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Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Beloved for the way in which it highlights Jesus' care for those on the margins of society and for its care in telling the story of our Savior's life and ministry, the gospel of Luke has always been treasured by the Christian church. Dr. Sproul's expositional study of this inspired account of Jesus looks at the significant events of His life and His teachings while unfolding the meaning of both for us today.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Aim of the Sabbath

  2. question and answer

    How are we to keep the Sabbath in today's society?

  3. article

    Remember the Sabbath, to Keep It Holy

The Aim of the Sabbath

We dare not miss the christological significance of our Lord’s teaching on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–14). Scripture emphasizes the Sabbath as God’s special possession; Israel was given a day of rest in order to imitate our Creator’s own cessation of work (Ex. 20:8–11). Furthermore, God asserted His right to determine what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath day (Isa. 56:4–5). Jesus equates Himself with God, the owner and ruler of the day of rest, when He claims, as the Son of Man, to be lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8).

Jesus continues to display His authority as lord of the Sabbath when, in a synagogue, He meets a man with a “withered hand.” Seeking a chance to show that Jesus is a Sabbath-breaker, the Pharisees ask Him if it is right to heal on the day of rest (vv. 9–10). Should He do a healing “work,” Jesus can be charged with violating the Sabbath. The man will still be ill the next day, and Christ could wait until then to heal him so that He may keep Pharisaic tradition.

John Calvin reminds us “to beware lest, by attaching undue importance to ceremonial observances, we allow other things to be neglected, which are of far higher value in the sight of God.” The Pharisees have made this error, elevating minutiae above God’s intent. As Jesus says in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God gave the nation of Israel a day of rest for their benefit — to recover from a week’s labor and recall His goodness and grace. These principles are to guide the specifics of Sabbath observance, not vice versa. When rules designed to cover every possible instance of work are exalted above God’s gracious intent, the Sabbath is changed from “a delight into a burden,” according to the Reformation Study Bible’s note on Matthew 12:9–14.

The Pharisees are legal experts and should embrace this principle. Even they know the Father puts an animal’s health and safety above the avoidance of anything that smacks of work (v. 11). But the Pharisees are so incensed at Christ’s denial of their teaching that they miss the obvious. If God is pleased when animals are rescued on the Sabbath, He certainly approves when men, who are of more value than animals, find healing on His day of rest (vv. 12–14).  

How are we to keep the Sabbath in today's society?

Within the Christian church there are three leading options for answering your question.

Some Christians believe that the Sabbath was an Old Testament ordinance and has no application to the New Testament church. No less a giant than Saint Augustine took the position that the Sabbath was not carried over into the New Testament community and therefore has been fulfilled and was done away with through the work of Christ. There are Christians who feel that there is no particular significance to Sabbath keeping today, although they make up a very small minority.

For the most part, Christian people, while they may disagree as to what day is the Sabbath—the sixth or the seventh day and all that—and how we observe it, still maintain that the Sabbath is to be observed somehow in the Christian community. God ordained the Sabbath, not at Mt. Sinai with Moses and the people of Israel, but at Creation. The later books of the Law certainly filled out the concept of the Sabbath in terms of its specifics and how it was to be observed in Israel, but the Sabbath existed long before the Ten Commandments and other laws were given. This would indicate that as long as Creation is in effect, Sabbath is in effect. In the covenant God made with Israel he says, “This is my Sabbath unto all generations.” The fact that it’s a Creation ordinance is strong evidence that there is still a Sabbath observation requirement for Christians—in fact, not only for Christians, because the Sabbath was part of God’s design for humanity from the beginning. That’s one of the reasons states have had blue laws. Sabbath keeping was not even seen as a violation of the separation of church and state; everybody was required to have a Sabbath whether they were Christian, Jew, Muslim, or whatever.

In the New Testament the church comes together on the Lord’s Day, which is the first day of the week, for corporate worship. We have a clear mandate in the New Testament not to forsake the assembling of the saints (Heb. 10:25). In other words, the New Testament’s simple language says that Christians are supposed to be in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. That means we’re supposed to go to church. That is usually seen as one of the ways in which the Sabbath is to be observed. All Christians I know of who believe that the Sabbath is still in effect agree that on the Sabbath we should be worshiping, and also that on one day in seven there should be rest from unnecessary commerce and labor. There are still provisions for commerce that must go on—hospital work, pharmacies, and such. But commerce just for the sake of merchandising ought to cease on the Sabbath.

This group of Christians who believe the Sabbath should be observed actually splits into two groups. One holds what we call the Continental view: Recreation is permitted on the Sabbath. The other holds the Puritan view: Recreation is forbidden on the Sabbath. I take the position that recreation is a legitimate form of rest on the Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath, to Keep It Holy

Sean Michael Lucas

Have you ever slept for several hours, woke up, but remained unrefreshed? Perhaps you remember Washington Irving's story "Rip Van Winkle." Rip is a henpecked husband who wanders to the mountains to escape, meets a strange crew, falls asleep, and snoozes for twenty years. He wakes up to find the world completely changed, his wife dead, and his neighbors envious that he had outslept his nagging wife's natural life.

What's striking about Irving's story is that Van Winkle's sleep wasn't restful. It was sleep without refreshment. This was a kind of resting that did no real good. And sometimes, we know what that's like because our hearts and minds are too full and anxious to rest well. We sometimes wake up or come back from vacations unrefreshed despite having rested.

The grace of the fourth commandment is that God promises to give us real rest and real refreshment when we find our rest in Him. As we remember the Sabbath day, as we keep it holy to the Lord, we find that we begin to enter into the rest that God offers and gain a foretaste of the heavenly rest to come, the rest of the new heavens and new earth.

God's Good Command

In Exodus 20:8–10, it is clear that God gives Sabbath rest as a command. However, we often miss that as we "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," God intends for us to use that day for Him: "The seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God." What does this mean? It means that one day in seven—not a day of our choosing, but a day of God's own choosing and a day unlike other days—is to be set apart for the Lord's service.

And this command is rooted in both creation and redemption. In Exodus 20, creation serves as the ground: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth ... and rested on the seventh day" (v. 11). The creation week serves as a pattern for our creative weeks: just as God worked six and rested one, so should we.

But in Deuteronomy 5, this command finds its basis in redemption: "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (v. 15). Because God redeemed His people out of captivity with the blood of firstborn lambs, their lives and their time belonged to Him. He gave it back to them in redemption and required the Sabbath day as a witness, a "firstfruits" of the week, a testimony to His redemptive work.

Christ's Gracious Gift

This Sabbath expectation and command find their fulfillment and continuing validity in Christ. That is because Jesus Himself pointed to the release that the day represented. Far from doing away with the Sabbath, Jesus filled it with meaning for His people.

In Luke 4:16–21, Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day "as was his custom." He took the scroll and read from Isaiah 61, declaring, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The link between Sabbath and Messiah was plain: the promised Sabbath of rest and rejoicing, pictured in creation and redemption, has come in Jesus. He brings good news, the Lord's favor, liberty, sight, and freedom.

Jesus loved to heal on the Sabbath. That seems clear in Luke 13:10–17. A woman bound by a "disabling spirit for eighteen years" is healed and she glorifies God. The Pharisees are furious with Jesus. His response: "Ought not this woman be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" Isn't it fitting and right? Creation and redemption come together on the Sabbath day to point to Christ's gracious gift of real renewal, rest, and refreshment.

Jesus does these things because He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–28). He is the giver of the Sabbath as the Creator. He is the One about whom the Sabbath testifies. And, as Redeemer, He has started time anew through the resurrection. Indeed, on the Sunday of His resurrection, time began again; the first day of the new creation started. The Sabbath rest secures its meaning on Resurrection Sunday, setting the day for Christian worship (1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). We remember this day to the Lord's service in worship and mercy, in response to God's good command and Christ's gracious gift.

We who trust in Jesus not only find rest for our souls Sunday by Sunday, but we also have the promise of entering into the final Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:9–10). We testify each week that we have rested from our works—from our attempts to placate God or earn His favor, even in how we "remember the Sabbath." Instead, we "rest in and receive" Jesus. In Him, we find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:28–30).

That's why the Sabbath day brings real rest and refreshment. We aren't in a frenzy trying to earn God's favor. Rather, the Lord of the Sabbath Himself has raised us and will raise us from the dead (Eph. 2:4–6).

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