The Sabbath can be a hard thing for Christians to understand. I grew up in a church that had a lot of rules around the Sabbath and how it should be kept. No working, no secular music or computer games, no projects around the house – but going for hikes or having church friends over was encouraged. Jews in Jesus’ day experienced the same struggle. Many rules and expectations governed how they should observe the Sabbath. In today’s passage, Jesus dismisses our legalistic approaches to the Sabbath and shows us what real Sabbath rest is, and why God gave us a Sabbath in the first place.
We confuse Sabbath rest with idleness, as if “resting” means stopping our work and replacing it with “not work.” Jesus models a different way of understanding Sabbath rest. Jews in Jesus day considered healing anything other than a life-threatening injury on the Sabbath to be work. The man with a withered hand could have waited another day, but Jesus heals him anyway. Why? Jesus understood that at Creation, when God instituted the Sabbath, God did not stop working. Only God’s constant effort upholds and sustains creation. If God stopped working, everything would cease to be. God didn’t stop working on the Sabbath—instead, he moved from the work of creation to the work of ruling. Creation under God’s rule is perfect, whole, and just. When Jesus restores the man’s hand, he is undertaking the work of declaring God’s rulership, under which we will all be re-made pure and whole. God’s Sabbath rest is not idleness. It is a different type of work, one that declares God’s sovereignty and his desire to make all things new.
This helps us understand why God gave us a Sabbath in the first place. The Pharisees objected to Jesus’ disciples picking and eating grain because they believed this constituted the work of harvesting, which the law clearly stated should not take place on the Sabbath. But Jesus pushes back against their legalism. In the creation narrative, humanity is created on the sixth day, with the Sabbath following on the seventh. The Sabbath was created for the benefit of humanity—God declared the Sabbath to bless us! He didn’t create us just so he would have someone to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath is an invitation to embrace God’s rule over us, to lean into His sovereignty and enjoy the wholeness and completion his lordship brings to our lives. The many rules the Pharisees created (and that we continue to create today) about how to keep the Sabbath destroy its original purpose.
How we can join God’s work of restoration and renewal this Sabbath? How is God restoring what is withered in us? What legalistic checklist of approved activities can we lay aside as we join Jesus in the work of making all things new? Answering these questions will turn the burden of the Sabbath into the blessing God created it to be.
Luke Jackson lives in Mt. Pleasant with his wife Deborah Tepley and their two cats. Even though he works at a video game publisher, he still really enjoys the Sabbath, because it turns out, work is still just a job.