The day of rest
- Order of Service: Service of the Word, p38
- Lessons: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-28
- Hymns: 229, 285 (1-3, 11-12), 610, 321
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
According to Jewish sources, on the Sabbath you may do no creative work. You may do nothing that changes your environment. You cannot carry something into or out of a “domain,” defined as a circumscribed area, like a house, or a city. You can’t make work for others. You can’t light a fire, that includes not changing your thermostat and making sure to unscrew the light bulb on your fridge. In addition, you are forbidden from doing any of the following on a Sabbath:
- Chain stitching
You can understand these prescriptions as wrestling with the LORD saying, On it you shall not do any work (Deut. 5:14, NIV84). Of course, words like that from the LORD will lead to the question, “What is work?” When God has a man put to death because he gathered wood on the Sabbath, you understand He’s serious. When He says, “Don’t even light a fire,” you understand He’s serious. When He says, “This isn’t just about the rich head of household not working, but every single person in the house down to the lowest slave and animal,” you know He’s serious. When God yelled at the Israelites who went looking for manna on the Sabbath day, you understand that He’s serious about this Sabbath thing.
Jesus, not surprisingly then, takes some flak for letting his disciples break Sabbath regulations. Picking heads of grain and, as Luke tells us, rubbing it into their hands so as to eat the kernels, was considered reaping. And when confronted, Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, yeah, you’re right, sorry. Hey, fellas, stop it!” No, He cites an ancient precedent, the story of David and Abiathar the priest, and says, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28, NIV84). We know Jesus isn’t a sarcastic fellow. He doesn’t say black simply to spite the Pharisees saying white. Jesus isn’t an anarchist who couldn’t care less about the rules. In the Sermon on the Mount He says, Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished…. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-18, 20, NIV84). We also know that Jesus observed the Sabbath. Luke says that He customarily went to church on the Sabbath with His fellow Jews.
So, were the Pharisees technically right? Perhaps. And yet Jesus defends His disciples. He uses two examples and then two words of God. To hear Jesus’ full defense, you have to incorporate Matthew’s telling of this same story. Jesus’ two examples were David and Abiathar and the priests offering Sabbath sacrifices. 1 Samuel 21 tells us about David, not yet king, fleeing from Saul, and coming to the town of Nob and the priests there. He asks for food, whatever they have. The priest volunteers that all they have is the special bread placed before the Lord, which later becomes the priest’s food – and only the priest’s food. Jesus makes it sound like David took the unlawful food. Samuel makes it clear that the priest offered the special bread to David out of compassion, seeing their great need. Technically, the priest could have said, “I have no bread for you.” But then he’d be breaking the fifth commandment, treating David as if he wished David were dead. So he offered David the bread and David took it, because he and his men were hungry.
On another Sabbath, Jesus makes a similar point when he brings a crippled man among them and says, Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill (Mark 3:4, NIV84). Because Jesus’ enemies knew the answer, they remained silent. Jesus got angry and healed the man. This led Jesus later to say, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men’ (Mark 7:6-7, NIV84). The silence sealed the deal. The teachers knew that the Sabbath laws were not absolute, that is, that there were exceptions to the rule. If your ox or donkey falls into a pit, you can pull it out. If your friend gets in an accident, you can help him. If your house is on fire you can carry items out. Even on the Sabbath. Jesus further hoisted the Pharisees on their own petard according to Matthew, when He reminded them that priests offered sacrifices on the Sabbath. They worked and desecrated the Sabbath, yet were not punished for it.
These two illustrations – three if we count the Sabbath healing – lead to Jesus’ conclusions. First, from Matthew, If you understood God’s word, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not condemn the innocent (12:7, NIV84). “Look where all the rules, policies, and by-laws get you, my pharisaical friends. You spend your entire life tying up loads and putting them on your backs and your friend’s backs. And then you think you’re so wonderful because you have never picked grain on the Sabbath, or kneaded dough, or mended the hole in your child’s tunic. And you yell at the person who does such a thing for someone else out of mercy and love. You’ve turned man into a slave of the Sabbath.” This leads to Jesus’ second conclusion, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28, NIV84). “My friends, God didn’t create the Sabbath and then say, ‘Gosh, I need someone to do this resting and make sure not to do these 700 forms of work.’ He made the Sabbath for man’s sake, to help man. He knew man would work himself to death and ignore the Lord, so He set aside a time of rest for body and soul, a day to do as God did on the seventh day, a day to remember the delivery from slavery in Egypt, the delivery from sin which I, the Christ, also give you.”
So again, Jesus doesn’t abolish the Sabbath here. He explains the Sabbath. Even though He doesn’t use His Sermon on the Mount formula: “You’ve heard it said…but I tell you,” it’s there. “You think the Sabbath is about this or that outward behavior. You think because you didn’t ‘work’ today you’ve kept the Sabbath. I tell you, as the Lord of the Sabbath, the Creator and Institutor of the Sabbath, that the day is about my mercy to you, not your sacrifice to me. It is a holy day, not because you make it holy with your holiness, but because you set it apart, that is, make it holy, by giving it to Me, to your Lord, to your Savior. Because what you need – rest – I give you. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV84).
So the Sabbath is both abolished and not abolished. On the one hand, Paul says, Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day (Colossians 2:16, NIV84) and One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike (Romans 14:5, NIV84). We are not bound to the Sabbath as Old Testament Israel was, because that Law was only in place until Christ came. And yet, the Sabbath is not abolished. But it’s been freed from me. We still need rest this side of heaven. But rest is not found in my successful completion of this or that regulation, whether it’s the Sabbath or any other work of God or man. The Law will not bring you rest, it always accuses, always crushes, and always says, “Do more. Work harder.” We find rest in Christ, the Bringer and Giver of Sabbath rest, the One who worked Himself to death so that we might live. And then says, “Have the results of My work. Let My work give you rest. Let My work refresh you.” In this way, Jesus, the Son of Man, shows His lordship over the Sabbath. He makes your time in and with the Word whenever and wherever that is, your time receiving God’s precious forgiveness-delivering Sacrament with your fellow believers, He makes those times your Sabbath, your rest. It’s when you’re with Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, who reminds you that He gives you rest. Eternal rest. Amen.