The New Testament theology concerning the Sabbath does not talk about God’s rest, but it deals with His Sabbath work. That may take us off guard as Seventh-day Adventists.
Most Christians reading the New Testament theology about the Sabbath say to themselves, “God’s idea of Sabbath rest is completely left out of the New Testament; therefore, the Sabbath rest is unimportant to New Testament believers. We can go out and work and do as we please on the Sabbath.” Is that the way it is?
When we are called to stand before legislative assemblies, in halls of justice, or in royal courts, as a witness for the King of kings, the questioners will have great skill and expertise in fashioning questions to confuse us. They may ask a question such as, Can you show me in the New Testament where God rests? What are we going to say?
In this study, we will see that the Sabbath is set on a firm foundation, because the authority of God does not only establish it in the Old Testament, but the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ also establishes it in the New Testament.
Jesus and the Sabbath go together. From Nehemiah 9, we know that it was actually the Lord Jesus Christ who came down on Mount Sinai and gave the Ten Commandments. So Jesus and the commandments are like a hand and glove. They go together.
Lessons from Jesus
John 5 reveals what Jesus has to teach us relative to New Testament Sabbath theology. He teaches it in a very distinct way.
“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep [market] a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.” Verses 2–5. He had been sick for a long, long time.
I have been preaching for over 30 years. The time seems to have gone by in a flash, but as I contemplatively look back on all those years, it has actually been a long time! I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have lain in an impotent condition, having had someone else look after me for those 30 years plus 8 more. But that was this man’s portion.
“When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time [in that case], he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?” Verse 6.
The impotent man, with great faith and belief in Jesus, appealed to Him to be healed. Is that what it says? No! It was not that way at all. There is a reason why we find this healing miracle take place without one mention of faith being exercised. There is a reason for everything in Scripture, and through this story, Jesus wanted to teach something about the validity of the seventh-day Sabbath.
What would your response have been if you had been lying in a condition such as this man had for 38 years? If your vocal cords could have moved at all, you would most certainly have said, “You better believe it! Yes, indeed!”
“The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.” Verse 7.
The man never made it into the pool in time. Now, I ask you: Where was this man placing his faith, in the One that was talking to him or in the pool of water? He was placing his trust and his faith in the pool of water. He thought that if he could just get down into that water, he would be healed. Jesus did not even seem to blink an eye or hesitate at his answer. He simply commanded, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” Verse 8.
“And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.” Verse 9. Ah, here it is! Here is what Jesus wants to teach us about the Sabbath!
The Plot Sickens
You have probably heard the saying, “The plot thickens.” Well, in this case the plot kind of sickens. Notice the reaction to this man’s healing.
What do you suppose would be the reaction if someone came into your church that you knew to have been suffering a physical malady for years and told the story of how he or she was made whole? There would be jumping up and down and rejoicing; there would be smiles on everyone’s faces. You would rejoice with the person. Not so in those days. Not under those conditions. There were spies all around.
“The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry [thy] bed. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?” Verses 10–12. Oh, how they wanted to know who this man was. What was His name? Was He registered at the local synagogue?
When I was in the Philippines, the leaders of the organized Seventh-day Adventist Church learned that my travel companions and I were there. They broadcast a daily radio program, and when they learned that we were holding meetings, they announced on their radio program that we were fakes. They warned the people that we were not registered with the General Conference, so we were fakes, and the people should not attend our meetings. I was so glad they made that announcement! Do you know what happened to the attendance at our meetings? The people came! They wanted to know why we were there.
The Pharisees wanted to know who this man was and whether or not He had any authorization for telling this man to break the Sabbath by taking up his bed. Verse 13 says, “And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in [that] place.”
“Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole. And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.” Verses 14–16.
Some of these Pharisees and others found this man walking with his bed on the Sabbath. They were distressed that such a thing should happen on the Sabbath day! They were delighted to learn that Jesus had commanded him to do this, because now they had an excuse to kill Him. They had been watching Him for a long time, but they had not been sure that He was the One that had performed the miracle. Now they had verification. They had heard what had happened, and now they had all that they needed to stop Him and to silence Him permanently. They wanted to slay Him.
So they sought Jesus out with that “we caught you this time” expression on their faces and accusations on their lips, “But Jesus answered them, My Father worked hitherto, and I work.” Verse 17.
You would think that would be enough to stop them somehow, but interestingly they did not just seek to slay Him now, they “sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but had also said that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” Verse 18.
It is interesting to note that in the ministry of Jesus, the start of all of His troubles and the pretext that was used against Him concerned His Sabbath instruction and His example. The Jews sought to persecute Jesus because they thought that He did not properly regard the Sabbath.
We need to know and to understand the setting and the application of these truths because we are going to face them again in the end of time. We need to have an understanding of New Testament theology regarding Sabbath keeping because, in the end of time, the pretext that will be used against God’s people will be their Sabbath keeping. If we follow Jesus and keep the Sabbath, the devil and his followers will come after us just like the Jews of old came after Jesus. They will seek to slay us. If we foil their plans on one account, they will seek all the more to slay.
When confronted with the Jews’ accusations of, “Why are You working? Why are You teaching people to work on the Sabbath?” Jesus could have said, “It was not really work at all. What I did was legal. After all, this man had to take his bed home, and how did you expect him to get it there? His actions were excusable, under the circumstances.”
But Jesus did not answer them in that way. He just said, “My Father worked hitherto, and I work.” Verse 17. He did not make any excuses.
Many Christians have used this verse in an attempt to justify their actions, to excuse their working on the Sabbath. Does this make Sabbath work acceptable? No, it does not, because there is another dynamic in this passage. If we try to take something out of its context to make it say what we want it to say, we are in serious trouble. The context here is establishing New Testament teaching relative to Sabbath observance. The works performed by the Father and Son on the Sabbath are not justification for us to work on the Sabbath.
Verse 18 continues this story with, “The Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath [in their estimation], but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” Jesus knew what He was saying, and the Jews knew what He was saying. That made them hate Him all the more. You see, we can never use this argument, ever, that the Father works; the Son works; therefore I am going to work also. If we use that argument, it is tantamount to saying that we are equal with God. Jesus understood that. The Jews understood that. It simply would not be true for you or me, but for Jesus it was true, and the Jews hated Him for it. They could not accept a Messiah that was Divine. They did not want that kind of Messiah.
Jesus’ Sabbath Work
If Jesus worked on the Sabbath, what kind of work did He do? What do His acts teach us about the Sabbath that we do not learn from the Old Testament? The gospels give us a few occasions of Jesus’ Sabbath work.
We will first look at an event given in Matthew 12: “At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw [it], they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.” Verses 1, 2. The word corn applied to wheat, rye, oats and barley. This explains the circumstance that they rubbed it in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff. (Luke 6:1.)
We find here the same issue all over again. In John 5, the situation involved the healing of a man who had been in that condition for 38 years. It was not lawful for him to pick up his bed and carry it home on the Sabbath, according to the Jews. Here the disciples are in the grain fields, plucking grain to eat, and the Jews say that this is not lawful for them to do either. Why did the Jews make this charge? Is it wrong to eat on the Sabbath? No, this is not the issue.
The disciples broke two laws, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, by harvesting and threshing on the Sabbath. The harvesting was the picking of the grains, and the threshing was the rubbing of the grains between the hands and the blowing away of the chaff so that the kernels could be eaten. The Jews felt that a double sin had been committed. Now they had the disciples right where they wanted them!
They came to Jesus with this accusation, and He said to them, “Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungered, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the showbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?” Verses 3–5. The word profane means “to make common.” As used in verse 5, profane means to treat the Sabbath as another working day; this is what the priests were doing; yet they were found blameless.
Jesus brings into focus the crux of this whole issue in verse 6: “But I say unto you, That in this place is [one] greater than the temple.”
Jesus is using His Sabbath work to establish His authority. We cannot use the Sabbath to prove our authority. The Sabbath proves our subservience, and we are to relate to the Sabbath in that way. The Sabbath establishes the authority of God. It proves that we are creatures and that He is the Creator. The Sabbath, when rightly understood, always proves and elevates the authority of Jesus, which He was never able to establish with His people in Old Testament times.
In the Old Testament, Jesus wanted to establish His authority over His people, and the Sabbath was the mark or distinction of recognized authority. This was only accomplished by a few small revivals that took place.
As we read this passage in Matthew 12, one thing comes through very loud and clear: Jesus is saying that He is greater than the temple. The Jews loved the temple. They adored the temple. They worshipped the temple. The temple was where the Ten Commandments were kept, and right in the middle of all that was the Sabbath commandment. But Jesus says that there is Someone greater here than the temple.
If the temple can be served without blame by work that is done on the Sabbath, then Who can be served on the Sabbath without blame? Jesus is teaching that He can be served on the Sabbath without blame. His work must go on, and His work can be done on the Sabbath without blame. This is what He is teaching through this story.
Verse 7 continues, “But if ye had known what [this] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” In other words, “My disciples are innocent of the charges you are making. They are not guilty. You do not understand what the Scriptures are trying to teach you, or you would not be making these kinds of charges in this case.”
And then, in verse 8, Jesus says, “For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” What He is really saying is, “I have authority.”
Use of the Sabbath
Another passage similar to this is Mark 2:27, 28: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.”
Can we use the Sabbath, according to these verses? If so, for what purpose? We can use the Sabbath to lift up the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is how Jesus used it throughout the New Testament.
There were spies watching the disciples walking through the grain field, ready to accuse them. Jesus gave the disciples permission to pick and to eat the grain, and He defended them fully in what they were doing against the spies’ accusations. What kind of Sabbath work is Jesus doing here?
What does eating accomplish? It accomplishes several things. If we look at this from a spiritual standpoint, we see that eating nourishes and sustains the body. This becomes more impressive when we realize that Jesus taught in parables. “Blessed [are] they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6.
So two uses of the Sabbath are the establishing of the authority of Jesus and the nourishing of the body of Christ. Jesus is teaching about His work on the Sabbath.
The Bible tells us, in Colossians 1:17, that in Jesus everything consists or is sustained. It is His authority to sustain, and the Sabbath work of Jesus lifts up His authority to sustain all of His creation. The New Testament theology of the Sabbath then points to Jesus as the sustainer of all that is in this world.
Immediately following the report of the disciples harvesting grain on the Sabbath is another example of Jesus’ works on the Sabbath. In this next story, we find Jesus in church. He has gone through the cornfield and is now in the synagogue. Matthew 12:9, 10 reads, “And when he [Jesus] was departed thence, he went into their synagogue: And, behold, there was a man which had [his] hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.” In Mark 3:1, 2, this same report is recorded, and that passage tells us very specifically that this occurs on the Sabbath day.
What would you expect Jesus to do when confronted with the situation of the man with a withered hand—ignore it? Or would you expect Jesus to do something to help this man? There were people in the synagogue that knew enough about Jesus to know that He would do something about it. They knew His character well enough that they were certain He would relieve this man’s affliction. Of course, they hoped that He would do something, because they then could accuse Him yet again of breaking the Sabbath. These people were waiting to accuse Jesus of doing something that was good, so they could do something bad to Him, or at least have the authorities do something bad to Him. According to the traditions the Jews had developed and heaped around the Sabbath day, it was wrong to practice the healing arts on the Sabbath day.
“And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift [it] out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched [it] forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.” Matthew 12:11–13.
Imagine that man being confronted by Jesus, having heard the stories about Him. He was perhaps thinking, “If I stretch forth my hand, Jesus will reach out and touch it, and it is going to be changed.” But he did not have to wait for Jesus to touch his hand. He stretched forth his hand, and as it stretched, it kept straightening, because it was healed in the process. He acted out his faith. The hand that had been withered became as strong and healthy as his other hand that was not withered.
Jesus gave physical wholeness to this man. He took this man who had the use of only one-half of his capacity, and He made him whole. He made him complete.
What a wonderful work it was that Jesus did here.
The work of Jesus on the Sabbath day is a wonderful thing. The Sabbath is a wonderful time to experience what God has in store for us. Jesus loves to take half-whole people, on the Sabbath, and make them whole. Do you feel that you are only half a person? Is there part of you that is nice and another part that is not so nice? This story tells us that Jesus uses the Sabbath day to bring wholeness. It marks Him as the Creator, because the Sabbath is a memorial of creation, and it marks Him as a memorial of re-creation.
A retired minister of the gospel, Pastor Mike Baugher may be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.