woman, Luke 13: 10-17; and (7) the man with dropsy, Luke 14:1-4.
Five of these miracles incurred opposition from the religious leaders of the day and provided Jesus with an opportunity to defend His course of action and explain the purpose of the Sabbath. In each instance He points to the principle set forth in Mark 2:27, about the Sabbath being made for man, that is, for man's benefit. In contrast, those who objected to the Sabbath miracles took the position that man was made for the Sabbath—that is, to keep it. In effect, they made the Sabbath out to be against man's best interests. Jesus, however, declared that whatever needs to be done on the Sabbath to benefit man is in harmony with its purpose.
The Sabbath thus became one of the major points of conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. All were in complete agreement as to the validity of the Sabbath as an institution, and its identity with the seventh day of the week, but they disagreed fundamentally as to its purpose, and thus as to the way it should be kept. When the religious leaders accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, He pointed out that His Father was still at work on the Sabbath day to bless men. It was therefore appropriate for Him, as the One sent from God and as man's example, to work on the Sabbath day to bless men (John 5:17, 19).
To the invalid healed at Bethesda Jesus said, "See, you are well! Sin no more" (John 5:14, R.S.V.). Physical healing was accompanied by healing of the soul as well as the body, and both were appropriate to the Sabbath day. By heeding Christ's command the invalid found healing of body. In a similar way, those who heed His words will pass from spiritual disease and death to spiritual health and life (verse 24). All who, like the invalid, " 'hear the voice of the Son of God . . . will live' " (verse 25, R.S.V.).
Jesus challenged the self-appointed guardians of the Sabbath who were on hand when He healed the man with a withered hand, " 'Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?' " (Mark 3:4, R.S.V.). This question set the issue in sharp focus: to heal the withered hand would be to "save life," to neglect the opportunity to do so would, in effect, be "to kill." A letter-of-the-law observance of the Sabbath kills, whereas a spirit-of-the-law observance imparts life. In hardness of heart—deliberate obtuseness of mind— these punctilious guardians of the Sabbath refused to recognize its life-giving purpose, and began to lay plans to kill the Lord of the Sabbath (verse 6).
"He does not keep the sabbath," the religious leaders complained once more when Jesus restored sight to the man born blind'(John 9:16, N.E.B.).* Their letter-of-the-law attitude toward the Sabbath led them to excommunicate the blind man from the synagogue and to reject Jesus as not "from God" (verse 16, R.S.V.). Jesus' concept of the Sabbath led to an appreciation of God's infinite goodness; the legalistic concept of the Sabbath alienates men from God by leading them to misconstrue His character and His dealings with men.
The ruler of the synagogue was indignant when Jesus set a crippled woman free from her infirmity on the Sabbath day. Jesus accused him of hypocrisy, in that he would provide for the needs of his ox or his ass on the Sabbath, but not for the needs of a human being. He would loose his ox or his ass in order to lead it from the manger to water, but he was unwilling to see a daughter of Abraham loosed on the Sabbath day from the bond that crippled her. He was a hypocrite for pretending that God is less interested in the well-being of His earthly sons and daughters than he, the ruler of the synagogue, was in the well being of his domestic animals. In the home of a Pharisee Jesus again raised the same question of lawful Sabbath conduct prior to healing a man of dropsy, and defended His course of action by citing the case of an ox or an ass that had fallen into a well and needed rescue. If animal needs were to be supplied on the Sabbath, how much more, human need?
In each of these altercations the basic question was not the validity of the Sabbath as a divine institution, but its nature and purpose. The Creator intended it to be for man's good, both physical and spiritual. Jesus was clearly for the Sabbath, but against all negative human restrictions that hinder the attainment of its positive objectives.
(To be continued)
*The New English Bible, New Testament. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961. Reprinted by permission.