Sabbath and salvation in the new testament

Second in a two-part series dealing with biblical perspectives of the Sabbath from a redemptive viewpoint

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and church history, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

In the previous article (May 1997) we examined how the Sabbath served in Old Testament times to typify the Messianic redemption to come. The existence of a redemptive typology of the Sabbath has led many Christians to conclude that we no longer need to observe the Sabbath because Christ has fulfilled any such function. As Paul K. Jewett puts it, "by his redemptive work, Jesus sets aside the Sabbath." 1

This article briefly examines some Sabbath passages in Luke, Matthew, and Mark, to determine if Christ's redemptive ministry is viewed in the New Testament as a termination or actualization of the Old Testament Sabbath.

The Sabbath and Messianic expectations

Nazareth Address. Luke introduces Christ as a habitual Sabbathkeeper ("as his custom was" [4:16])* who delivered His inaugural address in the synagogue of Nazareth on a Sabbath day. In that opening address Jesus read and commented on a passage drawn mostly from Isaiah 61:1-3 (also 58:6): "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 op pressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18).

In this passage Isaiah uses Sabbath imagery to describe the liberation the Messiah would bring to His people. Christ used this passage to present Himself to the people as the fulfillment of their Messianic expectations. This is indicated by Jesus' brief exposition of the passage: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (verse 21). This theme of promise and fulfillment is recurrent in all the Gospels, including Luke (Luke 24:44; cf. verses 26,27). But how does the Sabbath fit into this theme? A look at Jesus' Sabbath teaching and His ministry will help to answer this question.

Early Sabbath healings

Christ's announcement of His Messiahship in Nazareth 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 that are present in an embryonic form in these first healing acts are more explicitly associated with the meaning of the Sabbath in the subsequent ministry of Christ.

The healing of the crippled woman, reported only by Luke, further clarifies the relationship between the Sabbath and the Saviour'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" (verse 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?" (verses 15,16).

Arguing from a minor to a major case, Christ showed how the Sabbath had been 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 thus market value), but a suffering woman could not be released on Sabbath 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 was not questioning the validity of the Sabbath commandment, but rather He argued for its true ultimate values, which had been largely obscured by the accumulation of traditions and countless regulations.

Sabbath redemption

The imagery of loosing a victim on the Sabbath 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 liberation of the Messianic Sabbath was being fulfilled (verse 21)?

The connection between the Sabbath and liberation from bondage is recognized, for example, by Paul K. Jewett, who rightly observes: "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."2

Healing people such as the crippled woman are not merely acts of love and com passion, but true "sabbatical acts" that re veal how the Messianic redemption, typified and promised by the Sabbath, was being fulfilled through Christ's saving ministry. Thus as Christ healed the bodies and souls of people on the Sabbath, He reinvested the day with a meaning reminiscent of the exodus of the soul from the bonds of Satan into the freedom of the Saviour.

The Sabbath and rest

Matthew purposely connects two Sabbath episodes recorded in Matthew 12:1-14 to Jesus' great offer of His rest in Matthew 11:28-30: "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."

To understand the nature of the Saviour's rest it is again important to re member that the Sabbath rest in Old Testament times served to nourish the hope of Messianic redemption. The Messianic age was expected to be "entirely Sabbath and rest in the life everlasting."3 In the light of this understanding of the Sabbath rest, by offering His rest Christ disclosed Himself as the Messiah who was to bring the peace and rest typified by the Sabbath.4

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 the Sabbath episodes found in Matthew 12:1-14. Jesus' offer of rest and the Sabbath episodes are connected not only structurally but also temporally by the phrase "at that time" (12:1), as noted by a number of scholars.5 The time referred to is a Sabbath day when Jesus and the disciples went through a field.

The theological connection between the Saviour's rest and the Sabbath is clarified by the two Sabbath episodes. The first story, about the disciples plucking ears of corn on a Sabbath (verses 1-8), interprets Jesus' rest as redemption-rest. This is especially clear because of Christ's appeal to the example of the priests, who worked intensively on the Sabbath in the Temple and yet were "guilt less" (verse 5).

The priests were guiltless, even though on the Sabbath they offered more services and sacrifices (Num. 28:8, 9). They were guiltless because of the redemptive nature of the work they did in their Sabbath services. 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" (Matt.

12:6). The redemption offered typologically through the Temple services and sacrifices performed by the priests6 was being provided realistically through the saving mission of the Son of man, the Messiah. 7 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.8

The second episode, about the healing of the man with the withered hand (verses 9-14), points to the Messianic healing and restoration typified by the Sabbath. As Donald A. Carson points out, the healing of the man with the withered hand "pictures Jesus performing a Messianic healing on that day. Is this not part and parcel of Matthew's fulfillment motifs? The true and real rest to which the Sabbath had always pointed now was dawning."9

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 as Messianic redemption and restoration. Seen in their context, they do not dispense with the Sabbath; they rather actualize it, giving it a fresh Messianic impact.

It is noteworthy that all of the seven Sabbath healings reported in the Gospels are per formed by Christ on behalf of chronically sick persons. These intentional healing acts per formed by Christ on the Sabbath on behalf of incurable persons serve to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled Messianic expectations nourished by the celebration of the Sabbath.

The manner of Sabbathkeeping

The redemptive meaning of the Sabbath is reflected in the manner of Sabbathkeeping. The various Sabbath passages reported in the Gospels reflect the existence of an ongoing controversy between the Christian congregations and the Jewish synagogues, which in some cases may have been located across the street from one another. The controversy centered primarily on the manner of Sabbathkeeping. Was the day to be observed as "sacrifice," that is, as an out ward fulfillment of the Sabbath law? Or was the Sabbath to be observed as "mercy," that is, as an occasion to show compassion and do good to those in need (Matt. 12:7)?

To defend the new Christian under standing of Sabbathkeeping as a day to celebrate Messianic redemption by showing mercy and doing good to those in need, the gospel writers appeal to the example and teaching of Jesus. For example, in the healing of the crippled woman, Luke contrasts two different concepts of Sabbathkeeping: that of the ruler of the synagogue versus that of Christ. For the ruler the Sabbath consisted of rules to obey rather than people to love (Luke 13:14). For Christ the Sabbath was a day to bring physical and spiritual liberation to needy people (verses 12,16).

This humanitarian understanding of the Sabbath is expressed also in the episode of the healing of the man with the withered hand, reported by all the three Synoptics (Mark 3:1-6; Matt. 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). In this instance Jesus responds to the testing question posed by a deputation of scribes and Pharisees regarding the legitimacy of healing on the Sabbath. In His response Jesus asks a question of principle: "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4; see also Luke 6:9).

It is noteworthy that in both Mark and Luke where the verb "to heal" (therapeuein) could logically have been used, instead in Christ's question the verbs "to do good" (agathopoiein) and "to save" (sozein) are used. The reason for this is Christ's concern to include within the intention of the Sabbath law not just one kind, but all kinds of benevolent activities.

The new Christian understanding of the Sabbath is attested also in an early document, known as the Epistle to Diognetus (dated between A.D. 130 and 200), in which the Jews are charged with speaking falsely of God because they claim that "He [God] forbade us to do what is good on the Sabbath days—how is not this impious?"10

In conclusion

The positive humanitarian understanding of Sabbathkeeping is rooted in Christ's fulfillment of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath, which we have seen to be ad dressed in the Gospels in several ways. As New Testament believers viewed the rest and redemption typified by the Old Testament Sabbath and fulfilled through Christ's redemptive mission, they regarded Sabbath as a day to celebrate and experience the Messianic redemption-rest by showing mercy and doing good to those in need. Thus in today's context Christians are called by the Sabbath rest to celebrate not only God's creation but also Christ's redemption by acting mercifully toward others.

This article is the second in a two-part series.
Part 1 appeared in the May 1997 issue of

* Scripture references in this article are from
the Revised Standard Version.

1 Paul K. Jewet,The Lord's Day: A Theological
Guide to the Christiqn Day of Worship
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. House, 1972),
p. 86.

2 Ibid., p. 42.

3 Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, trans. Gerald Friedlander
(NewYork, B. Bloom, 1971),p. 141.

4 For my extensive analysis ofthe literary context
and of the Sabbatical nature of Christ's rest,
see "Matthew 1 l:28-30: Jesus' Rest and the Sabbath'
Andrews University Seminary Studies 22
(Autumn 1984): 289-316.

5 See, for example, J. Danielou, The Bible and
the Liturgy
(South Bend: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1956), p. 226; David Hill, The Gospel
of Matthew
(London: Oliphants Press, I 972 ),
pp.209,210; D. A. Carson, ed., "Jesus and the
Sabbath and the Four Gospels," in From Sabbath
to Lord's Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Pub. House, 1982),p. 66.

6 The book of Jubilees explains that "burning
frankincense and bringing oblation and sacrifices
befo¡e the Lord. . . shall be done on the
Sabbath-days in the sanctuary of the Lord your
God; that they may atone for Israel with sacrifice"
(50:10, I Ì).

7 This view is held by various scholars.
Gerhard Barth, for example, comments that by
the phrase "something greater than the temple is
here . . . undoubtedly Jesus is meant, for in him
the Messianic fulfillment and consummation has
come and he is therefore more than the Temple"
(Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew [Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1963], p. 82).

8 Ellen G. White perceptively notes: "[The
priests] were performing those rites that pointed
to the redeeming power of Christ, and their labor
was in harmony with the object of the Sabbath.
But now Christ Himself had come. The
disciples, in doing the work of Christ, were engaged
in God's service, and that which was necessary
for the accomplishment of this work it was
right to do on the Sabbath day" (The Desire of
Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1898],
p. 28s).

9 Carson, p. 75.

10 Epistle to Diognetus 4,3,i1 The Ante-Nicene
Fathers (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Pub. House, 1973, reprint), vol. l, p.26.

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Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and church history, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1997

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