Sermon – March 3, 2019

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John 5:1-18 (and other passages): The Nature of the Sabbath (mp3)

The Sabbath has a controversial history. Does the Sabbath translate to the “Lord’s Day” in the NT? Are we supposed to keep it still? What would “keeping” the Sabbath look like today? How does the work of Christ fit into our understanding of the Sabbath? While such questions abound, my guess is that many of us have given little thought to the Sabbath, other than assuming it was another way the hypocrisy of the Jews was made evident. But it has great symbolic importance and tells us much about the purpose of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Today, as we think again on John 5:1-18, let us answer three basic questions about the Sabbath:

1. What is the importance of the Sabbath to Jews?
It is clear that the Sabbath was of great importance to the Jews, but why? Well, if for no other reason, they find it commanded by God. Each of the readings of the 10 commandments, however, give a different reason for the nature of the command. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 speaks about the Sabbath as a sign of the redemption of the nation: they were slaves, but slaves no more. Therefore they are to rest. Exodus 20:8-11 reasons that the Sabbath is to be observed because the nation should pattern itself after its God, who created the earth in 6 days and then rested. One, focusing on their redemption, another on their identity as holy because their God is holy. Thus, the commands hit at the very center of the relationship of the Israelites with God – this is why death awaited those who refused to trust God on the Sabbath and exile when the nation as a whole refused to keep the law. Thus, the returned Jews took the command very seriously, as they should have. But they didn’t understand its purpose or its nature rightly. Jesus did, though!

2. What is the relationship of the Sabbath to Jesus?
Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8), which means, at the very least, that he is able to rightly define the limits and import of the Sabbath. The Jews, as we can tell from passages like John 5, needed to rethink their understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath. Jesus forces this issue, stating baldly and oddly that he was working on the Sabbath (the one thing you can’t do!). But Jesus was sent by his Father under the law (Gal 4:4) so it is doubtful that he simply ignored the Sabbath regulations. Rather, there are many indications that healing on the Sabbath was especially important and poignant. In Luke 13:6, Jesus implies that such healing was necessary. Thus, his work was work that was good and necessary, not the work of a slave. Indeed, this work is approved under the Sabbath regulations.

3. What is the meaning of the Sabbath for us?
Where does that leave us? Well, the healing gives us a good indication of what Jesus was sent to do, and how it relates to the Sabbath. God may have stopped working in Creation, but he has been steadily working in redemption. The Sabbath was always meant as a picture of the full rest that God would bring, when our full and final redemption from our slavery occurred. Healing is a powerful picture of this: bodies wrecked by the fallen nature of humans in sin are liberated and subject to that power no longer. Even in our passage today, not only is the man liberated from the effects of sin on his body, but Jesus instructs him to sin no more. Liberation and holiness, the backbones of the Sabbath regulation. So, no, we don’t need to observe the Sabbath as a special day in our week. But we must keep the Sabbath, for Jesus has become our Sabbath rest: fully delivering us from our slavery to sin, and allowing us a new identity in Christ. So, friends, keep the Sabbath by living rightly before God, striving to kill sin by the Spirit as you prepare for the rest God has granted you in Christ!