Jesus Christ and the Sabbath
"And He [Jesus Christ] said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath'" (Mark 2:27, 28).
How did Jesus Christ view the Sabbath? Many people see only what they want to see regarding Christ's approach to the seventh day. Some believe, based on misunderstandings, that Jesus Christ ignored or deliberately broke the Sabbath commandment.
Actually, the Sabbath is mentioned almost 50 times in the four Gospels (more than in the entire first five books of the Bible!), so there is ample historical record of His attitude toward the Sabbath.
To understand the Gospel accounts, however, we must consider how Sabbath observance had changed—or, more properly, had been changed—since it had been created and later included in the Ten Commandments.
The Sabbath in history
Sabbath observance underwent a massive transformation in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ. Earlier in this booklet we reviewed how God warned Israel not to forget His mighty works and laws.
The ancient Israelites' sad record shows they didn't listen. Eventually Israel did forget God and disintegrated as a nation, dividing into the separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah before being taken away into captivity by Assyrian and Babylonian invaders, respectively, in the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.
One of the Israelites' most flagrant sins leading up to their national captivity was the violation of God's Sabbath. Even as the kingdom of Judah was self-destructing from its citizens' sinful behavior, God continued to warn it through the prophet Jeremiah to "bear no burden on the Sabbath day...nor do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers...But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day...then I will kindle a fire...and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched" (Jeremiah 17:21, 22, 27).
The prophet Ezekiel, speaking for God from Babylon after he and much of the kingdom of Judah had been taken into captivity, wrote:
"I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. Yet...they greatly defiled My Sabbaths...They despised My judgments and did not walk in My statutes, but profaned My Sabbaths" (Ezekiel 20:12, 13, 16).
God also told the nation of Judah, "Her [the nation's] priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things; they have not distinguished between the holy and unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they have hidden their eyes from My Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them" (Ezekiel 22:26).
Later, many of the Jewish captives returned from Babylon and were restored to their former lands several centuries before Christ's time. They knew from the messages of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that their nation had been destroyed for breaking God's law, and violating the Sabbath was one of their chief sins.
Once restored as a nation, they determined never to make the same mistake again. Consequently, over several centuries Jewish religious authorities crafted meticulous regulations that detailed exactly what they considered was and wasn't permissible on the Sabbath. They veered from one ditch to the other ditch—from ignoring and abusing the Sabbath to demanding an oppressive, legalistic observance of it.
Added Sabbath regulations
The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, in its article on the Sabbath, describes how extreme these measures had become by Christ's day. The religious code regarding the Sabbath listed "39 principal classes of prohibited actions: sowing, plowing, reaping, gathering into sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking...Each of these chief enactments was further discussed and elaborated, so that actually there were several hundred things a conscientious, law-abiding Jew could not do on the sabbath. For example, the prohibition about tying a knot was too general, so it became necessary to state what kind[s] of knots were prohibited and what kind not. It was accordingly laid down that allowable knots were those that could be untied with one hand...
"The prohibition regarding writing on the sabbath was further defined as follows: 'He who writes two letters with his right or his left hand, whether of one kind [of letter] or of two kinds,...is guilty. He even who should from forgetfulness write two letters is guilty...Also, he who writes on two walls which form an angle, or on the two tablets of his account-book, so that they can be read together, is guilty..."
Definition of work
The religious authorities' definition of "work" that could violate the Sabbath command was vastly different from any ordinary definition of work. For example, plowing was a prohibited-work category, and few would dispute that plowing is difficult work. However, according to first-century rabbinic opinion, the prohibition against plowing could be violated by simply spitting onto the ground. The spit could disturb the soil, which in the rabbis' view was a type of plowing! Women were forbidden to look into a mirror on the Sabbath, because they might see a gray hair and pull it out, and that would constitute work.
Wearing nailed shoes on the Sabbath was prohibited, because in the authorities' view the addition of the nails meant they were carrying an unnecessary burden. Even walking through grass was not allowed, because some of the grass might be bent and broken, which constituted threshing, one of the forbidden categories of work.
The religious leaders taught that, if a house caught on fire on the Sabbath, its inhabitants couldn't carry their clothes out of the house to spare them from the flames, because that would be bearing a burden. However, they were allowed to put on all the layers of clothing they could wear and thus remove the clothes by wearing them, which was acceptable.
It was into this charged, hypercritical religious atmosphere that Jesus Christ came teaching and preaching. Today, without this historical background, many people draw wrong conclusions about how Jesus viewed the Sabbath.
The writers of the Gospel accounts record numerous confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day concerning the Sabbath. His healings on the Sabbath and teachings about Sabbath observance stirred frequent controversy. A brief view of the biblical record of His actions and teachings will help us understand how Christ viewed the Sabbath.
As we review these accounts of Christ's life, keep in mind their chronology. Scholars generally agree that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written in the first century, from the 50s through the 70s, some 20 to 40 years after the events recorded in them occurred. If Jesus Christ intended to change, abolish or annul the Sabbath, that intent should be apparent in the Gospel writers' historical records of His life. As we will see, there is simply no evidence to support that view.
Jesus preaches on the Sabbath: Luke 4:16-30
The first mention of the Sabbath in the life of Jesus Christ is Luke 4:16: "So He [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read."
In this, the Gospels' first mention of the Sabbath, at the very beginning of Christ's ministry, we find that Jesus' custom—His normal activity—was to go "into the synagogue on the Sabbath day." This was not an isolated incident; He would later continue to teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath as well (Mark 6:2; Luke 13:10).
Continuing in Luke's account: "He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.' Then He closed the book...And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:17-21).
Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1 and 2, which those in the synagogue recognized as a prophecy of the Messianic age. By saying, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," Jesus claimed to be fulfilling this prophecy; He proclaimed Himself the expected Messiah! Jesus went on to compare His ministry to that of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. His listeners, clearly understanding His meaning, promptly tried to kill Jesus for this claim, but He escaped from them (verses 23-30).
This is the first mention of the Sabbath during His ministry. On that day Jesus Christ first proclaimed that He was the prophesied Messiah—introducing His mission as Savior of all humanity. This was a significant event. Nazareth was where He grew up. The people of Nazareth were the first to hear, on that Sabbath, that He was the Messiah. He pointed them to the hope of His future reign—the gospel, or good news, in both its present and future fulfillment.
Jesus heals and casts out demons on the Sabbath: Luke 4:31-39
Immediately, Jesus began to use the Sabbath to proclaim the coming Kingdom of God and to manifest His miraculous power as the Messiah. "Then He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths. And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority" (Luke 4:31, 32).
Next, Jesus ordered a demon out of a man, and those in the synagogue "were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, 'What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out'" (verses 33-36).
Jesus then went to Peter's house, where He healed Peter's mother-in-law of a fever. Finally, as the Sabbath day drew to a close, "all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying out and saying, 'You are the Christ, the Son of God!' And He, rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ" (verses 38-41).
As the Savior, Jesus understood the purpose of the Sabbath, that it was a perfectly appropriate time to bring His message of healing, hope and redemption to humanity and to live that message through His actions. Even the demons recognized that He was the prophesied Messiah (which is the meaning of "Christ," John 1:41). Jesus used the Sabbath to point people to Him as the Healer and Savior of mankind.
Jesus confronts Pharisees over disciples' actions on the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5
Passages in Matthew 12, Mark 2 and Luke 6 are misconstrued to imply that Jesus broke the Sabbath commandment. But let's see what really happened. From Mark's account, "He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, 'Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'" (Mark 2:23, 24).
The Pharisees were an excessively strict branch of Judaism holding considerable religious authority during Christ's time, and they were extreme in their interpretation of what was allowed on the Sabbath. Their question would make it appear the disciples were hard at work gathering grain on the Sabbath and were confronted by the Pharisees for violating it. Luke's account clarifies the disciples' actions: As they "went through the grainfields" they "plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands" (Luke 6:1). They did this because they were hungry (Matthew 12:1), not because they were harvesting the field.
No violation of Sabbath commandment
Their acts were perfectly acceptable according to the laws God had given the nation of Israel. As a matter of fact, God made specific allowance for picking handfuls of grain from another person's field (Deuteronomy 23:25). God even told His people to leave portions of their fields unharvested so the poor and travelers would be able to eat what was left (Leviticus 19:9, 10; 23:22).
The disciples were walking through the field, and as they walked they picked heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands to remove the chaff, then ate the kernels. The Pharisees, who were among the most strict in their rules concerning the Sabbath, viewed the disciples' actions as "reaping" and "threshing," which were among the 39 categories of work forbidden on that day. Although these actions did not violate God's Sabbath commandment, they did violate the Pharisees' man-made regulations. The Pharisees viewed the disciples' conduct as "not lawful on the Sabbath" and criticized them for it.
Law allowed for mercy
Jesus pointed out that King David and his hungry followers, when they were fleeing King Saul's armies, were given bread that was normally to be eaten only by priests, yet they were guiltless in God's sight (Mark 2:25, 26). He also pointed out that even the priests serving in the temple of God labored on the Sabbath by conducting worship services and performing sacrifices, but God held them blameless (Matthew 12:5).
In both examples, the spirit and intent of the law were not broken, and both instances were specifically allowed by God for the greater good, Christ said. He emphasized that God's law allowed for mercy, and the Pharisees were completely wrong in elevating their harsh, humanly devised regulations above everything else, including mercy.
He said that, because of the Pharisees' distorted view, they had actually turned matters upside down. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," He asserted. Because of their narrow, legalistic view of the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week had become a hardship, weighted down with hundreds of rules and regulations about what was and wasn't permissible on that day.
Jesus, however, pointed out the true purpose of the day intended from its inception: God created the day to be a blessing, a time for genuine rest from normal labors rather than an unmanageable burden. It was a time to be enjoyed, not endured. Further, He said the Sabbath was created for all mankind, not just for the nation of Israel.
Jesus' teaching in these verses is summarized in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 5, "Sabbath," edited by David Noel Freedman, pages 855 and 856: "At times Jesus is interpreted to have abrogated or suspended the Sabbath commandment on the basis of controversies brought about by Sabbath healings and other acts. Careful analysis of the respective passages does not seem to give credence to this interpretation. The action of plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath by the disciples is particularly important in this matter. Jesus makes a foundational pronouncement...'The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath' (Mark 2:27). The disciples' act of plucking grain infringed against the rabbinic halakhah of minute casuistry in which it was forbidden to reap, thresh, winnow, and grind on the Sabbath.
"...Jesus reforms the Sabbath and restores it to its rightful place as designed in creation, where the Sabbath is made for all mankind and not specifically for Israel, as claimed by normative Judaism...
It was God's will at creation that the Sabbath have the purpose of serving mankind for rest and [to] bring blessing."
In this example, we see that Jesus Christ understood and explained the Sabbath's true intent: that it was created to be a day of rest from normal labors, a blessing and benefit to all humanity.
Another Sabbath healing: Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11
Immediately after the dispute with the Pharisees over the disciples' plucking grain on the Sabbath, the Gospel accounts record that Jesus found Himself in another confrontation over what could and could not be lawfully done on the Sabbath. The Pharisees' regulations went so far as to forbid giving aid to someone who was ill on the Sabbath unless the person's life were threatened!
In the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus met a man with a withered, shriveled hand: a severe handicap, but not life-threatening. "Stand up in front of everyone," Jesus told the man (Mark 3:3, New International Version). Angered and grieved that their callous, hardened minds were incapable of grasping the most fundamental intent of God's law, Jesus asked those watching: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"
Unable or unwilling to answer, they remained silent. In front of the entire synagogue, Jesus healed the man's hand, making it "completely restored." Far from rejoicing at the blessing given the man, the Pharisees "went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus" (verses 4-6, NIV).
Rather than learning a vital spiritual lesson about the intent and purpose of both the Sabbath and Jesus Christ's ministry, the Pharisees were infuriated that Jesus ignored their strict directives. Rather than understanding a message of mercy and compassion, they conspired to kill the Messenger.
Far from annulling the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrated that the Sabbath is an appropriate time to give aid and comfort to those in need. The Sabbath command didn't instruct people on what they were to do on that day, just what they were not to do. Jesus clarified what was acceptable to God: "It is lawful [within God's law] to do good on the Sabbath," He declared (Matthew 12:12).
Pharisaic legalism had gone far beyond God's stated commandment not to work and created a myriad of rules restricting even the very basics of human activity—something God never intended. Yet, even the Pharisees' regulations gave way to emergencies like getting a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath (verse 11). Jesus declared that the Sabbath was a day on which good could and should be done.
Some who oppose Sabbath observance view Christ's statement that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" as ending any distinction of days for rest or other religious purposes. However, to conclude that Jesus annulled the Sabbath's unique nature by teaching that it is lawful to do good on that day, one must assume that it was originally unlawful to do good on that day. That is clearly not the case. As He frequently chided those who criticized Him, doing good was specifically allowed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:12; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9). The Sabbath is a day given by God for rest and religious observance, but this does not preclude doing good.
Jesus' healing acts on the Sabbath also foreshadowed something much larger: the miraculous healings still to come in the Messianic age. Isaiah prophesied of this time: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing" (Isaiah 35:5, 6).
The Savior's actions on the Sabbath are a reminder of that coming time of peace, restoration and healing for all mankind.
Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath: Luke 13:10-17
Luke records another incident of Jesus' healing of a chronically ill person on the Sabbath in the synagogue, in this case "a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up" (Luke 13:11). Calling her to Him, He laid His hands on her, "and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God" (verses 12, 13).
The crowd, knowing that Jesus had just violated the narrow, restrictive prohibition against giving aid to an ill person unless the situation were life-threatening, waited to see what would happen next. The people didn't have to wait long. "The ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, 'There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day'" (verse 14).
Jesus Christ would have none of this attitude. "Hypocrite!" He responded. "Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?" His answer sank in on the crowd. "And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him" (verses 15-17).
Jesus stressed here that the Sabbath represents a time of liberation, of loosing from bondage, and so helps us further understand God's intent for Sabbath observance. Even the Pharisees' strict regulations allowed for the feeding and watering of animals on the Sabbath. If caring for the basic life's needs of animals doesn't break the Fourth Commandment, then how much more is "loosing" by healing appropriate on the Sabbath.
Jesus' example reminds us that the Sabbath is an appropriate time to visit the sick and elderly, helping them celebrate the day as a time of freedom. As He proclaimed earlier, He came to "proclaim liberty to the captives [and] to set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18), referring to the glorious freedom and liberty from spiritual bondage that will be a hallmark of His coming rule as Messiah.
Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath: Luke 14:1-6
The next mention of the Sabbath during Christ's ministry follows in Luke 14. Rather than in the synagogue, this incident took place in the home of a prominent Pharisee where Jesus had gone to share a meal on the Sabbath.
A man with a chronic health problem came before Him. "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" Jesus pointedly asked the lawyers and Pharisees. None answered. Jesus healed the man, who promptly left the uneasy atmosphere of the gathering (verses 2-4).
"Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?" Jesus asked.
They couldn't answer Him (verses 5, 6). Questions such as these had been debated among the Jewish religious teachers for years, and even they recognized that the command to rest didn't include ignoring emergency situations in which life and limb were at stake.
Jesus' approach was that, whenever an opportunity to relieve suffering presents itself, that opportunity should be taken. God's Sabbath command was never intended to prohibit doing good on that day. Jesus well knew the heart and core of God's law: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Both James and Paul understood that love was the intent and fulfillment of God's law (James 2:8; Galatians 5:14).
Jesus' example showed that every day is to be lived in the spirit and purpose of God's law, which is love.
Jesus heals an invalid on the Sabbath: John 5:1-18
John 5 records a Sabbath healing not mentioned in the other Gospels, thereby adding another dimension to Christ's activities on the Sabbath. In this instance, Jesus healed a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk," Jesus told the man (verse 8, NIV).
The man was instantly healed, took up the mat on which he had lain and walked away, only to be confronted by other Jews for carrying his mat. "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat," they warned him (verse 10, NIV). "The man who made me well said to me, 'Pick up your mat and walk,'" he replied.
After determining that it was Jesus who had performed the healing and told the man to carry his mat, they "persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath" (verse 16). Their view of the Sabbath was so distorted that they focused more on their own petty rules about what could not be carried on the Sabbath than on the wonderful healing of a man's 38-year affliction!
Jesus' response to their accusation of breaking the Sabbath angered His accusers even more. "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working," He said. "Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God" (verses 17, 18).
What He broke was not God's Sabbath command, but the Pharisees' restrictive regulations regarding what they thought was allowable on the Sabbath. Jesus Christ could not have broken the Sabbath, because He had earlier pronounced a curse on anyone who "breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so" (Matthew 5:19).
But what did Christ mean when He said, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working"? The Life Application Bible, commenting on this verse, says: "If God stopped every kind of work on the Sabbath, nature would fall into chaos, and sin would overrun the world. Genesis 2:2 says that God rested on the seventh day, but this can't mean that he stopped doing good. Jesus wanted to teach that when the opportunity to do good presents itself, it should not be ignored, even on the Sabbath."
God made the Sabbath as a day of rest for mankind, not for Himself. He rested from His work of forming the world on the seventh day to show us that we should also rest from our normal work. But God continues some work without ceasing. Night and day, seven days a week, He works to bring mankind into His Kingdom. He works to help people grow spiritually on the Sabbath. He works constantly to build a close, personal relationship with His people. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus healed more people on the Sabbath than on any other day. He taught and preached on the Sabbath.
Was He sinning? No. His activities were part of God's work of helping people understand and ultimately enter the Kingdom of God and were therefore perfectly acceptable to God.
Circumcision and the Sabbath: John 7:21-24
In John 7:24 Jesus summed up what should have been obvious to those who criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." The Pharisees' narrow, intolerant view focused more on outward appearance than anything else. Jesus upbraided them for their emphasis on physical things while neglecting more important matters such as justice, mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23).
To illustrate the extremes to which the Pharisees took their views, Jesus used the example of circumcision. He pointed out that circumcision, a sign of the covenant between God and the nation of Israel, could be performed on the Sabbath without breaking it. And if this alteration of one of the 248 parts (by Jewish calculation) of the body could be done on the Sabbath, He argued, "why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath?" (John 7:22, 23, NIV).
The inconsistency of allowing the ritual of circumcision while outlawing mercy to those who needed healing was to callously disregard the intent of God's law. "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment," He warned His detractors (verse 24, NIV).
Rather than upholding God's law by their added rules and regulations, the Jews' distorted view of God's commands led them to actually break the law, according to Jesus (Matthew 23:3, 28; Mark 7:6-9). "Not one of you keeps the law," He told them (John 7:19, NIV), reproving them for their twisted interpretation of God's law. They were not keeping the law correctly, and Jesus restored its proper understanding and practice.
Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath: John 9:1-34
Jesus used the incident of healing a blind man on the Sabbath to twice proclaim His Messiahship. Speaking to His disciples, He said, "I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day ... As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:4, 5). He then healed the man of his blindness.
The Pharisees caught up with the recently healed man, then interrogated and intimidated him. "This Man [Jesus] is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath," they argued (verse 16). The man countered, "This is a marvelous thing...He has opened My eyes!...If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing" (verses 30, 33).
Angered at having their authority questioned and their opinions challenged, "they cast him out," excommunicating the man from the synagogue (verse 34). He was condemned as a heretic, cut off from family and friends.
Jesus sought out the man. "Do you believe in the Son of God?" Jesus asked.
"Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?" the man replied.
"You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you," Christ answered. The man then accepted Christ as the Son of God.
At this, Christ said, "For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind" (verses 35-39).
Jesus Christ again made it clear that He was the Messiah, the very Son of God. In this incident He continued to teach, as He did so many times on the Sabbath, of His redemptive work for mankind.
Did Jesus change the law?
These accounts summarize the specific activities of Christ on the Sabbath recorded in the four Gospels. As stated earlier, some see only what they want to see in these verses—supposed proof that Jesus Christ broke the Fourth Commandment. However, as the
Scriptures actually show, Jesus did no such thing. He did ignore the religious leaders' misguided, restrictive regulations of the Sabbath, but He never broke God's commandments. Had He done so, He would have sinned (1 John 3:4), yet Jesus never sinned. He lived a sinless life so He could be our perfect sacrifice, the Savior of all mankind (1 Peter 2:22; Ephesians 5:2; 1 John 4:14).
It would have been unthinkable for Jesus to disobey God's commandments. He said of Himself, "The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He [God the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner" (John 5:19).
What did Jesus do? In His own words, He did exactly what the Father did. Yet some mistakenly think He came to overturn God's holy law and remove it as a standard of guidance and behavior for mankind.
"I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me," He said (John 5:30). Jesus Christ's motivation was to please the Father. What God wanted was most important to Him.
"My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work," He told the disciples (John 4:34). That was His motivation, His reason for living—to do the will of God the Father. Through Christ's teaching on the Sabbaths during His earthly ministry, He revealed God's will and determined to complete God's work, in spite of the opposition and persecution that ultimately brought about His cruel torture and death.
Jesus Christ's clear statement
Jesus Himself clearly denied that He intended to change or abolish the Sabbath or any part of God's law. "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets," He said. "I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).
The Greek word pleroo, translated "fulfill," means "to make full," "to fill to the full," "to make complete in every particular," "to render perfect" or "to carry through to the end" (Thayer's Greek Lexicon, "Fulfill"). In other words, Jesus said He came to complete the law and make it perfect. How? By showing the spiritual intent and application of God's law. His meaning is clear from the remainder of the chapter, where He showed the spiritual intent of specific commandments.
Some distort the meaning of "fulfill" to have Jesus saying, "I did not come to destroy the law, but to end it by fulfilling it." This is entirely inconsistent with His own words. Through the remainder of the chapter, He showed that the spiritual application of the law made it even more difficult to keep, not that it was annulled or no longer necessary.
Jesus made it clear that He wasn't abolishing any of God's law: "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (verse 18). Here a different Greek word is used for "fulfilled": ginomai, meaning "to come to pass" (Thayer's). Only after everything necessary would come to pass would any of God's law pass from existence, said Christ.
To prevent any possible misunderstanding, He warned those who would try to abolish God's law: "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (verse 19).
Jesus, by explaining, expanding and exemplifying God's law, fulfilled a prophecy of the Messiah found in Isaiah 42:21 (King James Version): "The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable." The Hebrew word higdil, translated "magnify," literally means "make great" (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, "Magnify"). Jesus Christ did exactly that, showing the true purpose and scope of God's Sabbath rest.
Following Jesus' example
When asked, "Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus Christ answered: "The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear,O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment" (Mark 12:28-30).
Here Christ restated the greatest commandment of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5). Those who observe the biblical Sabbath strive to obey that commandment, putting God first in their lives and keeping His command to observe the Sabbath. They will also follow Jesus' instruction: "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me" (John 14:21).
Jesus Christ is our Lord and Master (Philippians 2:9-11). He also proclaimed that He is "Lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28), so we should follow His example in observing the Sabbath—and all God's commandments—in the way that He taught and lived.
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