Some say Jesus didn’t affirm the Sabbath command. Is that true? Did Jesus observe the Sabbath? If so, is His example relevant to Christians today?
In this “Walk as He Walked” series, we’ve explored the various happenings of Jesus’ early ministry. We’ve specifically covered His two primary practices—teaching and healing.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus often did both on a particular day of the week, the Sabbath day. That is the seventh day of the week, the day God declared holy at creation and later enshrined as the fourth of His 10 Commandments (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11).
Should we brush that off as a coincidence?
Some people reason that Jesus recognized the Sabbath day only because He was Jewish, which bound Him to the Old Testament laws. But was He a Sabbath-keeper only because of His ethnicity?
Or do Jesus’ practices on the Sabbath have powerful implications for those of us striving to walk as He walked?
Jesus, the synagogue and the Sabbath
Luke’s Gospel provides an early reference to Jesus’ Sabbath day activities: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16).
The synagogues were centers for learning and worship for Jews who lived outside Jerusalem and couldn’t worship at the temple. Gentiles who feared God and observed the Sabbath could also congregate at the synagogues to hear the Scriptures read and taught.
This passage shows us two significant points about Jesus and the Sabbath:
1. Observing the Sabbath was “His custom.”
The Greek word for “custom” can also be translated habit. Congregating on the Sabbath, either at the temple or at a synagogue, was Jesus’ habit. That is, it was His consistent practice—His custom. Sabbath-keeping wasn’t something He did only if it was convenient.
In Leviticus 23, God’s weekly and annual Sabbaths are called “holy convocations” (Leviticus 23:2-3). Jesus, in His faithfulness and fidelity to God’s law, both rested and assembled at formal services every Sabbath day.
He did not do it out of begrudging necessity.
It was His way of life.
2. Jesus was an active participant in the Sabbath service.
We read that He “stood up to read.” Each synagogue had an attendant responsible for leading and organizing the service. That Jesus was asked to stand and read implies that the attendant was familiar with Him. Jesus not only grew up in Nazareth, but also probably attended this synagogue consistently throughout His childhood, teen and young adult years.
After reading from a portion of Isaiah, Jesus revealed that He was fulfilling the very scriptures He read (Luke 4:18-19, 21). It was a claim that led others to try to kill Him (verses 28-29)—a very inappropriate activity for the Sabbath, to say the least.
However, this incident did not deter Him from consistently keeping the Sabbath. After this event, He left Nazareth and “went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths” (verse 31; see also Luke 13:10).
Jesus in the grainfields on the Sabbath
On another Sabbath day, the Pharisees accused Jesus of leading a group of Sabbath-breakers. However, a closer look at what was happening reveals how baseless that accusation was.
Mark records that Jesus and the disciples “went through the grainfields on the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23). They weren’t walking through this field to do farmwork; they were merely passing through, perhaps en route to a Sabbath synagogue service.
As they walked through the field, the disciples “began to pluck the heads of grain.” (This wasn’t stealing. God’s law permitted people to do this; see Deuteronomy 23:25.)
They weren’t harvesting grain, but just plucking off a tiny bit for a light snack as they passed through.
Imagine walking through an apple orchard and picking a low-hanging apple to snack on. Picking an apple off a tree, like plucking a head of grain, takes almost no effort and is by no means equivalent to harvesting the crop.
But a group of Pharisees nearby pounced on this: “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (verse 24). They accused the disciples of Sabbath-breaking based on a very broad application of the Old Testament command to refrain from work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; 31:15; 35:2).
Jesus saw right through the pettiness and silliness of this accusation. The disciples were by no means doing labor. They were having a light snack, not harvesting a grainfield.
Pharisaic Judaism, in keeping with the developing Talmudic approach to the law, had radically broadened and expanded the God-given laws of the Old Testament to be much more detailed and limiting than God ever intended. The Pharisees had expanded simple concepts like labor to include normal activities that few would consider labor.
Eventually, the Jewish law code known as the Mishnah would define 39 forbidden forms of work—many even pickier than interpreting what the disciples did here as harvesting a field.
Jesus would deal with this issue repeatedly during His ministry. He would continually point out how adding so many restrictions on top of God’s revealed law did more harm than good. At best, some of the laws of tradition obstructed God’s original intent by putting extreme emphasis on small, tangential details. At worst, some of these laws outright contradicted God’s original intent (Matthew 15:3).
Jesus’ powerful endorsement of the Sabbath day
Now back to the incident in the grainfield. Jesus answered the Sabbath-breaking accusation by making one of the most significant statements about the Sabbath that is found in the Bible. Every person who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior should deeply consider the implications of these words.
The Sabbath day is unequivocally Christian because it was created, observed and validated by Christ Himself.He said: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
Not only does this statement reveal God’s intent for the Sabbath, but it also powerfully connects Jesus Christ to the Sabbath day.
Let’s take a closer look.
Jesus said the Sabbath was made “for man.” In other words, it was designed to benefit human beings. It was a gift. Through the Sabbath, God gifted mankind a weekly 24-hour period of physical, mental and spiritual rest. This harkens back to God’s words to Isaiah, declaring His intention for people to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13, emphasis added).
God always intended for the Sabbath to be a delightful blessing, not a mere obligation.
Jesus said human beings weren’t made “for the Sabbath.” In other words, the Sabbath wasn’t created as an onerous burden to unnaturally force into our lives to placate God. It is a law, but like all of God’s other laws, it was designed for our benefit. Sometimes, we don’t fully understand those benefits until we start keeping it.
Just as God’s law forbidding adultery was designed to imbue a marriage with the blessing of stability and trust, the Sabbath law was designed to bless human beings with a weekly day of physical and spiritual rest and rejuvenation.
Jesus declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” In other words, Jesus unequivocally connected the Sabbath to Himself. The preexistent Christ—the One the Father used to create all things—created the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3; Colossians 1:16). He was also the One who gave the Sabbath law to Israel in Exodus 20 and even punished Israel for transgressing it.
By saying He was “Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus was saying He had the ultimate authority to determine how it should be observed. The Pharisees were completely out of line in lecturing the Lord and Creator of the Sabbath about how the Sabbath should be kept!
Many in the Christian world write off the Sabbath as an old Jewish law that has no application for modern Christians. However, this view directly contradicts Jesus’ words in Mark 2:27-28. By declaring Himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus linked the Sabbath to Himself and established His ownership and authority over it.
The Sabbath day is unequivocally Christian because it was created, observed and validated by Christ Himself.
Jesus affirmed the Sabbath
In addition to declaring Himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus also made several statements affirming the authority and continuation of the law that includes the Sabbath—the 10 Commandments.
He said that not “one jot or one tittle” would be abolished from God’s law and that those who do and teach these commandments will be “great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19). A jot referred to the smallest letter, and a tittle was a tiny part of a letter.
The Fourth Commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is much bigger than a jot or tittle.
There are many different ways we can show the continuing validity of the Sabbath, but in the context of this series, a powerful proof is Jesus’ personal example. Jesus faithfully kept the Sabbath every seventh day—it was His custom.
By resting and assembling on God’s seventh-day Sabbath, Christians today continue to . . .
Walk as He walked.