Some Thoughts about Jesus and the “Sabbath” on Labor Day2
No, this isn’t an article on work per se. My focus here is the way in which the OT Sabbath ordinance has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Let me explain.
Observe how Jesus responded to the accusation of the Pharisees that he and his disciples had profaned the Sabbath when they plucked heads of grain to satisfy their hunger (Mark 2:23-28). Matthew’s version of the story includes this remarkable declaration by our Lord:
“Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:5-6).
Jesus is saying in response to their accusations: “I am greater than David! I am greater than the Temple!” But he doesn’t stop there:
“And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man [i.e., for his benefit and spiritual and physical welfare] not man for the Sabbath [the Sabbath has no needs that a human can fulfill]. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:27-28).
Do you see what Jesus is saying? This isn’t primarily a story about finding a loophole in the Sabbath regulations. This isn’t primarily about finding precedent in the OT for reaping and eating on the Sabbath. It isn’t even primarily about whether or not you can do good by healing a man on the Sabbath.
This is a story about who Jesus is! It is all about Jesus saying to them and to us: I am greater than David. I am the fulfillment of all that David typified. I am greater than the Temple. I am the fulfillment of all that the Temple typified and symbolized. I am greater than the Sabbath. I bring to you a rest and satisfaction that not even the OT Sabbath could provide. In the words of N. T. Wright, “If Jesus is a walking, living, breathing Temple, he is also the walking, celebrating, victorious sabbath” (Simply Jesus, 138).
Remember that the Sabbath was instituted by God as a sign of the old covenant with Israel (see Exod. 31:12-13, 16-17). However, as Paul makes clear in Colossians 2:16-17, Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the OT prophesied, prefigured, and foreshadowed: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
The immediate purpose of the Sabbath in the OT was to provide men and women with physical rest from their physical labors. When Paul says that this Sabbath was a shadow, of which Christ is the substance, he means that the physical rest provided by the OT Sabbath finds its fulfillment in the spiritual rest provided by Jesus.
We cease from our labors, not by resting physically one day in seven, but by resting spiritually every day and forever in Christ by faith alone. We experience God’s true Sabbath rest, not by taking off from work one day in seven, but by placing our faith in the saving work of Jesus. To experience God’s Sabbath rest, therefore, is to cease from those works of righteousness by which we were seeking to be justified. The NT fulfillment of the OT Sabbath is not one day in seven of physical rest, but an eternity of spiritual rest through faith in the work of Christ.
Physical rest, of course, is still essential. God does not intend for us to work seven days a week. Our body and spirit need to experience renewal and refreshment by resting. But resting on Sunday is not the same thing as the OT observance of the Sabbath day. Some Christians have chosen to treat Sunday as if it were a Sabbath, as if it were special, and that’s entirely permissible. Don’t let anyone tell you it is wrong. But neither should you tell anyone that it is wrong if they treat Sunday like every other day of the week.
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
If you want to observe Sunday as a day of rest to the exclusion of all other worldly pursuits or activities, that’s fine. But you have no biblical right to expect others to do the same and therefore no biblical right to pass judgment on them if they don’t.
My point is simply that for the Christian, for the person who is trusting in the work of Jesus Christ rather than in his own efforts, for those resting by faith in Jesus, every day is the Sabbath! Every day is a celebration of the fact that we don’t have to do any spiritual or physical works to gain acceptance with God. We are accepted by him through faith in the works of Jesus Christ. If you are a child of God, born again, trusting and believing in Jesus for your acceptance with God rather than in your own works and efforts, you are experiencing the true meaning of Sabbath twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I observe the Sabbath every moment of every day to the degree that I rest in the work of Christ for me. Thus, for the Christian, Jesus is our Sabbath rest!
The same scenario, the identical claim on the part of Jesus, can also be made with regard to every OT feast, holiday, type, celebration, or institution. Jesus is not only the fulfillment of the OT Sabbath (Col. 2:16-17) but also of the OT Passover (1 Cor. 5:7-8), the OT temple (Matt. 12:6), as well as the entire OT sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1-18). Everything and all that these events and institutions were designed to be and do, Jesus was and did.
To suggest that any such OT shadow might yet re-emerge in God’s divine economy is worse than redemptive retrograde. It is tantamount to a denial of the coming of Christ Jesus and the sufficiency of all that he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. Thus any attempt to interpret OT prophetic texts that, as it were, leapfrogs the incarnate Christ will ultimately mislead us into expecting at some future time what God never intended and never will bring to pass.