Lent 2013 - Vol. 66

Keeping The Lord's Day Holy - Part 2
What the New Testament Says About It

by Nico Angleys

I. New Testament Teaching on the Lord’s Day

I will first examine what the Gospels teach on the sabbath, namely by looking closely at Jesus’ actions on the sabbath, then I shall take note of what the Epistles say on the subject. Yong-Eui Yang, in his work on the sabbath in the synoptic Gospels, writes that the sabbath passages are mainly Christological and eschatological in nature.27  These pericopes do not contain much on the observance of the sabbath nor the directive to transfer sabbath observance to the Lord’s Day (that is, the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead). As Benedict XVI points out, the question of “what does and does not belong to the sabbath is at the heart of Jesus’ differences with the people of Israel of his time.”28  All of the Gospel writers highlight the dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus on the issue of sabbath observance. At the heart of this controversy lies the stunning declaration29  that Jesus is the central reality of the sabbath and “the Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus threatens the “sacred structure and imperils an essential element that cements the unity of the People of God.”30

1. What Does Jesus Do on the Sabbath? 
Nine different episodes in Jesus’ life are recorded in the Gospels as having taken place on the sabbath. Three themes emerge from the study of these pericopes: healing, teaching, and resting. 

a) He Heals (and Delivers)
Most of the passages (seven out of nine) that mention the sabbath involve some form of healing or deliverance. Five specific healings take place on the sabbath. 

In Luke 4:31-39 (cf. Mark 1:21-31), Jesus heals the demoniac in Capernaum and then Simon’s mother-in-law. The healing of the demoniac highlights Jesus’ authority over the sickness born of the spiritual realm, while his healing of Simon’s relative underlines his authority over the sickness born of the physical realm. The combination of these two healings suggests a restoration of the created order by the One who created all things. We will examine the teaching aspect of these passages below.

In Luke 13:10-17 he heals a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. In this pericope Jesus connects this healing work with the unbinding of Satan’s work. She was crippled because of Satan and Jesus clearly makes a point of saying that he has freed her. This healing brings about a dispute regarding the proper use of the day. According to Jewish custom, at least as taught by the Pharisees, saving a life on the sabbath is a duty; caring for the seriously ill is permitted but only when they are in substantial pain in their whole body, and treating minor ailments is prohibited.31  This woman does not fit the tradition’s accepted sabbath healing practices. Therefore, Jesus seems to break the sabbath according to the Pharisees’ interpretation and he challenges their customs by declaring freedom from infirmity for a daughter of Abraham. When confronted about his presumed blatant sabbath law violation, Jesus (v. 15) points to the fact that the Jews of his day made exceptions to those same laws.32  Thus his healing challenges the way the Pharisees understood the sabbath. In this episode, Jesus reveals two principles regarding the sabbath. First, Jesus brings freedom from the slavery of Satan, as verse 16 announces. This hearkens back to Deuteronomy 5 and the deliverance from slavery which the sabbath commemorates. Keeping the sabbath holy reminds us of the ongoing freedom from the slavery of Satan which our Redeemer wishes for all the sons and daughters of Abraham. Second, Jesus has authority to interpret the laws concerning the sabbath. This principle is repeated in many of the sabbath episodes. Jesus is the center of Israel’s sacred institution.33

In Matthew 12:9-14 (cf. Mark 3:1-6 and Luke 6:6-11), Jesus enters the synagogue and heals a man with a withered hand. One commentator proposes that the man was placed in the synagogue as a test to see if Jesus would break the sabbath law.34  The withered hand clearly does not constitute a threat to life and therefore his healing constitutes a breaking of the Pharisaic halakhic law. Jesus uses this healing to point out the inconsistency of the sabbath laws and his answer to the Pharisees’ test is a bold proclamation35  that “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Verse 12). This draws the ire of the Pharisees who then begin to plot to destroy Jesus. In all three versions of this incident (Matthew 12:14, Mark 3:6, and Luke 6:11), the manifestation of Jesus’ lordship of the sabbath concludes with the Pharisees’ response to seek Jesus’ destruction. 

In John 5:1-30, Jesus heals a paralytic by the pool of Bethesda. The name of the pool means house of pity or mercy.36  Perhaps John gives us the name to indicate both the mercy Christ shows to the paralytic and the kind of action appropriate for a day that is kept holy.37  This healing miracle resembles the one in Luke 13 in the sense that the person healed had long been ill and the miracle led to controversy about healing on the sabbath. The end of the passage shows another altercation between the Pharisees and Jesus on the issue of obeying the sabbath commandment. Jesus responds by defending his work on the sabbath and giving what Brown calls his “discourse on his sabbath work.”38  Brown proposes that there are two kinds of work which Jesus does on the sabbath: to give life and to judge. Jesus draws his argument for this from a Jewish understanding that divine activity on the sabbath did not cease. The work of God on the sabbath could be seen by the fact that life and death of men occurred on that day. Both the creation of life and its termination – with the ensuing judgment – belong to the realm of God’s work.39  Jesus’ defense of his healing work on the sabbath is also an assertion of his divinity (see John 5:19) which is recognized as such by the Pharisees and precipitates another wave of opposition against Jesus. The rest which God commands for the sabbath allows us to see the work of God and in particular the work of his Son: the bringing of life and the restoring of life. Already, in this passage, Jesus presents a hint of the resurrection by commanding the paralytic to rise, a foreshadowing of the resurrection power he will make available to all through his own resurrection.

In John 9:13-17, Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth and is confronted for healing on the sabbath. Jesus’ action of making clay, anointing, healing a chronic condition, and washing are all understood to be forbidden as sabbath activity.40  John highlights the tension this produces among the Pharisees: either Jesus is a sinner because he transgresses the sabbath oral traditions or he is not a sinner because he performs such a sign. This healing proposes that Jesus has the authority to correct the current interpretation of the sabbath law and that he is able to restore the defects found in creation by healing blindness from birth. 

Jesus himself initiates all of the healings he performs on the sabbath.41  In all three synoptic Gospels he proclaims that he is lord of the sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, and Luke 6:5) and as such he rules over his enemy, the Devil, and all the effects of sin. This lordship inaugurates “the new creation by which humanity is restored to the fullness of life that God intended from the beginning,”42  a creation that is healed and able to receive the dwelling of God forever (Revelation 21:3-5).

b) He Teaches
Jesus is also on record, in both Mark and Luke, for teaching in the synagogue and at a Pharisee’s house. As with the healings, his teaching draws vehement opposition. 

We return to Mark 1:21-27 (cf. Luke 4:31-37), which we have already looked at in the context of the healing and deliverance that takes place on the sabbath. Here, Jesus, having just called the Apostles, begins his active ministry by teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The teaching is recognized as having authority. Mark tells us that this authority is greater than the scribes’ (verse 22) which is remarkable on two counts: first Jesus does not appear to have rabbinical training; second he claims authority directly from the Father (as John 12:44-50 makes clear).43  In the middle of this scene a man with an unclean spirit disrupts things and Jesus delivers him. The greatness of Jesus’ authority, in its divine origin, thus further manifests itself through the healing and deliverance from evil spirits. The audience recognizes the connection between Jesus’ teaching and his power over the evil spirit,44  which then suggests that the sabbath is a day suited to hearing the teaching of Christ and observing its power over evil.

In Mark 6:1-6 (cf. Luke 4:16-30), Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth on the sabbath but then marvels at his hometown’s lack of faith. Luke tells us that Jesus’ custom was to attend the synagogue on the sabbath. The sabbath is the day when the faith is taught during the assembly of the faithful. Through the reading from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, and through the teaching the rabbis gave following these readings, the assembly learned about the Lord. This pericope shows that Jesus adhered to the practices of his people and that he taught on the sabbath, even in his hometown. 

In Matthew 12:1-8 (cf. Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5), the Pharisees question Jesus’ disciples for picking heads of grain on the sabbath. At the conclusion of his defense Jesus declares that he is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, and Luke 6:5). This startling statement is no less than a claim to divinity because it places him above a divine institution.45  Yang notes that these passages use the sabbath as an illustration of what Jesus means when he says in Matthew 5:17-20 that he has come to fulfill the law. The law, according to Matthew 5:17-20, has a prophetic role in salvation history which Christ fulfills. The law as given in the Old Testament is “incomplete and temporary”46  and Jesus’ first coming announces its fullness and permanence. Finally, the law announces the kingdom of heaven which requires a righteousness that exceeds the current Pharisaic legalism.47  Mark’s account of this episode adds the phrase in 2:27 that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” One explanation for this addition in Mark is that Jesus is extending the application of the sabbath beyond Israel and making it applicable to all mankind.48  The central message of this sabbath episode is Jesus’ declaration of his authority as Lord of the Sabbath.

In Luke 14:1-24, Jesus eats with Pharisees on a sabbath and heals a man with dropsy in their midst. The healing in this passage is described very briefly (in one verse, Luke 14:4) and seems to be mainly an occasion for Jesus teaching. Jesus uses the healing itself to teach about the nature of the sabbath (verses 3-6), then he gives a parable on humility (verses 7-14), and finally he concludes with a parable on the banquet invitation which is about the kingdom of God. As we have seen previously, Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and thus has authority to interpret the commandment concerning the sabbath. Jesus “pulls out of the well” by his healing power the man with dropsy (in Greek hydropikos, meaning “full of water”)49  and justifies this to the Pharisees by asking them if they would not retrieve a son or an ox fallen into a well, presumably “full of water” (verse 5). The sabbath is for healing. In the parable on humility, Jesus speaks of a marriage feast (verse 8) that concludes with a radical lesson on the importance of humbling oneself. The marriage feast context, read in conjunction with Revelation 19 and the marriage of the Lamb, suggests an eschatological dimension to the sabbath. Jesus tells this parable because he notices how the guests surrounding him chose the places of honor. The marriage feast with its eternal significance becomes the context for the lesson of the moment. This sabbath meal is the time to hear the lesson on humility which is a character trait of those called to the eternal sabbath meal. Jesus then proceeds to teach his host and the guests about the great invitation of God to the kingdom of God. The sabbath is used by Jesus to make a proclamation of the kingdom through the parables.

c) He Rested from his Work of Salvation (i.e. in His Death)
All four Gospels make a point of connecting Jesus’ death with sabbath rest as they indicate that the resurrection occurs after the sabbath (Matthew 28:1, Mark 15:42, 16:1, Luke 23:54, 56, and John 19:31). The sabbath in these passages seems to be primarily a time marker for the reader to understand the chronology of the events surrounding the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In John 19:30, the last recorded words of Jesus are: “It is finished.” Interpreting these words to be applied to his work of redemption, one might then view the sabbath references in the timeline to suggest that the work of re-creation is complete and that God once again rests on the seventh day. This particular sabbath rest at the end of holy week is the final seventh day which is the day he rests in death. Brown writes that “the work is now finished, and the Sabbath that begins after Jesus’ death is the Sabbath of eternal rest.”50  This rest is the “last of the Old Dispensation (which passed finally with Jesus’ resurrection).”51  Jesus’ bodily earthly ministry is complete, the Savior of the World now rests in death before rising on the eighth day, the Lord’s Day. The old creation is complete, the new creation can now begin. 

2. Other NT Teaching on the Lord’s Day

a) Entering into God’s Rest
The author of Hebrews warns “while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged” (Hebrews 4:1), and exhorts his readers to “strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). As one commentator puts it, the hortatory subjunctives in both these verses suggest an inclusio which contains both a warning and a promise that shed light on the image of the sabbath.52  The promise of entering into God’s rest is an encouragement to hope and to persevere in faith. The warning is the example of Israel who did not receive the promise because of judgment and disobedience. The promise and warning frame the discussion for the new Israel to live in hope of a homeland that is God’s rest. The New Testament church is the spiritual Israel which looks to earthly Israel in the Old Testament to understand her roots. In the old covenant, Israel did not enter God’s rest because of her lack of faith (verse 2) and her disobedience (verse 6). Yet verses 8-10 point to a day in the future when God’s people will enter into his rest, the rest of the seventh day alluded to in verse 4. Rest in the Old Testament has many different meanings: the land of Canaan, the temple, the place of God’s dwelling.53  While the sense of rest in the Old Testament is in the realm of promise, in the New Testament the sense of rest is fulfilled. This is observed when Jesus invites all who labor and are heavy laden to enter his rest (Matthew 11:28).54  Guthrie explains that the rest described in the Hebrews passage has two noteworthy meanings. First, because of the verb tenses used in verse 3 and the contrast with ancient Israel highlighted by the use of Psalm 95, “the rest he [the author of the letter] is thinking of is an experience already in process of being fulfilled. […] It is an essential part of the present reality for Christians.”55  This rest is not simply to come but is already present for the believer. Second, the word sabbatismos in verse 9 shows that God’s rest is connected with the sabbath in some way.56  We can identify a third sense of rest, namely, a future reality that is conveyed by the exhortation in verse 1157  and the sense of promise58  contained in the term katapausis (“rest”).

The rest spoken of here is participation in the divine life59  entered into through baptism and faith where we as sons and daughters participate in the sabbath rest of our Father.60  This perspective highlights the “already and not yet” reality that we live in.61  Keeping the Lord’s Day holy through worship, particularly in the dominical assembly of the people of God, is an expression of the believer’s faith, a visible participation in the sabbath rest that we experience now in part but also await for full completion. 

b) A Day to Be “In the Spirit”
The only reference to the “Lord’s Day” in the New Testament is found in Revelation 1:10. This is the first instance of the term “Lord’s Day” in Christian literature, although by the second century its use to designate the first day of the week, Sunday, was commonplace.62  In the introduction to the book John says that he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). We are thus led to conclude that John’s revelation contained in that book occurred on the Lord’s Day. This suggestion on John’s part that Sunday is an important day for hearing the LORD is relevant to our topic. Keeping the Lord’s Day holy involves an active listening to God who wishes to speak to his creatures through the Spirit. The imagery and message of the book of Revelation are complicated and mysterious, yet they do bear witness to the reality that the Spirit wishes to speak to every generation of Christians to direct and guide them through the trials and tribulations of the age. The Lord’s Day seems to be a special time in which the Spirit speaks to His Church. Hahn, interpreting the idea that earthly liturgy is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy,63  proposes that the entire book of Revelation points to the Mass. The Sunday liturgy is the “clean, well-lighted place where John had his vision: worship in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.”64  

3. From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day
The early church transferred the fulfillment of the sabbath commandment, the understanding of its beautiful purpose in the economy of salvation, and its various practices to Sunday, the first day of the week (that is, the Lord’s Day). The resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week was such a momentous event in the history of creation that “for Christians this ‘first day’ – the beginning of the creation – became the ‘Lord’s day.’ The essential elements of the Old Testament sabbath then naturally passed over to the Lord’s Day in the context of table fellowship with Jesus.”65  John Paul II summarizes the Church Fathers’ view that the eighth day is the image for eternity. It is “that truly singular day which will follow the present time, the day without end which will know neither evening nor morning, the imperishable age which will never grow old.”66  As we have already seen, the kernel of the eternal sabbath is already found in the Old Testament interpretation.

The Church affirms that the resurrection on the eighth day transforms the spiritual truth regarding the Jewish sabbath into the keeping of Sunday as the Lord’s Day.67  In light of the Paschal Mystery, “the meaning of the Old Testament precept concerning the Lord's Day is recovered, perfected, and fully revealed in the glory which shines on the face of the Risen Christ.”68  The reasons for the transference of the sabbath to the Lord’s Day are threefold. First, the resurrection stands as “first of all days,”69  as the day of highest importance, “at the heart of all worship.”70  Second, Christ has ushered in a new creation through his passion, death and resurrection. This is the day of light, the day of salvation, the day in which Christians are called to remember their rebirth.71  Third, the Christians of the early church seemed to have made Sunday the primary day of worship.72  Most Christians have accepted this transference although there remain some groups that hold to a seventh-day sabbath practice.73 

See > Part 1. Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy in the Old Testament
Nico Angleys grew up in France, just outside Geneva, in the Alps. He is a member of The Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. Nico is the UCO director of University Christian Outreach in North America. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. In May 2012 he completed his Masters in Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary, writing his thesis on the Keeping the Lord's Day Holy, copyright © 2012. Used with permission.

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