The Aim of the Sabbath

Of how much more value is man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (v. 12).  

- Matthew 12:9–14

We dare not miss the christological significance of our Lord’s teaching on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–14). Scripture emphasizes the Sabbath as God’s special possession; Israel was given a day of rest in order to imitate our Creator’s own cessation of work (Ex. 20:8–11). Furthermore, God asserted His right to determine what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath day (Isa. 56:4–5). Jesus equates Himself with God, the owner and ruler of the day of rest, when He claims, as the Son of Man, to be lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8).

Jesus continues to display His authority as lord of the Sabbath when, in a synagogue, He meets a man with a “withered hand.” Seeking a chance to show that Jesus is a Sabbath-breaker, the Pharisees ask Him if it is right to heal on the day of rest (vv. 9–10). Should He do a healing “work,” Jesus can be charged with violating the Sabbath. The man will still be ill the next day, and Christ could wait until then to heal him so that He may keep Pharisaic tradition.

John Calvin reminds us “to beware lest, by attaching undue importance to ceremonial observances, we allow other things to be neglected, which are of far higher value in the sight of God.” The Pharisees have made this error, elevating minutiae above God’s intent. As Jesus says in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God gave the nation of Israel a day of rest for their benefit — to recover from a week’s labor and recall His goodness and grace. These principles are to guide the specifics of Sabbath observance, not vice versa. When rules designed to cover every possible instance of work are exalted above God’s gracious intent, the Sabbath is changed from “a delight into a burden,” according to the Reformation Study Bible’s note on Matthew 12:9–14.

The Pharisees are legal experts and should embrace this principle. Even they know the Father puts an animal’s health and safety above the avoidance of anything that smacks of work (v. 11). But the Pharisees are so incensed at Christ’s denial of their teaching that they miss the obvious. If God is pleased when animals are rescued on the Sabbath, He certainly approves when men, who are of more value than animals, find healing on His day of rest (vv. 12–14).  

Coram Deo

John Calvin comments, “Nothing could be more unreasonable than to pronounce a man, who imitated God, to be a transgressor of the Sabbath.” The Father gives His law for our benefit, and we must never forget this lest we improperly apply it to our lives here and now. Take some time today to read through the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–17) and think on how each one carries with it a specific benefit for mankind.

Passages for Further Study

Ps.119:97-104
1 John 3:17

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