Growing up in Sabbathkeeping churches, I’ve heard hundreds of sermons dealing, directly or indirectly, with Sabbath. Most of these didn’t say much about Jesus and the Sabbath. Rather, they provided theological base, arguments for observance, and Sabbath rules from the Old Testament. From these sermons alone, one could suspect that Jesus rarely mentioned the Sabbath, that it was mostly an old covenant fixture.
But fifty of the sixty-plus New Testament references to Sabbath are in the four Gospels, where Jesus is at the center of Sabbath action or speaks to the Sabbath issue. Most or all Sabbath instruction in the New Testament comes from Christ’s teachings. By studying what Jesus said and did on the Sabbath, we understand how He fulfilled it. As the initiator and embodiment of the new covenant, Jesus could have said that Sabbath should be forgotten, treated as common. But He did not! Rather, He talked about Sabbath as a day to be observed in a given way — by Himself and by His followers.
So what did Jesus say and do on the Sabbath? And what might we learn from Him regarding what it means to observe the Sabbath in a new covenant context? In other words, how can we ensure that our Sabbath observance is Christ centered?
Jesus’ Sabbath practice
Jesus’ most common Sabbath activity was His habitual attendance and teaching in the synagogue. On the Sabbath He also healed often, taught outside the synagogue, ate with friends, and walked through grain fields. Taken together, these incidents provide a basic picture of Jesus’ Sabbath practice (e.g., Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 1:21-31; 6:2; Luke 4:16, 31; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-18; 9:1-16).
Jesus’ Sabbath practice was marked by active engagement with God’s covenant people in corporate worship. It was characterized by compassion in the form of valuing people — hungry or in need of healing — over rigid stipulations. And it included leisure in the form of a meal with friends or a countryside stroll.
As important as His conduct was, it was Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath that underscored the theological basis and meaning of His actions.
Jesus’ Sabbath teaching
It is expressed in a few profound statements, aimed mostly at religious leaders who antagonized Jesus and His disciples for breaking the Sabbath. Jesus never denied their allegations or defended His actions based on the law. Rather, He obliquely admitted that His disciples were breaking the letter of Sabbath law or Jewish traditions prevalent in that day. Ultimately, He taught the true significance of the Sabbath in relation to Himself and others.
Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus’ most controversial claim about Sabbath was that it was under His authority. His disciples were caught in the act of harvesting and threshing grain for food on the Sabbath, considered a violation of Sabbath law by the Pharisees (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5). Rather than say His disciples didn’t break the law, Jesus cited David breaking the tabernacle law and the fact that priests working in the temple profaned the Sabbath but were innocent. He reminded the Pharisees of compassion’s priority over religious ritual with His statement “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
Then He said it: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” This claim is foundational to everything else Jesus taught about Sabbath. It means that Jesus has the right to give, interpret, and rewrite Sabbath law. It means that He decides whether one who commits unlawful Sabbath activity is guilty or innocent. The disciples were in the presence of One greater than the temple, and He found no fault in their actions. If the Lord found no fault, why should the servants cast blame?
Recognizing Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath is fundamental to understanding and keeping Sabbath. All too often we have subjected Jesus to Sabbath laws and claimed that He upheld them in the face of religious leaders misapplying them. But the Gospels tell a different story. Jesus was the one reinterpreting Torah law, while the Pharisees were upholding its literal application. He could do this only if He was Lord of the Sabbath, not if the Sabbath was Lord of Him. Because Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, we must listen carefully to what He says on the topic.
Sabbath and humanity. If we wonder why Jesus was eager to excuse His disciples for food preparation and the sick for coming to be healed and for carrying their beds home, we need look no further than Mark’s account of what Jesus said that day in the grain field. Just before claiming lordship of the Sabbath, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This claim places the priority of people over the day.
Humans are the crown and stewards of God’s creation, the bearers of His image (Genesis 1:26-31). The Sabbath is a gift for them, not the other way around. The Sabbath is a compassionate gift to people who are weary and need rest, foreshadowing Jesus (Matthew 11:28). Sabbath is a merciful reminder that capitalism is not king; life consists of more than production, possessions, and profit. The Sabbath is an extension of God’s grace; as such, it should always be used for people’s welfare. Thus, Jesus consistently chose the welfare of people over the letter of the Sabbath law and over the traditions meant to enforce it.
Jesus decreed that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:12; cf. Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9). Such a broad statement is not found in the law, particularly the way in which Jesus intended it. Like His Father, Jesus was actively working on Sabbath (John 5:17). It was not the customary work of creation week; this was completed in six days. Rather it was the work of serving and saving people. His example is significant for us: We are called to join God in setting aside the customary work of the week. But we are also called to continue “working” on Sabbath — the good work of actively serving and loving people.
Several of Jesus’ statements underscore the importance of this good work. His most familiar Sabbath teaching may be in reference to the custom of helping animals as a basis for helping people on that day (Matthew 12:11-12; Luke 13:15-16; 14:3-5). He argues from the lesser to the greater: If you’d be willing to work by serving (water) or saving (from a pit) an animal on the Sabbath, then how could you refuse to serve or save a person?
These verses are often cited as exception clauses, allowing people to help themselves or others in emergencies. But that’s not what Jesus was saying. None of Jesus’ actions that He defended with this principle were emergencies. Rather, they were acts of service and salvation that could have waited until the next day. Such a delay, in fact, is what the religious leaders wanted (Luke 13:14). Jesus’ point was not that we could break the Sabbath for an occasional emergency but that the only way to truly keep Sabbath was to actively use it in service to others. Helping people on Sabbath — even when it requires work — is not an exception. It is the rule.
Jesus’ teaching calls us to be thoughtful in the way we observe Sabbath. If our list of do’s and don’ts ends up hurting — or fails to help — people, then we’re not observing the day as Jesus intended. Rather than rely on the face-value appearance of an action as “work,” we must make a righteous judgment in determining appropriate Sabbath activity (John 7:19-24).
Christ-centered Sabbath observance
For our Sabbath observance to be Christ centered, it would need to be shaped by Jesus’ example and teaching on the Sabbath. From my reflection on what He said and did, here’s what this might look like.
The Sabbath must be kept in proper perspective to Jesus. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and is preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:18). Our faith and practice must find their center in Christ, not the Sabbath. To put it another way, our identity must be focused more on being “Church of God” than on being “Seventh Day.” It is idolatry to elevate the Sabbath above Christ.
Some Sabbath time should be reserved for assembly with other followers of Christ. Jesus habitually attended synagogue on Sabbath, thus demonstrating His commitment to corporate worship with the public reading and teaching of Scripture. It was one way in which He answered the old covenant call for a “holy convocation,” or gathering, on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3). When we meet together on Sabbath around the Word and worship, we are following Jesus’ good example, and we benefit from the practice.
The Sabbath must be kept in proper perspective to people. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around. The Sabbath is intended to serve us; we are not intended to serve it. When Sabbath observance becomes its own form of servile labor through a list of rules and rituals, we are no long-er keeping it as Jesus intends. The Sabbath should afford us opportunity to rest, to remember and reflect, to relax and recreate. This includes activities like taking a walk or enjoying a meal with friends. It’s true that Jesus went to synagogue on Sabbath, but He didn’t live there. We must be careful not to judge others who keep Sabbath differently than we. Let us not join the chorus of Jesus’ foes who insisted that those who treated the Sabbath differently could not be of God (John 9:16). It is disobedience to elevate the Sabbath above people.
The Sabbath should be set aside for the special work of serving and saving people. Whenever possible, this should include cessation from our customary work to allow us to focus on finding rest for ourselves and providing rest for others. Two potential exceptions come to my mind. First, like the temple priests, like farmers who tend animals, and like parents who care for their children, there are those whose customary work is still necessary to Sabbathkeeping. Those whose work is devoted to the Church’s corporate worship and to serving and saving others should be encouraged to do their Sabbath work — and be paid for it.
Second, unlike ancient Israel, we do not live in a closed society in which all business can pause on Sabbath. To honor Jesus’ words of placing mercy above sacrifice, essential life services must be provided seven days a week. And when life presents us with the choice of providing for our family or resting, Jesus’ teaching prioritizes the basic needs of people over Sabbath.
Conspicuously absent here is an official list of “do’s and don’ts” for Sabbath observance. This is intentional. Jesus did not provide His followers with such a list. Rather, He taught and exemplified a principle-based Sabbath observance with Christ as its Lord and people as its beneficiaries. May our Sabbath observance be increasingly characterized by these two principles.BA