Skip to content

Christ and the Sabbath


As we come to a Sabbath day, what kind of feelings do you have about the day?  Is it a blessing or a burden?  Is it an occasion for renewal or a day of don’ts? Is it a day of gladness as the hymn suggests or a day of sadness?

Perhaps it would be appropriate to remind ourselves that long ago Jesus laid down the basic principle that should guide our practice. It is found in the familiar gospel passage in Matthew 12:1-8 (the same story is also found in the other Synoptic Gospels—in Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5).  Having just written about the rest Jesus gives in Matthew 11:29-30, Matthew 12:1-8 (RSV) continues:

“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of grain and to eat.  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’  He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?  Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  And if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.’”

If we were to continue reading the rest of the chapter we would find the whole chapter delineates the growing alienation between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day.  It is obvious from the episode that we just quoted that they have formed a very poor opinion of Jesus and his followers.

In Matthew 11:19 they have already called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”  If a man is known by the company he keeps they figured Jesus was pretty immoral.  Worse than that even, in the story of the paralytic in Matthew 9:3, they accuse Jesus of being irreligious, capable even of blasphemy.  Later in Matthew 12 (verse 24), when Jesus heals the dumb man, they call him an ally of Satan. In other words, Jesus can do nothing right. The smallest most innocent action is an offence.

So the passage we’re looking at is another of these “controversy stories.” It is obvious that Sabbath observance was one of the leading causes of conflict between Jesus and the guardians of religion and morality. What was his offence? Verse 1 says as Jesus and his disciples were passing through a field of ripening grain, his disciples were hungry. They reached out and picked a few ears of grain; Luke (6:1) adds that they rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. According to the Greek, no sooner had they begun to do this, than fault was found.  Apparently the Pharisees were on the lookout for an offence.

Ordinarily there would have been no problem with helping oneself in a field to satisfy hunger (this specifically allowed in Deuteronomy 23:25), but according to the complaint in our verse 2, what was lawful on other days was not lawful on the Sabbath.  To pick ears of grain was technically to reap and to rub away the husk was technically to thresh.  And these acts of harvesting were two of the 39 principal classes of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath (Ex. 34:21). 

Well, characteristically, Jesus came to the defense of his followers. (Parenthetically we might add that he is still defending his followers—that’s an Adventist insight that grows out of our view of what is happening in the heavenly sanctuary; but that’s another story).  Jesus’ defense to the Pharisees that day was two-fold. First he used two Old Testament examples to which his faultfinders would have to defer; then he delineated the principals involved in these examples.

Jesus’ first example concerned David, their hero, who had broken the Sabbath when overcome by human hunger. The full story is told in 1 Samuel 21: 1-6. There we learn that as a fugitive David went to the high priest in the sanctuary and asked for food. The only bread available was the “showbread” from the tabernacle.  These were  the loaves, twelve in number, according to Lev. 25 :5 which were placed weekly, on the Sabbath (Lev. 24:8), before the Lord’s presence. The old loaves could then be eaten by the priests. The fact that these loaves were available for David and his men implies it was on the Sabbath, when the bread had been changed.

In other words, Jesus was reasoning that if David, whose righteousness was taken for granted, could take the showbread from the tabernacle on the Sabbath to feed his famished men, then certainly his own disciples were justified in picking a few ears of grain on the Sabbath to satisfy their hunger. Furthermore, Jesus may not only have been arguing on the basis of a precedent, but could very well have been pointing to himself as the new chosen king.

So Jesus’ first example was uniquely appropriate. It was a case of eating.  It probably happened on the Sabbath; and it concerned not only David but as in Jesus’ case, his follower.

Jesus’ second example reflects his knowledge of Jewish law. He reminds his accusers that the priests in the temple, in the regular discharge of their sacrificial duties, were technically breaking the Sabbath law. But since Numbers 28: 9-10 prescribes Sabbath sacrifices, the priests were accounted guiltless.  From the second century on, the rabbinical rule was that obligations of the Torah which cannot possibly be discharged on Friday, “override the Sabbath.”  In other words they take precedence over the Sabbath law.

After offering these two Old Testament examples in his disciples’ defense, Jesus goes on to delineate the principles involved. The Pharisees were men of rules.  Rules they could understand. But their passion for minutiae often killed reflection. So Jesus had to spell out for them the principles behind the rules.  He did so in inverse order to the order in which the examples were cited. So first he commented on the example of the priests in the temple and how their Sabbath work took precedence over the Sabbath Law. Though they might not have thought of it before, the claim of the temple to overrule the Sabbath law would be admitted by the Pharisees.  So Jesus could base his argument on it with even greater force.  In Matt. 12:6 Jesus says that just as the Sabbath law must give way to the temple and its higher interests, so the temple must give way to something higher still.  What was that something? Probably Christ himself (unless Jesus was thinking of the kingdom rather than the King). In that case what really took precedence was the kingdom of God even then breaking in upon them.

Then going back to the example of David eating the showbread, in verse 7, Jesus states the principle of human need. He does so in terms of the prophetic oracle found in Hosea 6:6.  There we learn that love and mercy are more important than sacrifice and the knowledge of God—which means an experiential relationship with him-–is more important than burnt offerings.  Jesus implied that the criticism of the Pharisees was not due to enlightenment but to ignorance. Their objection to what the disciples did was not due to their perfect understanding of the deep things of God; it was due to their blindness and misunderstanding of them. 

What is the conclusion we are to draw from the words or of Jesus? The disciples of Jesus are guiltless of Sabbath breaking just as David through hunger and the priests when sub-ordinating temple to Sabbath requirements.

Why? That depends just how we understand the last verse of the passage.  Verse 8 says “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”  Who is the “Son of Man” here? Though some have suggested it means “mankind” here or any human being, I think it unlikely that Jesus would have said that man was Lord of the Sabbath–the Sabbath which had been instituted by God at creation. That would be usurping God’s prerogative.

On the other hand I doubt whether “Son of Man” refers to Jesus as Messiah, either, as it sometimes does. If it did I suppose it would simply assert the authority of him who bears the title to determine how the Sabbath is to be observed in the Kingdom of God.  But over in Mark 2:28, the parallel passage, we have the substance of this verse but it is prefaced with verse 27 which says “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” I think that’s a hint for how to interpret “Son of man.”  The title certainly refers to Jesus, but to him not as an exceptional man but as the representative man, the one maintaining solidarity with humanity. What our text is saying is that as the Pharisees stood for the supposed divine interest, Jesus stood for the human interest—and of course the real divine interest was identical with the human.

So the real difference between Jesus and the religious leaders was their respective ideas of God—both with regard to his character and his requirements.

Jesus’s main points were that weekly Sabbath rest is a beneficent institution—God’s holiday for weary humans.  It is a means of grace, a divine provision by which humans receive help and strength and blessings—not something by which they are to be bound, fastened and burdened.  Therefore the kingdom of God—whose royal law is love—has no interest in its abolition. Already in Isaiah’s time (Isa. 14:3) the Sabbath had come to be a symbol of the peace, restoration, and well-being of Israel.  It was to be one of the signs of the Messianic Age. Jesus was indicating by his words and actions that, for those ready to respond, the kingdom he announced showed the marks of the promised Sabbath of Israel. But as Lord-of-the-Sabbath Jesus might violate the traditions of the elders in the process of fulfilling the Sabbath according to the intention of God’s heart. Because the Sabbath was made for human beings and not vice versa, as Son of Man, Jesus is really entitled to represent the human interest with regard to the Sabbath as opposed to the falsely conceived divine interest as championed by the Pharisees. This was what finally got to them.  When the young Galilean peasant claimed a prerogative which is a prerogative of Deity, when he dared to reinterpret the most sacred symbol of Judaism– indeed the only symbol peculiar to Judaism; when the challenge to their religious authority became clear, they decided the only thing they could do with him was to disprove his claims by killing him.

Does it give you pause that it was because of our Lord’s attitude toward the Sabbath and what it stood for that these men decided to kill him?  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only- begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

What are the implications to be drawn from this gospel passage about the Sabbath for us Sabbath– keepers here in the 21st century?

If one really ponders Jesus’ words “the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath,” it sets forth a revolutionary principle.  No limits can be set to its application to life and human experience. Jesus’ word provides a final test for all institutions, including those of religion itself.  The validity of every institution is determined by the degree in which the institution meets this test. “Does it serve people?” If it doesn’t, then it has failed.

Jesus applied this test fearlessly and rigorously to the Sabbath.  How it had become burdened down with traditional accretions! People ended serving it rather than the Sabbath serving them.

How about the institutional church? How often it has been dominated by the illusion that it was sacred in itself.  Church history tells us it has often been occupied with aggrandizement, power, and pageantry, and then has lost sight of the fact that its true and only authority lies in its service to human needs.

How about the law? Sometimes we speak of its sanctity. There is a true sanctity in law, but it derives from the law’s service to human need: spiritual, civic and material and from its power to adjust itself to the changing needs which come with changed conditions. Jesus even saw the law regulating marriage in this light. What about the Church Manual? Do we ever use it to hurt rather than serve God’s interest in those for whom he died?

How about the nation? The state, too, is made for man, not the man for the state.  Eastern Europe finally discovered this.  In our rejection of all totalitarian dictatorships we accept this principle of Jesus. But sometimes we forget to apply it to the formulation of national policy—such as in economic sphere. The nation exists primarily for the welfare of its people, not to underwrite outmoded notions of absolute sovereignty, or to throw its economic and military weight about in any sort of promotion of its prestige and power or to perpetuate injustice, no matter how entrenched by time and custom. I wonder if the U.S. Congress knows that?

The educational institution, the medical institution, the business, the home–all fall under the judgment of the principle promulgated by Jesus.  His words, carried to their logical implication mean that no institution is sacred in itself.  People are sacred. Any final authority and sanctity that an institution deserves comes from its service to the wide variety of human need.

Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25, where people are pictured as being judged by their sensitivity to those needs, is a powerful dramatization of the principle of the final test of service. In other words Sabbath equals user-friendly.  When the gospel says in Christ, there is no male or female, what would Jesus say about ordination? What about services to human need?

I must not close without a caution, however. The human claim is not absolute.  An individual has no right to ignore the authority that derives from, for instance, church or state.  Jesus left the room for duty to both church and state.  Furthermore, an individual has no right to do whatever he or she will with the Sabbath.  For many in our time license has replaced Sabbath stringency.  But let it be remembered that Jesus kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16).  He showed us how it should be kept: for worship, prayer, for “doing good” (Mark 3:4), and for the hallowing of family ties.  He came, not to destroy the Sabbath but to fulfill it. Not only is the Sabbath a reminder that we are God’s –by virtue of creation, but as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, the Sabbath is made for man and woman but only as man and woman find life in Christ.

The Sabbath is made.  It is a gift from God to be used as befits the Giver. It is to be used, not abused or neglected.  An individual’s claim on the Sabbath against a too stringent law is the claim of basic need, not the claim of selfish whim.

So the claim of God is still supreme.  He made man and woman. He made the Sabbath for man and woman. It is God’s gift to the weary, that they may find their rest for body and soul, God’s gift to the sinful, that they may hear the good news and find both forgiveness and strength.

So as we study the topic of Christ and the Sabbath, I pray that this Sabbath rest of which Jesus spoke will be yours this Sabbath, and  I say to each of you, as Jesus would, “Shabbat Shalom.”

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.