Matthew (Part 16) - The Sabbath
At the end of chapter 11, Jesus implores people to come him “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He implies that what the Jews had been experiencing through the covenant activity controlled by the Pharisees and scribes was a burdensome religion more likely to weigh down and depress than lift up. Matthew used Christ’s plea to introduce chapter 12 which focuses on the issue of covenant law providing the greatest contrast between its original intent and the burden which the Pharisees had made it out to be—the Sabbath.
We first learn of a Sabbath at the very beginning as God creates the world. Genesis 2:2-3 tells us, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” The Hebrew word for holy is qadash, which means simply to separate or set apart. Thus, the seventh day was different, special, set apart from the other days in that the other six days involved work whereas the seventh day involved rest.
In Exodus 16 we learn that after the children of Israel became hungry in the wilderness, God provided manna. Each morning they would collect a day’s portion from the ground where God had caused it to appear as dew. Any kept overnight would rot. But on the sixth day, they were to collect two days’ worth so that they would not have to go out to collect it on the seventh day—the Sabbath. That double portion over that night would not rot. Verse 29 reads, “See! (ra’ah – look, comprehend, consider) The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.”
From these two texts we learn one of the important reasons for the Sabbath. The day was given to the people for rest. But the creation account also implies something that would be developed in later texts. As God created each day, he would, at the end of the day, review his work and pronounce it good. He did this each day. At the end of his six days of creative work, he takes the whole next day to pause and rest and be refreshed. It would seem, based on his activity over the previous six days, that this restful pause included a look back over his work. It was a reflective rest, reviewing what he had done. This reflection, then, is brought into more explicit focus upon delivery of the Ten Commandments. Concerning the Sabbath, God said, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God….For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-10).
Note that here we learn the Sabbath, which was given to man, is also “to (or for) the Lord your God.” In other words, they were given the Sabbath to rest, but in that time of rest they were to reflect on the Lord who had made the earth and them. In mandating this activity, God gave them a means by which they could prevent being caught up in their own labor, perhaps exalting themselves in Tower of Babel fashion. They were to reflect on God’s work, understanding their relationship to and dependence on him. And this was no mere suggestion. The conflict between the exaltation of God and the exaltation of self/humanity was one that existed from the fall and will exist until Christ comes again. Thus, God is seriously insistent that the Sabbath observance be maintained: “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:14-17).
We were created in the image of God for the purpose of an everlasting love relationship with him. Being “like God” in the image categories of effective volition, conceptual intelligence, creative imagination, moral consciousness, and relational love help us to view our own work activity as God showed his to be—determining, implementing, and then resting/reflecting.
In Leviticus, we find that the Mosaic law/covenant added activities of worship to the Sabbath to enhance the reflection/refreshment idea. But the Jews, over the centuries, intent on strictly adhering to law rather than motivation or reason for the law, added restriction upon restriction to ensure the letter rather than the spirit. By NT times, we are not exactly sure how many laws clustered on this issue. By the time the Talmud was assembled, this issue of the Sabbath covered 39 articles each of which had 39 points of law. From this we can understand Christ’s point concerning the burdensome religion that Judaism had become.
As Matthew 12 opens, Jesus and his disciples are crossing a grainfield. Being hungry, the disciples pull the heads off the grain and eat. First, this is not stealing, and the Pharisees do not accuse them of stealing. This activity was allowed by law (Deut 23:25). The Pharisees, however, were upset that they performed this action on a Sabbath. Part of the additional specifics to the Sabbath included no reaping, winnowing, milling, or grinding of grain. The disciples were guilty of all that by pulling the grain heads and rubbing them in their hands to remove husks and chaff. But notice that Jesus does not directly complain about their laws being additions to God’s Sabbath injunction. Rather, he does so indirectly by going to the heart of the matter, speaking to the purpose for the Sabbath.
Some commentators think that the example of David that Jesus uses in verses 3 and 4 was an ad hominem tu quoque argument—an argument that assumes David’s action wrong and excused by the Pharisees, and therefore sees their current fault-finding as hypocritical. This is not the point Jesus makes. Jesus brings up David’s action as a justifiable violation of a law. Jesus is making an argument based on an ethical hierarchy.
David and his men were starving. They come to Nob, the location of the Ark and tabernacle. David asks the priest for food, but the only food there was the bread of the Presence used in the Holy Place. Twelve loaves were placed on the table in the Holy Place each week on the Sabbath. The old bread removed each week was for only the priests to eat. But both the priest and David considered it justifiable for them to eat this bread to provide for the greater good of preserving their lives. The same idea runs through the story in the next verses (12:9-14) as the man has his withered hand restored. Jesus determines, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” even though work was done in technicality breaking the Sabbath. Jesus also points to the priests who work on the Sabbath, but are guiltless.
Notice that the examples Christ uses point directly to the reasons for the Sabbath rather than merely to the ritual or rigidity of instruction. The Sabbath was made for people’s good—rest/refreshment in order to be able to reflect on the goodness of God. Additionally, Jesus remarks concerning himself in verse 6 that something greater than the temple was present. The disciples in being with, reflecting on, and working for Christ made them as guiltless of Sabbath violation as the priests working in the temple.
This leads to a thought for our Christian lives in this age. Some people have insisted that we should continue to observe the Sabbath today, citing that the NT never indicates that its observance should be discontinued. But it is precisely in the association that we now have with Christ (as shown in these verses from chapter 12) that indicates that we live now everyday with Sabbath intention. We no longer separate the secular from the sacred. As Christians of the kingdom, we belong to Christ. Even the mention of the sin of murder in the Sermon on the Mount tells us it is no longer to be looked at as a behavioral sin but one that begins in the heart. And our heart reflection on Christ is constant. He is our Sabbath.
But surely the NT indicates that Sunday is now the day that Christians observe the Sabbath—at least for formal worship, right? Actually, we do not have any indication in the NT that we ought to gather and worship on Sunday. Two verses may seem to indicate so. Acts 20:7 states, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” However, Acts 2:46 seems to tell us that they gathered every day to break bread. It just happened that the even of Acts 20:7 took place on the first day of the week. Additionally, the phrase “first day of the week” in Greek says only mia Sabbaton (literally, one Sabbath). The word mia is used 79 times in the NT, of which only 8 times is it translated “first.” Usually it is rendered “one” or “certain” as in a certain or particular day. For example, Matthew 5:19 reads, “Therefore whoever relaxes one [mia] of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Even the times that mia is translated “first,” the Greek is not necessarily indicating first. In our Acts 20:7 example, the word “day” is not in the Greek. The sense in the Greek is that “During a certain week, when we were gathered….” Therefore, we do not know whether the early church met together on Sunday as is customarily thought.
A second example involves collection of an offering. 1 Corinthians 16:2 reads, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” Here again “first” is from the Greek mia, and “day” is not in the original. Remember that at the time, payment and trading was often done with product and produce rather than cash. Paul appears to be saying that he doesn’t want the Corinthians to wait until he arrives to calculate how they have prospered and then sell off items to have the coin that Paul would take to Jerusalem as an offering. Paul urges them to go ahead and designate “a certain week” to make the necessary exchanges and sales to collect an offering that he can take back. This is not a verse commanding us to take an offering each Sunday.
The Catholics began the tradition of Sunday worship and the Puritans transferred many of the laws of the Sabbath to Sunday. But NT kingdom living does not specify a day nor the kind of observance that old covenant Sabbath keepers had.
There is, however, always a danger when liberty is realized. The danger is to swing to the opposite extreme. The NT does tell us to meet together for the expressed purpose of encouraging one another. We are to give of what we have for the Lord and the sake of others. But timing, amounts, and days are not specified. We establish those for ourselves by our wholehearted devotion to God. That may well result in frequent meetings and sacrificial giving. But it also may not. Romans 14:5 tells us, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” And so we should.