Summary: This text presents what the sabbath is about.
Our text today covers two stories, both of which focus on the matter of Sabbath-keeping. So, let’s take a moment to understand the place of the Sabbath in Jewish culture. That the Sabbath must be observed was not a matter of debate among the Jews. The observance was grounded in the account of creation and part of the covenant law given to the people of Israel.
Here is its account in Genesis:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Genesis 2:2).
Here the Sabbath receives the double distinction of being made holy through God’s blessing and exalted as the day of rest through God’s own example. God blessed this day above all others; God himself rested on this day.
Then there is the covenant commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Why do I attach the term “covenant” to commandment? Why don’t I just say commandment? I could, but I want you to understand that the Ten Commandments given by God, though they may apply to everyone, they specifically apply to the Jewish nation, because of the covenant he made with those people alone. Everyone is bound to keep the moral commands; but to be God’s covenant people, the first four must be kept – worship God alone, do not make idols, do not take his name in vain, and keep the Sabbath. These commands distinguished God’s people from all the other nations in the world. But the Sabbath itself was the only commandment that served also as a public sign. It made the people of God not only unique but visible.
When I speak of a sign, however, I mean not only a sign for the Jews to show others who they are, but also a sign for God to show his people they are his. In Ezekiel 20:12, God says, Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the LORD made them holy. The Sabbath was to the Jews what baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to us – a sacrament given by God to show his people that they belong to him.
In Jesus’ day, everyone understood the importance of keeping the day “holy unto the Lord.” Even so, there was debate and ambivalence about how to observe the day. If the Sabbath is a sign of the special relationship between God and his people, then it ought to be the most celebrated of days. It should be a day characterized by rejoicing. On the other hand, the fourth commandment plainly states that the day is to be kept holy through resting from work. God is angered when the people desecrate it. If so, then it should be a day that the people take special precaution not to offend God. So which is it to be – a day to celebrate or a day to soberly guard one’s behavior?
The Pharisees approached the subject along this line. They agreed that Sabbath-keeping was defined by resting from work. The scriptures seemed clear.
Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. 15 For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. 16 The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 17 It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested (Exodus 31:14-17).
Don’t work! Can scriptures make it clearer? They cannot make the admonition clearer, but what they don’t do so well is to define work and apply the command to everyday life. For example, everyone would agree that butchering an animal for food would be work. If so, would cutting up small pieces of chicken to put in a pot for cooking be work? If so, is the act of cutting itself work? Maybe, maybe not, but one thing you can be sure of: if you don’t do any kind of cutting, you know that you have not violated the law.