Resting in Christ
Christ was a living representative of the law. No violation of its holy precepts was found in His life. Looking upon a nation of witnesses who were seeking occasion to condemn Him, He could say unchallenged, ‘Which of you convicteth Me of sin?’ ”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 287.
Jesus’ life fully reflected the meaning of God’s law, the Ten Commandments. He was the law of God lived out in humanity, in human flesh. Thus, by studying His life, we learn what keeping the commandments is like and how to keep the commandments in a way that is not a dry and spiritless legalism.
And, of course, among those commandments is the fourth, the seventh-day Sabbath.
This week, as we continue our study of Matthew, we will look at a few of the Sabbath controversies and see in the life of Jesus a manifestation of what it means to keep the Sabbath. For if the law is, indeed, a reflection of the character of God, and if Jesus embodied that law, then, by learning how He kept the fourth commandment and what He taught about it, we can learn more about the character of God and, even more important, how we can reflect that character in our own lives.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, May 7.
In Matthew 11:20–27, Jesus begins with a powerful rebuke to some of the cities in Galilee that rejected His ministry. What makes the rebuke, and His warning of condemnation, so frightening is that these cities had been given great opportunities to know the truth. He, the Truth (John 14:6), had walked in the flesh among them. And if that weren’t enough, He had performed many “mighty works” (Matt. 11:20) there, as well; and yet, they refused to repent. Indeed, He said that if the “mighty works” (Matt. 11:23) He had done in Capernaum had been done in Sodom, then “ ‘it would have remained until this day.’ ” In other words, they were worse than the Sodomites.
Right after that, in verses 25–27, Jesus starts praying to the Father, thanking Him and then talking about the close relationship between the Two. And He also acknowledges all that had been given Him by the Father, in a sense showing even more clearly why His rejection by those cities was so tragic.
After denouncing unbelief and reaffirming His closeness with the Father, Jesus offers everyone who is weary, rest in Him. In other words, He is telling the people not to make the mistake these others made by rejecting Him. He has the authority and power to do what He says, and He says that by coming to Him you will find rest for your souls. Given the context, that rest would include peace, assurance of salvation, and hope that those who reject Him don’t and can’t have.
What else does Jesus mean when He says He will give us rest? Does it mean laziness? Does it mean anything goes? Of course not. Jesus has a very high standard for us; we saw this in His Sermon on the Mount. But a relationship with Jesus is not intended to wear us out. By learning of Him, by emulating Him and His character, we can find a rest from many of the toils and troubles of life. And, as we will see, one expression of that rest is found in keeping the Sabbath.
If, as so much of the Christian world argues, the seventh-day Sabbath was abolished, replaced, superseded, fulfilled (whatever), then why did Jesus spend so much time dealing with how to keep the Sabbath?
Knowing that one of the reasons Israel had gone into Babylonian captivity was because the nation had defiled the Sabbath, the Pharisees had wanted to prevent that from happening again. Hence, they created a whole litany of rules and regulations about what was and was not acceptable on the Sabbath, with the idea of protecting its sanctity. What were some of those rules?
If a hen lays an egg on the Sabbath, is it OK to eat it? The majority opinion of the Pharisees was that if the hen was an egg-laying hen, then it was not OK to eat an egg laid on Sabbath because the hen was working. However, if a hen was not an egg-laying hen—if it was just a hen being fattened up to be eaten—then it was OK to eat the egg because this wasn’t the hen’s primary labor. (There was also a suggestion that you could eat an egg laid on Sabbath by a laying hen as long as you later killed the hen for breaking the Sabbath.)
Is it OK to look at yourself in a mirror on Sabbath? The answer? No, because if you see a gray hair you might be tempted to pluck it, and this would be reaping and, as such, a violation of the Sabbath.
If your house catches fire on Sabbath, is it OK to go salvage your clothes? The answer: you should carry out only one set of clothing. However, if you put on one set of clothing, then you may carry out another set. (By the way, if your home catches fire, it’s not OK to ask a Gentile to put out the fire, but if the Gentile is putting out the fire anyway, that’s OK.)
Is it OK to spit on Sabbath? The answer: you may spit on a rock, but you may not spit on the ground because that would be making mud or mortar.
This was the climate that Jesus was ministering in: rigid impossibilities required for Sabbath keeping that ruined the original purpose of the Sabbath. It was to be a day to rest from our work; a day to worship God and fellowship with other believers in ways that we cannot do during the workweek; a day when kids knew their parents would be more available to them than they might have otherwise been; a day to especially rejoice in what has been done for us by our Creator and our Redeemer.
Jesus was telling them what He would later say in a much stronger manner (see Matt. 23:23, 24), and that is for them to focus on what is really important. Jesus recounts the familiar story of the fugitive David taking bread from the tabernacle that was supposed to be eaten by priests only. In that situation, the hunger of David and his companions was more important than was a tabernacle ritual intended for another purpose. In the same way, the hunger of Jesus’ followers was more important than Sabbath guidelines (about reaping) intended for another purpose.
Jesus also cites the work of the priests in the temple on the Sabbath day. The Sabbath allowed for the work of ministry. In the same way, the Sabbath allows for the work of Jesus’ companions because Jesus and His work were greater than the temple.
Nothing Jesus said here or anywhere else in regard to keeping the Sabbath lessened in any way the divine command that we keep it. He was trying to break them free, not from the Sabbath but from meaningless rules that hid what the Sabbath was supposed to be about, and that is an expression of the rest that we have in Christ as our Creator and our Redeemer.
It is very interesting to read through the Gospels and to see all the times that the writers recorded the Sabbath incidents between Jesus and the religious leaders. Why would all four Gospel writers include in some cases numerous accounts of the struggle that Jesus had with the leaders over Sabbath keeping if the Sabbath were about to be abolished? This point becomes even more salient when we remember that the Gospels were written down many years after the ministry of Jesus. Though scholars are divided over the exact dates, most place them at least 20 to 30 years after the death of Jesus. Thus, by then, if the seventh-day Sabbath had been replaced by Sunday (one common argument), this change is certainly not hinted at in any of the inspired accounts of Jesus’ life. Thus, we have powerful evidence that the seventh-day Sabbath was not abolished, changed, or superseded, at least certainly not by any example or command of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels. On the contrary, if we focus on Jesus’ commands and example, the Gospels show us the continued validity of the seventh-day Sabbath.
“Upon another Sabbath, as Jesus entered a synagogue, He saw there a man who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Him, eager to see what He would do. The Saviour well knew that in healing on the Sabbath He would be regarded as a transgressor, but He did not hesitate to break down the wall of traditional requirements that barricaded the Sabbath. . . . It was a maxim among the Jews that a failure to do good, when one had opportunity, was to do evil; to neglect to save life was to kill. Thus Jesus met the rabbis on their own ground.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 286.
Again, as in the previous Sabbath incident, Jesus was seeking to point people to the higher purpose of the law, to the higher purpose of what the life of faith is all about. These men would have been content to leave that man with his pain and suffering rather than violate their own man-made rules regarding the Sabbath, which had gotten so twisted that—though they would have pulled an ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath—they would not relieve a fellow human being’s suffering.
How careful we need to be in making sure that our practice of faith does not get in the way of living our faith in the ways that God has called us to.
As should be clear from the Gospel records, Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath. If anything, He restored the Sabbath, freeing it from the cumbersome burdens people had placed on it. Hundreds of years later, Christians were still resting and worshiping on Sabbath. The fifth-century historian Socrates Scholasticus wrote: “Almost all churches throughout The World celebrated the sacred mysteries (the Lord’s Supper) on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, refuse to do this.” —Ecclesiastical History, book 5, p. 289. No question, whatever the reasons all these incidents were recorded in the Gospels, it wasn’t to point anyone away from the Sabbath.
Though Jewish law did permit giving medical attention on the Sabbath to a person whose life was in danger, Jesus took it further. Healings, perhaps even healings that could be done on another day, are permitted on the Sabbath. With all this in mind, look at what Jesus said later in Matthew: “ ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old’ ” (Matt. 13:52, NIV). No question, Jesus was clearly bringing out new treasures, as well.
Further Thought: “With or without religion,” someone said, “you would have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” In the 1600s, French mystic Blaise Pascal famously warned “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Though they are somewhat overstated, there is unfortunately some truth to these sentiments. This truth can be seen in the context of the week’s lesson, in regard to the Pharisees and the Sabbath. “When Jesus turned upon the Pharisees with the question whether it was lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill, He confronted them with their own wicked purposes. They were hunting His life with bitter hatred, while He was saving life and bringing happiness to multitudes. Was it better to slay upon the Sabbath, as they were planning to do, than to heal the afflicted, as He had done? Was it more righteous to have murder in the heart upon God’s holy day than love to all men, which finds expression in deeds of mercy?”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 287.