Christ the Sabbath Rest of the People of God: Part Three

by Dr. Don Garlington

Our study of Christ the sabbath rest of the people of God has so far yielded the following conclusions. (1) God’s work in creation was followed by a day of rest, not a day of the week for man to keep, but a state which God enjoys as a result of his conquest of the primeval chaos. It is a day which even now is in progress and which is held before humanity as the eschatological climax of the Lord’s creation purposes. (2) With Adam’s fall, the great mandate of subduing the earth was rendered impossible. To be sure, man is to achieve his reason for existence; but first he must be saved from his apostasy and rebellion in Adam. This, of course, necessitates a rest-giver, the Lord Jesus Christ. (3) Prior to his incarnation, the Old Testament presents us with a series of rest-givers, who point the way to Christ and provide important insights into his work. (4) The Mosaic covenant, whose sign was the sabbath, particularly portrays the work of Christ as a rest-giver. By means of its programme of working and resting, week after week and year after year, the people of God were being taught that they must find their rest, i.e., salvation in God himself and in his provision for eternal life.[1] The lesson was reinforced by the eight feast-days of the nation, especially the Jubilee, which brought together rest and liberation. The entire history of Israel then can be summarized as the expectation that the Lord would give his people rest. It is now with this background in view that we turn to the Gospels.

Luke 4:16-21

It is surely significant that Jesus’ first synagogue sermon strikes the theme of the year of Jubilee. As we saw from our last study, Isaiah 61:1-2 portrays the coming messianic salvation in terms of the release of the captives from bondage. In Isaiah’s vision, the redemption in question was that of Israel’s departure from Babylon, which he sees as the actualization of Jubilee, “the acceptable year of the Lord.” However, when the exiles returned to the land, it became painfully evident that the new creation, as depicted by the prophets, did not materialize: Yahweh’s shekinah (glory) did not re-enter Zerubbabel’s temple, and the earth did not undergo the promised renovation (e.g., Isaiah 11:6ff.; 65:17ff.). This is why the post-exilic prophets still look forward to another day of the Lord, when Israel would at last be liberated from her enemies and the nations would come to acknowledge her God.

Because of both the language of the prophets themselves and the Roman occupation of Palestine (from 63 BC), first-century Judaism was anticipating this deliverance in nationalistic and militaristic terms. Perhaps the classic expression of Israel’s hope, as well as her messianic outlook, is Psalms of Solomon 17:21-24, 30:

See, Lord, and raise up for them their king,
the son of David to rule over your servant Israel
in the time known to you, O God.
Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers,
to purge Jerusalem from gentiles
who trample her to destruction;
in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out
the sinners from the inheritance;
to smash the arrogance of sinners
like a potter’s jar;
to shatter all their substance with an iron rod;
to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.
And he will have gentile nations serving him under his yoke,
and he will glorify the Lord in (a place) prominent (above) the whole
And he will purge Jerusalem
(and make it) holy as it was even from the beginning.[2]

It is within this context that Jesus’ announcement of the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2 was so radical. That it was understood as radical is evident from the text of Luke 4. V. 22 records that the audience bore testimony to Jesus and marvelled at (as literally translated) “the words of grace which proceeded from his mouth.” To understand what transpired on this occasion, it is necessary to clarify two matters. First, the testimony borne to Jesus, and thus the Jews’ wonderment at him, must be understood in a negative sense, i.e., they “bore witness against him.”[3] Second, the congregation was angered by what Jesus did not quote, namely, Isaiah 61:2b: “[to proclaim] the day of vengeance of our God,” i.e., the day of the Lord as the destruction of the enemies of Israel, interpreted in the first century as the Romans.[4]

Jesus, however, in keeping with the ground laid by the Gospel infancy narratives, by-passes the nationalistic understanding of the Jubilee and actually implies that the Gentiles, after all, will not be the object of wrath but of grace. Such were “the words of grace which proceeded from his mouth.” Consequently our Lord interprets the liberation of Isaiah 61:1-2 in a fashion other than that expected by his contemporaries. He brings the promised sabbath rest; but as the Gospel history unfolds, it becomes evident that his rest is deliverance from the strong man, Satan, who has held even Israel in his grip. In its own way therefore Matthew 12:29 graphically represents Jesus as the rest-giver/deliverer from bondage. Here is the new Moses (Isaiah 63:10ff.) who leads his people on a new exodus from the house of bondage, this time, however, from the captivity of Satan himself, not merely that of the Egyptians, Babylonians or Romans.

Mark 2:23-27

Mark positions this passage as the climax of events in chapter 2 and the lead-in to the incidents of chapter 3, especially vv. 1-6. In other words, this sabbath saying is surrounded by the ideas of healing/salvation and the onset of the new age (2:18-22). Mark thus wishes us to understand Jesus’ interpretation of the sabbath in terms of the context in which he has placed it. It is failure to see the passage as part of an integral whole which has given rise to an exegesis which misses the wood for the trees.

Hand in hand with Mark 3:1-6, Mark 2:23-27 focuses our attention on Christ himself. In fact, this is characteristic of the Gospel portraits of Jesus’ sabbath controversies in general. Some years ago E. C. Hoskyns raised the problem that rabbinic literature nowhere condemns good works on the sabbath; indeed, such works are frequently commended in positive terms. We may go further and say that Judaism at large, as we know it from the extant sources, was not inimical to works of charity on the sabbath day.[5] So then, Why the controversy with Jesus of Nazareth? Why were the Pharisees constantly on the watch to see if he would violate the sabbath? Why does John 5:18 epitomize the complaint of the Pharisees against Jesus as his customary breaking of the sabbath?[6]

Hoskyns proposed—and I accept—that the real source of aggravation for the Pharisees was Jesus’ self-claims, which were always implicit and sometimes explicit in his use of the sabbath day. In other words, his healing miracles on the sabbath were a signpost to himself as the deliverer from bondage (Jubilee) and the rest-giver (Genesis 49:10, etc.). The Pharisees did not object to good works in principle; but they did object to his good works, because they were able to discern in those works a claim to being the sabbath rest, which is no less than to Yahweh’s salvation. No wonder then Jesus' sabbath-breaking and his claims to be God’s unique Son are linked together in John 5:18.

Among the many instances in the Gospels, Luke 13:10ff. provides an especially clear example. Luke relates that a certain “daughter of Abraham” had a spirit of infirmity which had caused her to be bent over for eighteen years. In relating the healing, Luke twice uses the language of release: “Woman, your are freed from your infirmity” (v. 12); “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” (v. 16). The incident is eloquent of Jesus the sabbath healer and the deliverer from bondage, the bondage of Satan. Of course, the ruler of the synagogue objects, quoting the fourth commandment. A superficial reading of his objection would place stress on the sabbath day, which is precisely where the ruler wants it to be place. That is to say, although he knew that there was nothing per se objectionable in works of mercy on the sabbath (Matthew 12:11), the fourth commandment served as a smoke screen to divert attention away from the real issue; that is, he was upset that Jesus healed on the sabbath and that the sabbath was serving as the vehicle for Jesus’ self-claims to being the deliverer from bondage.

All of this ties into the statement of Mark 2:28 that the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath. The point is not, at least in the first instance, that he came to free the sabbath from its Pharisaic encumberments (whatever those might have been), but that he is the center of attention as regards the sabbath; he is “the Lord of the sabbath” in that he is its point of reference and its reason for existence; he, in brief, is the sabbath incarnate. As the Mosaic sabbath was to be commemorated in honour of Yahweh, so now Jesus occupies center-stage in its portrayal of the rest of God’s people.

Matthew 11:28-30

As Mark 2:23-27, this famous saying is set within the framework of the sabbath, because Matthew 12:1ff. proceeds to relate two sabbath controversies. In other words, the significance of Jesus’ invitation to rest is pictured in his controversy with the Pharisees over his sabbath-day activities.

Beyond doubt, Jesus represents himself as the rest-giver, the one who fulfills the typology not only of the various rest-givers of the Old Testament but of the sabbath institution itself. In addition, there is an important historical factor to be reckoned with. The book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), written around 180 BC, and the book of Baruch, written somewhat later, both identify Israel’s law with true wisdom,[7] as over against Greek claims to the possession of true wisdom. See Sirach 24:23 and Baruch 4:1. Most strikingly for our purposes is that Sirach 51:26-27 makes wisdom, i.e., the law of Moses, the rest-giver:

Put your neck under the yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your eyes that I have
laboured little
and have found for myself much rest.

According to the Scribe, those who submit to wisdom’s yoke and follow her instruction will find the same rest as wisdom herself. The wording of this statement is obviously quite similar to that of Jesus. Indeed, he apparently modelled his language on Sirach’s for the purpose of making a point, namely, that Israel is not to find her rest in the law but in himself. The Jewish position was that the law was eternal, unchangeable, and God’s provision for eternal life.[8] But Jesus denies this: what Israel was expecting in the Torah, he claims for himself.

Jesus’ declaration of being the rest-giver then assumes an apologetical significance, i.e., he is true rest and true wisdom, not the law. This means that our rest (salvation) is to be sought not in religious tradition and time-honoured beliefs, but in Christ himself. Even more, Jesus’ invitation of himself as the true rest-giver argues strongly that the fourth commandment in its Mosaic form is not God’s definitive word on the sabbath. The day was never given for its own sake but for the sake of Christ, the Lord of the sabbath. Matthew 11:28ff. therefore is the new covenant’s restatement of the fourth commandment. Hence truly to keep the sabbath is to rest in Christ.

Christ’s Death and resurrection

We recall that the beginning of Jubilee coincided with the day of atonement; the land was to be given its rest, and the captives were to be set free on the very day that sin was removed in the two goats. It is not accidental then that the Gospels represent Jesus as labouring (in Gethsemane and on the cross) on the sixth day of the week; nor is it accidental that he dies on the Passover, in accomplishment of the new exodus (as the paschal lamb, a figure consonant with that of the slain goat on the day of atonement). Moreover we know from historical sources that at virtually the same time he cries from the cross “it is finished” (tetelestai, John 19:30), a priest was reading from the Septuagint of Gen 2:1-2: “The heavens and the earth were finished (sunetelesthesan), and all the hosts of them. And on the seventh day God finished (sunetelesen) his work which he had done and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.” In other words, Christ’s labour, as climaxed by his atonement, is the completion of God’s work of new creation and signals the release of the captives.

After the work of the sixth day, he rests on the seventh day of the (Jewish) week and then rises on the eighth day, the day of the new beginning, the day on which the light of the new creation dawns upon the world. As we know from John 20:19 and Eph 2:17, it is the risen and ascended Christ who communicates “peace,” a term in the Bible synonymous with rest. See Isa 49:22 as compared with 57:21.

[1]As is well known, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 assign different reasons for Israel’s observance of the seventh-day sabbath. According to the former, it is creation, while, in the latter, the redemption from Egypt is at the fore. In both cases, Israel is being pointed forward to an ultimate new creation and deliverance from bondage. We shall see below that the new creation and the new exodus are accomplished in the ministry of Christ.

[2]Translation by R. B. Wright, in ed., J. H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, II, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985).

[3]Emarturoun auto. The dative case (auto) is that of disadvantage.

[4]As attested by both the Psalms of Solomon and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

[5]With the exception of Qumran. Somewhat ironically, the Pharisees were relatively relaxed about the sabbath as compared with the community of the Dead Sea: only Qumran forbade the rescue of an ox from a pit on the sabbath day. Contrast Matthew 12:11 and the attitude pre-supposed by Jesus on the part of the synagogue-goers.

[6]John uses the imperfect tense: “Jesus used to break the sabbath.” The question is whether Jesus transgressed the day itself or only the Pharisaic regulations. The problem with the latter assumption is that there are no written sources from the pre-destruction period to inform us what these regulations were; one can only guess (or pre-suppose). It is generally recognized these days that one simply cannot read into first-century Pharisaic sabbath-observance the practices of a later era (i.e., of rabbinic Judaism). Moreover, according to John 5:18, two charges were routinely brought against Jesus: he broke the sabbath and called God his unique Father. These two accusations are set in parallel to each other, and there is no indication that the former was a concoction while the latter a true statement. Therefore it is likely that Jesus actually violated the Mosaic sabbath as it stood. He did so for the purpose of informing Israel that the sabbath was being fulfilled in him and would soon be terminated. By way of analogy, the Gospels repeatedly relate that Jesus went out of his way to contact things “unclean,” not only by Pharisaic standards but by Mosaic ones as well. See Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Idea of Purity in Mark’s Gospel,” Semeia 35 (1986), 91-128.

[7]On the basis of Deut 4:6.

[8]E.g., Sirach 24:9, 33; Baruch 4:1; Wisdom 18:4; Testament of Naphtali 3:1-2. Throughout the book of Jubilees is to be found the doctrine of the pre-existence of the law, written on heavenly tablets. Interestingly, it is Jubilees which propounds the view that the sabbath was a creation ordinance, side by side with the idea that Adam and Eve kept the Mosaic purity laws in Eden. This sort of reasoning is fairly common in the Jewish literature stemming from the Hellenistic persecution of the Jews in the second century BC, because Jewish apologist were eager for Israel to maintain the distinctives of her national life.