One Sabbath in the Life of Jesus

6679741465_7cd29b9d3a_mLast week I wrote about the Sabbath principle — one day in seven set apart to desist from the labors of the week and to gather with God’s people for worship. I noted that in time Christians shifted to observe Resurrection Sunday as their holy day. My purpose in writing was not to reestablish a sabbatarian rigidity such as many of the Pharisees of New Testament times promoted but to note that today we Christians are at risk of an overly casual approach to our special day, allowing all sorts of unnecessary activities to crowd in and diminish God’s merciful intent.

Today, I recount the story of an event that took place on a particular Sabbath in the life of Jesus. At first, it can look like Jesus himself disregards God’s plan for the Sabbath. But instead, we see that Jesus does his special healing and reconciling work at all times, and that he is Lord of the Sabbath. The story shows also that even the strict observance of the Sabbath can become infected with human rather than divine prohibitions.

The Apostle John reports in his gospel that Jesus came upon a man who had been crippled for 38 years (John 5:1-15). He was lying helplessly beside the Pool of Bethesda among a great number of other afflicted souls. All of them were there for the same reason: they believed that from time-to-time the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred and at such a time the first among them to get into the water would be healed.

Ignoring the pool and it’s supposed powers, Jesus asked the man: “Do you want to get well?” The man answered with overtones of despair: “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5: 1-7).

Jesus’ response was direct and firm: “Get up! Pick up your bed and walk.” At once the helpless man was on his feet, his mat rolled up under his arm, and he was walking about for the first time in 38 years.

Imagine what this would mean to that man! Life would become incalculably better! Still contrary to what would seem appropriate, this healing created a serious problem in the minds of the enemies of Jesus. It was the Jewish Sabbath and the man was about to carry the mat he had been lying on for so long. The Jews had strict laws against anyone carrying a burden on that sacred day. For example, one rabbinic law said anything weighing more than two figs was regarded as a burden and should not be carried on the Sabbath.

What was intended as a day of physical refreshment and worship had been made into a confining straight jacket by a long string of laws made by generations of Rabbis. For example, a woman was forbidden to look into a well on the Sabbath lest she see in her reflection a white hair and be tempted to pluck it. That would be work. By their laws, only emergency care for a wound or illness should be done on the Sabbath. For anything less, let the sufferer return later.

The religious leaders who saw Jesus’ healing of the lame man were angered by it. Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath broke their list of rigorous Sabbath prohibitions. The undercurrent of their reaction to this was murderous.

Scholars of the times note that although the Pharisees of New Testament times made Sabbath a burden there is other information that shows many of the Jews observed Sabbath as a healthful and faith-renewing event in their times.

On Friday evening the trumpet was taken to the tallest building of the community and blown three times — the first time as a signal to the workers in the field to start for their homes; the second time to shop owners to close up shop; and when it sounded for the third time the Sabbath candles were lit all over the village.

On Sabbath morning people went to the synagogue. The noon meal that followed had been prepared the day before, and was in every way special except that it was eaten cold because fires were not lit on the Sabbath. In the afternoon, if the village had a school attached to the synagogue people gathered and local community scholars addressed some of the religious questions of the day.

The religious rulers who complained against Jesus’ healing of the man crippled for 38 years seemed to know nothing of this good side of Sabbath–its rhythms and rest and spiritual focus. And their religion lacked the compassion which Jesus demonstrated on that special day.

In today’s secular, frantically busy, and distracted times, Christians are in danger of going too far in making the day available for anything and everything they might do on other days of the week. We need to revive the original purpose: rest and restoration, and to focus on thanksgiving and worship, the holy side of Lord’s Day worship. (More next week)

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Photo credit: Ricardo Camacho (via


2 thoughts on “One Sabbath in the Life of Jesus

  1. Very informative, thank you. I have evoked on occasion the caveat “The ox is in the ditch,” but it is a rare occasion. I’m glad that one need not be as liberal as the present day laws allow.

  2. In the earliest years of Christianity, which period historians refer to as Jewish Christianity, Christians kept the Sabbath on the last day of the week,alongside the Jewish faithful.This is sometimes called the Hebrew Sabbath.

    In the West,Christians sometimes refer to a Christian Sabbath ,which is the Lord’s Day,the first day of the week.

    For Christians,Christ is Lord of the Sabbath,as the New Testament affirms.

    In 321 Emperor Constantine enacted the first law regarding Sunday observance but no mention was made of the Sabbath,only a day of rest on the venerable day of the sun.

    Around 364, at the Council of Laodicea,the Catholic church council passed a canon law that declared –

    “Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s Day they shall especially honor, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ.” Council of Laodicea c 364 CE

    So now it seemed the Hebrew Sabbath was forbidden and the Lord’s Day must be observed as the new Sabbath.

    But by the 5th century ,in Constantinople, orthodox Christians were assembling together to worship on the old Sabbath as well as the Lord’s Day.This never occurred in the other great Christian centres,Rome or Alexandria.

    Around 590 ,Pope Gregory denounced those who believed no work should be done on the seventh day, as ‘prophets of the anti Christ’, according to James T Rinngold in ‘The Law of Sunday’ .A real schism in the Christian church had opened up over the Sabbath.

    Yet during the 7th century the Celtic churches , in the fringes of Britain, the seventh day Sabbath was kept and the 4th commandment obeyed literally. So writes James Moffat, professor of church history at Princeton,in his ‘The Church in Scotland’

    The church in the east and those like the Armenians Celts , who had remained aloof from ,or broken with the Roman Catholic church, observed the seventh day Sabbath right through the 8th century,as did Kurdish Christians for many centuries.

    Celtic Scotland kept the Saturday Sabbath, abstaining from work,well into the 11th century As did Welsh Christians until 1115 when the first Roman Catholic bishop was seated at St David’s cathedral.Even after that,the old Welsh Sabbath keepers fled to secret places and resisted Rome.This tradition was kept by many Welsh Baptists.

    Pope after pope kept up the pressure against Saturday keeping ,calling it evil, threatening harsh punishments for keeping Saturday holy all over Europe,as far north as Norway. So there was a real schism between Roman catholic Christians and most other Christian churches , as to which day the Sabbath should be kept.

    At the start of the Reformation,the first Protestants emerged to consider the Sabbath.The Lutherans , at the Augsburg Confession,determined holidays,calendars and festivals are useful for religious observance,but that observance,like ritual, is not necessary for salvation.

    Further,these new Lutherans believed that any teaching that human traditions are a way to merit grace,is contrary to the teachings of the Gospel. Many Protestants of other churhes, have since agreed this.

    On 18 January 1563,the Council of Trent, the embodiment of the counter Reformation, ruled that Tradition is greater than Scripture .The fact that ‘Holy church’ had changed the 4th commandment, clearly proved this idea correct,according to Roman Catholic thinking!

    Soon , Baptist martyrs were executed for refusing to disobey the 4th commandment’s letter ,refusing to work on the seventh day,their Sabbath. In Russia ,Sabbath keepers were condemned to death and burned publicly in cages. Others had all their possesions confiscated.But observers of ’ the true Sabbath’ continued, from Sweden to Lichtenstein.

    The Inquisition vowed to root out the ‘Jewish wickedness ‘ of Sabbath keeping, but keepers to the letter of the 4th commandment protested they were obeying God, not imitating Jewish believers.

    The cruel persecution of Christians who were simply following their consciences, reflects badly upon the powerful established churches of this time.

    Still,well into the 17th century ,in England , Sabbath keepers stood by their convictions and the first Sabbath keepers crossed the ocean to America. German Sabbatarians, meanwhile, crossed to Pennsylvania.

    About 1844 ,the Seventh – day Adventist movement was formed in America, from some of these Sabbatarian immigrants,proving neither threat of death nor torture will prevent mankind following it’s religious convictions and obeying God, according to their sincere conviction of His will.

    Since then , most , but not all English speaking Protestants,have kept the Lord’s Day,the first day and eighth day, as the day of rest and the day of worship.But many Orhodox churches,Eastern and Oriental, have observed both the Lord’s Day ( Resurrection Day) and the Sabbath ( Saturday) in different ways ,for many centuries.

    Puritans have their own Puritan Lord’s Day,a Hebrew like Sabbath, where as well as work,all recreational activities are avoided.

    The catechisms of other churches and denominations emphasize rest and worship on the Lord’s Day ,but do not prohibit recreation.

    The differing Sabbath and Lord’s Day observances of different Christian churches, is a fascinating but complicated subject , confusing in it’s diversity.

    Since the 17th century, Seventh Day Baptists have kept their Saturday Sabbath in a similar way to Judaism.Now, the American Seventh Day Adventists , formed in the 19th century,are far more numerous than Seventh Day Baptists, and keep the seventh day Sabbath as strictly as the other 9 commandments.

    But Seventh Day Adventists, take the Lord’s Day to mean the seventh day,Saturday,because God calls the day His Sabbath.

    If we read these scriptures from Old and New Testaments ,we may see why .

    ‘Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you’ Exodus 31:13 AV

    ” For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day ” Matthew 12:8 AV

    So Seventh Day Adventists take the Lord’s Day to mean the seventh day,based on their reading of the Bible.Christians don’t always exegete scripture the same way.

    Whichever day Christians observe as the Sabbath ,it is surely, certainly the Lord’s Day.It is the day of the Lord and given by the Lord,for mankind. Jesus Himself said the Sabbath was made for mankind

    ’Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’’ Mark 2:27 NIV

    Some have tried burden the Sabbath with accretions upon accretions of ever more precise provisions and rules, til it serves not mankind but some abstract legalistic bureaucracy.

    In the pool of Bethesda , supposed a healing pool, disabled people would customarily lie ,hoping for healing. In John’s gospel,Jesus finds an invalid by this pool, and asks him if he wants healing. He replies he has no one to help him into the pool at the right active time.

    ‘ Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’’ So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” John 5:8 -12 NIV

    Jesus had just healed a man of a lifetime’s disability yet all the concern of these rabbinical obsessives was that he had carried his mat, breaking their nit-picking interpretation of Sabbath law.Blinded by their own invented legal minutiae,they were unable to see the spirit of the Sabbath.

    Similarly ,in some parts of the Muslim world today, the overzealous application of extreme interpretations of sharia law leads to an hysterical extremism , a barbarous cruelty , a rage that is counter to the traditional Islamic principles of peace,mercy and hospitality that which mainstream Islamic scholars teach .

    The rabbinical fanatics who criticized Jesus at Bethseda , undermined the healthful blessings of God’s gift , the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a divine gift to humanity, restorative and sanctifying.

    Nowadays,most often observed on the Lord’s Day,the first day of the week, the Sabbath provides a calming,healing start to the week , preparing us with refreshed minds,bodies and spirits, for a productive new week.We need our day of worship ,our day of peace and rest,to revitalize us for the new week.

    We need our Sabbath day,our Lord’s Day.We need it for physical,mental and spiritual health. We need to keep our day for rest and for family, a holy day for common worship ,for adoration , for praise and for thanksgiving.

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