Of all Old Testament laws, the weekly Sabbath is probably the most controversial today. Many Christians believe they ought to obey the Ten Commandments — and one of the Ten is a command to rest on the seventh day (Saturday). Millions of Christians therefore observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Many other Christians observe Sunday as a day of rest, believing that the Sabbath commandment is in force for Christians, but changed from the seventh day to the day of Jesus’ resurrection. But most Christians, although they worship on one day out of seven, do not observe any day as a required day of rest.
Does this Old Testament law about the Sabbath day apply to Christians today? Let’s see what the New Testament says about this law. First, we will examine the example of Jesus Christ.
1. When Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, what were his disciples doing? Matthew 12:1. What did the Pharisees think of this? Verse 2.
2. What examples did Jesus mention to show that biblical laws can sometimes be set aside? Verses 3-6. Did Jesus say that temple work is more important than the Sabbath command? Verse 5. Did Jesus say that his own work is more important than the temple? Verse 6. Did he proclaim himself more important than the Sabbath? Verse 8.
Temple rituals were more important than avoiding work on the Sabbath day. Temple rituals are now obsolete. This suggests that the Sabbath work restrictions, which are less important, may also be obsolete. If the greater thing can be set aside, then it would seem that the lesser thing can be as well.
In defending his Sabbath activities, Jesus put the Sabbath in the same legal category as temple bread, sacrifices, and the physical temple, all of which are now obsolete. He treated the Sabbath as a ceremonial law. (For more on this, click here.) Jesus is more important than any of these worship customs. He is more important than the temple itself and more important than the Sabbath day (Matthew 12:6, 8).
3. In Mark’s version of this story, how did Jesus summarize the purpose of the Sabbath? Mark 2:27. Did he again say he had more authority than the Sabbath did? Verse 28.
Verse 27 teaches that the Sabbath was given for human good. Some people therefore claim that Sabbath rules must come before human needs, because those rules tell us what is best for us, and those rules are wiser than we are.
The context shows that Jesus meant the opposite: Human needs are more important than Sabbath restrictions. The Sabbath should serve human needs, rather than human needs being delayed to serve Sabbath rules. Jesus is definitely not saying that all human needs have to fit into the Sabbath rules! (For more on this, click here.)
Jesus pointed out that David could break an old covenant law without being guilty of sin (verse 26). This comparison would not be helpful if the Sabbath were considered a more important law than the one Jesus cited. The temple bread was holy; it could be eaten only by priests (Leviticus 24:5-9). Nevertheless, that law could be set aside when hungry people had no other food. Similarly, Jesus considered the law prohibiting work on the Sabbath to be a ritual law that could be set aside when there was a human need.
Jesus said that he is Lord of the Sabbath. Some people have concluded from this that the Sabbath is the Lord’s day, which all the Lord’s followers ought to keep. Yet this is not the point Jesus was making. Jesus was not emphasizing obedience to Sabbath rules — he was saying he could break the Pharisees’ rules about the Sabbath. He was saying he had authority over the Sabbath.
4. Did Jesus remind the Pharisees that worship customs were not as important as the way we treat other human beings? Matthew 12:7. What did Jesus then do on the Sabbath day? Verses 9-13. How did the Pharisees respond? Verse 14. According to Jesus, what activities are permitted on the Sabbath? Verse 12, last part.
Since Jesus did not sin, and the Sabbath was a law at the time he lived, we know that Jesus kept the Sabbath in the way God intended it be kept under the old covenant. However, the Gospel writers did not consider it important to tell us that he “kept” the Sabbath. The Gospels do not tell us about resting on the Sabbath. Rather, they focus on activity, on action, on doing good work. These stories about what Jesus did on the Sabbath are not recorded for the purpose of telling us to keep the Sabbath by resting. The focus is on the healing work of Jesus and his authority over the Sabbath, not on what we must avoid on the Sabbath.
5. What did Jesus do on the Sabbath? Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16. What is the significance of this example?
If we follow Jesus’ example in all its details, we must, among other things, go to synagogues on the Sabbath to teach the Jews. But this is not the purpose of these verses. They are informing us about the nature of Jesus’ work, teaching and authority. They are not commanding us to do exactly the same thing he did in the same way he did or at the same time he did.
Jesus taught and healed on every day of the week. Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath was not much different from his activity on other days of the week, except that since the Jews were gathered in the synagogues on the Sabbath, that is where he taught them.
6. On another occasion, what did Jesus do on the Sabbath? Luke 13:10-13. How did the Jewish religious leaders respond? Verse 14.
7. Did Jesus explain that the Sabbath is a day of freedom? Verses 15-16. Are the needs of people more important than rules about how the Sabbath should be kept? Luke 14:1-6.
The Pharisees may have had good motives. They wanted to obey God’s commandments, and they wanted to describe in detail the way obedience would work out in daily life. But their rules became more important to them than the needs of people, and the rules became burdens. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for requiring things God did not require (Luke 11:46; Mark 7:7-9).
Similarly, some modern religious leaders also have rules about how Christians should live. These rules are sometimes helpful and practical, but whenever the rules become more important than the real needs of people, the rules become more harmful than helpful. For example, many Christians have taught it is wrong to play cards, dance or wear jewelry. These rules may have been helpful at one time, and somewhat neutral at other times, but if they are taught today, the rules may be obstacles that distract people away from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It would be equally wrong to require something that God used to require but that he no longer requires. For example, if anyone said that Christians are required to wear blue threads in tassels on their garments (Numbers 15:38-39), they would be making a mistake in understanding the temporary nature of the old covenant, and their mistake would likely distract people away from the gospel.
Likewise, it would be erroneous to think that Christian men had to gather at one specific place three times a year (Deuteronomy 16:16). Although these rules are biblical, it would be wrong to require them today. They were given to ancient Israel, not to modern Christians. If imposed today, these rules would tend to drive people away from their Savior.
When we are considering an old covenant law, we need to be careful to require only what the new covenant requires. We cannot say Christ requires his people to consider certain foods unclean when Paul clearly says all foods are clean. Similarly, we cannot require people to build booths for the Feast of Tabernacles or to fast on the Day of Atonement when the only reasons the Bible gives for such customs do not apply to Christians. And we must not make requirements about the weekly Sabbath unless we can demonstrate them from the new covenant.
8. What other healing did Jesus do on the Sabbath? John 5:1-9. What did the Jewish leaders complain about this time? Verses 10, 16. How did Jesus respond? Verses 17-18.
Jesus could have easily told the man that he would be healed as soon as the Sabbath was over. He could have easily told the man to wait until the Sabbath was over before he carried his sleeping mat. But Jesus did not. Instead, he boldly used the word work to describe what he was doing on the Sabbath day.
The Bible never shows Jesus as teaching people to rest on the Sabbath. Rather, it always shows him liberalizing what could be done. He stressed the importance of doing good work on the Sabbath — not only to take care of others’ needs (healing) but also to take care of one’s own needs (picking grain to eat and carrying a mat). The New Testament emphasis is on liberty and activity, not rest.
9. On a later occasion, Jesus referred to this Sabbath healing. Which law did he say was more important than the Sabbath? John 7:21-23.
Perhaps you know of someone who'd like to hear about this article. If so, go to the bottom of the page and click on "Email this page." Fill out the form, and share the good news! There's also a way to share the page on Facebook, Twitter, and other websites.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
Other popular articles
This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1997 and updated in 2014. Copyright by the author. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
The law of circumcision was more important than the law forbidding work on the Sabbath. Again, Jesus compared the Sabbath to a ritual law and said that the ritual was more important than the Sabbath. The Sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments, but that did not make it more important. It was less important than rituals such as circumcision, temple sacrifices and holy bread.
10. Did Jesus perform another healing on the Sabbath? John 9:14. What had Jesus done? Verses 1-11. Did he say the work of God must be done, even on the Sabbath? Verse 4.
Jesus never discussed what should not be done on the Sabbath, nor did he ever specifically uphold the Sabbath commandment as binding. He did good work on the Sabbath just as he did on every other day of the week.
The example Jesus set for us regarding the Sabbath was one of freedom to do good. He did not teach or exemplify any restrictions. Jesus’ example and teaching helps us understand why Paul could say what he did. Our next study will look at that.