Lord of the Sabbath

Matthew 12:1-8
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.
2 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him:
4 “how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?
5 “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?
6 “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.
7 “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
8 “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

When I was growing up in central Ohio in the 1960’s, there were very few businesses in town that were open on Sundays. In fact, I think there was just one drugstore downtown that was open, and perhaps a couple of gas stations. When I was a kid, we just kind of took it for granted that, whether they went to church or not, people just didn’t work on Sundays. A few old-timers called it “Sabbath day,” but since I rarely attended church in those days, that whole “Sabbath” thing didn’t make any difference to me. For me, it was just a day of rest, and, so far as I knew, it was a day of rest mainly by tradition rather than because of religion.

Of course, for the founders of our country, Sunday was the Sabbath day because of their faith as Christians. Whether Catholics or Protestants, Puritans or Baptists, Quakers or Methodists, Sunday was set aside as the Sabbath–even for those who were NOT believers or who practiced another faith. It took several centuries for that tradition of faith to turn into a tradition of convenience and then, today, to be largely forgotten because of our focus on work and business. Aside from banks, there are very few retail stores and restaurants that, because of the conviction of their owners, are closed on Sundays. No one seems to care about keeping the Sabbath day anymore.

What does that mean exactly, “keeping the Sabbath”? As I mentioned above, I used to think it meant just taking a day off from work on Sunday, some time to rest and relax with family. My grandmother and my parents and most relatives went to church on Sundays, and I was dragged along until I became a teenager and refused to go. I spent the next thirty years basically avoiding churches, save for the occasional funeral or wedding. Of course, just because I didn’t go to church didn’t mean I wasn’t taking Sundays off from work whenever I could. But once I came to Christ at age forty-three, those Sundays started to matter more. At first, it was just so I could get to church for praise and worship and to hear a sermon. As I have grown in my faith, so has my understanding of the importance of Sunday as the Sabbath, and today’s verses really have helped me see so much more than I knew before.

Before we get into today’s verses, let’s take a look at the Fourth Commandment:

Exodus 20:8-11
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 “Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 “but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates.
11 “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

The word “Sabbath” in Hebrew means to cease doing something. We are told here to “remember” the Sabbath day–the day of rest, the day of non-work–and “keep it holy.” A more literal translation might be “to sanctify it”–i.e. to set it aside, to make it holy and set apart from other days. Why are we to do this? Because “the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Again, a more literal translation would be “the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.”

Genesis 2:1-3
1 Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished.
2 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.
3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

Before Moses, there really is no recorded instance of anyone keeping the Sabbath day set aside for anything. In fact, even after Moses, there were times when the Israelites were actually directed to continue doing something for a full seven days or more. For example, remember how long it took to bring down the walls of Jericho? And after the Babylonian captivity, the Jews worked for fifty-two days straight to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. (Nehemiah 6:15) Do we think the Lord didn’t honor that hard work because they didn’t take a break every seven days? No, because the Lord Himself had directed them to work so they could return to the city of David. Can you imagine how offended the Pharisees would have been with all that work? If they had a problem with Jesus and His disciples plucking a few grains of wheat on the Sabbath, they would have screamed “Blasphemy!” at Nehemiah and the returning Jews for working on seven straight Sabbaths.

It’s exactly that attitude that Jesus is trying to correct in today’s verses. Look at the three things He mentions in defense against the legalistic stance of the Pharisees:

1) When David and his men were on the run from Saul, without weapons or food, David went into the temple and was given some of the Sabbath-day bread offering that was meant for the priests. (1 Samuel 21:1-6, Leviticus 24:5-9)
2) Because the priests are essentially “working” even as they make the daily offerings on the Sabbath day, they themselves are profaning the Sabbath. Because of this, the Lord designated an extra offering just for the Sabbath. (Numbers 28:9-10)
3) For the second time, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that the Lord desires mercy and not sacrifice. (Matthew 9:13, Hosea 6:6)

Of course, all of this relates to what Jesus says in verses 6 and 8: “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. … For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” What does Jesus mean in saying that He is Lord of the Sabbath? Plainly He is referring to the fact that it was the Lord God Himself who created the Sabbath, who set aside and blessed that day for us. “For US”? Yes. Look at how the Lord directed Moses to repeat the Fourth Commandment in the book of Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (my emphasis)
12 “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.
13 “Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
14 “but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, THAT YOUR MALE SERVANT AND YOUR FEMALE SERVANT MAY REST AS WELL AS YOU.

The Israelites had been laboring non-stop for the Egyptians for several generations, but upon being redeemed from slavery, the Lord COMMANDED that they should take time to rest. The Lord God GAVE them that day, a day to cease from their labors, a day that no one else would or could ever have given them. In fact, the seven-day week with one day of rest is so much a part of who we are–created in the image of the Lord (Genesis 1:26)–that attempts to change the length of the work week have invariably failed! God “wired” us for the seven-day week, and He gave us the Sabbath to rest. It’s not about “sacrificing” a day’s wages to spend time with God, nor is it about lounging around not doing anything at all. It’s about removing ourselves from the world to truly rest just as God did and as He commanded us–and to REMEMBER that it was He who GAVE us this day.

David didn’t have time to rest when Saul was chasing him to kill him. The priests are never to cease with their prayers and service to God. The Lord Himself told the Israelites how to conquer Jericho. The returning Jews had to finish the wall of Jerusalem before their enemies could tear it all down. God doesn’t desire more sacrifices to make up for things we might do on whatever Sabbath day we may keep. God desires MERCY.

Matthew 12:10-13
10 And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”–that they might accuse Him.
11 Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?
12 “Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other.

“Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” It is lawful for God’s anointed king of Israel to seek food and help on the Sabbath. It is lawful for the priests to stand before God with prayers on the Sabbath. It is lawful for the armies and worshipers of God to march around Jericho and blow trumpets and praise the Lord God. It is lawful for the Jews to rebuild the city of God’s peace. It is lawful for Jesus and His disciples to feed themselves, to heal others, to do the Lord’s work on the Lord’s own day. You see, we are told to do all OUR work on six days, and to rest from that work on the seventh. (Exodus 20:9-10, Deuteronomy 5:13-14) But the LORD’S work–i.e. mercy, doing good–is lawful on that seventh day. If there is ANYONE who would know what is lawful on the Sabbath, it would be Jesus, because…

John 1:1-3
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.

Jesus, the Word become flesh, is Lord of the Sabbath!

Put simply, the Lord did not REQUIRE the Sabbath, He GAVE us the Sabbath. He set it aside as holy and blessed, sanctified to His will and His work. Yes, God Himself rested on the seventh day, but that was the LAST day He rested. Needless to say, keeping up with all of US is a 24/7 kind of job! Nonetheless, he has given us this day not to deprive ourselves of something but to give us rest from our labors. He commanded us to REMEMBER it because, in doing so, we remember HIM and the fact that he gave it to us. He commanded us to KEEP IT HOLY because, in doing so, we keep OURSELVES holy.

Leviticus 19:1-3
1 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
2 “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
3 “‘Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.'”

Brothers and sisters, keeping the Sabbath isn’t about taking a day off from work, and it isn’t about going to church. It is about remembering the One who has given us the Sabbath–the One who gives us rest from our labors, the One who takes our burdens from us, the One who has freed us from bondage. Keeping the Sabbath is about remembering the hope and promise of the Lord Jesus, His mercy and grace in redeeming us from sin and bringing us eternal life. It is about remembering the Lord our God and keeping ourselves holy–not by abstaining from work, but by doing the LORD’S work: being merciful and forgiving, living lives of love and righteousness, following His commandments not because we must but because we love Him so much. Therefore, let us take our Sabbath day and revere the Lord our God, the One who alone is mighty to save, the One who does not accuse but who blesses us, the One who has sanctified this day, the One who has sanctified us through the blood of His precious Son, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath.

Holy Father, how blessed are we to have been given the Sabbath! You Son said to us, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And rest He HAS given us! Praise the holy name of Jesus Christ for being the Lord of our salvation, the true and risen Lord of this church, the only Lord of the Sabbath. Amen.


About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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